Faith & Fandom
Doctor Strange: Steps To Supreme
Doctor Strange was a pleasant surprise to me in the box office. I was never a huge fan of the Sorcerer Supreme, but only because I hadn't given the character much attention. Much like with Luke Cage, my biggest exposure to him was in reading "Secret Avengers" in the wake of the original Civil War comic series. Simply put, Marvel movies are things I'm going to go watch without question at this point; they might as well start auto drafting tickets from my bank account at this point.
I had no doubts that the cast would be phenomenal. Cumberbatch is, of course, Cumberbatch and seldom disappoints. Personally for me, I was most excited for Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo. Chiwetel has been a favorite of mine since his role as "the Operative" in Serenity. Beyond the cast and the amazing visual effects, there were some key lessons that stood out with me in the film, so let’s sling ring right into them.
"Forget Everything You Think You Know"
When Doctor Strange had wrecked his life, figuratively and literally, he was desperate to get back to the man that he was. He wasn’t content to allow his surgical career to fade before his eyes. He sought after every medical procedure possible while refusing to accept no as an answer. When everything he understood seemed hopeless, his only alternative was to turn to the things he didn’t understand. This sent him across the world, and then later into a whole new world altogether. When his journey was truly about to begin, Mordo gave him some advice that he would have to accept before he could ever make progress.
"I was in your place, once. I was disrespectful, too. So might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.”
In order to move towards the path that would restore his life and actually make it greater than he had imagined, he would have to let go of his pride and understanding, and humble himself. He only believed in the things that he could see with his own eyes; he refused to believe there was more. As he told the Ancient One, "There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We're just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe." This is the place so many of us live, completely bound to only what we understand and unwilling to consider possibilities beyond that. The Ancient One kept pushing Strange though, because she understood what he needed.
Doctor Strange: Why are you doing this to me?
The Ancient One: To show you just how much you don't know. Open your eye!
This is us in so many ways. In order for us to grow in God, find true purpose in life, and find real life, we have to let go of everything we think we know. We can't fully trust God if we aren't willing to accept that His ways are higher, and that He is just so much bigger and more powerful than we can even understand.
Honestly, a God we can fully understand wouldn't be much of a God. Scripture really illustrates this in the frequently quoted Proverbs 3:5-6, where Solomon writes, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Just like with Strange, the beginning of our journey in faith, as well as every step that follows, is forgetting what we know. But where Strange was trusting in a mystic force and sorcery, we are trusting in a God who loves us and wants us to know Him. He wants to give us wisdom, guide our paths, and make our life abundant. If we cling to what we know, like Strange, we will miss out on so much. If we follow God, He is going to take you places you've never been, call you to do things you've never done, and use you in ways you've never imagined. If you rely on your own understanding, you'll never be able to do these things.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when The Ancient One takes Strange to a frosty mountain peak and forces him to come to the place where he surrenders, because if he doesn’t, he will die. He can't let go of his own pride, his own knowledge, his own understanding, and his own will. Because of that, he is unable to grow, so The Ancient One makes him arrive at that place. As we see in their interaction:
"The Ancient One: Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all. Doctor Strange: Which is? The Ancient One: It's not about you.”
When we realize that life is more than just our desires and that there is more for us than just beyond the scope of our selfishness, we see that sometimes what's best for us doesn’t fit in our plans, desires, or goals. When we realize that we can only make it so far on our own strength, we have no alternative but to surrender. It's not about manipulating us; it’s about freeing us so that we can experience all that God has planned.
God isn't going to leave us to freeze on the side of a mountain to force us into surrendering, but Jesus does call us as His disciples to live in a place of surrender. He tells them clearly in Luke 9:23-24, "Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." Jesus tells His disciples that surrender is required to follow Him, and that in that surrender we will actually gain true life.
When The Ancient One left Strange there it wasn’t to punish him; it was to help him see that surrender was the only way he could move forward, and it worked for him. In scripture, Paul shows us that that surrender is not only part of life, but it's part of salvation. "If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). In order for you to "confess" Jesus as Lord, He actually has to be your Lord. Saying it doesn't make it a confession; saying it and it being true makes it a confession. When we have honestly come to a place in our life where we can confess that we have surrendered our life to Jesus, we have not only begun our journey, but also arrived at its completion, too.
The last thing the Ancient One said to Stephen before she crossed back into the portal was to "surrender." If I could give you any advice from my own heart and experience, it is that you aren't gaining anything by fighting and straining to keep control on your own. Knowing that your life is in God's hand isn't giving up. It’s not weakness, but the greatest place of strength.
"Study & Practice”
Even though magic was a big element of Strange's progress and healing, it wasn’t as simple as casting a spell or flicking a wand. Once he was willing to accept that he didn’t know anything, the practical work began. He finally caved in and asked The Ancient One:
"Doctor Strange: How do I get from here to there?
The Ancient One: How did you become a doctor?
Doctor Strange: Study and practice. Years of it."
This was The Ancient One's way of making it clear to Strange that this wasn’t going to be easy. She needed him to see that this would take work, and a lot of it. Sure we saw the fast forwarded version of the "study and practice" like an 80's movie montage, but he had to put in work to become a sorcerer, let alone the sorcerer supreme. In the same way, we have to put in study and practice if we ever want our faith to be more than a superficial label. I've been a Christian over 20 years now, and I'm still terrible at it at any given point. If I don't study and put what I study into practice, I never grow. If I never grow, then what is actually happening in my life and faith?
In regards to studying, we need to make sure we are studying the Bible. While there are tons of other great resources and authors out there, there is no substitute. Seriously, thank you for reading my books; it means the world to me you would give them your time and attention, and yes, they contain scripture. However, there is simply no supplementary material that compares to actually studying scripture directly. Look at what we see in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
If you want your faith to grow, you need to study scripture. Other things may prompt you or be good resources for your study, but just like Strange had to crack open the books to learn the powers they contained, you need to crack open the scriptures to see what power they contain for your life through the Spirit of God. We neglect it so much. If we study the Word of God with the tenacity Strange studied spells, our lives and the world around us would be dramatically different.
In regards to practice, we can be equally neglectful of practice as we are of study. We have a habit of being more likely to study and gain knowledge, but then just hang on to it and not do anything with what we have learned. Sadly, knowledge without practice or application is useless. 1 John 3:18 says, " Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." If we are going to be believers, disciples, and followers, action is required. Strange was in the habit of practicing everything he learned, even when it got him in trouble. He didn’t treat any of what he he learned as information, but there were things he could put into practice. If you don't combine action with your knowledge, you are an admirer, not a disciple. When Jesus gave the great commission to the disciples, he drops this statement, “[A]nd teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus told the disciples to teach (study) them and to obey (practice). Jesus made it clear that both study and practice would be required as we move forward with our faith and share His gospel throughout the world. Neglecting either could keep our faith from ever being what it could be.
One of the frequent things you hear as the magical portions of the story progress is about the "Laws." Laws of magic aren't meant to be broken, but in the case of almost every sorcerer in the film, the laws are broken or at least bent on several occasions. This is especially something we see Mordo take great offense to, even after Strange single-handedly saved the entire Earth.
Doctor Strange: We did it. Mordo: Yes, by breaking the natural law.
Doctor Strange: Look around you.
Mordo: Do you think there won't be consequences to this? The bill comes due, always!
It is true laws were broken, but they weren't broken without purpose. They were broken to save the world and to save mankind. But that appeared to Mordo as complete betrayal and left him embittered to his former friends. While Jesus never broke the laws, the religious community of His time constantly assumed and accused Him of doing just that. Even though He didn’t have to defend Himself, He took time to make sure His view on the law was completely clear.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-20).
While Jesus was obeying the law, it looked wrong to the Pharisees and Sadducees because Christ’s obedience looked completely different to their traditional view of the law. In many ways, if Christians actually did what the Bible taught, it would look like they were breaking the religious laws in other people's eyes. How we love people? How we forgive people? How do we worship? Obeying scripture in these things can look like disobedience to someone who is more concerned about the appearance of law rather than the truth and heart of the matter. Strange manipulated time for the sake of saving mankind. The magical laws exists to protect mankind, so was Strange really doing something wrong?
Regardless of the validity of Strange's actions, we know that Jesus' actions only honored the Father, and that's the same place we should be. Look at what Paul teaches the Galatian church.
"Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith" (Galatians 3:23- 26).
Christ fulfilled the law, and if we follow Him as we are commanded to, we will be able to do the same. Not that we will be able to live perfect or keep the hundreds of commandments, but look at what Jesus stated in Matthew 22:37-40:
"Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
You see what Jesus said in verse 40? All of the law is summed up in loving God with all we have, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. That's what everything boils down to. You may not be able to remember all 600+ Old Testament laws, but if we can remember to love God and love our neighbor, we are definitely moving in the right direction. And if we can love God and love our neighbor, when the "bill comes due," as Mordo stated, we know that Jesus has already paid it.