Avengers: Endgame was a unique theater experience. I can recall going to see many several of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies shortly after they hit the big screen but those experiences pale in comparison to that of watching Endgame.
I couldn’t find more recent data on how many people have seen Avengers: Endgame since it debuted this past April, but this article indicates that their survey conducted prior to its release showed that more that half of Americans planned to see the movie. It currently sits at the top for the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office, with a gross of nearly $2.8 billion worldwide (although they had to use some trickery to get there). The amount of conversation devoted to this movie among friends and families probably serves as enough of an indicator of how popular this movie was.
The movie felt like a cultural moment. It was the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the culmination of their first big overarching story line that weaved throughout each of the preceding films. It signaled the end of a chapter of movies that had been made for over a decade leading up to this point and it’s difficult to see anyone except Marvel Studios pulling something of this magnitude off again.
Yet, the euphoric feeling of that culminating movie didn’t really last too long. Yes, another Spider-Man movie came out (which I haven’t seen yet so no spoilers please!) and more Marvel movies are slated to hit theaters for the foreseeable future. But unless we plan to partake in Comic Con, there aren’t really opportunities for us to engage in these superhero stories beyond purchasing our tickets, reclining back in the theater, and wolfing down some popcorn. We can discuss the movie among friends and families, but even the novelty of that conversation wears off as time passes. It seems like it pulled so many of us together, but only for a short while. It’s like the movie points to something we all want, but the MCU thus far, even through 22 movies, hasn’t quite fulfilled it.
Can the MCU point to something that we desire? And what implications can it have for discussions on social justice, and how do we go about fostering good conversation.
we’re living in a post-christian society
We are divided along political, racial, geographic, gender, and generational lines. Except for the rare case like Endgame, there aren’t too many opportunities where we come together despite these differences. But were there always this few opportunities for community?
We could take a look at organized religion as an example. It’s no secret that church attendance is in decline, especially among younger generations. Studies everywhere show that pretty much across the board numbers are dropping as indicated in the figures below. Whether it’s the argument that science has disproved the claims made in the Christian belief system, the scandals and hypocrisy that have eroded its credibility, or the dangers posed by fundamentalist religions, there have been a number of reasons to avoid associating with any type of religion. However, as we can see from this graph, a significant portion of the nation belonged to a church just a couple generations ago.
Church membership was incredibly stable up until the late 90’s when it started to sharply decline. And this trend is represented even more starkly in the following chart.
I think it’s safe to say that these charts point to a seismic shift in our culture over the past few decades and as with any change their are side effects, often both good and bad.
Set aside the metaphysical claims made by religions for a minute and consider what the institutions of religion have provided historically. I mentioned that the Marvel movies have given reason for about half the nation to sit in front of television and movie screens a couple times a year for a few hours to enjoy what are essentially mythical tales. Consider that even today after all this decline in church membership that 50% of the nation are still members of a church that get together weekly to take part in a narrative of their own. A narrative that they have continued to take part in over vast periods of time. It’s almost like a weekly Comic Con and yes, some of the people are just as interesting.
We all know that these communities have not always been a perfect reflection of the diversity of the community at large and as I mentioned earlier there are understandably concerns with the church. But traditionally churches have provided a place for people to come together and ideally consider how they were meant to live both in relationship with God, or the highest ideals for life, and with one another. Why do you think an event like the Notre Dame Cathedral fire had such a profound impact on people religious and non-religious alike?
There’s a reason that churches were placed in the center of communities and often had their steeples set at the highest elevation within towns. They served as a central meeting place. The ideals taught there were embraced largely by the surrounding community. And the prioritization of religion within the community provided a space that could draw people together to commune, share meals together, and take part in a narrative. Something starkly similar to I think what we try to find in the MCU movies (kudos if you can find the pun in there). Yet, can movies replace the type of community an institution like the church produces?
where can we go for community?
It is within communities that we have conversation. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. The question is what can replace the role that religion has played historically as people leave the church? And where do we hear and engage with difficult topics like social justice?
As I discussed in my previous two posts, the news and politics don’t seem to provide a great locus for dialogue. And if the church is no longer the place for many of us to tease out these principles where do we have to go? K-12 public education? Colleges or universities?
Public schools are probably the closest to offering this type of community because students have to live in community with each other for hours a day for years. But consider the fact that schooling for most people ends by your mid- to late twenties. Is there an institution that can take the place of church for adults? The workplace? Meetups? I honestly can’t think of one.
a conversation on the hierarchy of values
Let’s assume we find some place to have conversation. Whether it’s in a church or elsewhere, what type of conversation are we having? When we tackle difficult issues like social justice, what we are often discussing is what values are of most importance. Kindness, love, justice, freedom, fairness, etc.
It often seems that the virtues of kindness and compassion are king within the social justice movement. Often there is no narrative offered to support why these virtues are of most importance. To many who subscribe to this belief, these virtues are self-evident. We ought to be kind and compassionate towards others.
I would ask the hypothetical question, do you think the self-sacrificing scenes throughout the MCU movies would arise from every other culture in the world both throughout history and geographically? I would think we would be naïve to think it would. The question then becomes where did we learn that kindness and compassion were important?
With the diminishing attendance at church and role of religion in society, we are trying to replace the Judeo-Christian narrative that for a long time has served as one of the most substantial influences in our culture with the virtues that we believe to be self-evident without a religious narrative coupled to it. But can this modern social justice narrative adequately fill that void? Author G.K. Chesterton seems to indicate that they aren’t the same in his following quote.
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”
Consider the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would you define each of these?
Take kindness for example. Kindness as I mentioned is pervasive throughout the current democratic party’s platform and it seems straightforward. Kindness would probably be defined most often in this setting as tolerance and permissiveness. A “stay in your lane” mentality. Wokeness may even be considered kindness. Is that what Paul was referring to in this passage?
Or consider joy. Joy in isolation from these other fruits can be reduced to happiness. Do whatever makes you happy. Don’t change yourself. Don’t commit or get tied down. Life is short. Life for your enjoyment. Is this what Paul meant by joy?
When Paul wrote about these fruit he didn’t mean for them to be used in isolation because it is in their isolation that they each become distorted. Yet, we have done exactly that. We have separated these virtues that were learned over a long period of time through interaction both with myths and narratives and with other people through community. We thought they were self-evident and have distorted their meaning and application in life. And now they have gone wild and have taken on a life of their own.
why narratives are important?
So what was it that made Endgame so special? With more movies came the opportunity for more screen time for characters to develop their narratives. We got to see the maturation of their personalities into some absolutely beautiful moments of sacrifice, love, and courage for one another.
I know I left the theater feeling like the movie exceeded any expectations I had for it. It truly was a masterpiece of storytelling. I have to believe that’s a large part why people got so emotional, even to the point of requiring hospitalization.
There isn’t a problem with Endgame. It’s just that a movie like this is limited to providing entertainment and a limited amount of conversation because we can’t live within the story. We can contemplate the significance of the inclusion of female and minority superheroes and the virtues of the characters on screen, but at the end of the day none of us will be fighting alongside Tony Stark, Captain America, and the rest of the gang.
Without a story that we can participate in, I’m not sure that we have the ability to tease out how all of these virtues should interact. That’s where a narrative like the Christian narrative is different, because the story claims to occur within human history.
God as depicted within the Bible demonstrates in part all of these virtues interacting with one another. Even the statements “God is love” and “the greatest of these is love”, only have meaning within the context of the greater narrative and his interaction with humans throughout history. Similar to how the self-sacrifice of certain Marvel characters (avoiding spoilers here) has that much more significance because we know their backstory, the story of God’s relationship with humans and eventual self-sacrifice can illuminate these virtues and give them life.
It’s through our engagement with this narrative and the stories of others in the context of church in our communities that we can start to see how we can respond with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of difficult situations and confront these problems. We can avoid the temptation to elevate one virtue above the rest and as a result diminishing all of them.
what narrative does the church provide?
So what is the meta-narrative offered by the church in regards to social reform and change? I’m still unpacking for myself just how significant the story of the Bible is. I will spend the rest of my life doing so. But if I could try to boil it down to a few relevant ideas they would be these.
First off, I find it interesting if you consider the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, how the Israelites told the story of their own nation’s history. These are the stories they passed down orally and then eventually wrote down to explain their origins. They descended from people who were lazy (Abraham), deceitful (Jacob), willing to trade their brother into slavery (Jacob’s sons), drunk (Noah), disobedient (Adam and Eve), murderous (Moses), and idolatrous (the rest of the Israelites) among a variety of other mistakes.
The story they chose to tell of their own nation’s history was brutally honest about how they had failed their God. They don’t applaud these behaviors, but decided to remind themselves of how often they fell short. Maybe a little honesty on the shortcomings of our past is healthy to have.
Second, I would consider that Jesus didn’t spend his life trying to change Rome’s system of government. He spent his ministry investing mostly in 12 men, a lot of time in prayer, teaching principles, performing miracles to heal the sick and lowly and communing with the outcasts and dispossessed. He restored relationships between the dehumanized and the society at large by giving value to the very people that no one at the time saw value in.
It was in this way that he would build his church and change the world in a grass roots manner. The locus of change was the individual that resulted in widespread impact. The early church constantly showed that community could be formed across racial, generational, class, and gender lines. A little more of that sounds like exactly what we need today.
Lastly, when John starts his gospel off with the phrase “The Word became flesh”, I think we need to consider how significant this statement is. The Greek used here for Word is “logos,” which essentially means in the context of this passage that God revealed Himself by speaking.
If we were in a classroom and a dog were to randomly show up in the room and be running around there would be chaos and confusion. However, if a faculty member were to come into the room and explain that their dog got off the leash and that it was friendly, everyone in the classroom would suddenly have context for the situation. Order would be restored. John is essentially saying that Jesus has provided context for the chaos of our world and revealed God to us through his speech and language to provide order.
Speech is important for all of us to figure out the chaos around us. There may be temptations to silence certain voices, but I would argue this silencing of differing opinions would be to our detriment. There’s a reason we have the First Amendment. There’s a reason John emphasizes the importance of “logos.” And there’s a reason you see cultures go in terrible direction when people are silenced. We need to value others thoughts even when we don’t completely agree. It’s through truthful and honest conversation that we can mold each other. We need more of it not less.
where do we go from here on social justice issues?
Does that mean we do nothing then within politics? I don’t believe that to be the case. I think we should advocate for change and when it’s in our power, try to make changes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in our own lives, families, and neighborhoods. Should we look down on progressives? By no means. Compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised is to be lauded and we should be able to discuss these issues. The desire to want to do something is not a bad instinct.
Should we disparage conservatives for resisting social reform? I don’t think so. There are stark differences between statutes that abolish slavery and ones that provide reparations. Just like there are stark differences between giving women the right to vote and requiring women on executive boards. Some regulations should clearly be supported. Others, despite seeming similarly compassionate, may not produce the same effects they are desired to. And systematic sin, if you’re willing to call it evil, is not always rational and therefore rational solutions cannot always be found for these issues.
Systemic sin is real. It’s difficult to quantify, but always present. And as we see in my own post from four years ago, I think it’s important to be patient with one another because viewpoints on these difficult subjects often change over time. I’m sure mine will change and evolve even more over the coming years.
Unfortunately the solutions to these pervasive issues are not so easily prescribed. Let’s resist the urge to buy into quick solutions, look for the principles that can be developed to move us from pity to action, and try to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost. Maybe you will find that in church, or maybe new institutions will come about to fill this void.
And maybe… just maybe, these issues may start to resolve themselves without policy. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we have to admit that the historical figure of Jesus changed the world and undermined the Roman empire by communing with those on the outskirts of society and not through political and legislative means. I think it’s through rediscovering our local community and investing there, that the public sentiment of the nation will be changed and good conversation can resume.