Baker Academic

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Stranger Things approach to the Gospels

If you are not up-to-speed on the Duffer Brothers's totally tubular series, Stranger Things, please stop reading now. Stop it. Just stop and go watch the first two seasons on Netflix. . . . what are you still doing here?

***Mild to moderate spoilers spoilers ahead***

Stranger Things is not the first show to echo, allude, quote, and frame itself around the previous generations pop-culture. Not the first; but might be the best. In this case, the show draws from the plots, tropes, and types of 1980's era science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Season two just dropped in full last week and its brimming with Easter eggs from Star Wars, Alien(s), Goonies, E.T., Flight of the Navigator, the Exorcist, Poltergeist, and more. You'll even recognize a couple actors who play with character types they helped create once upon a time.

The risk in such an endeavor is that such derivation can be derivative. But Stranger Things is able (indeed more than able) to wink to the audience repeatedly without distraction. While the characters are recognizable types, they engender empathy. While the plot is sometimes predictable, it is highly creative. Even if nostalgia for the 1980s isn't your thing, you would have to possess a heart of stone not to fall in love with Hawkins, Indiana. This show has all of the self-awareness and period-specific care of the Wonder Years. This is coupled with an cast of freakishly talented actors. It seems that the Duffer Brothers have super-psychic powers to anticipate their audiences feelings and questions so that they can pay them off is successive chapters.

As a consequence of my profession, this has me thinking about the Gospels and GMark in particular. GMark may indeed look like period-specific biography with derivative form and function. But, analogous with Stranger Things, GMark also creatively plays with types that assume the reader's knowledge of previous narratives. Sometimes these are followed and sometimes these are subverted. Indeed there is no single literary technique at work that explains their overarching application. Elijah/Elisha typology: yes. But these types are not made explicit in the places that seem to warrant a bold call out. Conversely, types like "David" and "Moses" are mentioned directly but no single character's typology determines where GMark will take its main character.

Moreover, as I read GMark, I do not find a single, unifying narrative framework that explains every trope and type. Cases have been made for single narrative derivations (e.g. Isaianic New Exodus; Psalm 22 midrash). But the extent and diversity of the echoes, allusions, quotations, and frameworks suggests that GMark is more creative than simple derivation. I get the impression, rather, of a mosaic of popular narratives.

This has me thinking that Stranger Things might serve as a teaching tool to illustrate how the Gospels function episodically. Each episode of the series plays with a theme from a 1980's movie. The overarching plot, however, is not predetermined by any single type. Analogous on this point is GMark's easy transition from David type, to Moses type, to Elijah type in unfolding chapters. GMark's key characters take on stereotypes but play out plot scenarios to unique effect. On the other hand, GMark comes together as something novel when all of these elements are narratively arranged.

The characters of Stranger Things, when faced with other-worldly drama, attempt to explain their extraordinary experiences in reference to mythologies like D&D and Star Wars. The characters argue about how to best analogize these mythologies. GMark's characters do the same in their arguments over how to interpret Hebrew Bible prophets, figures, and projected eschatology. This happens in both stories often enough that the implicit Easter eggs are easier to interpret as intentional literary devices. But what makes the characters function within both stories is that their voices sound recognizable. For example, the kids in Stranger Things admirably sell their dialogue as typical arguments that represented 1980's pop-culture.

I would be interested to hear from readers who are familiar with Stranger Things. How has the story worked for you? Which echoes, allusions, and types were most meaningful to you? Which callbacks to pop-culture best served the story? And do you find any parallels to Gospel composition?


  1. The shameless use of the Ford Pinto is impressive on it's own.

  2. From Dr. G:

    Looks very promising.

    Although I don't support his work generally, Dr. James McGrath at Butler is also interested in the intersection between science fiction and religion.

    Me too.