Introduction: A Tale of Three Jacks
Years before creating the worlds of Middle-Earth and Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were professors at Oxford. A deep friendship would form between the two colleagues, “Tollers” and “Jack,” as their friends called them. They had much in common in loving mythology and sharing drafts of their own literary works with each other.
Although born into a Christian family, Jack became an atheist at an early age. He was a man seeking truth, and thought fondly of the Christian “myth,” which moved him towards agnosticism, and later an undefined belief in God. Tollers, however, was a man of deep Christian faith, a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church, and every bit Jack’s intellectual equal. One night, their evening conversation with another friend brought up two questions: What was the “purpose” of the life and death of Jesus? What difference does that make today?
Jack had long found the mythological pattern of the “sacrifice … of the dying and reviving deity” to be deeply moving, while yet asserting that “myths are lies, even though lies breathed through silver.” Tollers rejected this, arguing that as words are to things, so myth is to truth; myth making itself will always “reflect a splintered fragment of the true light.” It dawned on Jack that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth that works on us in the same way as the others, but a myth that really happened” (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 150-151). This conversation proved pivotal in Jack coming to faith in Christ.
Lewis’s works have influenced my life in numerous ways, but he wasn’t the only “Jack” to make an indelible impact on my imagination. I was deeply influenced by the mythologies of two other writers and artists: Jack Kirby and Jack T. Chick. Kirby was the “King” of comics, being the co-creator/creator of Captain America, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Eternals among so many others. Chick was the author of hundreds of comic book-style gospel tracts that advocated a strict, fundamentalist approach to Christianity. (In time, I would come to see that Chick’s work was a glaring example of how faith can turn toxic.) After watching the film adaptation of Marvel’s Eternals, I was left reflecting on the weight of the myths we believe, why we believe them, and the consequences of that result with the legacies of these three Jacks in mind.
In the Beginning
Jack Kirby created Eternals in the twilight of his career, inspired by the book Chariot of the Gods?, which hypothesized that phenomena like the pyramids were innovations by ancient alien astronauts, thought by humans to be gods (Kirby: King of Comics, 195). Chloe Zhao’s film adaptation of Eternals does not shy away from the audacity of the premise by describing how Arishem the Creator, a Celestial (a being of gargantuan size and near omnipotent power), created ten humanoid beings called Eternals, each endowed with a unique superpower. Arishem sends them to Earth to protect humans from cosmic predators called Deviants, monstrous hybrids of terrifying ferocity.He saw himself as a servant of a higher and better purpose. He was bringing about divine will as it has been ordained. The myths we believe have consequences and believing the wrong myth can be destructive, even deadly.
While many recent MCU outings choose to open with a flashback, Eternals moves forward and backward in time throughout its story. We see the Eternals in Ancient Babylon, walking amongst the fabled Hanging Gardens. We watch them seemingly eliminate the last of the Deviants in the shadows of the sacking of Tenochtitlan in 1521. But, bound by Arishem’s orders to not interfere in human issues beyond the attacks of Deviants, they eventually split over their purpose and how to use their great powers. In the modern era, we find them chasing meaning through creativity, family, romance, and power. Even still, they seem listless, worn thin by immortality. Only a new message from Arishem shakes them from their malaise.
The Eternals are more than just the originators of many mythologies for the humans – they themselves are bound up in their own myth when they learn the awful truth of their purpose: their mission was always a lie. Their role as protectors of humanity was not as shepherds protecting sheep from wolves, but as ranchers raising cattle for slaughter. Arishem planted the seed of a new Celestial inside the earth, and its growth was fueled by life on the Earth, but its emergence required the destruction of the world. Even the Deviants themselves were a Celestial creation gone awry, and the Eternals even learn that they are functionally organic robots, having been rebooted and repurposed for millennia to cultivate other worlds for the birth of Celestials.
The weight of this false myth destroys Ikaris, an Eternal with Superman-like powers. Knowing he dedicated his life toward a cause that contradicted his original understanding of his purpose, he can’t cut his losses. He doubled down by not only pulling away from his love, Sersi, but also killing the Eternals’ leader, Ajax, when she considered rebelling against Arishem. After Sersi learns the truth, she rallies the rest to save the planet, defeating the Deviants and preventing the Celestial’s birth. Ikaris initially opposes her, but eventually relents and helps. Despite this, he ends his life because he failed his purpose, even if it wasn’t what he expected.
They say that the best villains see themselves as the hero of the story, but Ikaris certainly did not. He saw himself as a servant of a higher and better purpose. He was bringing about divine will as it has been ordained. The myths we believe have consequences and believing the wrong myth can be destructive, even deadly. It is tempting to try and pivot to the idea of the “True Myth” at this point. But, lest we think that knowledge of the True Myth automatically makes for right action and thought, I must return to the third Jack: Jack T. Chick.
Deconstructing the True Myth
Chick was the author and cartoonist of hundreds of gospel tracts–little comic booklets that told stories, usually about people coming to faith in Christ out of drastic, dire circumstances. The reach of these tracts is staggering with 900,000,000 copies sold in over 100 languages. The organization he founded continues to this day, and his website is full of testimonies from people whose lives were changed by their encounter with a Chick tract. However, his strict fundamentalist approach made for caustic and toxic proclamations. Savvy nerds reading this may have already chuckled their way through his hyperbolic warnings that Dungeons and Dragons was a gateway to the occult, but much of the content was no laughing matter, especially with his propagation of homophobia and anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. Jesus described himself as the “living water.” What happens when we mix poison into that glass?This creation of something better, the necessary reconstruction after deconstruction, can only come after honest assessment of what must change.
Chick is hardly the only preacher of a toxic faith. I recently listened to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, detailing deep-seeded spiritual abuse in a church I once admired, and to which I had personal ties. Mars Hill hardly stands in isolation or as an outlier. Karen Swallow Prior, reflecting on this devastating reality, underlines the necessity of “deconstruction,” or untangling biblical truth from the cultural forms in which we’ve received or conflated it with. Prior writes: “Such painful, disorienting and overwhelming work can feel like a death. And it is a death. But if it is a death to self and to all that is false and not of God, it will bring new life. And it will bring new life not only to individual believers, but to the church, too.”
I can’t help but think of Ikaris, broken and helpless as he clings to what he knew no matter the cost. For far too long, faithfulness to the True Myth has been construed as a literalism that looks a lot like white evangelical cultural norms, with many unaware of these being planks in their eyes, like the harmful dogmatism of Ikaris or Jack Chick. Still, I can’t help but think of Sersi and her defiant hope to create something better, no matter the odds. This creation of something better, the necessary reconstruction after deconstruction, can only come after honest assessment of what must change. In this effort, it just might look a lot like Sersi or C. S. Lewis in their shifting yet hopeful journeys of purpose.
Whereas someone like Chick spilled much ink arguing and obsessing over nonessential details of science and doctrine, the ancient Israelites were concerned with finding their identity as a people by the myth they had received, rather than railing against the myths of the nations around them, or even losing the forest for the trees with their own faith. I say none of this to sidestep the important place of theological study and scientific research, but I can’t help but wonder if in focusing for so long on the lore, we are losing the power of the plot (to paraphrase 1 Cor. 4:19-20). Jesus identified himself as the truth, and that the knowledge of the truth would set people free (John 8:32). In the True Myth, we find the same in this gospel.
In Lewis’s novel Till We Have Faces, a character’s lifelong quest ends to find an answer from the gods with the realization that their presence itself is the answer. “Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words.” I find a spiritual kinship here with the story of deconstruction and reconstruction in Eternals. Ikaris seeks certainty, but void of a living hope, dies alone. Sersi finds hope in her community and is able to eventually reconstruct her life on that foundation. As I approach the task of deconstruction and reconstruction in my own life and faith, I do it with even greater hope than the idea of community, important though it may be. I find myself echoing Simon Peter in John 6:68—I have nowhere else to go; Christ has the words of eternal life.
Reflecting on the new MCU stories I enjoyed in 2021, almost all of them were more “fun” than this one. But it is Eternals to which I keep returning. I also keep returning to the idea of the True Myth, “the myth that works on us the same way as the others.” Eternals keeps working on me in the same way.