There's A Single Christian Theme Running Through Modern Cinema. Is God Speaking Through Hollywood?
In the end, it was The Lego Batman Movie which finally convinced me that something weird was going on. The blockbuster animation (which by the way is a chaotic mess, but a hugely entertaining one) contains a central theme which I realise I've seen somewhere before, and not just once. Again and again, the major cinematic releases of the last six months or so have either centred or heavily touched on a single idea which is both deeply theological and incredibly relevant in 2017.
At which point, I owe a genuine apology to Dr Krish Kandiah, my fellow contributing editor on this site, and founder of the Christian charity Home for Good. Over dinner a few months ago, I told Krish – who spotted this recurring theme way before I did – that he was imagining things; that he was transferring his own biases into his cultural engagement. Like a Christian movie reviewer who thinks he's found a version of the gospel story in every movie he sees (gulp!), Krish was projecting his own passions on to the big screen.
Well, it turns out Krish was right. There is a huge concentration of cinematic story time being given over to one idea: the theme of adoption. And if, like me, you're filled with doubt at this assertion, let's look at the evidence.
Alleged kids' film The Lego Batman Movie (which is often playing to cinemas full of adults) centres on the relationship between Batman and his accidentally-adopted son, Robin. At first, the Plastic-Caped Crusader rejects the boy because of his own bereavement as an orphan, but slowly learns to realise the need for family again. In a weird way, this mirrors the story of much-more-serious Oscar nominee Manchester by the Sea, in which Casey Affleck's good-for-nothing janitor can't accept responsibility for the teenager for whom he's given guardianship, although with a different outcome.
A much more hopeful perspective on adoption comes in the form of Lion, the heartwarming and miraculous story of Saroo Brierley, the Indian child lost 1,500km from his mother, who is adopted by Australian parents modelling unconditional love. As part of this true story, Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman) even confesses that she chose to adopt even though she could have naturally had her own children, because the world already contained so many children in need of a loving home.
Several other major releases have focused on what it means to be separated from your birth parents. That's the main focus of Finding Dory (explored in-depth here by Krish), in which the forgetful titular character remembers being swept away from her family as a child, and worryingly seems to take the blame – a message which Krish warns could have damaging repercussions for young viewers in the care system. It's also key to the plot of The BFG, in which young orphan Sophie is taken from a children's home in the night by the eponymous giant, and apparently no-one notices or cares. In fact, adoption has arguably been even more present in children's cinema over the last 12 months: it's also a key theme in Kung Fu Panda 3, Storks, Pete's Dragon and The Jungle Book.
And we're not done there. Adoption is key to the plot of Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, where main character Jyn Erso loses her parents as a child and is taken in by an over-acting Forrest Whittaker. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children centres on an orphanage, and a similar facility also plays a key role in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And I can't believe I'm going to say this, but even the plot (such as there is one) of Fifty Shades Darker is driven by Christian Grey's abusive childhood and the subsequent adoption by a loving family which might just be key to his supposed redemption.
You may not agree with my personal perspective that sometimes God speaks through culture, but even if he's not involved, it seems irrefutable that Hollywood is currently fascinated by the subject of adoption. And whether you think that's Hollywood screenwriters or an all-powerful deity speaking, I think it's a prophetic conversation.
With thousands of children separated from their families due to the refugee exodus from Syria and other war-ravaged countries, the stories currently being explored on the big screen couldn't be more relevant. And closer to home, even excluding the children which Western governments seem intent on keeping outside their borders, there are still thousands of children and young people in need of loving and supportive homes. It's a challenge being addressed directly here in the UK by Krish's charity, Home for Good, and it's a direct challenge to a Church that claims to be the Light of the World.
Adoption is an important idea in the Christian faith. Whatever the circumstances of our own birth or family background, God invites us to join his family – we're essentially adopted into it. More than that though, he calls us to love one another unconditionally, to treat other people as if they were part of our own families. 'We love because he first loved us' (1 John 4:19).
That's the central challenge of adoption – can we love someone who wasn't born of our own flesh and blood, just as much as we could a biological child? It's a question answered affirmatively by millions of incredible adoptive and foster parents around the world, and it couldn't be a more relevant question for the Church to address in an age where tragically more and more children and young people will find themselves in need of a new family.
Hollywood seems to be taking a prophetic lead in helping us wrestle with this challenging subject, and perhaps there's no harm in that. Some Christians like to write off the film industry as anti-God, or at least anti-traditional values, but as the purveyor of the biggest and most engaged-with stories of our culture, I think we're foolish to do so. And perhaps this time at least, God is even speaking through it.