One of the things I enjoy doing most is taking my older two children (6 and 4) to the movies, something my father often did with me. (I can still name every movie I went to with Dad.)
Our culture has changed in a great many ways since I was a youngster, but in some ways movies have not. The most powerful idea in cinema remains the same: self-sacrifice. We’ve seen some great flicks so far in 2017—Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Beauty and the Beast, and Rogue One—and the theme is hard to miss.
In Wonder Woman, the most dramatic scene is not when Diana defeats the forgettable bad guy Ares (David Thewlis), but when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) flies off with a plane filled with toxic explosives. Trevor’s courageous act saves an untold number of lives, but his own life is forfeited in the process.
In Rogue One, the scene in which Darth Vader descends on an Alliance star ship in a last-ditch effort to retrieve the stolen Death Star plans is spectacular. But it’s the sacrifice of Jyn and Cassian—and everyone else on the ship who flew with them to Scarif—that gives the film its power and meaning.
“Do you think anyone's listening?” Cassian asks moments before they die.
“I do,” Jyn responds. “Someone’s out there.”
In movie after movie heroism (and goodness) are demonstrated not by how brave a character is or how many bad guys he (or she) takes down, but by a hero’s willingness to sacrifice himself for a given person or cause.
This theme was not particular to 2017. Look at other films in recent years.
In Batman v Superman, Superman gives his life (or did he?) to slay the weird alien creature created by Lex Luthor. At the end of the wonderful 2012 videogame movie Wreck it Ralph, our oversized hero is plummeting from the sky to his apparent death in an effort to save his friends from an army of bugs. In Home, the tiny, adorable alien Oh—who had been practical and self-serving most of the film—charges a gigantic spacecraft in a hopeless effort to save Earth from certain destruction. (I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit my eyes well up at this last one every time. As soon as the Rihanna score kicks in, I’m finished.)
This theme of sacrifice is present not just in children’s and superhero movies.
Saving Private Ryan, one of the most celebrated films in generations and winner of five Academy Awards, is a film primarily about self-sacrifice, a point the characters themselves make (and question) in one memorable scene. Near the end of the movie, as Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) lays dying, he whispers to Ryan these words: Earn this. The meaning is clear: let this sacrifice not be in vain.
Think of the greatest moments in other popular films: Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Obi-Wan being struck down by Darth Vader in Star Wars: A New Hope; Arnold Schwarzenegger descending into the pool of fire at the end of Terminator 2. The sacrificial moments are not just memorable scenes; they are the crescendo of the drama.
Christians do not have a monopoly on self-sacrifice, of course. But it would be a mistake to overlook just how Christian this idea is.
Self-Sacrifice in Christianity
The story of Jesus of Nazareth provides the most obvious expression of self-sacrifice, of course. Both the Old and New Testament refer to Jesus as a sacrificial animal: a lamb. Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus describes himself in sacrificial terms:
“Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all. Such is the case of the Son of Man who has come, not to be served by others, but to serve, to give His own life as a ransom for the many” (Matthew 20:26-28).
Questions of divinity aside, it’s undeniable that Jesus of Nazareth changed the very conception of sacrifice. Prior to the life of Jesus and for centuries after his death, ritual sacrifice—which included both animal and, at times, human sacrifice—was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Only after many centuries, as Christianity spread, was ritual sacrifice eventually abandoned in the West.
The idea of self-sacrifice as the epitome of human virtue is so widely accepted today that both religious and non-religious people easily identify with it.
To be sure, self-sacrifice has always existed—in both literature and life. The difference is the primacy it holds in Christian culture. The 300 Spartans died valiantly at Battle of Thermopylae, but bravery in the face of the enemy—not self-sacrifice—was the primary virtue in Spartan culture: érthoun sto spíti me tin aspída sas í gia na (“come home with your shield or on it”). Similarly, Livy presents Publius Decius Mus’ charge at the Battle of Sentinum as an act of glory and bravery. In both cases, self-sacrifice is a secondary virtue.
Greek literature and mythology offered some of the richest stories and ideas of any civilization in history. Many of the themes are familiar to us today: lessons teaching the price of hubris (Achilles) and excess (King Midas); divine retribution against those who commit evil (Calibus); the hero who completes an impossible task (Perseus); the inability of humans to escape the hand of fate (Oedipus). Throughout these stories, again, the theme of self-sacrifice is of secondary importance where it’s present at all.
It’s true that non-Western cultures have also celebrated and even exalted self-sacrifice, but often in perverse ways. In ancient Japan, for example, ritual suicide (Seppuku) was considered an honor for samurai in various circumstances, including the death of his master. In ancient India, a similar practice (suttee) was common for widows. Most of us would agree that self-sacrifice of this kind—suicide under social pressure—is not a virtue, in stark contrast to the Christian concept.
Christian Virtue and the Great Divide
C.S. Lewis, in a 1954 radio address, stated his belief that modern man had entered a new era: the post-Christian age.
“…roughly speaking we may say, that while as all history was for our ancestors divided into two periods, the pre-Christian and the Christian, for us it falls into three, the pre-Christian, the Christian, and what may reasonably be called the post-Christian.”
What would this “post-Christian” period look like? Lewis does not say, but he does tell us what it would not look like: a return to paganism.
“I find it a bit hard to have patience with all those Jeremiahs in press or pulpit who warn us that we are relapsing into paganism. What lurks behind such prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows simple reversal, that Europe can come out of Christianity by the same doors she went in, and find herself back where she was.”
Post-Christian man is not pagan, in Lewis’ belief, any more than the woman who becomes divorced is suddenly a virgin again. And he explains why.
“The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the pagan past,” he says.
What differentiates post-Christian man from the pagan? It seems reasonable to assume he will still cherish (for a time) Christian virtues—he simply cannot recognize them as Christians virtues.
Protection for the weak, kindness to strangers, justice for the poor and the oppressed, love for your neighbor. Most Americans today hold and cherish these values—they simply do not see them as uniquely Christian.
The post-Christian man, cut off from both his pagan and Christian past, will ultimately embrace new philosophies, ones that conform to his own desires and tastes. The sensualist will embrace materialism; the cynic will tend toward nihilism; the idealist will pursue Marxism (a philosophy born of distorted Christian ideas).
Having no idea what a pre-Christian world looked like, post-Christian man will fail to recognize the fruit Christendom has born, even while he enjoys its taste and nourishment. He may continue to cherish the ideals of equality and love for the weak but he won’t know why.
He'll believe in the importance of self-sacrifice but never connect it with the Christian symbol that has surrounded him his entire life: the Cross.