Our Excarnate Egos

The box office hit of this summer was Guardians Of the Galaxy, Volume 2. While I enjoyed the surprises, the wise-cracks, and the whistle-darted-thrill-ride of saving the galaxy (again) I left that movie feeling something particularly poignant about one of the characters. (Beware: spoilers coming.)

Kurt Russell plays Ego, the father of the hero Star-Lord. Ego is a god who expresses himself physically as both a man and a living planet. He is (no spoiler here) egotistical and manipulative. In that way, he makes a good villain for stories from any galaxy. The bad guys we most want to see defeated on screen tend to be the ones we struggle to defeat in our lives. The relationship schemer. The ladder-climbing narcissist. The darker version of ourselves that seems to continually resurrect despite our most impressive religious ray-guns. 

That Ego is a god, a villain, and a father-figure says much about the complicated and self-conscious psyche of our culture. But Ego has another feature that is quintessentially 21st Century: he is excarnate. 

In 2014, missiologist Michael Frost released a book called Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement. In it, Frost points out that our culture is enacting the Biblical story of incarnation in reverse. We are increasingly disembodied people. We live “second lives” online, apart from physical place or personhood. Freed to work remotely and live privately, we’ve stopped belonging to any particular place. And freed from the morality of our fathers, we make careless decisions with our bodies and expect it not to affect our souls. The culture that created the mantra “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is a culture that has decoupled the physical from the metaphysical. 

This idea isn’t just in popular culture. Our churches inadvertently affirm the same philosophy. When we preach a modern gnosticism that says heaven is a disembodied place and Earth doesn’t matter, we reflect an excarnate culture. When we encourage worship that is all in our heads, we do the same. At the church where I serve, I teach a class to newcomers about what worship means. I encourage them to experience worship with their minds, bodies, and souls. In every class, there is someone who is surprised to learn that the worship service is meant to be more than a religious lecture and encouraging music. 

This splintering of the self is the opposite of the journey that Jesus modeled. Jesus is the eternal Word who, setting us an example, left his divine throne and became like one of his own creations. His was a humble movement toward the physical. We, on the other hand, seem bent on leaving (or abusing) our created selves and climbing onto the divine throne. Ours is a prideful movement toward idolatry. 

Which brings us back to the god of Ego. The character who gives Star-Lord his daddy issues is Luciferian in his deception and his overreach. He is disembodied and disloyal. Syrupy and usurping. 

As filmmakers continue to explore themes that point to a bifurcated self (and this is a trend that won’t end soon, as next year’s much-anticipated release of Ready Player One will attest) Christ-followers can name the gnosticism and embody a more holistic way of life. As our culture imagines god-like self-actualization, we can kneel in servant-like self-sacrifice. As our neighbors dream of ways to leave their bodies behind, let’s make sure that our worship and our lifestyle honors the Incarnate Word who created us in his image.