Christians love depicting themselves as pop-culture heroes, because they know the position they actually occupy in society is less flattering.
If you could use a laugh, try this YouTube video by Jenny Nicholson. It concerns a peculiar evangelical church in Winnipeg, Canada:
Every year, the church stages an Easter musical that mashes up the Passion story with a famous piece of pop culture. The plots, such as they are, are thinly-disguised excuses to have actors playing celebrities and superheroes quote bible verses and sing pop songs with the lyrics changed to be about Christianity. In each one, the hero is killed (usually through crucifixion, but not always) and returns to life, which wraps up the plot and resolves all the conflicts somehow. Considerable sums of money and non-negligible talent go into these deeply silly productions.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, here’s their 2009 production of a Jesus-themed Pirates of the Caribbean, starring “Captain Jack Savior”:
Or their take on Marvel’s Avengers:
Yes, they make an awkward attempt to deal with the fact that one of the Avengers is a pagan Norse god. Starring in a Christian play.
You have to wonder what gave them the idea to do this. I assume they want to make the Christian message seem exciting and relevant by mapping it onto modern blockbusters. (Look, kids, Jesus is just as cool as Star Wars or Harry Potter!)
However, don’t they think it’s theologically dangerous to suggest that Jesus was just like every other pop culture hero? Aren’t they concerned that kids will take away the wrong message?
I mean, when you stage a musical where Batman is crucified on the Bat-Signal by the Joker, I feel like you couldn’t blame the youngest audience members if they get a little confused about who they should be praying to.
By jamming the biblical square peg into the round hole of pop culture, they’ve stripped out everything arguably unique about Jesus’ teachings. All we need to know about him, the church suggests, is that he was some guy who died and came back to life.
Sometimes the comparison makes a modicum of sense, like with their Star Wars homage (where Luke Skywalker is frozen in carbonite in lieu of crucifixion and then “busts out… like the Kool-Aid Man”, in Nicholson’s description). At least in that case, the power of love to overcome hate is a thematic element of the original.
More often, it makes no sense whatsoever and is just wedged in. Like in their Toy Story homage, where Buzz Lightyear is zapped with a laser gun and buried in the toy box for our sins. No, I’m not making this up.
Actually, none of this is new. It’s the latest, modern iteration of a long tradition of Christians grafting their beliefs onto whatever’s popular at the time. That’s how we got Christmas and Easter, as Christian-themed takeovers of existing pagan festivals.
Even the very earliest Christian writers tried to win legitimacy this way. The first-century apologist Justin Martyr, in trying to explain Christianity to the pagans, said: “We propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.” He compared Jesus to the Greco-Roman myths of demigods like Aesclepius, Hercules and Perseus, who were also said to have divine origins, miraculous births, superhuman powers, and resurrections from the dead.
These self-parodying pantomimes show how hungrily the evangelical church craves relevance. But more important, it shows how persecution fantasies are baked into Christian mythology. Even when they’re a hegemonic political power dictating how others should live their lives, they desperately want to be like the heroes we root for—scrappy underdogs fighting overwhelming odds. They know the position they actually occupy in society doesn’t make them seem attractive or sympathetic.