The best biblical movie of the year is Barbie. An additional nod in the way of biblical movies should go to Oppenheimer. Together these summer blockbusters—they are jointly saving Hollywood—mine biblical themes to explore the human condition. They are secular sermons preaching to a secular audience truths the church too often neglects or buries under layers of turgid theology.  

Start with Barbie. In a post a couple of weeks ago (Getting Unstuck), I explored a bit of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. I meant then and mean now to get back to that story to the way it opens with the creation of the first human. And the way that opening resonates with the cross and resurrection in the New Testament. But that will have to wait for the next post. Before we get to that, there’s Barbie with its cheeky and playful and wise interpretation of the Genesis story. (Spoiler alert: in what follows I may reveal some details you would rather discover for yourself. If this prospect alarms you, please leave off reading here, go see the movie, and then come back to what I’ve written.)  

The movie opens with homage to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s all there: the beach, the apes—no, in this case it’s little girls playing with dolls, baby dolls—and, accompanying the narration of Helen Mirren, the opening measures of the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra. Those of us of a certain age have come to believe that creation, especially as told in Genesis 1, could have no other music. And then, as the music fades away, again biblically, we step into, well, paradise: a pink plastic paradise populated with Barbies: Barbieland.  

In Barbieland, there is every kind of Barbie: President Barbie, Writer Barbie, Physicist Barbie, Doctor Barbie, Lawyer Barbie, even Weird Barbie (played unforgettably by Kate McKinnon). And, of course, Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie, the Barbie we first think of when we think of Barbie. And for every Barbie, a Ken. But make no mistake. In this world, Barbies rule; Kens exist only for Barbie.  

And then, again biblically, into this Eden comes a harbinger of a world outside: Stereotypical Barbie (Robbie) begins to have thoughts of death. And with these thoughts weird things happen. She drops things. The toast burns. She falls. Her feet fall flat, Cellulite faintly marks her up-to-then perfect leg. To this point, Barbie has known only a certain kind of good—every night a party—but now good and evil.  

The playfulness of the movie—it should be noted that the movie is often hilarious—should not distract us from its underlying seriousness. The primary question for the movie like the biblical Eden story is what it means to be human. It’s playing with the relationships of knowledge—the knowledge of good and evil—death, failure, love, and ultimately humanness.  

Oh, and sexuality, of course. As Adam and Eve in the garden seem to be, Barbie and Ken are gendered but not sexed. I should note here that the movie has a good deal to say about gender, and these concerns predominate in the reviews of the movie. Most of the critics seem unable to grasp entirely what the director, Greta Gerwig, is up to. She has some wise things to say about the relationships between women and men, but these concerns are not the center of the movie. The center of the movie is not that Barbie discovers her sexuality, but that she discovers her humanness. Sexuality is set in the context of humanness, not the other way around.  

In my too brief reading, the one critic who gets this right is Alissa Wilkinson in Vox (In the beginning, there was Barbie). She says of the movie, “Barbie is thoroughly, and more or less textually, a surprisingly wise excavation of one interpretation of the text [of Genesis 2-3] and its meaning. . ..  

In a piece just posted on the Christianity Today website, Hannah Anderson pushes back on the movie at just this point. She says: “For evangelicals, framing maturity in light of original sin can be deeply unsettling,  especially because Gerwig seems to suggest that experiential knowledge is necessary to human development” (Barbie and Ken Go East of Eden). But this is to mix categories. Or, better, interpretations. It’s to impose Paul—and a skewed interpretation of Paul, at that—on Genesis. Original sin is never the concern of Genesis 2-3; what it means to be human is.  

And to be human, as the Genesis story has it, is not to be divine. Human life is bounded, circumscribed by birth and death. Without those boundaries, we would be quite different. And not better. The particular quality of human life—its joys and sorrows, its griefs and wonders—can only played out in that space where we have knowledge—divine knowledge, as the Genesis story has it—and where that knowledge includes the knowledge of death.  

In my earlier piece on these themes cited above, I mention the related Babylonian story of Adapa. In Adapa, if I have read it right, the God of wisdom, Ea, acts to preserve the humanity of Adapa. Ea’s advice is often misunderstood. If only Adapa would eat the food of heaven, offered to him by Anu, the high god, he would live forever. But what Ea knows is that this would effectively remove Adapa from humanity. And this would be a loss. To be human is precious, not to be thrown away but celebrated. We are fragile creatures poised between divinity and earth, and all the beauty and sadness and wonder of human life arises from this position we occupy in the universe.  

The Barbie movie knows these things. One cannot really live in Barbieland. Perfection is plastic, boring, and ultimately false. No one looks like Barbie forever, not even Margot Robbie. No one can be successful all of the time, like the other Barbies. The richness of human life comes not only from knowing what seems good but also knowing sadness, grief, even tragedy.  

Which brings me to Oppenheimer, the Christopher Nolan biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. In the strange ways of Hollywood, Oppenheimer has come to be paired with Barbie, the one all pink and plastic, the other all fire and brimstone. Knowledge is also the issue in Oppenheimer, the sort of knowledge that is too much for us as human beings. We have come to know enough to destroy ourselves, to create the instruments of our own destruction, and in that journey to knowledge, Oppenheimer was one of our priests.  

The idea that we are not able entirely to handle what we know also rattles around in the biblical story. And in antiquity generally. The Adapa story, for example, begins with Adapa breaking the wing of the south wind by the power of his words. Human knowledge leads to ecological disaster. We in the 21st century know this story first-hand. We have acquired the knowledge to destroy the world in which we live. Knowledge and death go together in this way also.  

At the end of the movie, Oppenheimer with Hiroshima and Nagasaki behind him revisits Albert Einstein at an idyllic pond on the Princeton campus. Oppenheimer reminds Einstein that early in their calculations the members of his team had worried that if they started a chain reaction, it would not stop until it burnt up everything. Einstein says, “What of it?” And Oppenheimer responds, “I believe we did.” Burnt up everything.  

Perhaps not. We have survived nearly 70 years since the first atomic device was exploded in the New Mexico desert. But we live now not only with the knowledge of how to make atomic weapons, but with the knowledge of how to create new biological species and the knowledge of how to mimic human thought and perhaps go beyond it. These are ways of knowing that can easily escape our grasp and destroy our world. Already that sort of destruction seems well on its way with global warming, the product of earlier and seemingly more innocent technologies.  

What should we say to all this? As church? As Christians? It’s here, it seems to me, in places like this that our theology seems to fail us. That our theological leaders seem to fail us. The story with which Barbie (knowingly) and Oppenheimer (perhaps, not knowingly) interacts is biblical and wise, but our theology too often has failed to read the story in any way that makes sense of the story. Or of our time. Or of any time.  

Instead, we’ve read the Eden story in Sunday school fashion as a story about an actual couple long ago who made a fateful choice that doomed themselves and all their descendants to death. We have read it, in short, as Hannah Anderson has it in her Christianity Today review, as a story of rebellion: these richly endowed creatures living in Edenic perfection out of sheer perversity violate God’s one command: don’t eat of that tree. The problem is not how to live with both knowledge and death but obedience. And so this reading becomes a blame game: blame Adam, who blames Eve, who blames the snake, who blames. . ..  

The story is better than this. The story evokes not some long ago time but the present. It evokes what it means to be human in this present moment, as indeed in any present moment. It evokes what it means to be finite. It asks us to conjure with these themes and others in pursuit of the meaning and the particular shape of human life. It invites us into a conversation.    

And it’s this conversation that Barbie and Oppenheimer, each in their own way, have taken up. It’s a conversation that we in the church should also engage. How to engage it? First, by acknowledging that these movies have created a consequential cultural conversation around these biblical themes.

And, second, to say that there is a consequential theological approach to this conversation that includes a reimagining of the human race in Jesus Christ. It’s this that Paul was getting at in Romans 5 when he describes a new beginning for the human race. And it’s this Irenaeus echoes with his idea of “recapitulation.” And it’s this that we should be exploring week to week in our churches.

And, last, to add that this theology is not an answer exactly but a way, a way of life and love that contains wisdom for the present moment. Wisdom for Barbie. And wisdom for Oppenheimer.   I’m grateful for these movies. They have put before us challenging questions, questions that require our engagement. As a step towards that engagement, I propose for the next time to address what comes just before the story of the garden in Genesis 2, the story of the creation of humanity. Dust and breath of God: out of these the Bible creates a world. Next time, to that world.   Until then, Clay  


  1. Saw Barbie today at the recommendation of my daughter and granddaughters. I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the movie. Thanks for your excellent review.

  2. I am in a movie group and have definitely been inspired to show either of these films. Thanks, Clay, for this wonderful review!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: