How do we become good or evil? …

All these philosophers are wrong,

probably because most of them do not have children.

Parents and children know the answer:

by example. By having moral heroes.[1]

~ Peter Kreeft

 

Recent blockbusters such as Broadway’s 2015 musical Hamilton and Hollywood’s 2018 film Black Panther offer us moral heroes and in particular, heroes from marginalized and minority communities. Hamilton relives the tale of the founding father, Alexander Hamilton, who was an orphaned immigrant to New York from the Caribbean island of Nevis and became the first US Secretary of the Treasury. In the hands of director Lin Manuel-Miranda, himself of Puerto Rican ancestry, Hamilton’s story becomes the story of immigrants as much as of founding fathers. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are cast in nearly every role – except that of Britain’s callous King George. We will look more closely at Hamilton in the companion article.

Black Panther is the Marvel Comic tale of an African superhero who must contend with militant countrymen over how to best share the resources and technology of the mythical African nation of Wakanda in order to alleviate the suffering and plight of one billion African brothers and sisters abroad. In the Black Panther galaxy,  long, long ago the continent of Africa was the beneficiary of a meteor strike, which endowed it with a mountain of vibranium, the most advanced metal in the world. Five African tribes went to war over this metallic godsend, with four of the tribes uniting under a warrior who took on superhero powers when he learned to ingest it from a heart-shaped herb. Vibranium allowing them to develop technology and a society beyond the imagination of the rest of the world. Fearful of the powers granted them, these tribes decided to hide their discovery under the cover of a primitive African nation called Wakanda.

But Black Panther is more than simply a tale of technology and power politics; it is a story of choices. The choices are found in the contrast between two characters: the young king T’Challa and his cousin, who has his own lineal claim to the Wakandan throne. T’Challa follows the Wakandan party and wants to keep their resources secret, fearing how the outside world may handle such advances, while Stevens, who has spent his lifetime among the less advanced and oppressed diaspora Africans, seeks to empower them with vibranium so they might conquer their oppressors. The choice over whether to engage this fight, and the level of militancy with which to do so, is part of a more fundamental choice facing these Africans. They must also decide their identity – whether victim of the past or free moral agent – as well as grapple with the roles of the fathers in their lives.

Film, Story, and Myth – Some Philosophical and Theological Guides

The meaning we get from myth, and the significance we attribute to it, is a tale as old as humanity itself. The ancient stories and modern film are not so different. Philosophers have even been story-tellers. Even Plato’s philosophizing against epic poetry could not stem this myth-making tide, for he has been described as one of the greatest practitioners of metaphorical myth-making. In the recent past, Umberto Eco and Ayn Rand have been known for their works in both philosophy and story-telling. Among Christian thinkers, the British are well known for their literary endeavors in explaining the Christian faith. We will include in our discussion perspectives from two Oxford Professors of Literature, C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) and his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). Lewis wrote extensively on literature of all ages, his Christian faith, and a number of fiction works, both fantasy and sci-fi; Tolkien is the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as several other works, and is considered to have revived the fantasy genre, in addition to his career as a world class philologist. In the companion Black Panther and Hamilton articles, we will compare the stories of Black Panther and Hamilton to each other as well as to insights from Lewis and Tolkien.[2]

Film is perhaps a more modern form of story-telling, and considering it as such has been a popular topic in recent years, particularly among Christian thinkers.  In Shows About Nothing, Thomas Hibbs cites Nietzsche and De Tocqueville’s concern that the freedom of a democratic society levels the field of truth claims to such an extent that nihilism results. Hibbs suggests that solutions to such nihilism can be found in works like Christopher Nolan’s Batman where a hero battles chaotic evil or in the friendship and community of Harry Potter.  Jeffrey Overstreet’s Through a Screen Darkly shows how reflections of the goodness of God, as well as real evil, can be glimpsed at the movie theater. Similarly, in Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, Roy M. Anker helps us search for the Divine light that may seep through any good film. As Overstreet quotes Frederick Buechner, “The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.”[3] Finally, Robert K. Johnston looks at how theology and film inform each other in Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2006) and Reel Spirituality follows Johnston’s 2004 Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film. In Reel Spirituality, Johnston shows how theology has historically tended to approach film from an ethical perspective but is increasingly partnering with films in appropriating and even finding divine encounters from an aesthetic perspective. It is by focusing on both ethics and aesthetics that we can view Hamilton and Black Panther through the lenses of Oxford dons like Lewis and Tolkien.

Fathers and Sons

The problem of fathers uninvolved in their children’s lives is well understood in our modern culture of easy divorce, but in African American communities it is particularly acute. Ill-conceived if not racist societal and governmental factors also figure into the dissolution of the African-American family, as Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed documentary film 13th has recently argued. DuVernay exposes how the late-twentieth century “war on crime” has disproportionately targeted African-Americans and bloated the US prison system. In the documentary, figures such as Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, and Charlie Rangel agree that the manner of crime enforcement had devastating, if not at times intentional, consequences for African-American communities and families. DuVernay and others claim the consequences of “mass incarceration” resulted from what was initially a “war on drugs.”

In Black Panther, T’Challa’s and Killmonger’s stories are largely shaped by those of their fathers. T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka, was the brother of Stevens’ father, N’Jobu, who lived abroad as part of the Wakandan intelligence network. Early in the film, T’Chaka visits N’Jobu and confirms his suspicions that N’Jobu is pirating vibranium, even though N’Jobu appears to want to use it to empower oppressed Africans abroad. T’Chakah ends up killing N’Jobu while defending N’Jobu’s assistant Zuri (who confesses their activities) from N’Jobu’s attack. As a coverup, T’Chaka subsequently reports that N’Jobu has simply disappeared and leaves the young Stevens abroad to fend for himself. Stevens later attends MIT and the Naval Academy, becoming a special ops soldier who earns the title “Killmonger” and spends his life plotting his revenge and the capture of the Wakandan throne. As T’Challa states when later confronting his father over the matter, “(KIllmonger) is a monster of our own making … I must right these wrongs.”

The fundamental difference between T’Challa’s and Stevens’ relationships with their fathers is made apparent by contrasting the trips each takes to “the ancestral zone” to converse with their late fathers. T’Chaka recounts to T’Challa how he had trained him side by side through his youth, hoping to fulfil the adage that “a man who has not prepared his children for his own death has failed as a father.” T’Chaka offers the advice that even though T’Challa is “a good man with a good heart,” he will need to surround himself with trustworthy companions. By contrast, Stevens’ father N’Jobu regrets that he sacrificed young Erik’s youth while on assignment rather than returning him to his native Wakanda.

The deeper challenges of the father-son relationships become evident as the sons decide how to handle their fathers’ shortcomings. T’Challa decides he must right the wrongs of his father who helped to create the monster Killmonger, as well as reverse T’Chaka’s failure to aid the globe’s two billion struggling Africans. But the call to duty which beckons T’Challa is drowned out for Stevens who struggles to deal with his own identity. When questioned by N’Jobu about his lack of grief for his father, young Erik shows his growing cynicism by responding, “everybody dies, that’s just life around here.” When N’Jobu expresses regrets that both father and son are abandoned, Killmonger points instead to the greater lostness of Wakanda.

Courage to make the right choices

The crux of the question is how to move forward beyond their unjust past, and the answer is offered by the warrior and regiment leader Okoye, when she states, “you can’t let your father’s mistakes decide who you are.  You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be.”

Being responsible for your own choices is just one of the many virtues Black Panther offers as an alternative to Killmonger’s vengeful ways. Just as the orcs state in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “Fear, the air is thick with it,” the Wakandan air is thick with the scent of duty: from Okoye and Nakia’s service to their country, to Okoye’s prodding T’Challa to engage the challenge of offering their technology to the world, to T’Challa’s sense of justice. In particular, T’Challa’s courage stems from his deep sense of right and wrong, which contrasts with Killmonger’s simple desire for vengeance and victory by providing their oppressed countrymen the opportunity to conquer their conquerors. This sense of justice and right and wrong, as well as the courage to follow it, also contrasts with some choices made by T’Chaka: “We let our fear of our discovery stop us from doing what was right,” he admits, further adding that his sin to the young Stevens was a matter of regarding Erik as “the truth I chose to omit.”

This courage to right injustices is an essential part of any solution. Courage seems to often be listed last when giving the four classical virtues: prudence (practical wisdom), moderation, justice, and fortitude (courage). But courage plays an essential role in all the preceding virtues. As Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, “you will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one (courage) into play.”[4]  But courage is not merely a Braveheart-styled “battle against unimaginable odds.” As Lewis prefaced in the previous observation, “fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the kind that faces as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain.”[5] Thus, the courage of a Frodo and Samwise persevering on their lonely journey is on par with that of an Aragorn facing impossible odds in his battles against the orcs. Similarly, T’Challa’s courage in battle is more than complemented by his courage in carrying out the long term program of compassionate sharing and education.[6]

The classical virtues that came from Plato’s Republic were adopted by various writers of antiquity while Christian writers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas supplemented them with three cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and love. The term cardinal comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; thus, the virtuous life hinges on these three. A key distinction between classical and Christian virtues, however, is handily illustrated by Killmonger.  It has been noted that the classical virtues, being on a par with Aristotle’s notion of a “golden mean,” moderate between extremes of excess and deficiency. Thus, courage in its deficiency becomes cowardice and in its excess recklessness. Similarly, justice in its deficit can become injustice or cronyism,while in its excess vengeance. Theological virtues can not be distorted in this way; while a lack of faith, hope or love may degenerate, there is no way to exhibit too much of these virtues. Too much love, or faith, or hope is never the problem; certainly, one cannot love too much. When Erik Stevens is moved by the injustices he sees outside of Wakanda (injustices T’Chaka and his generation were happy to ignore), he exercises his courage in order to do something about the situation. But at some point, he sought not simply to achieve something for the peoples who had been wronged, but to give them the technology to become conquerors themselves; it became a case of vengeance, an excess of the sense of justice.

Not only is courage necessary for the exercise of the other virtues, it often serves as the siren call to any virtue at all. In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s demon schemer contends that “cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember … to make a wound deep in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.”[7] Opportunities for courage are in fact a divine godsend. Lewis continues, in the voice of Satan’s apprentice, Screwtape:

We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone … the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor … in the last war, thousands of human, by discovering their own cowardice, discovered the whole moral world for the first time… This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s [God’s] motives for creating a dangerous world – a world in which moral issues really come to the point. He sees as well as you do that courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”[8]

Wakanda and Women

The mythology of Wakanda does just that: the ever-present struggles of the wandering, displaced, and sinned-against races come back more savory to the viewer for having been dipped in the story of Black Panther. But it is not just the races and nations that are upheld in their struggles in Black Panther. There is a persistent theme of empowerment to the women of Wakanda. Not only is T’Challa’s sister Shuri the chief technologist of Wakanda, but regiment leader Okoye (who seems destined to become Queen, though she has other ambitions) and Nakia offer strong, duty-driven, compassionate, and courageous role models. When T’Challa delivers his speech to the UN and is asked “with all due respect, what could a nation of farmers possibly have to offer the world”, his confident grin of a response is shown only after Okoye and Nakia are seen similarly smiling about the unsuspecting contributions they may have to offer such a world.

Hope & Community: What’s all the Courage for?

The Wakandan’s sense of justice, compassion, and the courage to face their challenges ultimately culminates in hope. It is the look you see on the faces of both T’Challa and the young boy on the playground who asks T’Challa “who are you?” and on T’Challa, Okoye, and Nakia when asked what they might have to offer; it is a hope birthed with a sense of community and brotherhood. T’Challa states in his speech to the UN delegates (in a scene appearing halfway through the credits) that Wakanda intends to “work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other” and that “more connects us than separates us… we must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” This is offered in the midst of barely veiled references to the current climate: “in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers” and “now more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence.”

Tolkien considered the role of community, a village, so important that he placed the term “Fellowship” front and center in the title of the opening book of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Fellowship of the Ring. The literary modernism of Tolkien’s time, in many ways, was a reaction to the collapsed optimism of the 19th century as brought about by the Great War and was characterized by such lonely, introspective works as TS Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” Tolkien’s rollicking, melancholic romance “is like lightning from a clear sky” according to Lewis, and “to say that in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism, is inadequate.”[9] There is an innocence to Tolkien’s Shire and race of Hobbits, a simple but happy folk for whom “growing food and eating it occupied most of their time” and who “in other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate.”[10] Even the warring Race of Men found a resource in such fellowship. As Aragorn observes of an attacking Orc, it is “in dark and loneliness they are strongest; they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people.”[11]

But this sense of fellowship draws on a much more ancient sense of community. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity, however mysterious and befuddling, offers the original paradigm of community. In speaking of the Trinity, St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century noted how “the supreme spirit loves itself,” how “each loves himself, and the other, with equal intensity” and how “one and the same love proceeds equally from Father and Son.”[12] The Holy Spirit thus becomes, in this sense, the overflow of the love between God the Father and God the Son, sent to earth. Community and love are thus built into the DNA of the Triune Christian God.  Not only does Jesus declare, “I no longer call you servants, but friends,”[13] but as Romans 8:17 reminds us, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” It is this communion with God that the Christian faith offers uniquely. Simpler monotheist deities simply demand worship rather than offer such inherent relationship. It is because we were made for this relationship with our Maker that we seek out relationships so intensely. As Augustine declared, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”[14] Augustine thus hearkens to Scripture passages such as “God is love,”[15] reminding us that love requires someone doing the loving, someone being loved, as well as the love itself.

But what does community have to do with courage?  T’CHalla, Okoye, Nakia, et. al. certainly draw on each other for strength and inspiration. But it is also a strong hope for a future community that inspires them. Tolkien made the case poetically, and one almost finds oneself in Middle Earth when reading the lines from his poem composed for Lewis, Mythopoeia:

 

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,

that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

that seek no parley, and in guarded room,

through small and bare, upon a clumsy loom

weave issues gilded by the far-off day

hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

 

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build

their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,

and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,

a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things nor found within record time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night …

 

Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,

and those that hear them yet may yet beware.

They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,

and yet they would not in despair retreat,

but oft to victory have turned the lyre

and kindled hearts with legendary fire,

illuminating Now and dark Hath-been

with light of suns as yet by no man seen.[16]

 

Courage’s Finale: A song for history

Complementing the virtues of love and community, however, is that of courage and the hope it offers. T’Challa, Okoye, Nakia, and others embody courage, not just in summoning their strength in the face of fear to engage in dramatic battles, but in spending their strength over the long haul to aid their sisters and brothers. As a King, T’Challa embodies both the sudden burst of bravery as well as the temper to carry out his vision over the long haul. And he does it with a smile, as we see at the end. Such confident but joyful optimism is characteristic of a King. Lewis is helpful yet again, as he has been shown to employ the imagery of Jupiter, the King of the Planets, to describe the reign of Aslan in his Narnia series.

 

We may say [Jupiter] is Kingly, but we must think of a King at peace, enthroned, taking

his leisure, serene. The Jovial character is cheerful, festive, yet temperate, tranquil,

magnanimous. When this planet dominates we may expect halcyon days and prosperity.[17]

 

Lewis’ Aslan character in the Chronicles of Narnia leads both in warfare and celebration; and even the palace of the Kings and Queens of Narnia, Cair Paravel, is said to look like “a great star resting on the seashore.”[18]

Tolkien strikes similar kingly postures. Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings embodies just such Kingship:

 

Thus he became at last the most hardy of living Men, skilled in their crafts and lore, and

was yet more than they; for he was elven wise, and there was a light in his eyes that when

they were kindled few could endure. His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.[19]

 

But the sense of kingship found in Lewis and Tolkien have a common, ancient, and yet contemporary, root: it is based in Christ. While Lewis was content to place the enduring kingship of Narnia in the lion Aslan (son of the Emperor over the sea), a Christ figure, Tolkien scattered his Christological symbols throughout his story.  The above passage on Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, hearkens not just to a king, but a savior, a King like Jesus, fully man, yet fully God, who is “more than” the race of living Men, a King like Jesus with “a light in his eyes that few could endure” which reminds us of the description of Jesus in the Book of Revelation with “eyes blazing like fire,”[20] a King like Jesus who knew sorrow mixed with mirth. This is the model for Kingship to which T’Challa ultimately kneels though he follows in his own humble but confident way there.

T’Challa’s counterpart, Killmonger, shows a lack of such courage, especially in his final scene. His voice reflects the anguish of not just his own generation but that of his ancestors as well. He rejects the offer of restoration from his wounds, fearing it will simply lead to a life of imprisonment. Killmonger then proceeds to powerfully connect his plight with that of his ancestors in his final words: “Bury me at sea, like my ancestors who jumped from slave ships because they knew death is better than a life of bondage.”

But it may not be entirely fair to criticize Killmonger for a lack of heart and a failure of courage. By definition, courage is summoned in battling the unfavorable odds, and sometimes the house wins. Stevens has perhaps, finally and mortally, wearied of the battle. Continued rejection, rejection held against the memories of what family, tribe and nation had hoped for you, takes its toll. At such times, the dream stays alive by taking it to heart, and telling the story to the next generation. That is what Stevens does. It is nearly the entire theme of Hamilton as we will see: the story of forgotten founding father Alexander Hamilton repeats the refrain “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” For Black Panther, the story reaches into the past, but looks expectantly and courageously into the future.


[1] Peter Kreeft in Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 8.

[2] Robert K. Johnston, “Evolution of Theology’s Engagement with Film from Ethical Critique to Aesthetic Appropriation,” Reel Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006), 56.

[3] Frederick Buechner, A Room to Remember (1984) quoted in Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2007), 5.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2000), Book III Ch.2 “The Cardinal Virtues” p. 79.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Louis Markos, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012) further illustrates how courage and all the classical virtues can be seen in Tolkien’s epic series, The Lord of the Rings, as well as in Lewis’s own Chronicles of Narnia.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), Ch. 29, 160.

[8] Ibid., 161.

[9] C.S. Lewis, “The Gods Return to Earth” in Time and Tide magazine, August 14, 1954, 1082.   Online https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/504539-the-fellowship-of-the-ring-is-like-lightning-from-a  accessed August 30, 2018.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Ballantine Books, 1980), 30.

[11] Ibid., 236. Chapter I.10 “Strider.”

[12] Anselm, Monologion 49-51,in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 60-61.

[13] John 15:15

[14] Augustine, Confessions I.1.

[15] 1 John 4:8, 16

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythpoeia, 1931. A poem composed by Tolkien, for Lewis, in which he tires  to convince Lewis of the power of the Christian story. http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm.

[17] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 106. The passage iso quoted in Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 43.  The 10th anniversary of Ward’s book, identifying a particular planet’s imagery with each of the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia (with interactions in his sci-fi Space Trilogy as well) is the theme of the December, 2018 Unexpected Journal.  Ward first made the planetary connection when reading Lewis’ poem The Planets in which themes of various Chronicles of Narnia books aligned with the poem’s planetary. Lewis’ The Planets may be found in C.S. Lewis, Poems  (New York: Harcourt, 1992), and at http://www.pacificaoc.org/wp-content/uploads/Planets.pdf; Ward’s site is www.planetnarnia.com.

[18] C.S. Lewis, descriptions The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 142. Ch.12.  Ward mentions this in the condensed, more popular level reading  version of his Planet Narnia (which was his dissertation): The Narnia Code (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2010), 56.

[19]  J.R.R. Tolkien, Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 374.  Appendix A.5.

[20] Revelation 19:12-13.  The verse continues, affirming the identity of this rider on the white horse as Christ the King.

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