The Reformed theology of “Wonder Woman”

I had a friend some years ago, an older gentleman, who would answer the question “How are you?” with “Better than I deserve.” It always made me chuckle, wondering what kind of trouble he was getting into that he somehow escaped unscathed. I would also flash back to Reformed theology class with George Stroup at Columbia Seminary and the idea of unmerited grace. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” Paul reminds us in Romans, and our Brief Statement of Faith bluntly agrees: “We deserve God’s condemnation.” The redemption Christ offers us is better than we deserve.

It’s one thing to hear a tenet of the Reformed faith amid basic conversational niceties. But I was downright startled to be confronted with it in this summer’s mega-blockbuster, Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman.” Gal Gadot plays the titular character — though she’s never called Wonder Woman, merely Diana or Diana Prince — who is raised by a tribe of Amazons on the island of Themyscira, whose mission is to fight on behalf of humanity. Specifically, the Amazons believe that Ares, the god of war, has ensnared humankind in endless conflict, and once Ares is defeated, an era of peace will reign. Diana takes on this mission after meeting Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a British soldier who’s been spying on the Germans in World War I. It’s “the war to end all wars,” Trevor tells her, and that’s all the invitation brave Diana needs to leave Themyscira and take on Ares — and thus, defeat war itself.

Late into the movie, a character tries to convince Diana that humanity is not worth her heroism — they are savages, prone to tear one another apart, with or without Ares. They are getting what’s coming to them, the character argues; leave them to their self-imposed suffering and don’t be sullied by their sins. Diana’s own mother says as much to her as a young girl: “They don’t deserve you.”

In my more cynical moments, I can’t disagree. I look at each new atrocity we commit against one another — the erosion of kindness, our contempt for the natural creation, the -isms that stubbornly cling to us despite the fact that we should really know better by now — and I think, “Jesus died for this?!” Surely there’s some other two-bit planet in the universe that needs redeeming and is slightly more worthy of the gift than we numbskull earthlings.

And yet that is precisely the point. We don’t deserve saving… and yet the gift is given nonetheless. Diana feels a sense of responsibility to protect humanity — it’s her reason for being, the pivotal moment (the kairos moment?) she’s been training for her whole life. “Who would I be if I stay [on Themyscira]?” she asks her mother. For Diana, whether the world “deserves” her is irrelevant. She loves the world, and has the power to intervene on its behalf, and so she will. (Sound like someone we know?)

Of course, Diana is not like all the other superheroes populating the big screen in recent decades. Countless think pieces have explored Diana’s womanhood and how it has impacted audiences. Jenkins’s direction manages to present a superhero that is unambiguously and gloriously female, yet the movie avoids fetishizing that body. Diana does not exist for the pleasure and consumption of men; she’s much too busy for that silliness. Yes, Diana has a love interest (Superman gets one; shouldn’t the girls have their fun too?). But she does not fawn and swoon. Her first allegiance is to her mission, and then to herself.

Female audience members find themselves tearing up at the sight of a woman’s body kicking butt — standing up for justice and protecting the vulnerable. Kindergartners are arguing at recess over which one of them gets to be Wonder Woman, before deciding to all be Amazons and work together to fight evil. Representation matters. Diversity matters. I’m thankful that my daughters have this superhero to look up to. And I’m thankful to be in a denomination that understands representation and diversity — that hears “the voices of peoples long silenced, and [works] with others for justice, freedom, and peace” (Brief Statement of Faith).

MARYANN McKIBBEN DANA is a writer, pastor and speaker living in Virginia. She is author of Sabbath in the Suburbs” and a forthcoming book about improv as a spiritual practice. She was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.