159: Please Help Us Explore the Spiritual Nuts, Bolts and Metanoia of “Iron Man”

(from the Greek for changing one’s mind, repentance)

    “If people are looking for spiritual themes in the story of Tony Stark becoming ‘Iron Man,’ they’ll especially want to think about metanoia. The Greek is often translated as repentance, but it’s really the whole idea of changing who we are and turning toward something else. Iron Man is one of the best examples in the whole superhero genre of a certain kind of person — who then decides that he doesn’t want to be that kind of person anymore.
    “Instead of living his life as a philandering playboy, Tony Stark turns into someone who may still pretend to be a philandering playboy — but he recognizes that this isn’t the person he’s supposed to be in life. And he turns himself into a heroic figure who really wants to do something to help the world.”
    That’s one of the movie-going tips today from Greg Garrett, a leading expert on faith and film and superheroes.
    Greg is an extremely busy guy right now!

    Last week was Passover. Thursday was the National Day of Prayer. Now, this weekend, we’ve reached a uniquely American observance: It’s opening weekend in what Hollywood considers the summer movie season. And the first blockbuster out of the box, today, is a superhero saga that’s got countless Americans speculating on spiritual connections.
    Of course, we’re also expecting some pulse-pounding special effects — and perhaps a performance by actor Robert Downey Jr. that will justify all the hype about this challenging role finally turning around his often self-destructive life.
    What more could one ask for this weekend? Good popcorn, too?

    All week, we’ve been exploring the timeless themes of Salvation, Resurrection and Heaven. We leaped from the popular to the profound — from Tuesday’s quiz exploring the origins of superheroes to Wednesday’s in-depth interview with best-selling Bible scholar N.T. Wright.
    Now that we’ve turned back, today, to superheroes and cinema, you may be wondering how many people are thinking of spiritual themes in a blockbuster like “Iron Man.”
    “A lot of people are asking about this movie. I’ve been doing lots of interviews,” Greg told me, when I called him a couple of days ago. “I’ve been doing a lot of media especially in England. Then, I’m going over there on May 12 to tape a BBC Radio interview. It’s all connected to my ‘Holy Superheroes!’ book.”
    I asked Greg, “So, what kinds of questions are British journalists raising?”
    He said, “They’re looking at a theme that I think may zip right over the heads of most Americans going to see the film. The main character, Tony Stark, is an arms dealer and he wants to turn his life around. In England, I am asked about how closely this story parallels American adventures in the Middle East. Many people overseas see America as the world’s arms dealer.”

    I asked Greg to share with us several tips for spiritually discerning movie-going this weekend.
    He cautioned that his comments, before opening day, are not based on a preview of the film. He’ll see it this weekend, along with many of us. But he has been closely watching all the news about the movie, both in print and online. Plus, he’s been following the decades-long saga of “Iron Man” in comic books.
    He gives us three tips, below.
    Then, after you read his comments, please — we’re eager for you to tell us what you think! Please, shoot us an Email or click on the “Comment” link at the end of today’s story, if you get a chance to see the movie this weekend! Or, if you’re simply throwing up your hands and have strong feelings about avoiding such a movie — let us know that, too.

    Here are the three themes Greg’s going to be watching for this weekend:

    “No. 1, look at this whole question of metanoia, redemption.
    “I’ve also been doing a lot of teaching about Harry Potter recently. One of the things in the foreground of the Harry Potter novels is the idea that we are capable of both good and evil — and the choices we make determine what kind of person we are.
    “Tony Stark is an arms dealer, a merchant of death really — but when he first appeared in comic books, many years ago, he was fighting the Communists back then and that issue of what he did for a living didn’t matter that much in that era. But now when Tony Stark goes from trying to invent things to kill people — to trying to invent things that preserve life — that’s a dynamic turn around.
    “This is the idea we find over and over again in the Christian tradition that no one is beyond redemption. We all are capable of making that turn and doing what is right.

    “No. 2, I love the resurrection angle that you came up with in your approach this week in your articles. Tony Stark is a person who essentially becomes a brand new creation. In the Christian tradition, Paul says we become new creations. We’re no longer what we once were.
    “Because Iron Man wears this gleaming red-and-gold armor, many times people have made a connection between Iron Man and the medieval knights and preserving the past. I think that connection is there, too, but I like thinking about this whole story of rebirth that Iron Man represents for Tony Stark.

    “No. 3 is the cultural angle. How do we think about ourselves and our role in the world? This is a movie that’s coming out after we’ve been involved in a long, arduous and expensive war for more than five years — a war that’s largely been fought with technology. And it’s interesting to see what kind of connection through popular culture people might start making with the state of who we are as America today. What might this story tell us about who we are in the world today?
    “Popular culture can warn us about what we’re doing in the world. It can play an important role. And I’m going to be interested to see how popular culture might actually help us to refocus our thinking.
    “Tony Stark turns away from using his technology purely for his own benefit and to kill other people. But, there are other people in the movie who don’t make that same decision. How do we feel about that?”

    FINALLY, Greg left us with one last tip.

    This week, here at ReadTheSpirit, we made a strong connection between themes about resurrection and new life in “Iron Man” and in N.T. Wright’s new book — and Greg said he’s made the same connection himself.
    “I think that Wright’s ‘Surprised by Hope’ is a wonderful and very challenging book,” Greg said. “I grew up in a very conservative, literal Christian tradition and there are people in my family who would not want to follow the argument he’s making in this book, because it would be too challenging for them. But I find a lot in this new book that’s really convincing.
    “I’m doing a four-week class on Harry Potter. And, in the last week on Harry Potter, I talk about the end of things — moving to those moments in the final Harry Potter book that are the final things in the novels. And I keep emphasizing this idea from the novels that people need to make the right choices. I’m using Wright’s book in that class.
    “The important thing is to realize that the kingdom of God doesn’t come into the world on its own. As Wright says: We are called to usher it into being.”

    Wow! Lots of big themes to think about!
    And the summer’s first, great-big blockbuster opens this weekend, too.

    Please — tell us what you think.

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