Jim Papandrea on Christology, Superheroes, and Science Fiction Films
Date: December 17th, 2017

Is Superman the representation of the Christ figure par excellent on celluloid?  Do the writers of Star Trek share a Christian view of humanity?  And what can The Terminator tell us about Christology and soteriology?  These may not be questions that you hear debated at a theological seminary or a ComiCon gathering, but they are issues that pique the interest of Prof. James Papandrea, associate professor of Church history at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of the new book From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films.  Jim, a frequent guest on our show and a fan of science fiction films, informs us that he has been thinking about Christian themes in movies ever since he taught a class on religion and film a few decades ago, and his fascination with how the Christ story is portrayed on screen finally culminated in this book, which comes across not only as a fun exploration of superheroes and space aliens, but also teaches readers some deep insights into Christology and soteriology.  Prof. Papandrea explains what Christology and soteriology are — the study of the nature of Christ and salvation, respectively — and why they are important to the understanding of different portrayals of “salvation figures” in film.  We review his categorization of various movie characters based upon the orthodox nature of Christ laid out in the Nicene Creed, and he further covers the different understandings of Christology and soteriology.  One big difference we review is whether a writer has an “descent” view of the Christ figure, wherein a divine being is sent down to save humanity, or an “ascent” perspective wherein a mortal human takes on the salvific features of the divine.  Jim notes that the latter view is associated with the theology of Arianism, which was what the Council of Nicaea was reacting to 1700 years ago.  We also discuss theological views of human nature so as to be aware of whether various authors/directors are promoting a pessimistic view of humanity as sinful and in need of rescue, or a more “optimistic” view wherein humanity can perfect itself without recourse to the divine.

With these cards on the table, we then dive into an exploration of various celluloid heroes, starting first with the characters of the DC Comics Universe — Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.  (We note that Jim is analyzing these characters through the more recent depictions on film and doesn’t address the various ways they have been portrayed historically in comic books and other media.)  Both Superman and Wonder Woman represent an “descent” Christology wherein divine-like beings that are not like humans come to save humanity from their more destructive characteristics.  Batman, on the other hand, can be understood as a “ascent” (Arian) view of a savoir figure, as many of the characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe can as well (e.g., Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man).  We also discuss the role of evil in the world in the personification of Lex Luthor and draw a few parallels between the DC and Marvel worlds.  Interestingly, while the Superman portrayed in the recent Man of Steel film comes across vividly as a Christ-like figure, he is not the most orthodox characterization of the heroes studied by Dr. Papandrea.  That prize goes to Doctor Who, and Jim explains why as we move into the section of his book that deals with time travel and how it relates to the notion of incarnation.  Here we also wrestle with the religious themes of movies such as The Time Machine, The Terminator, and (to Tony’s surprise) Planet of the Apes.  Along the way in our discussion, Tony asks whether many of the screenwriters and directors have a conscious strategy of mimicking the Christ story in their works, or whether the themes arise subconsciously or are envisioned solely by the audience.  Jim replies that it is a mixed bag, although he notes that while the various writers of Doctor Who over the decades have been some of the most atheistic screenwriters, religious themes are infused throughout the long-running series.

It is then on to space, the final frontier, where we examine the religious storylines within Star Trek, Star Wars, and other films such as The Fifth Element.  Here Jim talks about his interview with Ronald Moore who is a screenwriter for many of the episodes on various Trek series and a student of the genre.  He talks about how Moore considered himself an atheist but has since come around to agnosticism.  We also talk about the interesting themes and tensions within this “outer space” genre.  Star Trek takes a very optimistic view of humanity, noting that perfection is within our grasp if we unshackle ourselves from religion.  Star Wars, on the other hand, and an interesting theological theme of equilibrium in the universe being a balance of good an evil, and that if the universe is “too good,” evil must be brought into it.  Another big reveal is that one of Jim’s favorite movies is The Fifth Element and the character of Leeloo scores high on his orthodoxy ranking.  Tony then asks Jim to uncover the theological themes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and both of us end up agreeing that we can’t understand what was going in that film at all.  (It should be noted, in all fairness, that Jim does not discuss 2001 in his book, so this was a curveball thrown to him by Tony at the last minute.)  Our conversation ends with Jim’s thoughts on what Christians should take away from these various cinematic representations of the Christ figure, and what themes most authors/directors in the genre tend to get wrong about Christianity.  This leads to some interesting thoughts about sin, injustice, and humanity’s separation from God.  Finally, Jim reveals that he is in the midst of writing a historical fiction novel that will hopefully appear in 2018 and Tony extends an invitation to him to come back and discuss this when it hits shelves.  Recorded: December 12, 2017.

 

RELATED LINKS

Jim Papandrea’s biography at the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

 Jim Papandrea’s personal website (including links to his books, musings, and music).

From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films, by James Papandrea.

Browse Prof. Papandrea’s many other books over at doctorjimsbooks at Amazon.com.

RELATED PODCASTS

Jim Papandrea on the Catholicism of Early Christianity.

Jim Papandrea on Christianity’s Seven Revolutions.

Jim Papandrea on the End of the World and Revelation.

Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

Robert Joustra on Zombies, Cylons, Charles Taylor, and the Apocalypse.

Matthew Moore on Buddhism and the Robopocalypse

Michael Medved on Religion and Hollywood.

Jon Sweeney on “Its a Wonderful Life.”

John Mark Reynolds on Dickens and “A Christmas Carol.”

John Errington on “A Long Way Off” and Religious Movie Making.

Tim Kelleher on the Nicene Creed.


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