Christian allegories, or the allegorizing of theological and moral themes, is by no means new to anyone who knows Dante or John Bunyan. But there are also the myths of the world, whether ancient or modern, which seem to reflect the Christian story—gods that take the form of humans, virgin births, floods, sacrificial deaths and rebirths. The idea of universal elements in mythologies has been explored by Carl Jung and popularized by Joseph Campbell and his disciples. Their theories, particularly as they point to a collective subconscious, are full of insight, but to a Christian perspective, they require an adjustment or a reorientation, to be fulfilled: Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, the Logos, the one in whom all things, and all true myths, hold together.
It has been said that the overwhelming popularity of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, and the Harry Potter phenomenon has to do with the fact that, intentionally or not, they resonate deeply with the one true story, the story of the Son of God who was made man for us and for our salvation, lifted up on the cross of his own accord, and raised from the dead. Lewis himself often makes the point that stories and myths, both in the Bible as well as outside it, bear truth insofar as they resonate with this true story. An advocate of this theory is John Granger, an Orthodox Christian who was so struck by the Christian message woven deeply into the Harry Potter novels that he wrote vivid and literate books on the subject.
Granger has read Lewis and Tolkien closely. Not only are most of their mythical stories built on the bedrock of Christian imagery and theology, but their essays and letters constantly come back to the same point: underlying any good myth, whenever and wherever it was told, is the one, true, historical myth of Christianity. The popularity of such stories, especially when they are crafted creatively, owes to our natural resonance with Jesus Christ and with the story of his incarnations, life, death, and resurrection. Granger usefully summarizes, "As images of God designed for life in Christ, all humans naturally resonate with stories that reflect the greatest story every told—the story of God who became man."
Reading Christ into Star Wars
Star Wars is another epic creation that draws on a variety of religious expressions. Star Wars can be said to resonate with Christian truth in part owing to its depiction of the battle between good and evil, both between different characters and within particular characters. Alongside this universal and potent drama are passing resonances with Christianity in what we might call the “wisdom literature” of Star Wars, emanating from Yoda or other high-ranking Jedi—wisdom that could also be claimed by numerous religious traditions. It’s stock wisdom, much of it true and some of it banal. And of course there’s also a lot of very mixed-up imagery thrown in. But it’s hard not to read Christ into Obi-Wan’s voluntary and life-giving death in episode 4.
Indeed, the Jesus story continues to compel modern filmmakers. Some depict it literally (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) and others metaphorically (Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal). But a great number of adventure, science fiction, and superhero stories and films incorporate Christ imagery and feature characters who can properly be seen as Christ figures, whether it’s the cowboy who comes from some unknown place to rid a town of its evil, or the displaced Babette, whose presence transfigures a Danish village in Babette’s Feast. In modern films, there are countless voluntary and life-giving deaths, often accompanied by quite unconcealed cross or crucifix imagery. Watch the last scenes of The Matrix: Revolutions, in which Neo, in becoming himself a curse, defeats the evil one by filling him with light, only to he lifted up in glory with his arms outstretched cruciform, after which the good news of victory is proclaimed to Zion. Watch the scene in Spiderman 2 in which the superhero, his arms outstretched, saves the multitudes on the subway train and in so doing shows them his true identity and awakens their communion with one another and with him. These scenes take place in contexts that are full of other, patently non-Christian imagery too. They are not the gospel, and they don’t pretend to be. But it may just be that the truth of Christ speaks through key episodes in these stories, whether or not the authors intended it.
Finding Christ in Pop Culture
Are we merely reading Christian truth into this output? Is Christianity in the eye of the beholder? These are appropriate questions, especially when we consider that the authors of many of these stories do not profess any intention of depicting Christian reality. Yet finding Christ and the cross in these ways has a solid history. It is reminiscent of Justin Martyr, who saw the cross everywhere—in things made by human hands, like ship masts and tools, and in the things of nature, like the human face. This is the same Justin who claimed the truth, wherever it was found, as Christian truth.
When St. Paul preached at the Areopagus (Acts 17.16-34), he cited pagan scriptures and alluded to pagan statues, showing how they point to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Many of today’s cultural symbols are liable to point to Christ as well. They can’t help it, because the Truth that underlies everything simply bursts through.
Truth, story, myth, history, allegory, typology: what do these all mean? Can’t we just read our Bible simply? Maybe we should all just spend more of our time with the kinds of people who are utterly untouched by these categories and questions. Yet the times in which we live demand the kind of inquiry I’ve been sketching here. We live in an age when the categories of truth, fiction, and myth are both clearer and more muddled than ever. We are obsessed with finding “the truth behind the myth,” and yet, the Lord of the Rings trilogy notwithstanding, we’ve nearly lost the meaning and effect of myth. In our age, too, debates about creation and evolution, or creation as evolution, rage in the public square, and fundamentalist readings of Scripture are gaining in popularity. We owe it to ourselves to bring to the fore questions about the nature and function of story. These questions can be a part of our maturing into a faith that penetrates the whole of our being.