Growing up as an evangelical, I learned early on that C.S. Lewis solves almost anything.
As a young volunteer youth pastor, I wanted to take the students to go see The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings. My older pastor was a bit skeptical.
“Isn’t that the story with wizards and magic?” he asked. “Yes,” I countered, “but it was written by J.R.R. Tolkien, who led C.S. Lewis to Christ.” Needless to say, I took the youth group to see the movie.
Were I still in student ministry today, I could see myself having a similar conversation about Doctor Strange with a pastor today. Isn’t it about sorcery and magic? Yes, but C.S. Lewis would appreciate the movie.
Lewis had an affinity for mythologies and belief systems beyond Christianity because he saw them as partially true and as potential roads to discuss the True Myth, as he referred to Christianity. Paganism wasn’t completely true, but it was more true than materialism, which completely denied the existence of the spiritual.
Doctor Strange is not orthodox Christianity, but it does open up the movie viewer to worlds beyond our own and that, as Lewis recognized, is a worthy thing. Narnia remains the wardrobe through which Christians can enter into other works and worlds of fantasy.
The Secular Surgeon Becomes the Sorcerer Supreme
In a Marvel Cinematic Universe that has so far been limited to stretching the material world as far as possible through space and dimensions, Doctor Strange removes the barriers of time and the material world to demonstrate the true depth of the universe.
The film’s embrace of the spiritual and acknowledgement of the limits of science create a world that C.S. Lewis would have appreciated as it encourages audiences to ask questions about their own existence.
Dr. Stephen Strange may be one of the world best neurosurgeons, but he is a arrogant man convinced reality extends only as far as his senses.
After a car accident robs him of the skilled use of his hands, Strange spares no expense searching for some scientific or medical breakthrough that can restore the one thing that gives his life purpose and meaning.
But everything has come up empty until he travels to Nepal seeking one last possibility and encounters a mysterious person known as the Ancient One, who tries to push Strange to look beyond what he can see.
“You’re looking at the world through a keyhole,” she tells him. “You think you know how the world works; you think this material universe is all there is.”
Disgusted that his last hope now seems hopeless, Strange lashes out: “There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.”
Immediately and throughout the film, his materialist assumptions about the world are challenged and eventually conquered. Strange comes to recognize reality stretches far beyond his previous understanding.
Yet, he still has to learn the most difficult lesson at all. The one holding him back from being the person he needs to be: “It’s not about you.” While he relished yelling to the Ancient One that she was a “tiny, momentary speck,” he never turned that back toward himself.
Strange never wanted to expand his universe because that would make him all the smaller. He enjoyed seeing himself as big fish in a small, materialistic pond. Now that his world had expanded beyond what he could see, he had to realize his own limitations so he could sacrificial lead others.
Back Through the Wardrobe
Lewis had a soft spot for paganism. That may sound odd, but he appreciated the limited truth it contained and the space it made for the spiritual.
The pagan myths were attractive to Lewis and remained one of the reasons he rejected Christianity until that fateful late night stroll with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson down Addison’s Walk.
Lewis thought the similarities between Christianity and pagan myths—the dying and resurrecting god—were reasons to discount the Christian story. But Tolkien convinced him that one should expect to see the truth mirrored in other belief systems. Jesus was the True Myth.
For Lewis, the partially true myths provided a doorway to Christianity and served as an antidote to the materialistic secularism that was growing in prevalence even in his day.
In a letter expressing his worry over diminishing influence of Christianity in Europe, he wrote, “I would almost dare to say ‘First let us make the younger generation good pagans and afterwards let us make them Christians.’”
It is not that he wanted them to stop at paganism, but that he recognized those who grow up in a post-Christian environment often have to take several steps to come to Christ. Pre-Christian paganism served as an outreach tool to post-Christian skepticism.
Doctor Strange, co-written and directed by a Christian in Scott Derrickson, provides just such an opportunity to a generation raised on Tony Stark’s cynicism and technology.
Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Doctor Strange reorients it—quite an accomplishment for a movie that disorients time and space repeatedly.
Previously, everything could be explained by science. Even though Thor’s world seemed magic, the movies were clear to say that was just advanced technology. Doctor Strange does not allow that assumption to remain.
The wardrobe door has been opened and moviegoers are faced with a universe filled with the supernatural and spiritual. Like the pagan myths Lewis wanted people to recall, Doctor Strange encourages viewers to open their eyes to something beyond what they can see.
While Lewis never developed an affinity for movies, he did love great stories and appreciated those that could sneak truth past the watchful dragons.
On their walk more than 80 years ago, Lewis, Tolkien and Dyson talked about pagan myths becoming fact in Jesus. Could you not imagine a group of friends having a similar late night walk today with the comic book hero playing the role of mythology?
There is little chance Lewis ever saw a Doctor Strange comic book. Lewis died in November 1963, a few months after the Sorcerer Supreme debuted in Strange Tales 110 (July 1963).
But in a world consumed with the material and skeptical of anything else, Lewis and Strange become interesting allies, asking people to look through the keyhole and see how much bigger and grander life can be.