A few years ago, when laying out the vision behind Sputnik to a gathering of creatives, I made the claim that there were no Christian artists producing culture shaping art now (or in the last 30 years). Basically, I think I’d been warming to my theme, and though I stand by my general point that Christians are not proportionately represented operating at the highest levels in the arts, I was, of course wrong.
My friend Joel Wilson graciously rubbed this in by immediately compiling a list of 50 Christian artists who I’d claimed didn’t exist. Jonny Cash, Makoto Fujimura, Alice Cooper, Terence Mallick, PD James, etc, etc.
Well, that was early 2015. I’d like to add another name to the list and as regards cultural influence, I wonder if this one may be a new entry at number 1. He would have been a pretty high entry when Joel first compiled his list but for the fact that nobody would have guessed that the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser:Inferno and Sinister may actually have been a Jesus follower! Now, he’s the the helmsman of the latest Marvel blockbuster and I imagine that we haven’t heard the last of Scott Derrickson.
Doctor Strange very much follows Derrickson’s modus operandi up to this point, in that it is the last film you would naturally expect a Christian to touch with a bargepole. Dr Stephen Strange is the invention of comic artist Steven Ditko and he made his first appearance in 1963 to bring a bit of black magic into the Marvel Universe. From the start, he appealed very naturally to a generation experimenting with psychedelic drugs and eastern mysticism and his escapades are punctuated by spells, incantations, vampires, demigods and demonic possession.
In some ways, the movie follows suit, exploring some of the occult elements from the comics but also relying heavily on a multiverse cosmology- an idea that has become popular through Richard Dawkins, largely as a way to explain the existence of our universe without having to resort to a creator. For these reasons, predictably, there has been a backlash from some quarters of Christendom (here and here). As ‘the editorial staff’ at movieguide.org puts it:
Some movies, however, not only distract some people from the Truth, but introduce completely new paths for people to follow that will lead them away from eternal life with Jesus Christ and away from loving their neighbors as themselves. Sadly, Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE is one of those movies.
I’ll be honest- I couldn’t disagree more. As I watched the film, I was incredibly impressed at how Derrickson steers the film in such a way that he not only fails to alienate the comic fan base, but actually leads people potentially towards Jesus through the most unpromising of evangelistic source material.
In many ways, it follows in the footsteps of The Exorcism of Emily Rose as an apologetic against materialistic naturalism (the belief that there is no supernatural reality). One of Strange’s early conversations with the Ancient One makes this very clear:
The Ancient One: You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your whole life trying to widen that keyhole. To see more. To know more. And now on hearing that it can be widened, in ways you can’t imagine, you reject the possibility.
Dr. Stephen Strange: No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.
Now, fair enough, The views Doctor Strange is converted to from this point aren’t exactly from the pages of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, but to hone in on details would be to miss the point. It’s another cinematic blue pill/red pill moment and its effect is to cast curious minds upon the possibility that there’s more to life than meets the eye. (About 30 million curious minds so far, judging by the box office takings).
You see, Derrickson understands his audience and knows the battles which need fighting. The church’s sensitivity to the occult in popular media has been based, at least in part, on a presumption that people’s default position was of Christian faith or at least something similar. Therefore, as the above quote states, these biblically prohibited practices would ‘lead them away from eternal life with Jesus’ and should be resisted at all costs. However, that bird has now flown. People have moved further and further away from faith in Jesus in much more fundamental ways than dabbling with the odd ouija board (dangerous as that may be). A secular mindset has become dominant on both sides of the Atlantic, and therefore, like it or not, you are dealing with people who are already miles away from Jesus. If you want to lead people back, adding another splinter into their mind to cause them to question a materialistic view of reality is surely exactly what is needed.
In this way, Derrickson is a brilliant example of how to engage our culture with the Christian worldview. If we are to regain a voice through the arts, we must learn to pick our battles, ignore our hobby horses and hone in on the key obstacles to faith. We must become adept at bringing out truth from our culture’s own stories, while treating those stories themselves with respect. Derrickson can’t even help himself in this regard and ends the movie with a pretty blatant atonement allegory. This guy’s a hero!
As well as thinking through the positive message of the film, it’s also worth noting what was missing. Think for a moment about what a Doctor Strange movie may have looked like in another pair of hands. Deadpool was Marvel for people who want swearing and sex, Doctor Strange was the one those who wanted séances, tarot cards and occult rituals. But in Derrickson’s hands, all of these elements are underplayed and a vague mysticism pervades. There is an indication that some of the key characters have been dabbling in the dark realms but again this is done in such a way that it would be hard to imagine that many people would be enticed to follow suit through the movie (Will Smith’s son being a high profile exception) . Damage limitation may seem like a humble aim for Christian involvement in the arts, but it is of some value.
However, it would be amiss of me to leave it even there. It’s not just that Derrickson survived his first blockbuster directorship while staying true to his convictions. He’s made a very enjoyable movie going experience. Yes, it’s a pretty generic superhero origin story with fairly 2 dimensional characters but it would be fair to say that in the areas of special effects and action choreography, he has truly broken new ground. Throughout the film, the fight scenes bend the rules of space and time in a manner that should have been a total mess, but instead were thoroughly original and exhilarating.
It’s not high art, but it’s high quality art, made by someone with an attention to detail and a respect for their craft that is quite formidable. And it leads a trail of breadcrumbs that could lead to Jesus. And it does it through the story of an occult magician. And multiverses.
Please pray for Scott Derrickson that God would strengthen him and keep him upright and wise in the industry that he is in. And pray that God would raise up more artists like him. Then keep your eyes peeled, as it will be fascinating to see what he’ll do next.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.