Secular Wisdom from the Movies: The Revenant

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In this series, “Secular Wisdom at the Movies,” we hope to offer student leaders a resource – whether for summer programming or just regular teaching. So often we overlook biblical insight from the secular world. The movies in this series each offer a unique Gospel perspective that we can bring to our students.

It’s man versus bear. And bear wins. It’s man versus nature. And nature wins. It’s God versus man. And God wins. So is the theological theme of the recent cinematic phenomenon, The Revenant, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Since its release, many have developed differing opinions on the underlying subtext of the film. The movie is both brutal and beautiful. For many, the story centers around one scene where the main character (Hugh Glass) is mauled by a vicious grizzly bear. But I believe there is even more to be gleaned from this exciting story, when viewed through the lens of the gospel.

Revenge is in God’s Hands

More important than the grizzly bear scene, this movie is about revenge. I was surprised to see the story so centered on God in particular and His right to avenge. The movie is based off of the book, The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge by Michael Punke. While the movie is far different than the book, both hold this central theme: vengeance is in God’s hands.

Many believe that the book is about revenge, plain and simple, because of the opening line: “They were abandoning him.” This line refers to the infamous John Fitzgerald who leaves Hugh Glass for dead post-grizzly bear attack. This event sets Glass up for one of the greatest and most entertaining manhunts in movie history. Is it possible for Hugh Glass to catch Fitzgerald and finish justice? Anyone who’s even seen the preview likely knows The Revenant is a story of peril, danger from Indians, danger from the mountains, danger from the snow, danger from the animals, and danger from Glass himself.

But what is far more profound (and helpful for student leaders) come from two lines in the movie. At one point, a local Indian reflecting on the tremendous loss of his family and tribe by an enemy says, “My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the creator’s hands.” Similarly, later on, Glass says, “No… Revenge is in God’s hands. Not mine.” Michael Punke opens the novel by quoting Romans 12:19, “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.”

Grace has been Given

When I first began to see the connection in both the book and the movie, I was completely astonished. How could such a beautiful yet jarring story reflect on the sovereignty of God? Or better, why couldn’t I stop thinking about Romans 12 and revenge being in God’s hands? The answer of course is found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, just a few verses before.

In Romans 12:3 he writes, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Paul goes on to argue that the marks of being a true Christian are first rooted in the gifts of grace. The weighty implications of grace are noted throughout the book of Romans.

Paul has received grace, through the work of Jesus Christ. All Christians have received the same grace. Paul pushes this grace further by stating, “Because of this grace, you ought to not think highly of yourselves.” Why is this the case? Because grace is a free gift, given through Christ.

In this case, revenge is in God’s hands because grace has been given to each of us, and we are called to steward that grace, not abuse it by seeking our own outcomes.

Implications

How might this truth be helpful for Student Ministers?

1.Revenge is a Common Problem Among Youth.

It is evident that students are some of the most “fired up” Christians out there, when it comes to justice. They want everything to be fair. They want everything to be just. They want everything to reflect the equality and freedom given in Christ. Youth pastors know this all too well. It isn’t uncommon to find students who desire to carry out revenge, because it seems fair to them. Such examples can be seen when we play youth group games. All rules must be fair. On a moral or social note, students tend to feel the pain (more than most adults) of those living in oppression or poverty. It’s not fair that the government persecutes these people! For the normal student, revenge isn’t necessarily about coming out on top, it’s about justice.

However, the problem of revenge is fixed from our understanding of what Christ has done for us, and how we ought to live in light of it. Revenge and justice are things we put into God’s hands, in His perfect timing.

2. Understanding Revenge Leads us to the Gospel.

Most importantly, students ought to be encouraged to reflect on revenge through the lens of their previous life before salvation. Romans 5:8-10 reminds us, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” God could have acted out in revenge, because we rightfully deserved it. God could have punished us, because our offense to him is so heinous. God could have blotted us from the earth, because we abandoned him. But He didn’t. He died for us instead. So why not let revenge be in the creator’s hands? Why not rejoice in the fact that God would never seek vengeance towards us? The price on our heads has already been paid.

Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.

To learn more about gospel centered youth ministry, check out more articles and podcasts from Rooted’s youth ministry blog.

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