Pointing to a different hero
Summer reading: The characteristics of heroes in movies don’t come out of nowhere
With movie box office receipts up 365 percent from 2021, summer blockbusters seem poised to make a bigger splash than usual this year. Christians often disagree about what’s worth watching, but we share the Apostle Paul’s charge to take “every thought captive” for Christ.
Apologist Frank Turek’s newest book, Hollywood Heroes, can help families and movie buffs do just that. The book, co-written with his son, Zach, reflects Turek’s decades of apologetics work on his weekly radio program and his website, Crossexamined.org.
I recently spoke with Turek about how Christians—especially families—can get more out of the movies they watch this summer.
Aren’t movies just entertainment? Why should we think critically about them?
When I go to a movie, I’m not really looking for moral stories. I’m just looking to relax and wind down. If you start analyzing movies, though, you start to see Biblical life lessons. So many movies have Christian figures in them—figures who sacrifice and people that are redeemed.
In fact, George Barna did a study that shows (and this is no surprise) that young people get more of their theology from movies than they do from the pulpit. So if that’s the case, why not use movies to communicate good theology where we can?
How do popular movies reflect good theology?
Here’s one way—whenever people sacrifice themselves to save others, or when people actually have to be selfless rather than selfish. I mean, obviously, in the original Star Wars series, the greatest example is Darth Vader, right? He’s redeemed.
Ha, spoiler alert. Yeah, I always have to say that.
But let me give you another example—the movie Endgame, the Avengers movie that (spoiler alert!) took out the ultimate villain, Thanos. One of the main characters, Tony Stark, starts as an immoral arms dealer and playboy, but through several movies he actually sacrifices himself to save the world. What are we enchanted with there? We’re enchanted with the truth. And the truth is that to save people, sometimes you do need to sacrifice yourself. And of course, that’s what Jesus did for us.
So, our heroes don’t come out of nowhere?
It’s part of reality. We all deep down want to be taken from this world of pain and suffering to a place of bliss. And that’s what these superhero movies do, right? Someone comes in to save them, gets them out of danger, and takes them to a place where they can live happily ever after.
Well, that’s the Christian story. Someone has to come and sacrifice himself in order to pay for our sins, and then he’s going to take us one day to the Promised Land.
That reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of the “true myth” discussed in Hollywood Heroes. Do you want to explain that?
Sure. Christian authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. (Jack) Lewis were buddies in a writing group called the Inklings. And before this point, Lewis was not a Christian. Tolkien noticed that Lewis was enamored with pagan stories about dying and rising gods. And he said, “Jack, why are you so enthralled with all these dying and rising gods in these myths, but you’re not enthralled with a dying and rising God in the Bible?” Tolkien finally told him Christianity is the true myth. It literally happened that Jesus came and rose from the dead. Lewis then researched and realized it was true—Jesus did die and rise again. And this was part of Lewis’ journey to become probably the greatest apologist of the 20th century.
How do we see the “true myth” in Tolkien’s novels and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films?
Tolkien uses three Christ figures in The Lord of the Rings series. One, of course, is Gandalf the wizard. Another is Aragorn, the king. And the third, believe it or not, is the hobbit Frodo. They all have attributes that Jesus has. Gandalf is the strategist. Aragorn, of course, is the returning king. And Frodo is the character who actually accomplishes the mission, even though Providence had to jump in at the end.
If you take a step back, you have sort of a Trinity here. You have Gandalf planning salvation, you have Frodo accomplishing salvation, and you have Aragorn inspiring salvation among the people.
Tell me more about Frodo. He’s not your typical hero—no capes, no tights, no magical powers like Gandalf. What can he teach us?
In my book, I summarize Frodo’s role like this: “In addition to the fact that he’s only three feet tall, he is passive. He doesn’t seek out adventure, riches, or power. You get the distinct impression he’d rather be at home in the Shire with his friends than trying to save the world. He also isn’t the smartest or the bravest, even among the hobbits.
“Yet the tiny Frodo somehow endures hunger, thirst, heat, cold, physical injury, and countless other challenges without complaint. Over the course of his journey, he is stabbed with a poison knife on Weathertop; nearly freezes to death while trying to climb a mountain …; is almost impaled by a spear in Moria; … has to fight off several murder attempts by the Ring-coveting Gollum; is stung and nearly mummified by the giant spider, Shelob; and has to try to traverse the barren wasteland of Mordor with little food and almost no water.
“The entire time all of these trials challenge him, Frodo has to carry around the Ring, which seems to grow physically heavier the closer he gets to his goal. It weighs his spirit down so much that he can’t even remember the taste of food by the time they get to Mount Doom.
“How does he accomplish all this? His weaknesses lead to a strength we call humility.”
So, how does this illustrate Biblical truth?
That weakness corresponds to Paul’s statement in the Bible, “When I’m weak, I’m strong.” Because when you’re weak, you depend on God. And when you get God’s help, now you’re strong. So God uses weak people in the Bible, and Tolkien uses weak characters in Lord of the Rings to drive that point home.
I first encountered the concept of the “true myth” in C.S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress. It was one of the last books I read before I got saved. I was an English major, so I loved stories. My favorites weren’t pagan myths but lots of other kinds of stories. Lewis helped me see that if I believed in Christianity, it didn’t mean all the other stories had no worth. They just point to the real Story of history—Jesus’ story.
I realize now that Anne of Green Gables (which I loved as a kid)—it’s really about Anne learning to forgive Gilbert and find her true home. That’s another echo of Christ coming for the church and bringing us home. When you understand, “Oh, they’re all pointing to Him,” then stories don’t compete with the Bible anymore. There’s great harmony. So I really appreciate you bringing out that point.
Of course, Jesus often created parables to tell either a moral or theological truth. These stories aren’t really true. Like if you went back into the first century, you wouldn’t find the Good Samaritan. You couldn’t find out his name. These are invented tales that Jesus uses to make a true point about morality or theology. And that’s what good movies do—either intentionally or unintentionally.
Here’s how I apply this in Hollywood Heroes: “Imagine you could create someone who had Captain America’s righteous idealism, Iron Man’s genius, Harry Potter’s willingness to sacrifice, Luke Skywalker’s discipline, Sam’s loyalty, Frodo’s humility, Aragorn’s courage, Gandalf’s wisdom, Batman’s focus, Superman’s power … you would have someone closer to Jesus than any of these heroes individually.” In other words, none of these movie heroes are the ultimate hero, but they point us to Him.
So you see Jesus’ character in their heroic qualities. But you’re not saying these characters are perfect, right? Or that everyone should watch them.
Right. Not every movie is age appropriate for everyone. Look, whatever parents think is right or wrong for their kids, I agree with them. You might not show a certain movie to a 5-year-old, but you might show it to a 15-year-old. So, we always have to practice discernment.
But even if you don’t watch popular movies, you could talk to others about them. In Acts chapter 17, the Apostle Paul engaged the Athenians by quoting from Greek poets. These Greek poets weren’t Christians. They were non-Christians. But Paul noticed that there were things in their poetry that were true. So to create a bridge with the Athenians, he quoted those poets while sharing the gospel message.
In the same way, when I talk to kids, I always say, If you like Harry Potter, you’re gonna love Jesus. Jesus is the perfect version of Harry Potter. Jesus dies and rises again, not just for his friends, but for his enemies, actually. There are so many parallels.
So, people listen when you talk about something that they love?
Exactly. I don’t know any teenager that would shoot you an eye roll if you said, “Hey, this Friday, or this Saturday night, we’re going to do movie night. You want to invite some friends over?” Invite them over to watch an Iron Man or Batman movie or whatever. Get the popcorn out, watch the film, and then afterward, have some discussion and see where it goes.
Were movies touchstones for you with your own kids?
Yeah, when they were growing up, we watched movies together and talked about them plenty of times. I mean, particularly for Zach—who’s a major in the Air Force and a graduate of Southern Evangelical Seminary—the Star Wars series is what really launched him into his love of movies. And our conversations about movies actually led to our writing Hollywood Heroes together. Zach would write the chapter, and then I would kind of come in behind him and edit it and add my two cents. And so that’s how it came together.
How do you recommend parents or others spark discussion after watching a movie?
In Hollywood Heroes, we include questions to generate discussion among families or small groups. But one approach that’s often helpful—[author and apologist] Os Guinness has a technique he uses with his grandkids. It’s called Spot the Lie. So let’s say he’s watching something with them and the movie hints that characters had premarital sex. Maybe there are no negative consequences and everyone’s always happy. He’ll say after the show, “Were there any lies in what you just saw?” Then he’ll point out, “They’re saying there’s nothing wrong with premarital sex. Everyone’s always happy. No one ever gets hurt. Really? That’s a lie, isn’t it? OK, good.”
What about before we watch? If my family decides to see Jurassic World Dominion this summer or another blockbuster, how can we prepare ahead of time?
One question going into any movie is this: Is there going to be a confrontation between good and evil? And normally there will be. That’s what makes these things interesting, right? And you can ask questions like, Who is going to be put into a moral dilemma? Who is gonna have to make a really hard choice? Most of the time in real life, our moral choices are easy. We know we shouldn’t lie. But what happens when no matter which way you go, there are negative consequences?
Another thing to watch—are characters following their heart or following the truth? Tony Stark offers a perfect visual demonstration of this. He has a device implanted into his chest to prevent shrapnel from piercing his heart. This is a beautiful picture of Proverbs 4:23 which says, “Above all else, guard your heart because everything you do flows from it.” Our culture says follow your heart. The Bible says guard your heart. If you follow your heart, you’re gonna wind up lost, confused, and full of anxiety like Tony Stark initially was.
When we watch movies, we often see ourselves in the hero’s shoes. We want to be like Iron Man or Batman. But that’s not the ultimate goal, right?
Well, you want to be like Iron Man where Iron Man emulates Jesus—where he sacrifices himself to save others. Where he doesn’t follow his heart, he guards his heart. Where he yields to people who he knows can do a job better than him. These are all lessons that you ought to take from Iron Man because those things will conform you into the image of Christ.
When you leave the blockbuster and you don’t have Christ, there’s nothing to take with you. But when you walk out with Christ, a good movie ending points to something real. Because of Jesus, you have a good ending coming up for your story.
Right. I haven’t seen the new film The Batman yet. But my son did. Here’s a quote he sent me from the end (spoiler alert!): “Vengeance won’t change the past, mine or anyone else’s. I have to become more. People need hope—to know someone is out there for them.”
Well, there is somebody out there for us. It’s the Savior who’s already come once, and when He comes back, He’s returning as King. He is going to fold up this universe, right?
So, you can only have hope or despair. That’s all you can have. One of the two. Christianity gives you hope.
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