[Spoiler Alert Warning & a Disclaimer: I’m not a meta-physicist, but I like thinking about those sorts of things.]
I just saw Doctor Strange last night. I know, I’m on the “new to Redbox/Netflix/Amazon” schedule of seeing movies rather than the recently released in theaters time line.
General thoughts: Entertaining and intriguing. But, it felt two dimensional to me, which is ironic for a movie that reveled in 3D CGI, like Inception on steroids.
But today at Mass, (I know, I’m super holy … ahem) I realized why it felt so hollow to me.
Let’s back up a bit. Think about the Marvel Universe and really much of the sci-fi that has been popularized in movies recently. What is the force that is used for good? It’s usually something natural but hidden (“Luke, use the Force,” and all that or an inflated/mutated natural ability.) Or it’s something technical (like Iron man or Batman). In Dr. Strange, the Ancient One talks about spells, forces of nature, and tapping into those forces like a “programmer” who understands the processes and thus can insert himself into them and manipulate them. But at the end of the day, it’s all just fancy materialism.
Materialism takes many forms, but it generally denies the immortality of the human soul (and often denies the existence of a spiritual soul all together.) It also isn’t a spirituality in the sense that there are no true spirits–like beings that are primordial and non-physical (or non-physically dependent). So, when you have a fantasy or sci-fi based materialistic universe, you get some cool fireworks–portals, out of body experiences, ability to manipulate matter, gravity, and even time, and a sense of immensity and awe when shown the sheer amount of matter in a multiverse or time span–but it’s all predicated upon matter and manipulation of that dimensional substance.
This, by the way, is why fictional magic often doesn’t bother me for mature juvenile readers. There may be a demon like figure (Dr. Strange certainly has a pretty nasty and evil nemesis in Dormammu), but he is material himself and isn’t actually able to create the dark force or even fully control it. He just masters it more than the rest of the bad guys. His followers may ape demonic worship, but they are not shown attractively. And they are not truly channeling an evil personality, just the same twisted version of the natural power that everyone is using and is subject to. So, the evil force lacks permanence or true overwhelming power. There’s just a ying/yang sort of balance that swings back and forth.
Interestingly, it is rare in materialistic fantasy or sci-fi to have an overarching representative or controller of the good elements of the natural forces. We get occasional masters of force manipulation, rebel supporters and believers without powers, and a vague sort of affinity with spring-like forces of rejuvenation, but there is no personality behind goodness itself. In Dr. Strange, there was more personality in his Levitation Cloak than there was in the force he used.
And thus we come back around to me in Mass. The Gospel reading today was about Christ’s Transfiguration. This was the moment for the Apostles where they were shown the true power and goodness that lies within, before, and after the material realm of the senses. It reminded me of Dr. Stranges’ first powerful experience with the extensive, unseen multiverse. He was humbled and saw his place as a tiny, unimportant speck next to the splendor of the complex, material realm. In the movie, this eye-opening moment seems pretty impressive.
But contrast it with the deeper introduction to God that the Apostles experienced. They were suddenly aware like never before that their poor but unexpectedly wise and miraculous friend was Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Justice, and Mercy Incarnate. But instead of destroying their ego for the sake of greater submissiveness to truth (a la Dr. Strange), this revelation showed them that they were known and loved personally and intimately by this incomprehensible Being who made them and came to earth to befriend and lead them. They knew that they were being invited into deeper relationship with Him. Otherwise, why would they have suggested staying in that place with Jesus and His glorified companions?
In contrast, Dr. Strange was held at a distance and challenged as he developed a craving to learn about the force with his own study and intelligence. As the Ancient One points out later on, he was always driven by fear of not being enough. And while she seems to have great hope for him, she simultaneously chides him time and again for his ignorance and his hurry to control things he doesn’t understand (and which she has kept from him). He is told that submission is the key to success, but it seems that his submission is only a version of “believe in yourself” and then he gets power beyond that of most mortals.
Jesus knew the Apostles, even His closest ones, would abandon Him. He knew they were weak and afraid and incapable of much on their own strength. But He invited them in love to be His. Through His strength, and not through their own striving, He later fortifies them with His Spirit to accomplish great things–preaching in tongues, raising the dead, enduring tortures and ridicule, speaking with wisdom despite rudimentary education, healing various ailments, and most of all, transforming the bread and wine of the Mass into His Body and Blood. Immortality is not a bait and switch (like it was for Kaecilius and his followers). Death is not nihilistic (as it was for the Ancient One). The followers of Christ are promised eternal life and eternal relationship with God for their simple fidelity. Christian submission is a gentle yielding to a Person, not an assimilation into an impersonal, quantity of matter.
But the Apostles, and the Christians of today, can read the Bible all day long and memorize it and still not create sparkly portals. From an imaginative standpoint, maybe this is regretful. So, Christianity seems a lot less dramatic and shiny and fun than fictionalized materialism. Is this a problem? Some people think it is. That’s why magic-containing fiction is on the banned books/movies list for many conservative, Christian families. But, I think a thoughtful reading and discussion shows the inherent un-attractiveness within materialism. The objection that I can never get past is that a purely material universe (even a sparkly one with portals) always denies or suppresses essential elements of our humanity, especially a place for love.
Heroes are encouraged to love “humanity” broadly (if that’s even possible), but they generally find their heroic identity incompatible with individual human love. Pulled from family and romantic love or forced into isolation through the death of a loved one at the hand of evil, they roam the world looking for people to save. Their life’s meaning and their personality are intrinsically tied up in their ability to protect and fight.
When Goodness is a Person, and when you are called into relationship with Him, human love has a place. In fact, it is only through loving individuals that we are able to reach our full potential as human beings (see Gaudium et Spes, sections 21-22 for a wonderful explanation). Man, outside of profound relationship with others, easily becomes warped to his own perspective and twisted by his own experiences, weaknesses, and strengths. By knowing the other, we gain wisdom, empathy, and the ability to serve the common good, rather than just our preferred good.
At the Consecration today, I thought about what various mystics and verified miracles have shown us about the true power of the spiritual realm. I pictured angels by the hundreds, as brilliant as the sun and more unique than we can fathom, flocking to the altar at the Sanctus to continue the heavenly hymn and bowing in adoration of Christ Incarnate housed within mere, weak humans minutes later. I considered the Eucharistic miracles where consecrated bread takes on the DNA, appearance, and physical characteristics of a living piece of heart muscle from a beaten man. I thought about the many miracles I have witnessed of sudden physical healing, lives preserved inexplicably, and small twists of circumstances that allowed a timely answer to a fervent prayer. Our Savior was humble, and He healed with the quiet touch of his cloak in a crowd. We are not asked to be a savior. We are not equipped to bend the laws of nature with a magic word or gesture, though God does heal and change the world in miraculous ways through human agency every day. But we are loved perfectly and are invited to love deeply in turn, and that is a power and dignity more transformative than some fantastic mixed martial arts in a mirror realm that reflects our limited creativity back to ourselves for admiration.
Hidden power and quiet love require faith. But our world is bursting at the seams with the glory of God, and those with eyes to see it will recognize the rays shining forth. So while Dr. Strange and other fantasy can’t provide us with a model to follow, it may serve as an imaginative stimulus to remind us that we too are invested with a mission to serve the good and stand up to evil, an awareness of a realm unseen, and an unlimited source of power and strength through our relationship with God, the Creator and Source of Life for all.
Image source: The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, the publisher, Marvel Studios, or the graphic artist.
It was initially found here.
Transfiguration found here.