As it says in our mission statement:
Reel Spirituality brings together filmmakers and film-viewers, Christian leaders and laity, scholars and students for dialogue between our culture's primary stories, whether in film or television, and the Christian faith.
Phrased differently, we believe that the stories our society tells on the big and small screens reveal what our society wants/needs to talk about, and we Christians have a responsibility to—better—the honor of bringing Christ to that conversation. So when we go to the movies, we don’t go as mere moral watchdogs or breathless aesthetes. We go as public theologians, as enculturated missionaries, as integrated psychologists—as pastors—to listen and respond to our society’s most pressing concerns as projected by the movies made for and by the people among whom we are ministering.
Kevin Nye’s review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the biggest movie of 2015 since 2012, is exactly that kind of pastoral conversation with a film. Nye clearly and succinctly gets to the heart of the film and responds honestly, hopefully, and evocatively out of his faith in Christ. His examination of fear and its effects as depicted in Avengers: Age of Ultron is spot on. This is the central concern of every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far (and almost every superhero film made since September 11, 2001): Given a climate of fear/terror, how are we to respond?
Nye’s biblically-grounded, theologically-astute answer that the antidote to fear is not increased suspicion and security but rather trusting, sacrificial, steady love is the answer the Holy Spirit prepares us to give to the world. Nye’s review is a great tutorial on how to take a little deeper the conversations you are bound to have with friends in the coming weeks about “how awesome the new Avengers movie is, man.” Taking only the popularity of the Marvel films as evidence, that conversation about fear and love is one of the most important conversations of our time.
In church on Sunday, my pastor delivered an excellent sermon on the calling of Matthew as recorded in Matthew 9. He compellingly (and entertainingly) showed how Jesus’ invitation to Matthew to follow him and his willingness to eat with Matthew scandalized the religious leaders of their time, because Matthew was counted among the “sinners” who were unclean and therefore unwelcome in the temple and therefore in the presence of God. As my pastor said, Jesus welcomes sinners, and no one is too “bad” to follow Jesus.
My pastor did such a good job communicating the ethos of the culture in which Jesus was ministering, I was struck with how different first century Jewish culture is from twenty-first century American culture. Theirs was a “purity culture” in which everything was judged based on how “clean” or “unclean” it was. Jesus’ radical inclusion of everyone spoke directly to the heart of his society, declared everyone worthy of God’s love, and challenged everyone to love each other likewise.
However, we do not live in a purity culture, broadly speaking. With few exceptions, our society is not defined by moral absolutism. We practice a degree of moral relativism, which is not grace as Christ preached it, but it is closer to grace than the dogmatic legalism of the Pharisees. Consider this: before you can offer someone Christ’s mercy, you must first convince them of the immanence of God’s moral law and that they have transgressed against it. You must first condemn them before you can offer them absolution in Christ.
So, if we do not live in a “purity culture,” what kind of culture do we live in?
If it is true that our cinematic stories are the key stories of our day, and if it is true that the stories we tell and listen to reveal the matters pressing most urgently on our hearts, and if these Marvel movies are indeed the most popular and therefore most revelatory stories of our day, we can draw a few conclusions from Avengers: Age of Ultron.
First, Avengers: Age of Ultron suggests to us that we live in a “security culture” in which the protection and perpetuation of our way of life is of paramount importance. That way of life is threatened by forces beyond our understanding and control, and how we guard against them is the key question before us. Second, we live in a “rights culture,” and we realize that our answer to the first question will affect and must take into account our civil liberties. Third, we live in an “identity culture” in which threats to our civil liberties are threats primarily to our individual opportunities to express our unique identities. The way of life we’re protecting is one of self-actualization. Finally, all of this is a global concern, because we are all connected to each other, and the decisions one people group makes affects everyone else.
So, what exhortation does Christ offer to a “security culture?” To a “rights culture?” To an “Identity culture?” We’re Christ’s ambassadors, so how will we translate that exhortation to an interconnected world? Our answers to those questions will depend on whether we’re talking to the people in power or the people on the margins, just as Christ’s did. In any case, with every million dollars Marvel amasses, the need for us to give testimony to the hope that we have becomes more apparent. After all, Marvel can’t offer answers; they have to sell the sequels. Conclusions are up to us.
You might also find these reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron helpful: