Once upon a time there was a world of self-satisfied Modern people, blissfully going about their materialistic existences, concerned with all the boring, trite things that Modern people are concerned with, such as the unimpeded advance of “civilization” of the people, by the people, and for the people (God neither needed nor included). It was a dandy time for all, and showed no signs of slacking at all.
That is, until a young boy discovered in a subterranean lair far beneath the streets of London a real, awesomely powerful, living, fire-breathing dragon. That is, until that dragon escaped and in one year’s time multiplied from one to one million, with, to put it quite mildly, absolutely devastating effects. That is, until the best Sovereign Science could offer, nuclear counter-strike, did little more than kill a few thousand dragons while simultaneously increasing the human death toll and widespread collapse of civilization’s infrastructure. That is until the scientists themselves pieced together the awful truth: the dinosaurs (and the entire ancient earth that supported them) were literally burned up by the superior dragon species, the omnipresent ash from whose awesome fire blasts choked the sunlight and brought on the great Ice Ages, causing the dragons themselves, now food-less, to hibernate for millions of years. That is, until the great temple of man’s Modern achievements crumbled to ruins in the face of a product of the very Nature we once thought we had conquered with our Reason, and humanity itself was reduced to isolated pockets of despairing, scavenging survivalists.
Less my obviously editorial interspersions, these are the premises of Reign of Fire, a dragon movie that if it was not written by a Christian certainly ought to have been. The movie doesn’t mention God or religion at all; indeed, the closest it gets is a sort of “catechism class” that teaches young, impressionable children how to survive dragons…by running away from them and hiding. Such cowardice is the epitome of the Modern spirit which hides its faithlessness under cover of a smarmy “tolerance”, its ignorance of the world under cover of “scientific advances”, and its fear of the unknown under Invictus‘ “unconquerable soul”.
The main character, Quinn (played by Christian Bale), who was the boy who originally discovered the dragon in London, has hidden out with a large group of refugees in a derelict English castle, where they have worked out elaborate plans to run and hide from the dragons in the hope that by “waiting them out”, the humans will one day (inexplicably) win the day.
The Christian answer to the dragons comes in the person of Denton Van Zan (played by Matthew McConaughey), an American soldier whose batallion has discovered that the root of the dragon infestation is in London itself and has braved an 8,000 mile trans-oceanic flight (something thought impossible since for 20 years the dragons have ruled the skies) to England in order to invade the dragon’s home and kill it. I say this is “the Christian answer” not because Van Zan or anyone else in his squadron is Christian, but rather, because the dragon-killing thoughts and actions they pursue only make sense within a Christian framework, not the evolutionary one rather weakly tacked onto the beginning and end of the film.
Van Zan expresses a truly Christian attitude when at a climactic point in the personal battle between himself and Quinn, he notes that given the nature of the beasts (literally!) there is no compromise. For the dragons as well as for the humans there is no middle ground–one species must and will die, and only one will live. This is nothing less than a restatement of the great antithesis of the Christian faith. The Great Dragon, Satan, has always sought unconditional rulership of a world that is not his, and it has always been the duty of the people of God to unconditionally resist him and, because our King has already broken the back of the dragon, root out all his remaining fortifications and raise the banner of the Kingdom of God over their defunct remains. This truth is expressed beautifully by Van Zan when Quinn wonders how the soldiers crossed a sky that supposedly belongs to the dragons, and Van Zan replies forcefully, “It’s our sky!”, and then later says that their goal is nothing less than to “take back our world”.
It needs but little modification to see that this is basically the Christian message of God’s triumph in this world over the intruding Devil–a triumph He accomplishes through the use of instruments such as frail human beings who at least in their better moments have been known to sing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!” Our sappy age of compromise likes to think of these things solely as “spiritual” entities unconnected with institutions, cultures, and other structures, but earlier generations of Christians, particularly the Medievals, were wiser in this regard. As they battled on every front of human endeavor intellectual and physical to advance Christ’s Crown and Cross, they told of great battles between Christian knights and real live dragons, and they reported these battles with the same honesty and candor as they reported births, deaths, and tax rolls. Only Modern prejudice would cause us today to look down on our forebears’ stories and scoff them to scorn for their “ignorance” of how things “really work”. Certainly the Moderns in Reign of Fire came to rue such an attitude, and it took the near-total destruction of their entire civilization to bring the painful lessons home to them.
The battles between Van Zan’s technology equipped dragon-slayers, and indeed, Van Zan’s own no-holds barred, kill the dragons or die trying, attitude, gave this Modern reviewer something of a sense of what those Medieval knights must have felt as they courageously faced down terrifying creatures of awesome power, evil, and bloodthirstiness. Of course, the Medievals did not have radar triangulation equipment and sky-divers trained to fire sophisticated nets around the dragons’ wings, bringing them down to earth for more conventional kills by exploding arrows and machine guns, but then, the “knights” in Reign of Fire weren’t trying to advance the Kingdom of Christ, either. But here again we can see the antithesis in operation, however subtly: the technology of dragon-slaying may change with the times, but the reason for doing so should not.
All in all, Reign of Fire was a good film, and one that Christians should applaud as tacit recognition of realities that are deeper than the shallow Modern world typically likes to entertain. After all, the Gospel itself can be framed in terms of being the story of the Greatest Knight of them all killing the Greatest Dragon of them all, so Christians ought to relish the delicious irony of our story being told and enjoyed by Unbelievers, even if those Unbelievers don’t understand the deeper things and need instruction. In fact, explaining those deeper things is exactly what we are called to do! What a marvelous opportunity is afforded by a simple movie!
Despite the several contrived references in the film (the worst one being the very last line of dialogue) to the soul-killing, naturalistic evolutionary paradigm that is so ubiquitous a feature of Modern “rational” discourse, the theme of dragon-killing is one that Christians need to recover and reintegrate into our dealings with the world. The world is not a safe place and we have not conquered it with the sterile tools of our godless Science. Furthermore, we Christians have not emulated our Medieval forebears in conquering the world and its dragons for Christ. We have, rather, sat on our collective posteriors for nearly three centuries and let radical unbelief take over nearly every aspect of cultural life. There are some rather enormous, rather obvious dragons in desperate need of slaying in our faithless, covenant-breaking age.
But who will go out and kill them? Sadly, many Christians I know would not be caught dead viewing a movie like Reign of Fire, much less trying to correlate it to their Christian faith and life in the world. The reason is not the proffered one: “Because dragons are demonic”. Of course they are; that’s why we kill them! Rather, it is because these Christians do not even believe in dragons and they certainly do not believe that the Gospel ought to be militantly taking over the cultural world–which, of course, helps to explain why their Christianity is so powerless to do anything measurable in this world, where dragons run amuck all the time.
In an age of what Tolkien called “scientifictitious” half-truths (and some whole lies), it is somewhat refreshing to find a movie premised on treating “mythology” as if it is Really True. Such thinking, which is also expressed in other stories such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, opens veritable floodgates for the life-giving, world-transforming power of Christianity to pour into a spiritually-starved world. There have been dragon-slaying movies before, of course, but most until Reign of Fire have been set in “the Dark Ages”, when people actually (foolishly) believed in such (silly) things as Christians carrying forward the kingdom of Christ into all the earth by attacking and killing the Great Dragon, Satan, and his host of lesser dragons. Worse still, one series, the Dragonheart films, even committed the brazen act of reversing the proper theme of such movies by making the dragons the protagonists! No wonder we are all so confused!
Having thus written off one of the best and most powerful rhetorical parts of our faith, we thus pretend with our Unbelieving neighbors that we have conquered the world with Right Reason and forever left behind our myth-deluded ancestors and their unenlightened ways. We should eschew this arrogant thinking. This is not our world, and we don’t know what God has or has not seen fit to put in it. One young boy crawling down the wrong hole might set in motion events that disabuse us all (Christians most especially!) of our idolatrous preoccupation with the sham goals and programs of Modernity and show us just who really lives in “the Dark Ages”. At least an outbreak of real dragons would call forth a new outbreak of real knights. Since we are already fighting a war that could only be a good thing.
[Originally written in 2002]