There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.167-8)
Since the release of Marvel Studios’ Iron Man (2008), the first installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this decade-spanning series of feature films has been rooted solidly in the material world, albeit with a generous dose of the fantastical. Even Thor (2011), which discloses Asgard and its inhabitants to be the “real-life” basis of the Norse pantheon, still remains rooted in the visible world. This naturalistic streak continued for eight years until the arrival of the Eastern mysticism-infused Doctor Strange (2016), starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Doctor Strange director and co-writer Scott Derrickson has taken great care to preserve the Eastern mystical trappings present in the original Dr. Strange comics (his character was first unveiled in 1963) . On the surface, it seems… strange that Derrickson, a Biola University graduate and committed Christian, would tackle bringing not only the titular magic-wielding character to life on the big screen but its Eastern mystical paradigm as well. However, given Derrickson’s track record of making movies featuring spiritual themes—beginning with Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) and continuing on with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Sinister (2012), Deliver Us from Evil (2014), and Sinister 2 (2015)—perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised.
Derrickson takes pains to subtly weave key Christian tenets into Dr. Strange’s origin story, which depicts the severely injured neurosurgeon’s eventual discovery that the material universe is not all there is, and even portrays Strange as a type of Christ in the film’s conclusion. Of course, this worldview flies in the face of claims made by some famous scientists, like Carl Sagan and Larry Krauss, who—using their own leaps of faith—declare that science undergirds their metaphysical paradigm of godless naturalism. Strange’s own words early in the movie reflect Sagan and Krauss’s worldview: “There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. … We are just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” The influence of Derrickson’s Christianity is not heavy-handed, but the discerning believer should find affinity with a number of key moments throughout Strange’s spiritual journey.
Silencing the Self
At the beginning of Strange’s journey, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) identifies Strange’s ego as the biggest obstacle to overcoming the debilitating physical injuries to his scalpel-wielding hands. Gradually guiding Strange into a realization that “not everything is about us,” the Ancient One instructs Strange that “if we silence our ego,” a different power can work in and through us. “You cannot beat a river into submission,” the Ancient One observes. “You have to surrender to its current and use its power as your own.” There are parallels here to what the Apostle Paul said to the Philippians, admonishing them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4, ESV).
Later in the chapter (v. 13), Paul reminds believers “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Paul’s teaching is, of course, nothing more than an extension of Jesus’s own words: “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). Silencing the ego, the Ancient One demonstrates, results in an increase of power, and when conducted in tandem with changing one’s reaction to life’s obstacles, Strange learns “to give up control to gain it,” becoming empowered to serve something greater than himself—something non-material.
Surrendering to the Spirit
Derrickson also deftly handles the ever-present war within ourselves. As the Apostle Paul observes: “I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Rom 7:25b). Elaborating on this truth, Paul reminds the church in Rome of a core element of the Gospel: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. … If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:9a, 11).
As Strange continues his self-emptying journey and learns to rise above his physical limitations, he also becomes increasingly aware of two warring kingdoms. Pursuit of one of these kingdoms prompts Dormammu’s followers—most prominently the “apostate” Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen)—to murder in his misguided quest for the Dark One’s promise of “life everlasting” (cf. Satan’s promise in Gen 3:4). Strange, in response to Kaecelius’s tempting offer to join him, retorts, “The Dark One had you kill. How good can his kingdom be?” Strange’s response recalls Jesus’ identification of Satan as a murderer (John 8:44b) and his encouragement in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) to seek a kingdom characterized by selfless love for others, not violence.
Victory Through Death
[SPOILER ALERT] Strange’s self-sacrificial act(s) at the movie’s climax—a genuine, albeit clever, gambit—highlights Strange’s Christ-likeness as he, moved by an authentic desire to put all others before himself, willingly makes the ultimate sacrifice to achieve mastery over the Dark One. Like Strange, we are called by Jesus to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24b, 25).
Elaborating on this concept, Paul advises the church at Colossae to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” and “put off the old self with its practices and … put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:5a, 9b, 10). Strange does exactly this in the course of spiritual discovery, “putting to death” his metaphorical old self as Jesus and Paul instruct us, and even choosing, as Jesus did, literal death in pursuit of a life-giving “kingdom” very much unlike the one Dormammu promised.
Film as Theology
While we should not presume that Derrickson’s version of Strange will wax eloquent on Pauline theology or wear a cross-shaped talisman in future Doctor Strange sequels, Derrickson’s good doctor will likely continue underscoring certain Christian principles—including those shared by Eastern mystical belief systems—as his journey within the spiritual realm continues.
As we enter the season of Advent, may the discerning moviegoer consider the Ancient One’s questions: “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.” For those of us who have come to recognize the Word as the “root of all existence” (cf. John 1:3; Col 1:15-20), the God-man, Jesus, serves as the perfect example of what humanity can truly be when the “mind of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor 2:16) and the matter of our flesh meet, allowing us to express the love of God into the lives of others.
For those readers who are still seeking answers to these questions, we at BioLogos encourage you to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Listen to and contemplate the words of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29). God is spirit (John 4:24a), and we, as His image-bearers (Gen 1:27), are—especially when we die to ourselves—more than just the sum of our physical parts. We are not, as Strange once believed, “just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”