With all the recent excitement around The Avengers: Endgame, I thought I’d take us back a few years to 2016’s Doctor Strange. At the time it was well received, but it seems to have largely faded away as yet another super hero origin story. That’s unfortunate because it explores themes and ideas rarely seen in this kind of movie. One in particular sets us up for a very relevant conversation when discussing Christian apologetics.
To address the elephant in the room, should Christians be involved in a movie about a guy who travels to Asia to become a sorcerer? It’s a fair question, but I think the film does a good job of staying away from real occultic concepts, and instead going in more of a sci-fi direction with a bit of a whimsical presentation. It also gives us a few remarkably Christian ideas in the mix. This isn’t too surprising given director Scott Derrickson is a professing Christian. For some of the interesting themes and ideas he put into this movie I can almost forgive him for also directing the atrocious The Day the Earth Stood Still remake.
Of course, we should not take statements from any movie as authoritative lessons about God or reality. Nothing in here is necessarily an endorsement of the movie itself. But, I believe that there are interesting ideas that we can consider, and can be valuable tools to understand our culture and have good conversations. What lessons from the big screen can we take from Doctor Strange?
1. “Looking Through a Keyhole”
One of the greatest scenes of the movie is just as Steven Strange is being introduced to this whole new world of sorcery and alternate dimensions. He responds in a way that is quite familiar to many Christians today. He gives a monologue not unlike what many atheists say about Christianity and the supernatural. As a powerful sorcerer called The Ancient One introduces these concepts, he is extremely skeptical. She tries explain to him, “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole, to see more, to know more. And now, on hearing that it can be widened in ways you can’t imagine, you reject the possibility.”
Obviously Christian doctrine is not advocating for a multiverse where we can access magical powers. However, a fundamental part of theism is that there is a supernatural realm beyond our physical existence. And while we don’t have power, we believe that God has all of it. Once God is on the table, it allows us to understand far more than we ever could without him. Naturalists and materialists continue to try and explain the origins of the universe, life, consciousness, etc, but still yield no real conclusions.
Astronomer Robert Jastrow once wrote on this idea, saying, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
2. “Matter and Nothing More”
Dr. Strange’s response to the Ancient One’s claim about the keyhole is extremely indignant.“No I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy, or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”
This is a curious moment for Hollywood, because it’s meant to be extreme. True, one could interpret it as Strange being a realist living in a fantasy movie, but he’s also sort of a terrible person. He’s full of himself, overconfident, and ruins the few relationships he has. He’s not the hero right now. Even at his wits end, he still holds onto his naturalistic views making the same statements as people like Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, etc. This felt to me very pointed, as if it takes an extremely stubborn and closed-minded person to hold onto these views without even being open to anything more. Our culture tends to treat This ideology is treated as reasonable and objective, just following the evidence where it leads without any superstitious dogma. Sometimes it takes a literal punch into another dimension to wake us up from our bias.
3. “It’s Not About You”
As a final thought I wanted to touch on the final lesson Dr. Strange has to learn. Even after becoming an exceptionally powerful sorcerer, The Ancient One still tries to get a message through to him. “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all. It’s not about you.”
We as Christians have the joy of being a part of something greater than ourselves. While God loves and died for every individual human being, this cannot translate to arrogance. Too many churches right now are trying to present the Gospel in a narcissistic way, where it’s all about you. What can Jesus do for you? As much as we love our American individualism, it’s not what the Bible teaches.
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