Some of you may have read a Christian ministry’s web article that took the movie Captain Marvel to task for (supposed) feminism.1
My friend Cap Stewart kindly yet firmly took the article to task here. Among other issues, he challenged the original article’s lack of simple genre comprehension. The author seems to have lacked some basic familiarity with superhero story “rules” and intentions:
Inexplicably, Morse [the original article author] is conflating the fairy tale fantasy and superhero genres. Captain Marvel is not a Disney princess, nor is she trying to be. Her physical abilities are way above and beyond anything a princess—or any woman—could ever do, just as the physical abilities of Captain America are far beyond anything a prince—or a man—could ever do.
When talking about the abandonment of the “traditional princess vibe” (as if that were the standard by which superhero movies should be judged), it’s interesting that Morse uses Cinderella and Belle as examples. Disney has recently produced live action versions of both those stories, actually, and in neither of these modern retellings does the princess swap her traditional accoutrements for combat paraphernalia. Morse’s argument here makes no logical sense.
The goal of a superhero movie is not to get people to try flying off balconies or become autonomous vigilantes. No, the goal of the superhero genre is not audience imitation but rather audience inspiration. The virtues and character arcs of superheroes can—and do—motivate us to pursue virtue and character growth ourselves.2
I might suggest the article’s writer also stumbled into a larger pitfall.
Mind you, I want to be fair, and I have not read the author’s entire body of work on subjects relating to popular culture.
At the same time, I generally find this true:
- Christian tries to engage a story or song from human popular culture.
- Christian gets criticism (harsh or rational), because he hasn’t shown basic familiarity with the story’s genre or intent.
- Very likely, the Christian has not biblically worked out the purpose of human popular culture in the first place.
I try to go over this in the article Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Human Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For:
Entertainment is never “just entertainment.” The apostle Paul says to take every thought captive, and this must include thoughts relating to the stories and human creations we enjoy.
But the Christian leader who challenges popular culture “consumption” needs to say more than, “Popular culture is harmless, but you should love Jesus more than entertainment.”
He needs to show how loving Jesus transforms our view of entertainment—or rather, stories, songs, games, and beyond.
He needs to allow for the fact that some Christians are not passive about these popular works; in fact, we can be very proactive and thoughtful about human stories and songs (in biblical ways or otherwise!).
Christian leaders need to stop using words like “consume.” This makes us imagine some unthinking, careless gorging of one’s self, all alone in a dark living room, complete with fake-cheese snacks and a flickering TV screen. Why not instead try words like “engage,” “take captive,” “redeem,” or even “avoid based on personal scruples” about any particular story/song/game?
He may also try the word recreation—a far more biblical framing than “entertainment.”
Why not frame this topic in a biblical worldview, rather than use the world’s language?
Why not discuss popular culture—human stories and songs—in terms of human creativity being a gift from God? The way some pastors talk, popular culture is some alien (even if “harmless”) thing unrelated to God. But if God gives this gift (of popular culture-creation), then He, not us, defines the terms of how the gift is best used—to glorify Him, to guard against idolatry, and to make sure we get the most joy out of using the gift in the ways He has prescribed.
Why not explore how Jesus has built the work-rest rhythm into the universe, starting right in Genesis 1? Why not consider how stories and songs are part of being human, whether they’re shared around a campfire or enacted on your tablet screen? Why not allow the possibility that Scripture seems to allow—that we will create cultural works in eternity?
I would even go so far as to suggest that if the Christian leader cannot allude to the biblical view of recreation, or articulate this view in his body of work somewhere, he probably ought not talk about culture or popular culture at all.
No, I don’t mean that every Christian ought to become as I am, reviewing novels, movies, and anime, and often hanging out with Christian folks who like doing the same.
But Christian leader, pastor, or teacher: if you can’t show that you know what popular culture is for in the first place, using biblical anthropology, I honestly struggle to listen seriously when you only warn against popular culture.3
- Rumors of Captain Marvel‘s supposed radical feminism have been grossly exaggerated. If anything, adding even some preachy feminism could have given the story more substance and direction. ↩
- Cap Stewart, “Captain Marvel, Disney Princesses, and the ‘Feminist Agenda,’” CapStewart.com, March 15, 2019. ↩
- E. Stephen Burnett, “Christians, Please Stop Warning Against Popular Culture Until You Know What It’s For,” Speculative Faith, Nov. 6, 2017. See also “When Pastors Criticize Popular Culture,” Speculative Faith, Aug. 24, 2017. ↩