Jack the Giant-Killer has been with me as long as I can remember. As a very young child, I had a storybook of the old English legends of the Cornish youth’s adventures. And I’ve read the same book to my own children. Jack now has his turn at the silver screen, with the film “Jack the Giant-Slayer,” in theaters now. I saw it, and was disappointed. Here’s why.
The movie is set up to appeal to adventure-seeking children (and their parents): lots of action, scary giant creatures, death-defying leaps into the air, even a fairy-tale romance between a princess and a scrappy up-from-nothing farm-boy. The movie retains the scrappy little guy versus the behemoth narrative, with its “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” lesson, so often associated with David the biblical giant-killer.
But the movie misses, I think, the element that made the old stories so compelling in the first place. The movie obscures the way Jack, in the old stories, usually defeated the giants: not just with grit and luck and determination, but with trickery.
Jack’s power over the giants in the stories was using his wits to trick the giant into hubristically doing something foolish: walking into a trap, slitting his own stomach, and so on. Often the giants were undone by engaging in some sort of competition, where they assumed they had an upper hand due to their supernatural strength. The giants were never so much over-powered as they were outwitted. In most cases, the giants’ own powers were turned against them, in a way that brought them to ruin.
I missed this in the film, because it made for a more boring, conventional story. I also missed it because I think this sort of giant-killing is intrinsic to the story behind all stories.
The giants of Scripture, the “men of great renown” as Genesis puts it, are part of a larger conspiracy in the biblical text. Goliath himself is a warrior for the Philistines, who are seeking to wipe out God’s covenant people, a line that works its way all the way to Bethlehem. Behind all of that is a cosmic skirmish, John the Revelator shows us: a dragon seeking to devour a baby, whose inheritance it is to rule the nations (Rev. 12:1-5).
And how does God defeat evil? He does so with power, yes, but with a different sort of power than brute force. Jesus casts out demons, and binds the strong man that he may plunder his house. But this isn’t simply by raw sovereignty. Jesus’ power is attached to a moral authority. He, as the only sinless son of Eve, has the right to rule over the spirits. This is why the dark beings are so terrorized by his presence.
But it is not only by this sort of Spirit power that God defeats evil; it is also through wisdom. Paul announces that God does not conform to the “wisdom of this age.” The wisdom of the powers is evident from the beginning of the biblical storyline in a snake who is “more cunning” than any of the other creatures. God doesn’t combat this cunning with a ignorant force but instead with a counter-creaturely Spirit wisdom in Christ. In so doing, he traps the wise and the discerning, and undoes them in their own wisdom and discernment.
Satan cunningly seeks to destroy Job; God turns this around into a revelation of God’s good sovereignty. He seeks to starve Israel to death in Canaan; God uses Joseph’s slavery to bring about the exodus, the prototype of the gospel itself. The devil seeks to oppress the apostle with a “thorn in the flesh”; God uses the thorn to cultivate humility.
And, of course, the powers of darkness conspire to crucify. Their plans mysteriously turn around and crush their own heads, as the crucified and resurrected Christ redeems the world through Golgotha’s hill and Joseph’s tomb.
At the end, we see embodied in Jesus of Nazareth both the power of God and the wisdom of God. We see in the church not only the power to reconcile, but the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10) in doing it this way.
I don’t expect to see the gospel in a children’s story on the movie screen, but I do hope to see a good story. The old Jack tales, with the interplay of unexpected wisdom with unexpected power, are better stories than the deus ex machina stuff of the screenwriter. That’s because they’re rooted in our embedded human longing for a wisdom and a power that’s more than special effects.