Black Panther, Baptism, and Dying to Self

One of my favorite things about working with teens is finding nuggets of the Gospel in the media that they consume. In evangelization this is often called inculturation, focusing on the good things that our culture offers us and recognizing where it strays.

During his papal visit to South America, Pope Francis summed up what inculturation is and how it is central to evangelization:

Inculturation is a process that we pastors are required to promote, encouraging the people to live their faith where and with whom they are. Inculturation is learning to discover how a specific part of today's people, in the here and now of history, lives, celebrates and announces its own faith.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life than any seed of Truth in our modern culture like movies, TV, and music can be a way that brings us closer to Jesus.

The other night I took a group of teens to see the new movie, “Black Panther.” “Black Panther” is a Marvel movie about a superhero, named T’Challa, who is the king and protector of the fictional, technologically advanced, African nation of Wakanda. Near the beginning of the movie, T’Challa is undergoes a ceremony that initiates him as king and grants him his superpowers. In the ceremony, T’Challa is completely buried in dirt and visits the “realm of the dead” where he is reunited with his recently deceased father who bestows his son with kingship, and gives him encouragement and advice about how to be a good ruler.

A ritual in which the participant dies and is reborn in a new way shouldn’t be a foreign concept to Christians. In Baptism, immersion into water symbolizes the burial of our old selves and coming out of the water symbolizes our rebirth in new life. For obvious reasons when babies are baptized we symbolize this with a sprinkling of water

Another parallel that the sacrament has with the ritual in “Black Panther” is that just like T’Challa is granted kingship by his father, in Baptism we are granted a share of Jesus’ Divine Kingship by our Father. As T’Challa is commissioned to lead his people to peace and prosperity, so we are commissioned to lead the people of the world into the Kingdom of God.

Because I’m still in the beginning stages of building a relationship with teens who came to the movie with me, talking about Baptism with them isn’t really in the cards yet. But I was able to talk with them about how if we want to change our lives for the better, we have to die to our old selves.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples “Truly, truly I say to you I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As we journey through Lent, we are called to meditate on the things in our lives that take us away from God that we must die to.

The Church leads us on this journey by making Lent a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The most popular way most Christians do this is by giving up something they are too attached to. This is a great practice that has seeped into the culture at large (a few of the teens in Sharpsburg told me they’re giving up stuff for Lent, and they’ve never even been to church!). Because giving up something for 40 days is a practice that many of us grew up with, it’s easy to lose sight of why we do it. We shouldn’t be giving up something just because it’s a bad habit or because we want to lose weight, these things are good, but miss the point.

Every time we want to grab that piece of chocolate or grab a caffeine boost from a soda, we have the opportunity to offer up a little mortification (dying to self) and unite it to Christ’s death so that we may become closer to the Father. In small ways, we are able to recall the death that happened at our baptism and participate in a tiny way with the life of Jesus. Just like T’Challa, the Black Panther saves the world by dying and living a new life, we are called to change our culture by dying to our old selves and becoming fully alive in Christ.