Photo Credit: Netflix via Stranger Things Wiki, https://strangerthings.fandom.com/wiki/Stranger_Things_Wiki.
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Some people think theology is only written by theologians. It’s not. In fact, it’s written by everyone. Everyone has assumptions about three critical things: who God is, who we are, and what the world is like. Even if you think God doesn’t exist, that’s still an assumption. If you don’t state what your assumptions are, you still have them; you just haven’t articulated them. So, even when people are just creating art or expressing themselves in any form of media, there’s always a theology embedded in what they do. It’s unavoidable. It’s part of what it means to live in a world governed by God. And since Stranger Things has been one of my favorite recent TV series, I thought I’d ruminate on its theology.
WHY STRANGER THINGS?
But if everyone has a theology, if theology is embedded in all that we express, then why choose Stranger Things? I’ve got four reasons. First, I found the storyline and character development creative, gripping, and believable. By “believable” I don’t mean I think there really is a Russian plot being hatched beneath a mall in rural America to break into the underworld. Instead, I mean that I truly thought the characters would have developed in the way they were portrayed. One of the fundamental truths about humans is that they always develop; they always change. We just aren’t capable of looking in all the places where it might happen. Plus, since people are inconsistent, spotting change can be a tricky business.
Everyone has assumptions about three critical things: who God is, who we are, and what the world is like.
Second, I found a lot of places in Stranger Things where theology intersected with art. Here are some that stuck out to me.
- The nature of evil (as a desire to control or destroy)
- The nature of good (interpersonal love, meaningful human experiences/relationships)
- The role and power of our minds
- The highest purpose of life (self-sacrifice)
- The longing and hope for a “savior” figure
Third, Stranger Things is wildly popular and has an almost cult-like following. It recently became the second ever Netflix series to pass 1 billion hours viewed.  Thinking about its theology thus reveals a whole lot about what sorts of concepts and values the masses are drawn to, and perhaps why they’re so drawn.
Fourth, I love the 80s. I know that’s not a reason. Maybe it’s nostalgia or a millennial thing. But nothing holds my attention like those hightop white sneakers, 80s wash jeans, and “Shout” by Tears for Fears blasting in the background. I can’t explain it. But I’ve noticed the 80s setting as a trend in contemporary TV, so I can’t be the only one.
WHO GOD IS
Let’s look at the first major component: who God is. (For my own take, see The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World.)
At first pass, it doesn’t look as if Stranger Things has anything to say about the nature of God. But that’s because it makes the ever-so-common assumption in secular media that God is one of the following.
- practically irrelevant
- a cover people use to get what they really want
- a possession of the ignorant populace
I’m still waiting for a popular TV series to go deeper than this. Christian history has over two thousand years of rigorous thought, with fully developed bodies of literature on metaphysics (what exists), epistemology (how we know things), and ethics (what we should do). Many people who are critical of Christianity via popular media seem completely unaware of this. And yet they seem carefree about writing it off. It’s hard not to be annoyed. I mean, I’m not expecting a popular series to put forward any belief in God, especially not in the God of Christianity, since the Christian faith is increasingly marginalized in the west. But that doesn’t mean I don’t cringe when I see how shallow the portrayals of faith are.
The closest Stranger Things comes to a positive portrayal of God is when Hopper says from a Russian prison (S4.E7), “I thought I was put here to pay for what I’ve done. But I might have been put here for some other reason. Maybe I can still help El, even if it’s the last thing I do.” His comrade Antonov says, “You almost sound religious, American.” Hopper replies, “Religious? I don’t know about that. But maybe I should give that prayer thing a try. ‘Cause if we wanna get out of here, get back to El and Mikhail, you and me . . . we’re gonna need a miracle.”
Though Hopper is, like all of us, questioning his purpose and place in the mysterious providence of God, Stranger Things mostly portrays a “God of the gaps.” Basically, whatever can’t be fully explained by humans is fair game for God. If we’re desperate, we can pray. If we’re hopeless, we can ask for a miracle. But it’s assumed that the “God territory” grows smaller and smaller with time, as human progress develops. That’s an assumption carried over from the Enlightenment. And, to be frank, it’s arrogant and brittle. People who held to this Enlightenment ideal of human progress were certain the twentieth century would be one of the brightest. Instead, it was one of the darkest, with more tyranny, violence, pestilence, death, and starvation than the history of humanity had ever seen. That’s not to say there haven’t been great advances in human knowledge. There certainly have been. But there’s no sense in which humanity needs God any less now than it did a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago. We’ve always needed God, and will always need him. In fact, we can’t escape him as our very environment. The Apostle Paul says we live, move, and exist in God (Acts 17:28). That’s how relevant God is. I believe artists often don’t know how to portray God this way, given the popularity of the four assumptions listed at the outset of this section. It’s easier to ignore God than to factor him into every facet of reality. The latter takes a lot of work. And people either don’t want to do it or else don’t know how.
There’s no sense in which humanity needs God any less now than it did a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago. We’ve always needed God, and will always need him. In fact, we can’t escape him as our very environment.
In contrast, I believe we’re always and everywhere dependent on God in walking through the world each day. We depend on his character and faithfulness for what we think, say, touch, taste, feel, smell, and eat. We find God not just in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary.
None of us is truly self-sufficient. If you need a reminder of that, just look at your belly button (thanks to Kelly Kapic for pointing that out in You’re Only Human).You didn’t give birth to yourself, and every day since your birth has been a day of dependence on people and things well beyond your control. The one who holds all things together, including your brittle body and fragile mind, is God. And he’s also the one who is expressing himself in everything you see around you. I’d love to see more cinematic representations of that.
I also believe God gives meaning and relevance to everything. We all have values, aspirations, joys, and passions at our core because that’s how we’ve been made, by a personalGod, a tri-personal God. This is a God who houses truth, beauty, and goodness in himself, a God who gives sacred value to every human life, since we’re made in his image (Gen. 1:27). And it’s only in light of God that we can even seek what Hopper seeks: his purpose in the grand scheme of things. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe the theology of God presented by Stranger Things is anything close to biblical. But I never expected it to be. After all, this is mainline secular entertainment. But it can help to watch shows like this to compare and contrast your own thoughts with those being expressed for art or entertainment’s sake. Apparently, this view of God is readily digestible by the masses. And that’s no surprise either, since humanity has a sordid history of ignoring God’s presence. Since many people in the world view God as functionally irrelevant, they’re content to watch media that keeps God off the radar. What’s amusing to me is that all of the purposes each character pursues are groundless and unexplainable without God. As Van Til wrote, “Without a comprehensive purpose, every act of purpose on the part of man would be set in a void.” God grounds all our purposes, all our aspirations, all our values, all our moral judgements. That’s probably why Machen said that our “relation to God is the all-important thing. It is not a mere means to an end. Everything else is secondary to it.”
WHO WE ARE
What does Stranger Things say about who we are? A lot, but let’s focus on just three areas: the power of the mind, the importance of relationships, and the nature of evil.
The Power of the Mind
Eleven’s powers—the result of inherited psychokinetic abilities—are an extension of her mind. The Stranger Things storyline assumes that mental powers can affect and manipulate electro-magnetic fields (a strange brand of Kantianism on steroids).
I won’t pretend to understand the science (or pseudo-science) behind it. But it’s at least clear that the mind has the power to manipulate reality. Henry (a.k.a. One, Vecna, the Mind Slayer) takes El’s psychokinetic powers to a dark place, consuming the mental lives of other humans and discarding their mangled bodies. While this power is obviously fictional, it does highlight the potency of our minds, which I still don’t think receives enough attention on a popular level. There’s much more awareness now than there was, say fifty years ago, of how much our thinking affects not just our emotions but even our bodies. But this hasn’t percolated the soil of the masses. And it should. The mind has been created by God and is linked to the body. We are what theologians call psychosomatic (body-spirit) image bearers. Each human being as a whole (body and spirit) images God. So it’s no surprise that thoughts are potent enough to have bodily effects—even if we can’t use our mind-powers to bring down a helicopter.
Stranger Things certainly draws our attention to the mental capacities we have. And I liked that, since I also believe the mind has profound power, as Scripture teaches. I’ve seen that first hand in living for over 15 years with an anxiety disorder. Thoughts are not mere thoughts. They change us. It’s no coincidence that the Apostle Paul tells us to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5; emphasis added). Why every thought? Because thoughts are powerful. They take us places we’d never imagine.
Thoughts are powerful. They take us places we’d never imagine.
So, while we may not be able to use our mental prowess to toss a Hawkins Lab van into the air, our thoughts are much more powerful than we often assume.
The Importance of Relationships
Personal relationships in Stranger Things express one the grand goods of humanity. I love how the relationships draw out personal traits and challenges that each character will have a chance to confront—whether that’s Nancy’s struggle to find what (and whom) she really wants without compromising on her own identity, or Will’s ongoing battle to find acceptance and value in a friendship circle that seems to outgrow him, or Mike’s fear of losing his superhero girlfriend, or El’s hope of understanding and overcoming her violent and troubled past, or Eddie’s battle against fear and his habit of fleeing (S.4).
What’s common to all of these relationships? Each character learns the importance of someone else in addressing his or her own personal problems. Self-sufficiency isn’t a virtue. Nancy needs Steve and Jonathan. Max needs Lucas. Joyce needs Hopper, and Hopper needs Joyce. Steve needs Nancy and Robin (and Dustin). There’s a beautiful interdependence among the characters. And I really appreciated this because that’s how life works. Growth and identity emerge in the context of relationships, not in the context of isolation.
Growth and identity emerge in the context of relationships, not in the context of isolation.
This is especially encouraging in a time when independence is so broadly embraced as a virtue. Sure, it’s good to be independent in a sense, but I believe we’re inherently relational beings, made in the image of a relational God. We weren’t made for utter independence and isolation. We were made to grow and develop with others. I found that truth prevalent throughout the series, whether it was intended or not.
The Nature of Evil
Now, why put the nature of evil in the category of “who we are”? Isn’t this more of a “what the world is like” element? Well, that depends. My theology tells me that evil isn’t something “out there.” Evil is “in here.” It’s in the rebellious hearts of creatures. And I would distinguish evil from sin. Evil is a broader category, of which sin is a subset. Because sin is in each human heart, evil is bound to follow. This is very different from the way in which evil is portrayed in parts of Stranger Things. While there are morally suspect characters (notably Dr. Brenner, a.k.a. “Papa” from the Hawkins Lab; Henry, a.k.a. Vecna), and while Hopper mentions that he thinks he ended up in a Russian prison to “pay for” his former choices, much of the series focuses on the evil that emerges from “the upside-down,” a shadow world. Evil comes from the outside, in other words, not from inside people (sin). At least, the focus certainly isn’t on personal moral failure.
But I did find Stranger Things perceptive on the nature of evil, the goal of evil. What do evil forces want to do? The goal of evil isn’t simply to take over the human world but to utterly destroy it. Evil speaks through Billy in season 3 (E.6), “We’re going to end you. And when you are gone, we’re going to end your friends. And then we are going to end everyone.” There’s no desire to rule over the world or change the people in it. There’s only a desire for destruction. This makes sense, given Henry’s isolation and alienation from other people. As Lord Vecna, Henry wants to destroy the world and start from scratch. He wants to make his own world.
In the Christian tradition, Satan is a mysterious figure, a once glorious angel of light who rebels against God and condemns himself to hell. But he’s also called “the ruler of the world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) and “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). In other words, he’s at work all around us until his final judgment comes. And what does he want? To deceive and destroy. Jesus Christ calls Satan “the father of lies” (John 8:44). But he also calls him “a murderer from the beginning” (8:44). Satan aims to lie and to kill. He would be happy to hoodwink the whole world, burn it to the ground, and then remove our blindfolds so we could watch the smoke rise. Satan only wants to deceive and destroy. The parallel between Satan and Vecna was striking in this sense. Both Satan and Vecna are creatures (not gods), and yet both strive for godlike mastery over all things. But they strive for this not because they want to modify the existing world, but because they want to destroy it. They’re spinsters of sabotage.
Deception, mingled with pain and guilt, leads to death. Doesn’t that also sound like Satan’s MO?
And look at their means. They do so through deception. We all know about Satan’s lies from Genesis 3, but Vecna’s deceptions were eerily similar. Vecna deceives his victims into thinking they are part of a fictional reality. Vecna would show up in that fictional reality—drawing on the victim’s past mistakes or pain points—and then he would crush and consume each victim. Deception, mingled with pain and guilt, leads to death. Doesn’t that also sound like Satan’s MO?
WHAT THE WORLD IS LIKE
Lastly, what does Stranger Things have to say about what the world is like? Again, I could say a lot here, but let me focus on one idea: The world is more than what it seems. And with this I heartily agree. The irony for characters who don’t know about the “upside-down” world is that what they think is critical actually pales in significance to a war between worlds. A trick-or-treating excursus is overshadowed by a wandering demi-dog puppy and a series of haunting flashbacks for Will. A county fair is trumped by a Russian plan to harness the powers of darkness. (Oh, and by the way, there’s a monster built from the melted bodies of civilians infiltrated by the Mind Slayer stomping in the woods behind the ferris wheel.) What’s actually going on has far greater weight than what appears to be going on.
This has some interesting parallels to the Christian faith, where Paul describes our real battle as something otherworldly. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Things around us are more than they appear to be.
Those who refuse to believe will never see things as they really are. This applies as much to the Christian life as it does to the town of Hawkins.
One of my favorite lines in season 4 was Jason’s desperate question to the police: “How do you expect to stop the devil if you don’t believe he’s real?” That’s a question you could ask our own generation. The answer, of course, is that you can’t. You can’t address things you don’t believe are real. It’s only after belief comes that a remedy can follow. I found that fascinating, since the Christian faith also claims that apart from belief—in our own sin, in Jesus Christ as savior, in the work of God’s Spirit—we cannot be saved. It all comes down to belief, doesn’t it? Those who refuse to believe will never see things as they really are. This applies as much to the Christian life as it does to the town of Hawkins. We’re at war with cosmic powers over our present darkness, with spiritual forces of evil. And we can choose to disbelieve that if we wish. It just means we’ll do so at our peril.
Despite its gory details and horror, Stranger Things is an example of a TV series that can shine light on truths many Christians hold dear. It’s not, by any means, going to be a supporter of your faith. But it may leak truths about spiritual life unintentionally, since God’s common grace requires that this will happen. Because we live in God’s world, even secular artists will have their messages marbled with truth, despite their best efforts to cut it away. As Christians, we can see that truth, claim it for Christ, and show a world longing for entertainment that they might be much closer to the truth when binge-watching Netflix than it appears. Maybe the real upside-down is our present world, and the kingdom of Christ is where life is right-side up.