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Indiana-JonesIs it possible that the popular Indiana Jones trilogy is a cleverly structured, well thought-out, theologically astute analogy of the Christian spiritual quest? I do not suggest that it is an allegory, and I realize it is always possible to read too much into popular film and fiction, but might there be more meaning there than meets the eye?

J.R.R.Tolkien grew weary of readers who insisted that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory about World War II or the Cold War. In the introduction to his masterpiece Tolkien insisted, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

When Tolkien vociferously denies that LOTR is an “allegory,” he seems to be denying that it is a fable: that is, he is reacting against stupid people who were inclined to say, “The ring is the atomic bomb. The Shire is England. Minas Tirith is the United States. Mordor is Nazi Germany. Isengard is Fascist Italy. Wormtongue is Neville Chamberlain. Eowyn is Vera Lynn.”

C.S. Lewis also denied that his Narnia stories were allegorical, but did not deny his intent for the stories to bear a theological reading. He used the word “analogy” to explain how the Narnia stories reflected an underlying theological system. Can the same kind of analogy to truth be detected in the Indiana Jones films? Let me give it a try.

The theological theory of Indiana Jones goes like this: The films reflect the religious and spiritual growth of humanity as Jones develops positively as a human being. As he comes to understand himself and as he goes on a quest, he is also going on a quest to understand and experience deeper theological truths.

indiana jones and the temple of doomTo understand the theory it is necessary to start with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—which is the second film to be made, but as a prequel is the first of the stories chronologically. In this film Jones is attempting to redeem children who have been enslaved by members of the bloodthirsty Thuggee cult. To do this he must recover the magical stone, the sivalinga—a pagan phallic symbol and sign of fertility. Early in the film the nightclub singer asks the womanizing Jones why he is on this quest, and like the pagans he is countering, Jones replies, “Fortune and glory, honey. Fortune and glory.” In other words, in the first film Indiana Jones’ main concern is Indiana Jones. Jones for the money. Jones for the show. Jones for the showgirl. Temple of Doom was criticized for its nihilistic tone, dark themes and violence, but whether the film makers intended it or not, the bloodthirstiness and dark terror are a fitting reflection of the pagan world view and Jones’ own lusty, greedy, bloodthirsty self.

The second film in the chronological sequence is Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Judaism is an advance on paganism, so Dr. Jones is now not only pursuing a Jewish artifact, but he is also engaged in a moral battle against evil incarnate—the Nazis. The intrepid archeologist has also grown as a person because, when he encounters one of the women he tossed away (Marion Ravenwood), he accepts her justified rebuff, but returns to save her from the Nazis and take responsibility for her on the ensuing adventure. Echoing the Old Testament story, Indiana Jones goes down into Egypt, battles with the forces of worldly power, and finally encounters the power of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade.13405Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade takes the storyline into Christian territory. From being a selfish grave robber to being a world savior by finding the lost ark, Indiana Jones now continues his personal crusade not only to recover the holy grail, but to find his father. The final film in the trilogy therefore echoes with Christian symbolism and themes. The cross or “X” always marks the spot. The guardians of the grail are willing to be martyrs to defend the holy relic, and Indy comes to realize that the quest is about eternal life and reconciliation with the father, not just the pursuit of “fortune and glory, honey.” The climax of the film (and arguably the whole trilogy) is when Jones Sr. is shot and the villain Donovan says, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe Dr . Jones.”

To save his father’s life Jones must face three tests, which are the marks of becoming a Christian. He must be penitent. He must hear the word of God and he must take the step of faith. Up to this point Jones has been a cynical, smart but world-weary warrior. Now as he learns to kneel, listens to the Word of God, and takes the step of faith he also receives the wisdom to “choose wisely” when presented with a range of possible grail cups. He chooses the cup of salvation while the villain chooses the cup of death, reminding savvy viewers that to drink unworthily is to drink damnation to oneself.

While the theological theory of Indiana Jones works cleverly, what is mysterious about it is that it is very unlikely to have been intentional. The character and idea for the films were conceived by George Lucas, but Steven Spielberg was soon heavily involved. The story and first two screenplays were written by Lucas, Philip Kauffman, Lawrence Kasdan, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz. Spielberg increasingly took charge, and the third movie went through various stages of development with input from Lucas, Spielberg, and five different writers who, among other things, were wrestling with an earlier concept called Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, while also trying to weave in the ideas of stars Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

This collaborative process must make theologizing about the series of movies a highly imaginative process in itself. If it was wrong to see allegorical meanings in Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, which had single authors, surely it is impossible to read theological themes into a trilogy of films by twelve or more creative minds over a twelve-year period.

saving private ryanIs the theological theory of Indiana Jones therefore simply an example of cinematic theological pareidolia? Is it an obsessive attempt to read into a story more than is there? Steven Spielberg has commented on this phenomenon. When asked what various symbols and characters represented in his World War II film Saving Private Ryan he answered enigmatically, “You tell me what they mean. I’m always interested in the things people see in my films that I never knew were there.”

Therefore rather than writing off the theological theory of Indiana Jones as so much wishful thinking of an imaginative Christian with too much time on his hands, we ought to ponder the mysterious interactions of creativity with truth. In attempting to tell a good story did the various Indiana Jones writers unwittingly tap into deeper truths? Were universal religious themes percolating in the subconscious of the film writers and storytellers? By connecting with the classical hero’s quest were the story spinners also connecting with truths that it is the theologian’s task to recognize, mine, and explicate?

The one who doubts the existence of the theological theory of Indiana Jones would say, “These are just good stories.” To which we could reply, “Yes, and they prove the point that every good story is also a true story.”

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4 replies to this post
  1. I think Robert Browning’s take on this sort of enquiry is, or at least ought to be, the last word on works of the imagination. When asked to explain what his notoriously difficult poem SORDELLO actually “meant” he replied with words to this effect: ” While I was writing it only God and Robert Browning knew. But now…only God knows, I’m afraid.”

  2. While I do think your reading stuff into the Indiana Jones movies is a case of pareidolia, I laughed out loud at the “Eowyn is Vera Lynn” line. You’re always entertaining, Father Dwight.

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