A prominent Christian film reviewer has declared that Marvel’s new film Doctor Strange is “a dangerous introduction to demonic occult deception.” The visually stunning film does introduce metaphysical ideas which arguably conflict with an orthodox Christian view of the world, but the fictional story also has a very Christian moral message. Overall, the movie is surprisingly low on story, but high on spectacle, and it does not always make sense.
Doctor Strange is truly mind-blowing. Like Inception (2010), it features buildings twisting around, turning in on themselves, and the very Earth folding as if it were a piece of paper. This trans-dimensional psychedelic experience is best in 3-D, where the stunning visuals take on an even more impressive pseudo-reality, and the audience is immersed in another world. This explains why the movie has racked up a stunning $325.8 million so far, keeping the top spot in the box office for its second weekend.
Partially due to this money-making immersion, however, Dr. Ted Baehr, critic and co-founder of the Christian Film & Television Commission, denounced the film as “a dangerous introduction to demonic occult deception.” In a press release, Baehr quoted scripture against the film.
The Bible clearly warns against the kind of occult practices and sorcery the hero in this movie learns to do, in Deuteronomy 18:9-12 and Galatians 5:20. Also in the movie, the hero’s New Age, occult guru teaches there may be no afterlife, that death is truly the end, and that this is a good thing.
The editorial staff of Baehr’s site Movieguide went further, arguing that Doctor Strange does “not only distract some people from the Truth, but introduce[s] completely new paths for people to follow that will lead them away from eternal life with Jesus Christ and away from loving their neighbors as themselves.” The staff mentioned one die-hard fan of the comic books, named Forrest, who was driven to extreme forms of New Age occult exploration to try to enter the world of the comic book character.
With all due respect to Movieguide, there are crazy fans of all sorts of science fiction and fantasy, and just because one person tries to find the psychedelic experience of Doctor Strange in things like drugs and the occult does not mean the film is a gateway to Hell. Many of us have the ability to enjoy fictional stories without going to insane lengths to make them real.
The more serious critique comes from scripture. The Deuteronomy passage warns against worship practices of foreign peoples: things like sacrificing sons and daughters in fire, practicing sorcery and witchcraft, or consulting the dead. Anyone who does such things “is detestable to the Lord.” The Galatians verse also lists sorcery along with hatred, drunkenness, sexual immorality, and debauchery as “sins of the flesh,” saying that “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Make no mistake: sorcery is off-limits for Christians. But Doctor Strange is a fictional story, and it does not provide specific instructions on how to use occult practices in the real world. Like Harry Potter before it, this movie uses magic to tell a story. No one who reads J.K. Rowling’s series of novels would take away the message that he or she should go buy a wand and become a wizard. That’s not the point of the story, and that’s not the point of Doctor Strange either.
Instead, Doctor Strange is entertainment, the 14th (!) film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following The Avengers (2012) and most recently Captain America: Civil War (2016). It tells the story of the rich and famous neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) who suffers a serious accident and goes on a voyage of discovery to cure his wounded body by empowering his mind.
“Forget everything you think you know,” urges one of Dr. Strange’s mentors. Strange learns that he does not just have a physical body, but also an “astral body.” Using the “multiverse” theory — which teaches that our universe is one of an infinite number of universes — the film explains magic as a way to “conjure power from the multiverse,” where “mind and matter meet, thoughts shape reality.” There are multiple dimensions, and sorcerers tap the power of the multiverse with a “sling ring.”
Next Page: How the real message of Doctor Strange actually falls in line with Christian morality.
In Doctor Strange, like in Harry Potter, there is a good way to use magic (to help others), and a bad way (arrogance, ambition, to help oneself at the expense of others). Strange is a self-obsorbed neurosurgeon, full of pride and obsessed with his reputation. His pride alienates him from other people, and when he becomes a sorcerer, this character defect threatens to turn him into a villain.
At the key moment, Strange learns “the greatest lesson of all — it’s not about you.” Rather than focus on himself, Strange uses his sorcery to save the world, being willing to suffer death over and over again to keep an evil power from taking over the world.
This selfless message is rather ironic, given Movieguide’s fear that Doctor Strange would lead people away from “loving their neighbors as themselves.
Interestingly, Relevant Magazine‘s Jon Negroni found another spiritual message in the film — one in keeping with scripture, as opposed to it. Negroni explains that Doctor Strange “isn’t your typical brawl of a superhero movie, where the subtext glorifies personal achievement though strength and determination. Instead, it wants viewers to consider the value of the mind and avoiding conflict altogether.”
The plot serves to “minimize the importance of violence and emphasize finding intelligent solutions to complicated problems.” This, coupled with the idea of a battle in the astral realm, echoes 2 Corinthians 10:3-4: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.”
The idea of spiritual warfare does fit with the movie, but the central theme of self-sacrifice for the good of humanity forms the core message. Like Iron Man or Captain America, Dr. Stephen Strange is a hero less because of his powers and more because of his willingness to lay down his life for others.
This is also a central theme in Harry Potter, which oozes with Christian morality. Dr. Baehr seems unable to grasp this central message, however. Indeed, he wrote a book Frodo & Harry — Understanding Visual Media and Its Impact on Our Lives which contrasted The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, which the book condemns as having a “pagan, gnostic, and nominalistic worldview” which “attacks Biblical Christianity.”
As a life-long Christian who thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter, and reveled in the biblical references of the seventh book, I find such an argument quite simply preposterous.
Doctor Strange is not a doorway to the occult, and it certainly does not discourage loving my neighbor as myself. I highly encourage the movie, especially for those of us who do not resort to drugs and magic to relive action sequences.
Watch the trailer on the next page.