The Gospel and the Avengers


What has Asgard to do with the Gospel?
OK, I admit it. I’m a bit of a geek. Not as much as some people I know, but I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and lately I’ve gotten into the Marvel Comics Universe via the Avengers movies. But I’m also a historian, a mythology buff, and a worldview thinker. From those perspectives, even popcorn movies like the Marvel series raise a number of worldview issues and demonstrate the impact of Christianity in shaping our ideas of heroism and virtue whether Stan Lee and the Marvel writers realize it or not.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

Consider Thor (2011). The cosmology and the characters in the comics were inspired by Norse mythology. In the movie, Asgard and Jotunheim are other “realms” which exist in a relationship with Earth but which are inhabited by powerful non-human beings. The Jotuns, or Frost Giants, are malevolent, while the Asgardians are the defenders of the Nine Realms, including Earth. In an earlier war, Odin, the leader of the Asgardians, defeated the Jotuns and saved Earth, with the result that the Norse thought of them as gods.

Centuries later, a raid by the Jotuns on Asgard leads Thor, Odin’s son, to want to attack Jotunheim to teach them a lesson so they would never dare to attack Asgard again; Odin refuses, saying there was no real harm done in the raid. Thor and some friends go to Jotunheim anyway, triggering a war with the Frost Giants. Odin saves them but was furious at Thor for his arrogance, vanity, greed, and bloodthirstiness. Odin thus strips him of his power and exiles him to Earth. He only regains his power when he learns humility, responsibility, and self-sacrifice, and demonstrates his reformed character by laying down his life for his friends.

Ancient values versus their modern incarnations
What is most remarkable about this plot is the contrast with the Norse mythology that inspired it. In the original, Odin was a war god. He instigated wars and used his Valkyries, beautiful warrior maidens, to influence their outcome. The Valkyries also gathered the slain warriors to Valhalla, where they spent their days fighting and their nights drinking in preparation for Ragnarok, the battle at the end of the world.  Worshippers of Odin routinely offered him human and animal sacrifices, with the victims hung on a tree.

To depict Odin as reluctant to go to war is thus absurd, as is the idea that he would punish Thor for responding with violence to an incursion into Asgard by Frost Giants. In the myths, that was almost Thor’s job description as one of the principal defenders of Asgard.

Similarly, the pride and arrogance of Thor in the beginning of the movie is typical of the values of Norse culture and was expected of any self-respecting hero. Anything less would have been perceived as weakness. Humility was the proper attitude of thralls (slaves), not warriors or gods! The idea that Thor would need to repent of pride, arrogance, and violence would have been unintelligible to the Vikings.

These ideas were not confined to the Norse. The word “hero” comes from a Greek word that means a warrior who is especially good at killing people in battle. Read Homer or any ancient heroic literature, and even earlier medieval examples like the Song of Roland, and you will recognize the same values you see in Norse culture. They were simply what was expected in the warrior cultures of the past.

Yet today, we find these attitudes repugnant. Pride, arrogance, and bloodlust are things we expect in villains, not in heroes. This is no small thing: it is in fact a massive shift in culture. How did this happen?

Christianity arrived.

Christianity triumphs over Asgard
Christian values could not be more different from the values of the ancient world. Over and over again, Scripture tells us that God supports the humble but opposes the proud. Jesus himself humbled himself even to become human, and although perfectly innocent, he submitted to a kangaroo court to be tortured and killed on behalf of people who were his enemies. He did not threaten or retaliate even though he had all the hosts of Heaven available to Him. And he told us we need to take up our cross and follow him.

Jesus taught that the meek inherit the Earth, that we are not to retaliate when we are abused, that we are to love and serve our neighbors and even our enemies, that we are to turn the left cheek to those who strike us on the right. Likewise, the Apostle Paul told us that we need to follow Jesus’ example of humility (Phil. 2:5-11), and John told us that like Jesus, we need to lay down our lives for our brothers (1 John 3:16).

In other words, what Jesus and the Church taught was diametrically opposed to the values of the world, which is one reason why the Romans saw Christianity as a religion for women, slaves, and the weak.

Yet as Christians were martyred in the sporadic persecutions that came up in the Roman Empire, the Romans could not help but take note of their courage and fortitude in the face of humiliation, pain, and death. They also could not fail to notice their lives of sacrificial service to others in epidemics, as well as all the social good performed by Christians individually and by local churches.

In time, opposition to Christianity collapsed. Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, and then in AD 380 Theodosius made it the official religion of the Empire. As the Western half of the Empire broke apart, the various states that emerged eventually adopted Christianity as their religion as well.

A slow transformation of ideals
But just because a religion is “official” does not mean its tenets are practiced or that it immediately changes the way people think and behave. It took centuries for Christianity to have a noticeable effect on people’s attitudes and mindset. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to leaven in a lump of dough that gradually permeates the whole lump; in the same way, the Gospel was leaven in society that gradually changed and shaped the culture into something new and different.

It took until around the twelfth century for Christianity to begin having a substantial influence on the ethos of the warrior classes. The process was long, slow, and complicated, and in many ways was honored more in word than in deed, but gradually a new concept of heroism emerged built more around ideas of self-sacrifice and service to others than prowess in battle. Pride was defined as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and humility emerged as a new virtue.

This does not mean, of course, absolute pacifism. Just War Theory, codified by Augustine and further developed by Aquinas, provided a rationale for participation in war under strict moral guidelines, and the chivalric ethos emphasized using might to protect women and the weak. Ideals of revenge were transformed into fighting for justice. So there remained a place for war and prowess, but never out of ego and always tied to protecting and serving others.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. These ideas and ideals have become deeply embedded in our thinking, so much so that Marvel Comics knew instinctively that they could not portray Thor as he was in Norse mythology and have anyone see him as a good guy. For story purposes, he may start there, but he had to undergo the same transformation that Western civilization has gone through with the leaven of Christianity.

In many ways, Thor shows us the triumph of Christianity in shaping the moral imagination of the culture.

Next Steps

Why not attend or rent one of the recent movies in the Avengers genre: Thor, one of the Iron Man trilogy, the current Captain America movie, and others. Go with a friend; afterwards have a discussion about what values are portrayed in the heroes. How do they compare with what Glenn says above regarding ancient hero virtues?


Further Reading: If mythology grabs your inner geek, why not purchase The Dictionary of Classic Mythology by Pierre Grimal, from the Colson Center Online Bookstore. And if film criticism—especially knowing how to view films from a Christian worldview—is of interest, read “Film and the Christian” in the Colson Center Library.

(1 Pet. 3:15).


Republished from March 5, 2010

Next Steps

Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends.



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