Friday, July 14, 2006

The Gospel according to Pirates of the Carribean

Interesting ideas on Christians engaging the culture from Dr. Marc T. Newman in Turning Movies from Monologue to Dialogue. Personally, I didn't care for the first Pirates film at all and, so, am rather luke-warm about the sequels. However, the idea that all art reflects the deep and abiding yearning for God's Gospel is fascinating.

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It was certainly a pleasure to be invited on Mr. O'Reilly's program -- he was very cordial to me. But the invitation, and the other reviews, point up the crucial need for Christians to enter the conversation about pop culture. First, because movies represent monologues that needs to be dialogues. Second, because all significant stories come back to the Christian story. And finally, Christians must engage because we are commanded to take every thought captive to Christ.

Dr. Newman's previous piece was called In Peril of Our Souls: Theological Considerations from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. In full ...

"Funny what a man will do to forestall final judgment." G.K. Chesterton? Soren Kierkegaard? Nope, Captain Jack Sparrow, bon vivant of the Black Pearl, desperate lover of his own hide, and armchair seminary professor in one of this summer's most explicitly theological action comedies. Okay, so there may not be too many theologically explicit action comedies this summer, but that does not undercut the surprising opportunity posed by Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest to discuss the state of your soul.

C.S. Lewis commented in Reflections on the Psalms that "A little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be. (In my own experience, the funniest things have occurred in the gravest and most sincere conversations.)" The converse is true as well; humor can be a fertile environment for the discussion of serious issues that might not be admitted otherwise. Laughter is an ideological lubricant.

The second of a three-part story, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest doesn't provide all the answers (it must be saving them for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End due out next May), but it does ask some intriguing questions. Following in the footsteps of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which focused on the disintegrating sin of greed, and the need for a blood sacrifice to atone for it, this installment examines the value of the soul. It does so by making sure that all of its main characters imperil theirs. But it also suggests that saving those souls requires sacrifice -- and that is important, for there will someday be a reckoning.

Souls Are Valuable
What makes all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films stand out from your average swashbuckler is that these movies are not primarily concerned with treasure maps and buried doubloons. As The Curse of the Black Pearl demonstrated, no amount of tainted gold is worth the soul-destroying effects of the curse. Dead Man's Chest never even pretends to be about the more mundane aspects of pirating. From the beginning of the film the story arc centers on souls as the most valuable trading commodity. As Pintel and Regetti, two of the pirates from the first film who were saved from ghastly immortality, are rowing for shore, Regetti tells his partner that now that they are mortal again, "We've got to take care of our immortal soul." Truer words you will not find spoken, even in more serious films.

Jesus taught His disciples that there was no possession on this Earth valuable enough to warrant risking your soul. He argued that there was no profit in gaining the world if your soul was the purchase price (Matt. 16:25-26). True worth resides in that which is eternal, not temporal. And when all is said and done, nothing material will make the final journey with you. Your soul will stand naked before God for judgment. It makes sense to take care of your soul.

Souls Can Be Foolishly Imperiled
There would not be much drama, however, if no one were in peril in a pirate film. There is plenty of swordplay, and a ship-crunching Kraken lurks in the deep, but such threats can only harm one's body. The real danger lies in risking one's soul. Dead Man's Chest demonstrates that many ways can lead to the soul's forfeit. Some characters literally sell their souls. Others wager them. Some are seduced by the hope of gain. But the most dangerous routes are the most subtle -- doing wrong in the interest of a right end.

Some people think that the idea of selling one's soul to the devil is a just a fictional device: think The Picture of Dorian Grey or Dr. Faustus. But the Bible is not silent on the subject. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan, the devil offered Christ the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refused, but many humans have succumbed to that temptation, selling themselves much cheaper. The Screwtape Letters, Lewis' primer on demonic strategy, details a host of approaches to destroying the souls of humankind. There are a million ways to fall, but only one way to stand.

Souls Are Worth Sacrifice
And some in Dead Man's Chest try their best to stand, even when opposition is fierce and misery is in the offing in case of failure. One character, in particular, engages in heroic self-sacrifice, heedless of risk, to save a loved one from damnation. Viewers desperately cling to the idea that redemption will come to reward his offering, but this is only the second installment so it will have to wait, if it arrives at all.

Intuitively, however, viewers sense that sacrifice in service of the soul is worth it. When someone grasps the true value of the soul, and is intimately familiar with the incalculable horror associated with its loss, it is amazing the lengths to which they will go to save a loved one. The Apostle Paul understood the peril that faced his fellow Jews: "For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren ..." (Romans 9:3). Jesus sacrificed Himself, even when we were the enemies of God, to save us. Loving sacrifice resonates with film viewers because they wish they were brave enough to do it, and wish that someone would be willing to do it for them. Many do not know that Someone has.

Souls Will Face a Reckoning
Dead Man's Chest owes its pacing to the understanding that time is running out. This motif extends to Will and Elizabeth who are under a death sentence if they cannot procure from Captain Jack a certain item coveted by the East India Trading Company. Captain Jack has been marked with the Black Spot. Demonic Davy Jones and all his hordes are coming to collect their due. In the end no running will avail. The ravenous Kraken awaits like Davy Jones' Locker -- mouth agape.

The tension arising from Dead Man's Chest comes from the knowledge that the end, or at least someone's end, is near. The fact is that the end is coming for all of us. Souls will face a reckoning -- "it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). This uncomfortable thought is shunted aside by most as they move through their workaday lives. But films such as these bring repressed notions of the certainty of death and the accounting of your soul to the fore. They need only a little encouragement to coax them out for discussion.

We Have to Throw Out the Lifeline
I am not going to argue that all of the theology in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is orthodox. But even in its humor it treats the Bible respectfully and gives viewers impetus to consider their own souls. We cannot expect Hollywood to do the heavy lifting in matters theological. It is the responsibility of Christians to seize the opportunities presented in films like these and run their own ideas up the flagpole. Where the plot lines about the soul are provocative, we should explore them. When redemption is conspicuous mostly by its absence, Christians should fill in the blanks. The fun in the film can give way to the fundamentals of the faith if we are willing merely to use Dead Man's Chest as a launching ramp.