Was Jesus a Fraud? The Wizard of Oz, Easter 2013, and the power of Faith

I’m watching the 2013 “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

I’ve been excited about the movie for a long time; what a rich theme to build a story into. Disappointingly it’s mostly a kid’s movie. Not the smart and mature kid’s movie that the original Wizard of Oz was, but the cheesy and silly kid’s movie that is aimed at the largely vapid youth of today.

But nearing the end of the movie, I’m recognizing the classic pieces of the Jesus myth: Oz (James Franco) appears to have fallen – run away and abandoned them first, then been struck down in his hot air balloon – everybody gives up hope, the land is controlled by darkness and evil.

The wicked witch yells, “Your prophecy is dead! Your wizard is dead!”

But then (surprise!) Oz is not really dead! He returns in light and power to defeat darkness!

“Wow, you fooled everybody,” says the flying monkey. “That was your greatest trick yet.”

Oz puts on a technological deception, with smoke and mirrors, to fool the witches into thinking he is REALLY the Wizard of Prophecy. “Thanks to you, I’ve shed my mortal form. I’m more powerful than ever. I’m invincible!”

“I defy you” says the ugly witch (stand-in for Satan, stubborn, fire-wielding and ugly).

“You cannot defeat me! I’m immortal! I’m the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.”

“I may not be able to kill you! But I can kill the one you love!”

Aha – here is the classic dialog between God and Satan. Satan trying his best to harm God in the only way available to him, by tempting humans into sin so that they fall into death.

“I HATE you,” growls the evil witch before jumping on her broomstick.

Then something strange. “Theodora,” says Oz, “I know your wickedness is not your doing, and should you ever again find the goodness within you, you are welcome to return.”

“NEVER” she shouts in fury before flying away.

Here, God offered the olive branch and shows himself to be kind and merciful. Satan’s pride and stubbornness is the only reason he continues to be punished with exile. It’s a standard American Christian paradigm.

But it’s not biblical. If not Satan’s doing, then who is at fault? Oz needed to defeat her to become Oz and take the throne. Without her, he would never have become the ruler.

Did God ever forgive Satan and welcome him back? Did he ever give him the opportunity? In fact, Satan had to fall, had to tempt Adam and Eve into sin (trying to hurt those whom God loves), or there would be no reason for his later sacrifice and Jesus’ suffering. It all depended on Satan. Would God have preferred Satan not to fall, never to tempt humanity? Then how could he ever know whether we loved him by choice or by force?

Satan was sacrificed to God’s system of redemption.

In another interesting parallel, the reason Theodora became so evil is that Oz broke her heart. She thought he loved her, she thought they would be together for ever, when in fact she was just another girl to be discarded, he had no feelings for her, and soon forgot her.

It wasn’t her natural “evil” nature, but her broken heart caused by Oz’s treatment of her that filled her with such rage and fury and allowed her to be tempted (into biting the apple: another obvious biblical link but very confusing. Was the first wicked sister Satan, and the second Eve? I think they are both Satan combined, in a non-linear and obscure way of inventing evil without making it God/Oz’s fault).

Of course these are not new themes. The apparent death of a hero who then comes back is an emotional trigger used in just about every action/adventure movie. But in Oz the Great and Powerful we seem to be dealing with more explicit religious ideas like Faith and Power, so I have to wonder whether it’s purely coincidental that the movie came out just before Easter 2013.

Is this a family movie Christian parents will feel comfortable taking their kids to, as a lead-in to talking about the importance of faith in Jesus Christ? At first it may appear to be. Like the original Wizard of Oz, the simple message is “If you believe, anything is possible” and “You have the power within yourself to do whatever you want, if you only believe in yourself.”

Oz realizes that he can use his tricks and deception from a career as a carnival magician as weapons in a campaign of illusionment. He still calls himself a hack, fraud and charlatan, but the Good Witch tells him the only one who doesn’t believe is himself. Is he the REAL Wizard? Does it matter as long as people BELIEVE him to be?

The Good Witch uses the Wizard’s deception, because she believes that a symbol of a Wizard, believed in by the public, is enough to win the battle. They are involved in deliberate manipulation of the populace; using tricks and sleight of hand to conjure up a baseless belief. The lesson here seems to be that belief is powerful in itself, even if the man behind it is a fraud.

This is dangerous territory for Christians. On the one hand, Christianity has been distancing itself from the Jesus of history ever since biblical historicism has challenged much of the Bible as fanciful story-telling. Who the Jesus of History really was, some Christians might say, doesn’t matter.

It’s who we believe him to be, and how that influences our lives and our relationship to God, that matters.

Although a safer position, and probably true, it’s also completely untenable. Can we believe anything we want, make it up as we go along, in order to consciously direct our emotions and behavior? Probably not. We’d have to be fully convinced. We’d have to fully believe. Which means that faith is rarely a personal choice after all, it can only be the result of a deliberate campaign of misinformation and manipulation, by people who understand the true history of reality but are serving us something a little different, something more magical, because of its perceived benefits.

The Wizard of Oz is not great and powerful, he only pretends to be, and yet that illusion is enough to save those who have faith in him and defeat evil. Although a fraud with no real powers, his deception is enough to confirm his role.

Can the same be said of Jesus? Did the miracles really happen, or were they tricks? Does it matter, as long as people believe? Is the effect more important than the cause?

Later in the movie, the Good Witch needs to defeat the bad witch, and there’s this conversation:

“You took what mattered most from me. My father. I’m never again going to feel the warmth of his kindness. but I’ll settle for the freedom of his people.”

“Now everyone will see you for what you truly are! In the name of my father, I banish you from the Emerald City, never to return.”

In the name of my father?! This is ritualistic cult magic, Jesus used the same words to banish demons. What is it doing in this movie?

“Oscar Diggs died so that the Wizard of Oz could live. When those witches come back, we’re going to need everyone to believe.”

Did Jesus of Nazareth the man die, so that Jesus the Christ (the fiction grand enough to win the hearts and souls of those who believe in him) could live?

Is it all a big lie, a secret protected by an elite group who are in on it?

“Your secret is safe with us,” they tell Oz at the end of the movie.