Legion: The Ineffectual Wrath of God

5 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

So I’m adding this film to the list of movie trailers I’m already sick of. Maybe I’ve seen one too many zombie movies, but the grandma-turned-carnivore (“It’ll all be over soon”) is more obnoxious than frightening.

Legion, directed by Scott Stewart, is yet another spiritually-themed film to hit theaters in recent weeks, coming on the heels of films like The Lovely Bones and The Book of Eli. I confess that I haven’t seen Legion, and really don’t plan to, if for no other reason than I doubt the film covers any ground that Constantine has not already tread.

Still, the film is intriguing in its conception: a once-loving God is now “mad at his children” and plans to destroy them. It is up to the “rebellious son” Michael to stop a legion of angels from destroying humanity, and to that end he enlists the help of a group of stragglers from a provincial town whose greatest landmarks are a diner and a gas station.

Which altogether prompts us to say a collective “Really?” Really? The wrath and power of God Himself is stayed by the hand of one angel and a ragtag pack of midwestern rednecks? Really?

The monster from Cloverfield was harder to take down than that.

In an interview with Fox News, one of the actors said that the film is “…[director] Scott Stewart’s interpretation of the way he sees the world and the way he sees certain verses in the Bible…It’s his opinion, he’s entitled to it. I was just happy to help him bring that vision to life, but that doesn’t mean I see it the way he sees it.”

Which pretty much sums it up: opinion-turned-theology-turned-film. Again, I realize that many are quick to run to the “it’s-only-a-movie” defense, but the reality is that film invariably reflects the values and ideas of certain segments of our culture.

The take-away from all this? God is weak, and far from loving. And this theology is not limited to Legion, but is made manifest in numerous cultural forms: God is “one of us,” to paraphrase Joan Osbourne, and on Family Guy God is often portrayed with the maturity of a frat boy. Something has happened to our conception of the Almighty, and I suspect that this has something to do with our conception of fatherhood.

FATHERHOOD: MODELS FOR GOD

Donald Miller writes of his own father, and how this influenced the way he came to see God:

“My father left my home when I was young, so when I was introduced to the concept of God as Father I imagined Him as a stiff, oily man who wanted to move into our house and share a bed with my mother. I can only remember this as a frightful and threatening idea. We were a poor family who attended a wealthy church, so I imagined God as a man who had a lot of money and drove a big car. At church they told us we were children of God, but I knew God’s family was better than mine, that He had a daughter who was a cheerleader and a son who played football. I was born with a small bladder so I wet the bed till I was ten and later developed a crush on the homecoming queen who was kind to me in a political sort of way, which is something she probably learned from her father, who was the president of a bank. And so from the beginning, the chasm that separated me from God was as deep as wealth and as wide as fashion.” (from Blue Like Jazz)

Television has moved from the loving antics on the Cosby show to the disconnected parenting of Everybody Loves Raymond. Fathers are portrayed as inept and uninvolved, and when we think of God as Father we increasingly picture a man more in line with Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin. Humorous satire? Sure. Healthy image of fatherhood? No, but a sadly accurate one.

Consider the film Fight Club, where Tyler Durden confronts Norton’s character over this very issue:

“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?…You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.”

For many, to speak of God as Father certainly conjures up images of an uninvolved, abusive or even absent person, one that many have grown to wholly resent.

REVERSING THE TREND

Throughout history many have tried to articulate God in terms of His intimacy and connectedness, the most recent (and far-reaching) is Schleiermacher’s emphasis on feeling and theology. Contemporary theology stresses that God is love. Angry? Psssh. Maybe in the Old Testament. But He’s gotten a lot more mature since then. Really.

The cure, it seems, is worse than the disease.

In Exodus 15, Moses describes God as a milechama, or “warrior God” or “God of war” (a far cry from the Mister Rogers-in-a-sweater-vest images most of us have grown up with). And, in contrast to the weak God of films like Legion, God is a God whose wrath must be dealt with. C.H. Dodd and many after him, have rightly defined “wrath” as the “impersonal, inevitable consequences of sin” (quoted from Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement).

As N. T. Wright puts it:

“Paul’s whole theology, not least the expression of it in Romans, is grounded in the robust and scripturally rooted view that the creator is neither a tyrannical despot nor an indulgent, laissez- faire absentee landlord, nor yet, for that matter, the mere inner or spiritual dimension of all that is. God is the creator and lover of the world. This God has a passionate concern for creation, and humans in particular, that will tolerate nothing less than the best for them….The result is ‘wrath’ – not just a settled attitude of hostility toward idolatry and immorality, but actions that follow from such an attitude when the one to whom it belongs is the sovereign creator.” (N. T. Wright, “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible)

Scot McKnight recalls a story of one of his professors: “God, he gesticulated, is either loving holiness or holy love, but God is not dualistic in his attributes.” McKnight later quotes Paul Fiddes, an Oxford theologian:

“There is no conflict in God. In His love God passionately desires to bring all humankind into fellowship with Himself. In His justice God underwrites the consequences of sin, though (as the Old Testament prophets make clear) He does so with an agony in His heart.” (Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation)

The wrath of God is a good thing. It means God’s paying attention, and it means that we may hold fast to the hope of future, restorative justice. But we may also hold fast to the mercy of God, and it is only through the cross that ruined sinners are reclaimed.

VIEWING LEGION THROUGH THE LENS OF MARK

Mark’s gospel is unique in its depiction of the clash between Jesus and the forces of evil, depicting Jesus’ victory over the forces of darkness as routine (i.e., in the form of exorcism: cf. Mk 1:25-26, 32-24; 3:11-12). Though said to be tempted by Satan (1:13), He claims to one day defeat him (3:27). Jesus gives Himself as a ransom (10:45), and it is at the cross where evil is dealt with, prompting the confession of the centurion that Christ was “the Son of God” (15:39). The resurrection represents Christ’s victory over death (16:1-8; cf. 8:31), though an event met with “fear and trembling” by those closest to Him.

All this is a far cry from the shallow, movie-driven theology of films like Legion. The movie depicts good-versus-evil in the context of an epic battle; Mark depicts this struggle as ending at Golgotha where Christ was slain.

For us this means we take seriously the wrath of God, but also in a love whose depth is measured in the scars of the Savior. We may therefore place our trust in the reconciling work of Christ, in a redemptive story far more powerful than celluloid could ever deliver.

5 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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