There and Back Again: A Savior’s Tale

Art & Literature, Culture, Film, Media, Picturing the Word — By on May 5, 2010 at 1:00 am

Welcome to Podcast 11!

Our curriculum this week was aptly themed “A Strange Visitor.”

We watched:

Wall•E (Andrew Stanton, Pixar, 2008)

Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964)

The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

“Doctor Who” (Human Nature / The Family of Blood 3.08–09)

We read:

Superman: Peace on Earth

This was an unusual week for us—almost everything we watched was a stand-alone film, unrelated (at least in character and story) to the rest of our curriculum. Even so, I immensely enjoyed the films we viewed this week, and have come away with a deeper respect for Mary Poppins than I ever thought I could have.

We begin the podcast by discussing who the strange visitor is—what his or her role is in the story. This leads us to think about the supporting character of Mr. Banks and his role in relation to Mary Poppins. Finally, we begin to discuss distinction between a hero and a savior.

As always, we would love your comments and questions. Comment below or email John and I at picturingtheword@gmail.com .

Happy listening! ‘


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  • drsteeve

    I think it's interesting that our American hero stories see the “strange visitor” as, typically, a savior. Historically, “strange visitors” were otherwise known as invaders; for example the suitors in the Odyssey. Additionally, we almost assume that we need an outsider to come and fix us, as though we are broken and unable to fix ourselves.

    I'd like to hear your thoughts on this, but I'm wondering if we (as American storytellers) hold these assumptions because: 1) we're steeped in the model of the Christian story where Christ (our strange visitor) comes to save human kind from the wages of sin OR 2) we're a nation of immigrants who've come, initially as strange visitors, and leave an indelible mark mostly making this nation a better place.

  • drsteeve

    I don't think the project of Mary Poppins and Batman are all that different. I think the primary difference is that Poppins is working in a much smaller system where change is much easier to make. For his part, Batman is not only fighting crime, but he is also showing Gotham that they need not be afraid thereby empowering people, like Commissioner Gordan, to make change in Gotham. Neither one of them is a savior because neither of them is out to save humanity from its fallenness, both are simply trying to help fallen people live better in community.

    Christopher Nolan (the Batman / Dark Knight director) would agree with me. Looking at the films, one can see echoes of Plato's Republic throughout and Nolan, at the conclusion of his second film, places Batman firmly in the role of guardian or knight. In the Nolan interpretation, Batman is not a savior, he is merely the one making room for a savior.

    I think the role of guardian is the most appropriate role for any human figure (who's not Christ) to play. Does this mean people, like Mary Poppins, cannot bring about good change? No, it simply means that we cannot turn to a human to save us from the deeper sins of our race.

  • John

    Dustin,

    Great (two) questions!

    Intuitively, I think I agree about America being steeped in some kind of Western/Christian view of the visitor. We still do have movies where we are deceived or destroyed by visitors (“V,” ABC's latest TV show is a good example). And perhaps it is part of the nation's fabric (though then why are we so concerned about racial and immigration issues?)…

    There is a tension between fixing ourselves and needing a savior. I think we expect both… Someone who will tell us how to save ourselves but let us have freedom in that choice and subsequent actions. And that strikes me as influenced by Christianity, don't you?

  • drsteeve

    “Though then why are we so concerned about racial and immigration issues?”

    Because real-life is different than the hero myth; in real life, immigration problems (of the kind we are facing now) lead to disorderly conduct, abusive working conditions, and sometimes death. In the hero myth we have purposefully contrived worlds where we are free to employ the deus ex machina without worrying that this new character will bring a flood of a million more like him and burden a system not designed to handle so many living outside the oversight of law and justice.

    “Someone who will tell us how to save ourselves but let us have freedom in that choice and subsequent actions. And that strikes me as influenced by Christianity, don't you?”

    I suppose that depends who you are speaking with. I think most in the Reformed camp, for example, would argue that we cannot and do not save ourselves in any way, shape, or form. Personally, I'm inclined to agree with you that, at some point, we are responsible for our own sanctification and for our decision to come to Christ. I believe in a God that works with human free will.

    Have you brought this idea up in class? What do others think of it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    For the record, all Reformed confessions would affirm that sanctification is a synergistic process (man and God work together). Only the initial act of regeneration (transforming a person's heart so that they are able to will and to work toward sanctification) is monergistic (of God alone).

    “In the hero myth we have purposefully contrived worlds where we are free to employ the deus ex machina without worrying that this new character will bring a flood of a million more like him and burden a system not designed to handle so many living outside the oversight of law and justice.”

    I think the strong identification with (or even longing for) this kind of hero myth is most certainly a result of Christianity. The “real life” story you just described, where the deus ex machina ends up doing more harm than good, is just the sort of story I would expect the ancient Greeks to tell.

  • daniellehowe

    I think the strange visitor can be “typically” anything. I mean, we can think of the strange visitors Zeus and Hermes coming in human form to a city and visiting the people there. Later, Paul and Timothy are mistaken for being those two. In Plato's Sophist (our metathon book for the semester) the Eleadic Visitor is the hero of the story, not Socrates, and although its a difficult book to interpret, I think the Visitor is a sort of savior (philosopher). Also, for 2/3 of the epic, Odysseus IS the strange visitor to many different places. Although “strange visitors” can be invaders, I think there are an equal number of stories where the visitor is a god, or at least welcome.

    The story of the strange visitor is not unique to American Culture by any stretch–though it may be particularly resonate with both Americans and Christians because our cultural traditions are steeped in the story of strange visitors (Christ, immigrants, etc).

    I also do think that sanctification (I mean this broadly in a “becoming a better person” sort of way) often requires an outside force, be it God, another person or event. Growth and change need a catalyst.

  • drsteeve

    Haha! I figured that little shot would draw you out of your bat cave!

    Ok, but seriously, per a conversation we recently had around a firepit, I seem to remember a couple of very convinced reformed theologians arguing that we were only capable of doing any good because Christ would dispense the grace to us that enabled us to do good. Batman and Superman, on the other hand, rid the world of crime so that people can do good for themselves.

    Not to niggle, but the distinction is important. In the reformed tradition, man inescapably does evil unless God grants him the grace to do good. However, the Batman/Superman tradition sounds a great deal more like the kind of mainstream evangelical thinking that argues that people essentially have free wills, that they choose between doing good and evil, and that God creates opportunity for us to do good by extending His hand of salvation and also keeping Satan and his forces at bay. Am I missing something in the synergy here?

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Well, first, Batman and Superman do what others cannot do precisely because they cannot do it for themselves. Certainly there is an element of moral example as well (“What Would Superman Do?”), but no thinking Christian can reduce Christianity and the work of Christ to WWJD. Abelard tried it. Anselm won.

    Second, you're using God and Christ interchangeably in, I think, an inappropriate way (in this context). The only reason any human being does good, post-Fall, is the grace of God. And yes, included in that is God's restraining of evil and opening up of opportunities to do good. And this is all synergistic. But this is God the Creator and Sustainer of reality (God qua God), not the incarnate Son. Batman and Superman are not analogies of God per se, but of the Incarnate Savior, Jesus Christ. And in purely human terms, Jesus came to do a work on our behalf that we could not do for ourselves (just as Superman and Batman fight villains that us ordinary folk cannot). And in the process Jesus sets us free from bondage to sin, thereby allowing us to respond to His sacrifice in gratitude with good works.

    In other words, whether you're Reformed or not, the analogy between Superman and Christ holds perfectly well in terms of His human nature. Superman is “human” in a sense, but he is enabled to do what ordinary humans cannot do by his super powers, just as Christ is able to do what ordinary humans cannot do by His divine nature.

    Am I missing your question?

  • drsteeve

    Ok, so wait, I think I hear ya here. So, you've got Christ God and the God God and it's Christ God who keeps the villains away but it's God God who does the work of empowering people to be good. So God God is like Christ God's assistant in that way – he's like Robin or something.

  • drsteeve

    P.S. I know I'm going to hell for that analogy :p

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    I guess the point is just that Superman saves people and Christ saves people and neither of them coerces anyone to be saved, so I think John's point stands as it is whether you're Reformed or not. The difference between superheros and Christianity is that Christianity actually deals with the power of God to change hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Superheros don't have the ability to affect people's inner lives the way the Holy Spirit does.

  • jenniferjohnsmom

    After a little visit to Wiki I learned some interesting things about PL Travers. And the Disney film took longer than expected to make because she did not like the screen play adaptation. (Disneyification) I read MP and the sequel numerous times in my childhood and never liked the movie as much as the book. There was no slow moving penguin scene in the book. So where do MP's magical powers come from? And in the culture of the early 1900's birthing a child was necessary to preserve genetic purity, but raising one's offspring was not necessary. Think Darwin, survival of the fittest, boarding schools, tutors, etc. And think British royalty to understand that cultural context. So MP is not really a savior as a she causes a conflict with the accepted cultural norms, well maybe that is what a savior does??