Can Superhero Films Help You Rethink Liturgy?

in Pop Culture, Theology
August 1st, 2011


Summer heralds the release of superhero films that draw people from the heat of the day into heavily air-conditioned and darkened theatres.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Thor, and the X-Men are on display this summer, part of a regular summer pattern in recent years of special effects driven action spectacles. While the hero of the summer changes each year, the superhero blockbuster returns with a fresh face battling the next evil doer. Whoever the hero, we go to the cinema and let our imaginations run free.

Be intentional about your worship structure and space so the imagination is given every opportunity to flourish and engage with the liturgical life of your community.

The imaginative world of superhero films and the structure of the theatre shape a specific experience. Superhero movies offer a few important features that make them useful illustrations for liturgy. Liturgical experience and the experience of the cinema both invite the participant community to a realm of imagination that refigures the mundane experience outside of the constructed space.

The structure of the cinema and the imaginative world of the superhero film offer tools for new understandings of liturgy in your congregation.

The Structure of Cinema, Liturgy and the Summer

The summer offers times of intense heat and long days, and the movie theatre beckons as a respite from normal summer space. The individual theatres themselves have doors and curtains that you walk through, you enter into a dimly lit space, and find a seat. The ritual action of passing through a gate keeping figure, passing through a threshold, and entering into a new space sets the space of the theatre apart from where you came.

The altered space of the theatre combined with the uncanny valley of the superhero develops a sense of mystery and imagination in the viewer, leading to an experience that reframes their return to ordinary space.

Theatres often are heavily air conditioned, cooling you from the summer heat, another sign that this space is not like the space from where you came. The screen is large, much larger than even the largest plasma televisions at home, with sound systems that immerse you in an experience you cannot find in daily living. The architecture of the space enhances your disposition and expectation that you will soon have an experience.

Like the cinema, the sanctuary houses the space for evoking the imagination of those present. The entryways are marked, specific attire is worn, and regular repeated rituals with seasonal variation mark the time of the year and the rhythm of worship life. The liturgical year has rhythms of offerings like film, with Christmas and Easter marking highly dramatic times. The structure of the liturgical space represents a place set apart, with decorations and colors and seating unlike other spaces.

The Imaginative World of the Superhero Films

Theatres offer the same space for all movies, but superhero movies play on this space well. Superheroes live in the uncanny valley. They are largely normal humans with a small twist that makes them not quite human. Telepathy, control of magnetism, flight, super strength, speed, and endurance displayed by superheroes do not occur in the lives of moviegoers.

However, since they are just a step removed from humanity we can enter into their world and imagine what it would be like, how we would be if we had the same powers but the same often terrifying responsibilities and choices.

the realm of imagination is within us at all times, but the space of the theatre brings the imaginative world to life

The movie is an experience where imagination mixes with morality and excitement. For a time disbelief is suspended and good ultimately conquers evil, but not without a price and conflict. The altered space of the theatre combined with the uncanny valley of the superhero develops a sense of mystery and imagination in the viewer, leading to an experience that reframes the viewer’s return to ordinary space.

Making the Space

Gerard Loughlin writes on the space of the cinema in his provocatively titled text on theology and film, Alien Sex, where he likens the cinema to Plato’s cave.

Traditionally, philosophers have scorned the residents of the cave as a place of viewing the ghosts of ghosts. Plato would have us transcend the fantasy of the cave to find the true and the good.

Loughlin has a kinder reading of the cave.

For Loughlin, the cave is where dreams are projected. We enter the theatre cave conscious of the difference between the imaginative reality that the movie explores and the reality from which we enter. The realm of the imagination is no less real than the quotidian life outside of theatre, since the realm of imagination is within us at all times, but the space of the theatre brings the imaginative world to life.

Loughlin links the function of the cave in cinema to the function of the cave in the temple or church. In liturgical space, the imagination is free to project its dreams and allow the participants an experience of a specifically guided imaginative space. The imagination of participants in worship is guided through the music selection, prayer time, sacred texts and sacraments of word and communion.

When done well, liturgical space excites the imagination to change the very real character of the participant. The use of the imagination brings the participant to deeper levels of discipleship and self-understanding as a participant in the faith community. Done poorly, it shuts down the imagination as the boredom of the participant rises and her feelings of alienation from the community grow.

Rethinking Liturgical Space

In your congregation’s worship, what marks the change of space that separates the space from the rest of your congregation’s lives?

How have you prepared the sanctuary for the visual shift marking a separate and special event?

What rhythms of the year do you presently already have, and how can you work with them to establish a ritual pattern that provides different experiences of the faith journey for your congregation?

The world of imagination and the uncanny valley are important for liturgy. Often we make the world of scriptural texts a domestic adaptation of our own world. We forget the truly different context of the ancient near east with the powers of Rome, Babylon, and Egypt conquering Israel. The scriptural world is still made of people, still on the same earth. Yet is at times radically different from our contemporary context.

Be intentional about your worship structure and space so the imagination is given every opportunity to flourish and engage with the liturgical life of your community. Liturgy can bring participants into the world of faith, which is a different world from the contemporary context.

The community participates in stories we uplift as sacred in the past through scripture and in the present through witness and testimony. The flow of worship rises to specific climaxes such as the sermon or communion, and needs the rise and ebb of energy to touch the imagination and play out the drama of the scriptural world.

The vibrancy of the tradition is most fully present in the imagination of the congregation only once the true grandeur and difference of the scriptural world from our own is acknowledged. Your liturgy, based on imagining how you structure both the worship space and pattern of ritual helps let the imaginative world live in the minds of your congregation.

Andrew Tripp is a doctoral student in Practical Theology at Boston University, and studies how narratives are used and performed by communities. View more of his work on his page

Tell your friends!

8 Comments on Can Superhero Films Help You Rethink Liturgy?

  • Hey Andrew. I love the way you link these two imaginative spaces and make the value of liturgy accessible even to people like me who don’t know much about it. Thanks for the great article!

  • Andrew, thanks for a fascinating article! Can Andrew (and others) offer specific examples of congregations creating imaginative liturgical spaces? What are some examples of liturgy growing out of such spaces?

  • Hi Andrew, thanks for an evocative article linking pop culture and liturgical imaginations. The spaces we inhabit are so important to our identity and well-being – Holy spaces even more so. thanks!

  • I found Andrew’s exploration really intriguing, but it led me to question the corollary of his insight: Can the thrill, creativity, or morality of these movies lead one who is fairly unfamiliar or unversed in liturgy to it? I’ve heard athletes compare the experience of being at the height of their game to painting a masterpiece, and I’ve heard musicians compare their deepest performances to the experience of flying. Do the special effects and spectacle of these movies in particular lend insight to the layperson of engaging in liturgy and preaching?

  • Thank you all for your kind remarks.

    In response to Jaclyn’s question, I think that the sanctuary of most congregations can frame imaginative space. However, it can be done in better and worse ways depending on the use of the space. Lighting, stained glass, music, flowers, candles, and the religious symbols and banners can offer a space that is separate from the rest of the week. In a worship service I led in the past I had giant colorful fabric draped across the ceiling and along side sconces to transform the look of the space. In evening worship I’ve kept lights dim to focus on candle light. I’ve participated in Veteran’s Day services where music from the era of the war being remembered was included as prelude, postlude, and anthem selections. The answer can be as varied as the contexts in which people gather for worship since there is no stock solution to doing it right.

    In response to David’s remark, I wouldn’t make the claim that experience of the blockbuster would lead one unversed in religious ritual to religious ritual beyond civic religion. There are rituals to sporting events such as the seventh inning stretch in baseball and the national anthems before the game begins which are other forms of civic religious ritual.


  • Movies are generally a passive experience. You get yourself to the theater, but the experience afterward is a received one. Your suggestions for transforming the space are seem to function the same way, with the service attendee seeing or hearing different things but not interacting with them. Can an interactive component accomplish the same effect you’re describing? Is an interactive component even possible?

  • Nathan,
    Thank you for your question. I would argue that people do more than passively receive a movie, since there is participation in the response. Laughter, applause, tears, suspense, and anxiety are all the audiences response to the call offered up on the screen. However, to get to the point about an interactive ritual offering the same experience, the space and structure of the cinema offer ideas of how to better use the space and structure liturgy. The space and structure of interactive settings could similarly be conceived. Depending on the worship tradition, there is more or less participation by the congregation. Ritual uses more senses than just sound, so the visuals of the space, the smells of the space, and the kinesthetic feel of the space convey messages. Some of our deepest memories are actually linked to smell, so scents of incense or oils or the at times ancient wood in worship spaces link to previous experiences and make the overall worship experience meaningful and serve to indicate the special nature of worship space. More or less interactive rituals still benefit from intentional structuring of the worship space.


  • How would you create this kind of mystery in a procession outside?

Post Your Comment