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The theology of Barbenheimer: What a plastic doll and an atomic bomb can teach us about our call as Christians

Jodi Craiglow examines the practical theology of summer blockbusters “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie.”

Photo illustration: ign.com/Universal Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s been three weeks since the birthdate of 2023’s cinematic fraternal twins, and it’s safe to say that “Barbenheimer” has turned into the cultural phenomenon of the year. Like hundreds of thousands of other moviegoers, I bought tickets to both during their opening weekend. To my surprise, I realized that these two very different stories have a lot in common — and that these commonalities are deeply theological. I eventually came to see their convergence around three ideas: identity, agency, and legacy.

Now for official disclaimers. First, this is only my interpretation and it’s nowhere near exhaustive. Other folks will see different themes and reach different conclusions than I have. That’s great — that means we’re thinking about what we’re watching! And second, “Yonder There Be Spoilers.” If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’ve seen the movies and will understand my references.

Identity

“We were only fighting because we didn’t know who we were.” – Ken
“They need us for who we are, so be yourself … only better.” – Isidor Rabi

In “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” directors Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig craft narratives that invest us deeply in the characters we encounter on the screen. And from their interactions and relationships – both flourishing and failing – we find that humans’ value extends far beyond mere usefulness to others. From the great day Ken has “if Barbie looks at him” to Gloria’s (glorious!) rant about the double bind that many women find themselves in to Oppenheimer’s conversation with Teller about how the government needs them “until they don’t,” we find ourselves resonating with the underlying notion that people aren’t and shouldn’t be disposable. In fact, both films show us that when we misunderstand the intrinsic value of human identity, we ultimately hinder our own progress. Nazis’ blanket dismissal of quantum theory as “Jewish physics” stunted their country’s scientific development; “And Ken’s” null identity leaves space for patriarchy to creep in.

Instead, a robust understanding of identity points to the fact that we’re both created and creators. Like Lewis Strauss, we’re confronted with the reality there is “something more important” than us in the universe — try as we might, we’ll never have ultimate control. However, we Christians know that our Creator, the One who is ultimately important, in ultimate love has endowed us with creative capabilities far beyond our imagining. We’re given the opportunity not only to make new things (from plastic dolls to atomic bombs), but also to establish what those things mean. (In the beginning, God named the light “day,” the darkness “night,” the air “sky,” and the ground “land” — and then told Adam to keep the process going.)

“When we misunderstand the intrinsic value of human identity, we ultimately hinder our own progress.”

Agency

“You don’t get to commit to sin and then ask all of us to feel sorry for you when there are consequences.” – Kitty Oppenheimer
“I want to do the imagining; I don’t want to be the idea.” – Barbie

That power to create artifacts and meaning can lead both to dazzling breakthroughs and to devastating brokenness. The same technology that provides clean energy to cities can also destroy them. The same social practices that broaden the horizons of some can also constrict the capacities of others. Simply put, life is messy. True “heroes” and “villains” are few and far between, even the most brilliant minds (in the words of Nolan) are often beset with “impossible choices,” and integrity isn’t always rewarded by the systems in which we find ourselves.

Simply put, life is messy.

How, then, might we as “Barbenheimer Christians” find a way forward? By remembering that true power, rightly used, is generative. Or, as Gerwig intoned, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” God’s economy isn’t zero-sum — when we use our authority and abilities to amplify the humanity and foster the flourishing of everyone around us, regardless (yet mindful) of their background, worldview, or demographics, we all benefit. When we integrate our creativity collaboratively, we achieve more than we ever would have separately. In other words, as my congregation sang in worship this week, “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.”

Legacy

“Humans have only one ending. Ideas live forever.” – Ruth Handler
“We thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world … I believe we did.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer

And why is it important that we use our creative power wisely? Because, as writer Andy Crouch asserts, “Culture … always and only comes from particular human acts of cultivation and creativity … [and] culture shapes the horizons of the possible.” The things we do, think and make today have the potential to constrain or expand what future generations can do, think, and make. And while we may never know the full consequences of our actions – the ambivalent cultural footprints of the little toy and the big bomb readily testify to this reality – we can give ourselves and our successors the best chance at long-term success (to paraphrase the prophet Micah) by acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Or, to bring it back to the realm of Barbenheimer: With God’s help, when we remember that people should never be accessories, we’ll safeguard their creative capacities. When we’re faced with “impossible choices,” we’ll have the strength to maintain integrity. And even though we have the potential to “become the destroyer of worlds,” we’ll harness that energy to create new opportunities for flourishing.

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