Doctor Strange is casting its lucrative spell on the box office. It’s Marvel’s latest successful introduction of a character whom only really “inside baseball” comic book fans likely even knew existed. And in translating the mystical story of Dr. Stephen Strange to the big screen, director Scott Derrickson has managed to do something paradoxically compelling: He’s used Doctor Strange’s Eastern mystical roots to hint at a deeply Christian perspective on reality.
My colleague Paul Asay has already done a fine job describing many of this film’s spiritual themes in his Plugged In review, in a vodcast he did with Jake Roberson which’ll be posted tomorrow, and in his Patheos blog “Doctor Strange Is the Most Religious Superhero Movie Ever.” Even though Paul’s thoroughly addressed Doctor Strange’s spiritual themes, after seeing the film last weekend with my wife I felt compelled to weigh in, too.
As Paul noted in his review, Doctor Strange is hardly a Christian movie. Indeed, it’s steeped in spells, vaguely Buddhist imagery and ideas about our existence (such as astral projection, for instance) that are decidedly at odds with orthodox Christian theology.
But—and this is a big but—I felt that Derrickson was doing something pretty interesting and very much in harmony with a Christian worldview if we dig just a bit deeper.
When we first meet him, renowned surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange is an arch-materialist. By that, I mean he gives no credence whatsoever to the possibility of a spiritual world. What we see is what we get. End of story.
But as Strange searches desperately for someone to heal his shattered, shaking surgeon’s hands after a devastating car accident, he finds a sage called the Ancient One who challenges that naturalistic narrative. Just as Morpheus asked Neo in The Matrix, “What is real?”, so the Ancient One offers a similar assessment of reality’s hidden layers:
You think you know how the world works. You think that this material universe is all there is. What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts shape reality. This universe is only one of an infinite number—worlds without end. Some, benevolent and life-giving, others dark places filled with malice and hunger.
In the end, the Ancient One reveals that the Earth has been under the constant threat of spiritual assault, a threat the vast majority of humans aren’t even aware of. The Ancient One says that she and a handful of likeminded masters of the mystic arts are all that stand in the way of humanity’s destruction from dark spiritual forces.
Now, if that sounds familiar, it’s because the Apostle Paul posits something very similar—broadly speaking—in his letter to the church at Ephesus. He says that even though we can’t see it, a spiritual battle rages all around us between the demonic forces of Satan and God’s people (as well as God’s angels, we learn elsewhere in Scripture). Paul writes,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication (Ephesians 6:10-18a ESV).
Paul understood that there’s an unseen spiritual enemy lurking. But instead of spells and astral battles, he counsels us to resist it through prayer and to faithfully appropriate the resources God has given us to stand against the Devil’s schemes: truth, righteousness, faith, peace and the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ, all of which we learn about and are reminded of again and again by reading and meditating upon Scripture.
Now, Derrickson, a Christian himself, may or may not have had this passage in mind when crafting Doctor Strange. But he definitely wanted to suggest the possibility of another spiritual reality. In a recent interview with Relevant, he said of how his faith informs his storytelling,
In this age where the word ‘Christian’ conjures up angry, vocal, closed-minded Christians and the word ‘atheist’ conjures up images of angry, closed-minded atheists and all of these terms just become fighting words. I really liked the idea that the comics and the movie therefore could just be a third thing where we’re talking about magic and we’re talking about mysticism and we’re talking about possibilities and other realities and places where we all know religious ideas and scientific ideas overlap, even though we’re not really playing with either in this movie.
Personally, Derrickson’s narrative approach resonates with me. He’s not told a Christian story, per se. But I think he has crafted one that could easily open the door to significant spiritual conversations about the nature of reality and whether or not there’s a bigger, unseen spiritual reality that we need to ponder.
I realize that there are some who won’t be comfortable using this film’s Eastern spiritual ideas as a springboard to talking about a Christian worldview. And, indeed, we always have to be wise when it comes to the creeping allure of syncretism and relativism.
That said, I think Doctor Strange does offer—more than any film I can think of recently—a ready-made opportunity for spiritual dialogue with friends who may not share our perspective on reality.