Benjamin A. Plotinsky, managing editor of City Journal, has written a 4,000-word essay on Christian themes in science fiction. An editor at a respected journal gives serious attention to a theme otherwise restricted to fan sites -- normally this would be cause enough for rejoicing among the editors of GetReligion.
What's disappointing about Plotinsky's essay is his tendency to see any allusions to Christ -- whether his virgin birth, his crucifixion or his resurrection -- as central to a film's message. So, for instance, comes this paragraph that combines a plot narrative from Superman with biblical proof texts:
"You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior," Superman himself tells Lois, "but every day I hear people crying for one." Isaiah 19:20: "When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior." Later, as Superman tries to save the world from Luthor, the villain plunges a Kryptonite dagger into his side. John 19:34: "One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear." And then, after saving the day by hurling Luthor's death machine -- a rapidly expanding new continent that threatens to destroy the United States -- into outer space, a poisoned and exhausted Superman plummets to earth, his arms outspread at right angles to his body and legs, a crucified figure lacking only a cross. He remains in a coma until his son (Lois Lane is the unwed mother in this updated Superman: don't ask) restores him to life. He leaves his hospital room empty until a nurse discovers it, just as Mary and Mary Magdalene find Jesus's empty tomb.
Plotinsky discusses the Matrix series without once mentioning the concept of gnosticism. He's aware of Joseph Campbell's importance in shaping the Star Wars story arc, but he seems unaware of pantheism or panentheism. He describes Star Trek, which Gene Rodenberry happily connected to a secular utopianism, as primarily a story of the Cold War.
Plotinsky's essay will be great fodder for people who see biblical themes between the lines of almost any screenplay or who believe that God speaks directly through any well-made film. What it lacks is an informed vocabulary to describe how non-Christian filmmakers borrow Christian imagery -- sometimes elegantly, sometimes awkwardly -- to spread non-Christian messages. Such writing does justice neither to Christians nor to non-Christians.