Stranger Things is in its second season as a Netflix exclusive series, and tells the story of select residents of Hawkins, Indiana. It’s a small town with the darkest of secrets. Thanks to experimentation by a government research facility masquerading as a power company, the town has produced children with paranormal abilities and opened a terrifying passageway to an parallel reality called, “The Upside-Down.” The story is told, for the most part, through the experiences of four preteen boys who tackle life as though they were a modern day Dungeons and Dragons adventuring party. When they rescue a psychic girl in the woods around Hawkins, their lives go sideways, left, right, up and down. Over the sixteen episodes of the first two seasons, the boys, and the people who love and care for them, face—and sometimes overcome—the consequences of the reckless government experiments.
Sidebar: Before we get into the discussion proper, let me get one thing off my chest. Even the Internet can’t seem to decide on the correct English pronunciation of the word “homage.” While I grant that none of the sources I found actually pronounce it the way I like (Oh-maj), they don’t seem to agree on if the “H” is silent: Merriam-Webster, Cambridge and Macmillan all seem to do it slightly differently. Don’t tell Eve I said so, but she was right, and I was wrong.
The Elephant in the Room: Homage to the 1980s
Stranger Things isn’t just set in the 1980s (’83 & ’84, specifically), it is specifically packed with everything from subtle nods to direct references to the 80s. Every single one of them designed to invoke a feeling of nostalgia in the likes of Eve and I, both having lived our formative years during the period targeted in Stranger Things. They even get to call out some of these references in Beyond Stranger Things, a separate after-show program that interviews cast and crew to talk about the story and production and ask questions that the fans of the show might have.
We discuss the distribution of the Reagan-Bush and Mondale-Ferraro signs, and Eve mentions that they are representative of the breakdown for the election. The Mondale ticket received about 40% of the vote, but less than 3% of the electoral college. In Indiana, where Stranger Things is set, the results were skewed even more towards Reagan, with more than 60% of the popular vote in his camp.
If you want to see how hard the Dragon’s Lair game that they were playing is, you can get it on Steam. As you play, remember that those of us who played in the arcade had to put a new quarter in for every three times we died!
The combination of the series popularity and the sheer number of homages prompted even Time Magazine to produce a list of in-show references to the 1980s!
Even the theme song, written by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, does a great job evoking the 80s as well. (Luke Million, mentioned by Eve in this episode, actually did a remix of the theme song – sorry for the mixup!)
Millie Bobby Brown plays Eleven, the psychic child escaped from the government laboratory in Stranger Things. As we mentioned in the episode, she did a rap recap of Stranger Things, season 1, on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Complex Characters in a Complex Story
Each character in Stranger Things has a stereotype in which their character is based, but every character is taken beyond that stereotype. It’s a good use of stereotypes to set basic expectation, then using story to fill out the rough outlines the stereotyping left. This fleshing out of the characters allows the story to address very personal issues for them as well, in particular, the trauma that each of them go through over the course of the two seasons (and before the story began). It’s through this very human reaction to different types of trauma that we connect most solidly with the characters. The way Hopper deals with the pain of losing his daughter and Joyce handles the role of single mother both really help us to connect with the characters.
Nancy’s guilt eats her up over lying to Barb’s parents over Barb’s death. This is a relatively common and accepted plot device to move the story line forward. Yet most non-believers do seem to want to make the leap from this accepted truth—that guilt damages you over time—and connect it to the truth of scripture:
“They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.” (Romans [2:15])
Why do you think this is?
2 He called a child and had him stand among them. 3 “Truly I tell you,” he said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2-4)
The unhesitating acceptance of the impossible by the kids of Stranger Things got me thinking about their childlike wonder and how that might relate to the childlike state that we are told by Christ we must embrace. Christ calls us to be innocent, like children (or doves):
16 “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew [10:16])
“20 Brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your thinking, but be infants in regard to evil and adult in your thinking.” (1 Corinthians [14:20])
There are more people than ever in the United States who associate with no organized faith at all; in the last 25 years, the amount of skeptical cynics in the U. S. has nearly doubled. This loss of childlike wonder seems to be contributing to the rise of cynics among our young people.
Stranger Things uses Dungeons and Dragons as an element around which four of the main characters fellowship and gather. Through it, they learn right and wrong, friendship and teamwork. Stories serve a purpose and play a significant role in the history of humanity. Like every other tool at our disposal as Christians, stories can be used to point to the truths of scripture and to glorify God.
The Bible is replete with stories in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus Himself used them regularly:
“10 Then the disciples came up and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 12 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.” (Matthew [13:10]-13)
Many of the greatest stories are retellings of the stories of scripture. Take C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.
That is part of the issue, though. We need to view these offerings critically and with a Spirit-filled heart and through the lens of Scripture. We cannot allow the pop culture theology of mass market media seep into our hearts and turn us away from the Truth of Christ and sufficiency of God’s Word. When you are enjoying the latest offering out of Atlanta or Hollywood, you should always be asking yourself, “Are you just watching, or are you critically thinking about what views are being pushed?”
The Evil Without
One of the most common philosophies pushed by modern media is that humanity is essentially good. If a person is bad, there is an event or a reason, external to that person, that caused him to turn out that way. Sometimes it is even presented in a way to absolve the character of responsibility for his or her actions. As Bible-believing Christians, we know that we need not look outside of ourselves to find the cause of human evil:
“9 The heart is more deceitful than anything else,
and incurable—who can understand it?
10 I, the Lord, examine the mind,
I test the heart
to give to each according to his way,
according to what his actions deserve.” (Jeremiah 17:9-10)
“23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans [3:23]-24)
Yes, there are external evils that happen, but mankind doesn’t turn evil when exposed to them. Mankind is fallen and unable to do anything other than evil apart from the perfect grace of God.
We have to face it, every human, every creature on this earth is a corrupt reflection of God’s intended design. We are all residents in the Upside-Down. The reality is God’s perfect creation. But Adam and Eve brought sin upon creation, casting it into a dark perversion of life itself. A shadow:
“4 Now if he were on earth, he wouldn’t be a priest, since there are those offering the gifts prescribed by the law. 5 These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. 6 But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been established on better promises.” (Hebrews 8:4-6)
The only way out of this real-life Upside-Down is through saving faith in Christ Jesus and His death on the cross.
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