❗ THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS ❗
Without a doubt the hit show of the summer of 2016, Stranger Things was a blockbuster of a show, featuring a cast of people you mostly haven’t heard of acting their way into history. Most likely the first truly great show of the online streaming era, Stranger Things features solid writing, great suspense, top-notch acting, and nostalgia out the yin-yang. Of course it has it’s plot holes, it’s dropped lines of reasoning, some anachronism, and its a bit too fast paced at times, but every show has similar problems. It’s keeping these to a minimum that make a show upper-echelon material. And ST does just that. But that’s not what this is about. You’re here because you want to know how the heck I can see God in ST.
First, this is not going to be a perfect correlation. ST is not a bible study, nor is it a seminary lecture. It’s fiction, and “secular” fiction, at that. So there’s no explicit, one-to-one connection to Christianity or even the idea of God. The supernatural factors into the show centrally, but it’s not the supernatural language of heaven and hell, but of an interdimensional middle ground between existence and non-existence which mirrors our own world. The Duffer Brothers aren’t exactly drawing from any sacred scriptures that I’m aware of.
Fiction has gotten a bad rap in the past. Not because of immoral content, but simply because it was fake. It gave people fantastical notions and lead them away from thinking soberly about reality, so it was believed. But fiction is a funny thing, in that it is both fantastical yet predictable. In other words, a fiction writer can write something impossible, but they can’t write something inconceivable. Reality works the way reality works and we as human beings can only conceive of it working out in ways that we understand. Some of us may understand very complex and deep realities taken from the fields of psychology, philosophy, theology, cosmology, etc. But at the end of the day, we must have a world that is conceivable. A writer can write about a world in which 18 foot long worms have started devouring children, but the people that worship them are obviously bad, and the people that hunt them down and kill them are good in one sense.
Fiction is determined at some level by reality.
Reality is determined entirely by God.
Therefore, fiction belongs to God.
All that being said, how does God manage to glorify Himself in Stranger Things?
Eleven, “Elle” for short, is the little girl at the center of all of the big crazy mess that has swept up Hawkins, Indiana. The little girl was the subject of an unethical science experiment where she was taken nearly fresh out of the womb and subjected to training that gave her telekinetic powers. She was to be a super-weapon, able to move across the dimensional plane to be anywhere at any time and relay what she heard back to the laboratory where she was kept. Eleven was meant to listen in on the secrets of the Soviet Union and other enemies of the U.S. She could also manipulate literally any object, able to smash even the brain inside of your skull. She was meant to be our ace in the hole in the Cold War. That is, until Eleven escaped the Hawkins National Laboratory, the Area 51-esque installation where these experiments have been going down. Her hair is shorn entirely, and I honestly thought she was a boy upon first sight. She’s scared out of her mind and doesn’t speak at all, as she’s been cut off from any normal human interaction. But one of the defining features about Elle, as a sort of subplot, is that nothing seems to have dehumanized her completely.
Elle struggles to move through the plot with an extremely limited vocabulary, saying only “yes,” “no,” “good,” and “bad,” and similarly terse word and statements, pointing when words fail her. One such word that Elle had the use of, most interestingly, was “pretty.”
We the viewer never actually hear the word spoken in the presence of Elle, and so it doesn’t seem that this word was learned recently. It may be true, as well, that no one taught her the significance of this word. It may not be so very far fetched to say that no one taught it to her. Something very fundamental could be evidenced here. Upon looking at a picture of Mike’s older sister, Nancy, she remarks “pretty” for the first time that we know of. She says it again upon getting a blonde wig to blend in better with the other children. She says it later on with a smile, (and about herself) as she looks in the mirror. Once again and finally she says “pretty,” but this time after losing the wig and asking Mike through tears whether or not she was “still pretty?” She desperately needs the affirmation from Mike in that moment that she was “still pretty.” If Elle is supposed to be maintaining her humanity despite the U.S. Government’s best attempts at drilling it out of her, we very well could interpret her fascination with “pretty” as her maintaining her femininity.
Now, I don’t support the notion that femininity is totally tied up in material realities like outward beauty, but that being said, there is a special inclination to the graceful, the elegant, and the beauteous that is naturally understood to be a part of femininity. Some would acknowledge this but dismiss it as cultural conditioning, but I think we can interpret Elle’s understanding of the word “pretty” as illustrative of the connection of femininity with beauty, and even moreso that femininity desires to be beheld. More about that in a moment, but for now, it is also worth noting that this desire for being beheld is innate. We can see innateness in asking some simple questions: where did Elle learn these things? Who in Hawkins National Labs taught her this? Did anyone read her stories of beautiful princesses, or poetry, or show her portraits? We would be entirely reasonable in assuming not. Elle was trying to be dehumanized, repurposed into a tool. Little girls have always been drawn (more or less, I admit) to the “pretty,” and desired that for themselves.
Despite what feminists would have us believe, Elle could be an object lesson for us all of the more general truth that there are indeed real, inherent differences between men and women. That when the Bible tells us “God created man in his own image, ... male and female he created them,” (Gen 1:27, ESV) that that power and authority in creation carries right on up to today, and that they are inseparable from our identity as human beings. These differences are not bred into us by our upbringing, but have deep roots directly into our souls and help make up the complex tapestry of personhood. And as I said before, if it helps define us as humans that we are male and female, it helps define what humanity is in that it is being an image bearer of God. As God is the most beautiful, gracious, majestic, breath-taking being in the universe, it’s only befitting that we who are made by Him to behold Him as vastly great and desirable as He is, and that that is the highest end we can have. So why then wouldn’t that God impart that inclination to being beheld into His images? He indeed has. In Elle, and in the female half of the population, there is a desire to be beheld and to be delighted in that should point us to the most ultimate delight we are to have and to cherish; God.
2. Dear Old Papa Wheeler
We all got a good solid laugh of derision out of the behavior and activity of Ted Wheeler, the father of Nancy and Mike Wheeler. Nothing quite sums up the way that he parents than early on when Mike is deeply concerned about Bill’s disappearance. After being accused of apathy, Ted looks up with the most abjectly apathetic face possible and tells Mike that he is indeed concerned. He then continues munching on his chicken without batting an eye. In that same scene, Mike’s mother voices that sentiment after the table breaks up in frustration. All Ted is really concerned with is calling back to his wife to find out “what did I do?” “What did I dooo?” A question of guilt, of culpability. Not a question of “what’s wrong with you” (which, admittedly, is still extremely obvious), but rather a question of what did I do wrong. This type of response is the classic emotionally distant dad one; caring very little about his kid’s minds, hearts or even experiences, but rather caring more for maintaining an even keel of comfort and calm in the house.
Moving forward, we never see him having an in depth conversation with his son, and he never really questions his son’s extremely suspicious behavior. He borders on neglectful obliviousness as he very rarely appears anywhere outside the house, and his only effort at consolation comes when the Hawkins Labs employees commandeer his house and he reminds his wife; “this is our government, they’re on our side.” The attempt to say something to make his wife feel better is admirable, but it could be equally true that Ted is far too ready to retreat, to be passive and “go with the flow.” Given his depth of concern and care shown elsewhere, this could definitely be so.
Ted serves as the parable in how not to be a father. Fatherhood gets dealt with all over the bible, as one of the bedrocks of humanity is the family. Good fatherhood is wise, disciplined, and compassionate. The good father is one who is seeking and attempting to impart wisdom to his children; the entirety of the Proverbs was written as a monologue from a father to a son: “Hear, O sons, a father's instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts;” (Proverbs 4:1). We really don’t know to what extent Ted is a wise or unwise man, but the usual sort of journeyman/master relationship we see between father and son isn’t present as far as we can tell, and long conversations between Ted and Mike aren’t plentiful.
Equally true, a father doesn’t always just have long wise conversations walking into the sunset after fishing at the pond. Often, discipline has to play a part. Children learn and grow in an environment of gentle, straightforward discipline. Of course, the obvious here is that by discipline I don’t mean punishment. The former is the leading and guiding of someone in the right direction through correction, whereas the latter has no view towards changing anyone, it’s only goal is to take a pound of flesh out of someone. We honestly don’t see much of either going on in the Wheeler household. It might be worthwhile to go back to the dinner table scene mentioned above for a look at Ted’s parenting style. As Mike pleads with his mom and dad to let him go out and search for his missing friend (Bill Beyers), Mike’s mom gives him the parental third degree, telling him he is to stay in tonight. When Mike appeals to his dad for a ruling he give out the most typical stand-offish answer he could; “listen to your mother.” “listen to your mother?” While this is common practice at some point in most every couple’s lives, it should be the exception and not the rule. More often than not the father should step up in these situations and make a statement of reality to clarify and to teach the child, and a statement of authority to command respect.
Compassion, too, is paramount in fathering. Biblical encouragements to discipline and correction are to be understood in line with a view to raising up a more well-rounded person, showing them the ways of Christ both in teaching and in living. Paul says as much when he says, “fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline of The Lord” in Ephesians 6:4. This must require compassion, as he also writes that fathers are meant to discipline their children and to not “provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21). All totalled, this is a call to be deeply involved, and to be a much different dad than Ted.
3. The Character of Nancy
I could have talked about the severe lack of character that we see in Steve across the series, but that was too blatant to even talk about. Granted, we did see some growth in him, but I digress. I want to talk rather about the way that Nancy interacted with Jonathan Beyers. That area is one where we see Nancy holding onto a higher sense of duty and obligation. From very early on, while Steve and his Trump-haired partner in crime stand afar off and make fun of Jonathan as he puts up flyers about his missing brother, Nancy is the only one who approaches him and tries to offer some comfort. Granted that she can only say that everyone is “thinking about him,” she feels the internal pressure to not let him go through this while being made fun of. We can look at that very instance and tie it later into the scene with Nancy and Steve at his house. Steve’s influence is almost always present as a corrupting influence on Nancy, causing her to ignore Barbera at the party, acting in ways that are clearly inconsistent with her generally benevolent nature. But we’ll come back to Barb in a moment; for now we’ll focus on Nancy and Jonathan Beyers.
Jonathan and his family are clearly from the wrong side of the tracks, and in a small town, everyone knows. Poor students in school often get the worst treatment, being mocked, avoided, and misunderstood. There’s a very strong correlation between integrity, therefore, and sticking up for those less fortunate. When it comes to the dynamic between Nancy and Jonathan it seems pretty clear that she could be an allegory of what Proverbs 14:31 says:"He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, But he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.” This attitude comes through throughout the series, as she continually sticks up for Jonathan and the Beyers family. She truly has an inclination for standing up for the less-than in her midst, and that’s a key part of what it means to follow Christ. (Of course, I can’t prove Nancy is a Christian, or that ST is a “Christian show,” nor is that my goal; just to show that God has the “trademark” on what we subconsciously call good and bad).
Also, going back to Barb, she remains friends with Barb no matter what seems to want to draw her away. Barb may not be in poverty, but she represents a class of people that are also social bottom dwellers. As a “geek,” “nerd,” or (more appropriate for the eighties), a “dweeb,” Barb was not well liked by the vast majority.The Bible says, in the first clause of Romans 12:16 that we ought to “live in harmony with one another...” That’s a fairly simple statement and one that many people would be fine with in and of itself. But it’s so very difficult, isn’t it? All of us, good people, bad people, young, old, all races, both genders; all of us seem to have tension across the board with people unlike ourselves and like ourselves alike. Maybe it’s not our faults, like when a particular enemy that has something against us which isn’t really on us. Maybe the fault is dual, both parties needing to put their weapons down. Or maybe, we are holding onto a illegitimate grudge. Wherever we find ourselves, God shows us discord is merely a symptom. Paul follows the injunction to “live in harmony” immediately with the injunction to “not be haughty, but associate with the lowly,” and that shows me something crucial about the root of Steve-like behavior.
For Christ, it’s not enough to simply say “be nice.” There are realities at the level of the heart that are much more fundamental, important, complicated. There’s no denying that to tell someone to do better but give them no tools to do so is simply not going to work. This is a natural principle with a spiritual equivalent. We need a change at the deepest part of us to make us humble.
As Paul finishes up verse 16, he gives us the secret of how to meaningfully do the “live in harmony with one another” and the “associate with the lowly”: “... never be wise in your own sight” (Romans 12:16). The ESV is closer to the original Greek wording, but the NIV is closer to the idea that Paul had in mind from the context, and it is simply “do not be conceited” (Romans 12:16, NIV). Being willing to associate with the lowly is both a call to action and a picture of what humility creates; the outward fruit of the deep invisible roots of humility, which God alone can bring to fruition.
Even if you hate Christ and want nothing to do with Christianity, if you’re ambivalent, or wherever you are. I hope I've shown that the way we see morality is dependant upon God’s view of it. I hope we see that he’s ingrained it into our hearts, and that great works of fiction can illustrate and illuminate the great and glorious God of the Bible.