At the end of September, Netflix released all thirteen episodes of Marvel’s Luke Cage onto the public, and it dropped like a megaton bomb.
So anticipated was Luke Cage that, on the day of its release, streaming host Netflix suffered a brief service outage, causing fans to create a social media hashtag that referenced both its insane popularity and its titular character’s signature superpower: #LukeCageBrokeTheInternet
A binge-worthy rival to its predecessors Daredevil and Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is an enthralling drama about an unlikely hero set in the classic contours of New York City. But whereas the first two are set in the real-life NYC neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen (an important tie into Daredevil’s backstory), Luke Cage is set in Harlem, a historical epicenter for black literature, music, and culture.
And just like the other two, Luke Cage also advances its story in continuity with the growing canon of Marvel comic book adaptations known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU, if you speak in nerd abbreviations).
Knowing, understanding, and appreciating these facts are essential objectives if you want to fully appreciate showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker’s vision for Luke Cage.
And believe it or not, learning why that matters can help you understand a great many more things, including most of the wisdom of the Bible.
The key is in understanding the power of context.
Unpacking the MCU
See, the word context is generally used to describe any important background information that can help inform your interpretation of something, but it literally means “with text.” (I knew my seventh grade Spanish class would pay off one of these days.)
In this case, the text is the story, or rather, the many, many stories of Marvel comic book superheroes, written by dozens of authors, that have delighted the imaginations of comic book fans for decades and continue to do so today.
So the fact that this is a Marvel TV series means the characters in Luke Cage not only exist in the same fictional plane as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but also that of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, and all the other main and supporting characters in Marvel’s big-tent blockbusters like Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming The Avengers: Infinity War, and also their network TV series Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Now, Marvel TV executives know not every person is a super comic book nerd who stays on top of all these stories, which is why they task showrunners with making the shows as accessible as possible for fans coming in without any prior knowledge. But there’s always a tension writers and directors must manage, between making the show interesting and compelling to people who have no prior background with the characters and keeping the characters somewhat faithful to the beloved source material for its existing, vocal fan base.
Not only that, but expectations are generated based on where and how that content is viewed. So unlike the big-tent blockbusters or the network series, the Netflix Marvel collaborations are all expected to have a darker, grittier tone, with deeper character development and more complex, adult themes. These are superhero stories redesigned as prestige television.
When context changes understanding
Knowing all this about the MCU helps to deepen your understanding of the story, particularly with exchanges that, at first glance, would seem insignificant.
In one of Luke Cage’s early episodes, a street vendor is selling bootleg footage of something he refers to as “the incident.” What’s the incident, and why would people want footage of it? Marvel fans know it’s footage of a bunch of superheroes and villains fighting in the middle of NYC, causing millions of dollars of damage. If that were to happen in my city, I’d want footage, too—especially if it wasn’t available on YouTube.
Later in the series, one low-level criminal foot soldier tells another that (I’m paraphrasing here) because of all the violence, he’s leaving Harlem and heading to Hell’s Kitchen, where it’s safe. It’s a funny line if you’ve watched Daredevil, because that’s the neighborhood where its titular character—blind, bespectacled attorney Matt Murdock—doles out plenty of violence as a masked martial artist with supernaturally heightened senses. It’s funny because in this context, Hell’s Kitchen is no safer than Harlem.
Speaking of Harlem, it’s also important to understand the significance of Harlem and the history of blaxploitation in cinema to understand and appreciate its racial casting. Luke Cage is a rarity in television series, because all its central characters are people of color, and almost half of its screen time features women of color, including veteran actresses Alfre Woodard (12 Years A Slave), Rosario Dawson (Top Five), Sonja Sohn (The Wire), and newcomer Simone Missick. It’s also full of references to black music, literature, cinema, and historical figures like Crispus Attucks, James Weldon Johnson, or Christopher Wallace.
All of this can feel a little confusing and off-putting if you’re white and don’t understand the history of American cinema and television, where diversity of casting has only recently been a point of emphasis, and where even as recently as 2013 people of color received only 17 percent of lead roles, despite being closer to 40 percent of the general population. Viewing a fictional world with people who don’t share your racial identity may be new to white people, but it’s something people of color have had to do for decades.
Cheo Coker was candid about it in a recent tweet, saying to prospective viewers, “We throw viewers into the deep end of the pool of black culture, but don’t thrash. Relax. You’ll float if you allow it.”
Biblical context of race
So what does all this have to do with the Bible?
The Bible is, like the MCU, a sprawling collective narrative spanning many different historical periods, authors, and literary styles. Although it’s all inspired by God, and therefore contains wisdom and truth suitable for instruction and guidance, sometimes we go off course in the lessons we apply because we don’t read the Scriptures in context. Just like it’s possible to erroneously think Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen is safer than Harlem just because one character thinks so, it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusion from a verse by reading it without context.
And since Luke Cage is a story very much about race, let’s talk about a Bible verse people often use to discuss race:
Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If you only read that verse, it’s possible to consider all the discord and controversy surrounding racial relations in the United States and interpret Paul’s words as meaning, “We should stop discussing racial issues, because race doesn’t really exist, and none of it matters to God anyway.”
But if you read the whole book of Galatians, you get a different story. In the previous chapter, Paul spends a lot of time discussing an issue that was happening in the Galatian church, having to do with race. He talked about how a certain person’s behavior was pressuring the Gentiles (people who weren’t Jews) to adopt Jewish customs just to make the Jews more comfortable in their presence. And in Galatians 2:14, Paul says he confronted that person, to his face, in front of the whole group.
So his statement in Galatians 3:28 is not a statement saying race is unimportant. On the contrary, he’s using hyperbole to illustrate a broader truth—that our racial identities, though ever-present enough to cause discord among us, should never supersede our identity in Christ. Though race may be important, Christ is all important, and compared to Him, those other things should fade into the background as though they don’t exist.
So make sure you consider the context the next time you hear someone quote the Bible to make a point. It could be a friend or neighbor, it could be a politician, or it could be Luke Cage himself, whose chosen moniker is itself a reference to Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus is recorded as quoting in Luke’s Gospel.
So if you need a good, spiritual-sounding excuse to binge your way through Luke Cage, just tell your friends you’re engaging in a contemporary narrative meditation on the contemporary ramifications of Luke 4:18, especially in reference to America as a multiracial pluralist nation.
It might be a cop out, but it won’t be entirely wrong, either.