20 December 2016

Doctor Strange and the Theology of the Cross

"We never lose our demons: we only learn to live above them." The Ancient One - Doctor Strange

That was the line that moved Doctor Strange to the top of my movie list for 2016. It's been a so-so year for movies, frankly (Rogue One and Doctor Strange being the obvious exceptions), and I'll admit I was surprised by how much I liked Doctor Strange. I was far more surprised, however, by how much of my own Lutheran faith I found in the movie.

I'm a fan of action movies, and the Marvel universe has certainly provided its share of big budget spectaculars these last few years, but this year's offerings have been bleak, cold, and hard. For heaven's sake, when Tony Stark turns into a pro-control government apologist, you know some of the fun has gone out of the world.

Now, I have to come clean: I'm a HUGE fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and would gladly fork over oodles of hard earned currency to listen to him read the phone book in his native accent. However, it wasn't just BC who turned the trick for me: it was the overwhelming sense of what we Lutherans call the theology of the cross guiding and informing so much of the show. It was literally everywhere, though the line quoted above is perhaps the most crystal clear example of this central Lutheran tenet of faith.

Strictly speaking, there isn't a "theology" of the cross but "theologians" of the cross. It's a theological understanding, not a particular doctrine such as bodily resurrection or the virgin birth. A theology of the cross sees the world through the cross of Jesus Christ, and one of the corollaries is this: we see the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. So when the Ancient One tells Strange, "Arrogance and fear keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all: it's not about you", she reveals herself as a theologian of the cross in this way: the battle is always getting out of one's own way so that one might serve humbly for the sake of others.

Just so, the Ancient One identifies that any path she or her students take is not a path to self-improvement, or "works-righteousness" as a Lutheran understands it. The demons never go away. In fact, the desire to escape and improve is what my seminary professor Gerhard Forde called the "upward fall" toward divinity and escape from this world of pain and sorrow. As the Ancient One wryly notes early in her work with Strange, "you became a doctor to save only one life: your own." In being completely wrapped up in himself, Stephen Strange is a "homo incurvatus in se" - and it is only when the Ancient One opens his eyes that he begins to see the world as it is, not as he wants it to be.

This movie will bear more watching in years to come. It's funny, well-cast, and is a worthy addition to the Marvel universe. Plus, it's Lutheran - and who doesn't love that?

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