Vol 1, Num 2 :: 2002.09.27 — 2002.10.10
This article originally appeared in The Film Forum magazine.
The Theory “By the power of Grayskull!”
Shouting this simple phrase, Prince Adam would raise his sword to the sky and become enveloped with a mystical energy that would transform him from an ordinary muscle-bound nobleman into a muscle-bound nobleman without a shirt: He-Man.
As a prepubescent viewer of Masters of the Universe, I watched this scene at least once an episode without ever grasping the theological significance it holds. Now, as an older and wiser viewer of culture, I understand that He-Man is a metaphor for the evangelical Christian. For aren’t we, too, empowered by something greater than ourselves? Don’t we call upon the power of Grayskull—an obvious stand-in for Golgatha—to turn ourselves into strong warriors for the kingdom?
Yes, He-Man is a model for our spiritual walk. Take, for example, He-Man’s sidekick and mode of transportation, Battle Cat. While strong and ferocious in his transformed state, Battle Cat is normally the timid and frightened Cringer. This miraculous change would never happen if He-Man didn’t help his wary friend along; I doubt I have to spell out the “weaker brother” parallels for you.
What do the other characters in Masters of the Universe have to do with our spiritual lives? First, there are Teela and the Sorceress, the only women who inhabit Eternia. Historically, theologians have used this fact to support the idea that men are spiritually superior, but, as William F. Buckley has repeatedly insisted, the fact that the Sorceress is Eternia’s most powerful being counteracts this argument. Instead, Buckley says, the Sorceress and Teela exist to show that women of all types are important to the spiritual quest, both those who can turn into birds and those who cannot.
Second, there’s He-Man’s compatriot, Man-At-Arms, who displays to the insightful Christian that it’s OK to be extremely bland; God can still use you anyway. With his quiet, waiting-in-the-wings mentality, Man-At-Arms has helped many a believer get out of a rut of spiritual envy throughout the years. Consider also the importance of Man-E-Faces, the mutant who is alternately a human, a monster, and a robot. Clearly he is meant to help us empathize with the struggle of Christians who are occasionally monsters and robots.
The question is often raised as to the importance of Orko, the wacky, squeaky-voiced wizard. But I have to agree with the predominant assessment that his character was added to the show only for comic relief, and we can say with certainty that comic relief is not an important component of the Christian life.
Perhaps the deepest insights come from the ranks of Skeletor’s crew, traditionally known as the “bad guys” or “forces of evil.” It is easy to see how characters like Beast-Man and Mer-Man help this group become labeled this way; we all know that evil is hairy and has webbed feet. And Tri-Klops, who has three eyes but only two hands, is never able to follow the time-honored advice to “see no evil.”
But doesn’t Skeletor’s sword fit together with He-Man’s to form the Power Sword when they need to team up to defeat a common enemy? How could pure evil and pure good ever fit together? The only answer is that Skeletor isn’t really evil, he’s just another sojourner in Eternia, another person searching for the power of Grayskull, albeit incorrectly. Masters of the Universe is telling us that although we occasionally do battle with brothers of a different denomination, we must also be willing to put aside our differences to fight against a bigger, more powerful enemy by using the Power Sword—or, if you will, the Sword of the Spirit.
Two of Skeletor’s other henchmen support this viewpoint. Trap Jaw, who has a mechanical arm that can be outfitted with a claw, an axe, or a gun, is reminiscent of those denominations who use interchangeable doctrines to support whatever they believe to be true at one moment or another. But it is Faker, the henchman who looks just like He-Man but is colored sky blue, who calls us to reconciliation with these denominations. When we finally start looking at the other side as people, separate from the parties we come from, can’t we just see that they’re essentially the same as us, except light blue?
The Explanation Several weeks ago, my wife Amanda and I were talking about the TV shows we used to watch as kids, and we remembered that several of these shows, like Smurfs and Masters of the Universe, were supposedly occultic. “But,” I intoned in a deep, scholarly voice, “I have actually found He-Man to be very influential in my spiritual walk. For as He-Man had to call upon a higher power to receive strength, so must I call upon the Lord.”
Amanda continued for me: “And isn’t the power he calls upon, Grayskull, just a thinly veiled representation of Golgotha—or, if you will, Christ?”
While these connections are intriguing, at the center of the parody is a pertinent question, based on the idea that we can learn from anything in film that is truly human. A serious movie about a Christian, like The Apostle or Dead Man Walking, comes out once every couple years, so we can’t expect to learn much about our Christian walk directly from characters on the screen. Rather, we have to make parallels between their lives and our lives. We have to see the love of freedom that William Wallace had and learn to cherish our freedom in Christ. We need to take the selfless love that Forrest Gump showed to everyone around him and incorporate that into our own lives.
But the question rises: Can we take these parallels too far? If using He-Man as a spiritual model is absurd, is using Forrest Gump just as ridiculous? Is there a line out there where using fictional characters as role models crosses from useful to foolish, or is the entire idea bankrupt?
For instance, a few weeks ago I named Contact among my personal Top 10 list, saying that Ellie Arroway’s newfound faith—one that she couldn’t prove but everything in her knew to be true—helped me remember why I have my faith in Jesus. But Stuart Hancock, film reviewer for Mars Hill Review, said this about Contact:
The relevance of the “science vs. faith” theme … [sent] me away from the film musing, “That really made me think!” Then I thought, “Think about what?” Contact is the latest explication of Hollywood’s one big idea: “You’ve got to have faith.” Faith in what? I ask. “Faith in what you believe.” One doesn’t need a $60 million movie to explore that tautology.
Have I taken my interpretation of Contact too far? Am I hearing just what I wanted to hear from it instead of listening to what it was actually saying? I don’t know. All I know is that the change in my perspective is real, which, in my mind, tends to outweigh any ideological argument.
In the end, I suppose, there are certain cinematic metaphors that will work for us and there are others that won’t. One person’s trash is another’s treasure; what we find deeply moving another person will find annoyingly trite. The goal in trying to discover these idealistic models is to find what moves and penetrates your heart, not to find a model that works for everyone.
In finding these models, there’s a key question we have to ask ourselves. The question is not, as Hancock asked, “What is this movie trying to pass off as truth?” Very few movies will give an answer explicitly consistent with our worldview. Instead, the question is “Who in this movie is searching for truth?” Then use that character as an inspiration while you pursue the God’s truth in your own life.