Netflix’ original 8-part series, Stranger Things, was written by the Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross) and is streaming now on Netflix. It stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Fin Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown.
There’s a saying that you may be the only Bible the people around you read. I want to take that one step further and say that there are things in popular culture that may be the only theology some people read and even further yet by saying Netflix’ Stranger Things is one of those things. Now, you may think linking popular culture and theology is a bit of stretch, but it is true. The great Donald G. Barnhouse (pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1927-1960 – that’s right, a real pastor!) used to say all of life illustrates Bible doctrine. And Stranger Things illustrates! Now, I am not saying that Stranger Things is the equivalent of Calvin’s Institutes, but it is a great story that, like Calvin, has the potential to make you think about life differently. Of course, there are some choice words used that aren’t in the Bible or in Calvin, so it is not for younger kids (but then, neither is Calvin nor the Song of Solomon and parts of Judges). It is also a bit on the dark side; but when it comes to illustrating some key Biblical truths, it is awfully good, as strange as that may sound.
The plot line is intense. Will Byers, a middle school student, is on his way home at night after spending 10-plus hours with his three best friends playing a role playing game. It’s the 80’s, and Will lives in a small town in the middle of Indiana (that is part of the show’s charm — it’s all nostalgia with 80’s anxiety and throwback hints to the classics, X-Files, Stand by Me and Lucas’ ET, to name only a few). But on his way home, Will is accosted and abducted by something terrifying, something evil. When his mother discovers that Will is missing, she goes to the town sheriff, Jim Hopper. But there’s a problem: Hopper is broken and tormented by his own demons. His emotional scars are very visible from the moment we meet him (but that is also one of the big ideas of Stranger Things: everyone is broken; some just hide it better than others). But here’s the strange part: yes, Will disappears; but Eleven appears. And while Eleven is just a young girl, it is obvious that there is something strange about her. She is barefoot. She is wearing a hospital gown. Her head is shaved. She doesn’t say much, and she has no idea what certain words mean (words like “friend,” “promise” and “love”). And we realize she has no comprehension of any words that reflect a loving relationship. (The irony is that only the most broken characters in the show, those who have suffered great loss, seem to have any real grasp of those things; and I wonder at times if any of us truly understand these ideas). Bottom line: Eleven appears, but we have no idea who she is or how she got here. One thing is certain: she doesn’t belong here. But we are made to think that perhaps the government lab down the street knows who she is and maybe holds the key to all of our mysteries. But there’s another problem: not all government labs can be trusted. Worse yet, this government lab seems to have let a chilling monster loose into our world, and it is hungry. And into this mix of mystery and danger and heartache and fear come three boys, Will’s best friends, who will do anything to find Will and bring him home.
Now, that should be enough to entice you to watch Stranger Things. Even if you do not normally enjoy science fiction, there is enough here that ought to capture your attention. And while you should come for the story in of itself, please stay for the theology because, as strange as it sounds, it has great theology.
For instance, Stranger Things gives us a new and vigorous picture of our world of sin. In Stranger Things there are two worlds, the world we see and the world that lurks just beyond. And that world is an “upside down world,” where all is death and decay and misery. In that world, all is shadow and dark vines and smoke and ash. But here’s the thing: these two worlds are intimately connected. The bad news is the upside world of shadows wants desperately to take over our world. It’s just waiting for an opportunity, and perhaps now it has that chance. Here’s the twist: we the audience see this upside down world, and some characters in Stranger Things see it, but most characters just don’t believe it exists. But it is true: this dark world lurks close at hand, waiting to drag anyone down into its depths; but not many seem overly concerned. Does that sound strangely familiar to you?
Stranger Things also gives us a new picture of Evil that is vivid. Perhaps playing off CS Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, Evil in Stranger Things has no face, and that makes it ten times scarier and one hundred times more real. But here’s the thing, in part one of Till We Have Faces, it is God who does not have a face. He is viewed by the main character as silent, cold and void of all mercy and compassion. He is a God who doesn’t speak, a God who is evil and cruel. But in part two, the main character sees God differently. In this second part of the book, God is seen as good and loving and merciful; and WE are the one who have no faces. We are seen as the ones who have no desire to seek God or even to see our true selves. Indeed, this part of the book calls us to strip away our masks (the pretense and delusions that we put on like a mask to hide ourselves from God, others and self) and show ourselves to the one who comes seeking us. Now Stranger Things takes us to a land where CS Lewis never went. In Stranger Things, Evil has no face. It is merciless and cruel and desires only to kill, maim and destroy. We often see pictures of Satan, a creature with horns and a forked tail; but if you ask me, they are never quite terrifying enough. But the idea of Evil without a face is absolutely horrifying.
Stranger Things also identifies our common malaise towards God. There’s a great conversation about science where Sheriff Hopper says: “I always had a distaste for science. Sarah, my daughter—galaxies, the universe, whatnot—she always understood all that stuff. I always figured there was enough going on down here that I never needed to look elsewhere.” Don’t miss this: There is a whole other world around him, but he is ensconced in the heartache and busyness and brokenness of life. In this, Hopper speaks what so many of us feel deep within our hearts. Pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, life and heartache, squeeze God out of our lives. We don’t need to look elsewhere. We’ve got enough to do just to stay afloat. But if we just opened our eyes. . . .
Stranger Things also speaks of friendship, of steadfastness, of sacrifice, and the power love. It is the story of healing and hope and the ongoing suffering that takes place in a fallen world. It’s a story of holding on to the truth when everyone around you denies it. And it is the story of triumph where good conquers evil, but at a very costly price.
In our world, we tend to deny there is another world at our fingertips, a world that is hidden but is, nevertheless, very real. The ancient Celts gave the gateways between our world and God’s world a name. They called them “thin places.” In fact, there is an old Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even smaller. There are places where God’s glory breaks through into our world, and we are moved to worship and to feel God’s presence and to know his joy and salvation. Stranger Things teaches us that the distance between hell and earth are equally close. Death is always lurking just beyond our grasp. But Jesus tells us that death and hell and anguish need not consume us. There is such a thing as hope and love and mercy. There is such a thing as a God of grace and compassion. There is such a thing as forgiveness of sin. There is such a thing as redemption. And in our broken world of heartache and suffering and pain, if good things truly exist, if the God of the Bible exists, then that might be strangest thing of all.