Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Pinker and the Avengers

Written by: on February 27, 2020


Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and many other works, is a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.[1] Pinker is fascinated with the mind and visual cognition and language play a significant role in our human development. In The Blank Slate, Pinker explores “political, moral, and emotional aspects of human nature, in modern life.”[2] Pinkers’ aim is not controversial and polarizing, but instead, focused on debunking myths about human nature as dangerous. Ultimately, he believes that discussing the appropriate role of human nature will actually help humanity in our scholarship, personal and public relations, as well as reaching into the mundane of our daily lives.[3]


In this work, Pinker spends time discussing some of the surrounding theories around the idea of the Blank Slate, including the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine.[4] Pinker also spends significant time discussing the fears against the criticisms around theory of the Blank Slate, citing inequality, imperfectability, determinism, and nihilism, as the main four.[5]


Last summer, I desperately wanted to watch Avengers: End Game. But my husband, a committed marvel movie fan absolutely refused because I was too far behind. So I’m trying to watch one movie every other week or so, to slowly catch up. So you can imagine my surprise when I’m watching Avengers: Age of Ultron (still 11 movies away from my target), and I see Steven Pinker everywhere on my screen! While the robots don’t have his magnificent hair, the robots have an unquenchable desire to first, create systems of justice where all are equal; second, rid the world of those who have bad motives and perfect the human race before they take action on their bad motives; third, take away the free will of others to determine the outcome; and fourth create beauty which can only come from complete destruction. These are in fact, inequality, imperfectability, determinism, and nihilism. If you aren’t familiar with the movie yet, sorry – Spoilers ahead.


Essentially, through the discovery of artificial intelligence through a fancy stick (it’s Loki’s scepter, I know), it’s decided between Tony Stark and Bruce Banner to use this AI to complete the Ultron global defense program created by Stark. But it gets out of hand quickly when the Ultron attacks the Avengers and decides to take out the entire fictional city of Sokovia in order to an effort to force the earth and its inhabitants to evolve.


The dialogue in the film is rich with the ideas put forward by Pinker, highlighting the constant struggle between the ordinary nature of humanity, with the forced desires of what can be nurtured out of them by those deemed “greater” than they. Ultron and the Vision have discussions centered around the frailty of humanity, and Capitan America chimes in, “Ultron thinks we’re monsters and we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.”[6] The Cap’n is right, as always: This discussion must take into consideration morality.


If we center our dialogue only on what human nature is or isn’t, we miss the larger picture of how God factors into all this. When the Avengers meddle and play God and it all goes wrong, why would we ordinary humans be any different? Pinker does not seriously address the doctrine of creation or the sovereignty of God who is above all things. As fallen humans, it is human nature to desire our restored humanity and presence with God, but that doesn’t come from the Noble Savage, nor the Ghost in the Machine. This desire for reconciliation comes from a higher moral authority who brings transformation that we cannot bring ourselves. It doesn’t come from a blank slate, a fancy stick, or an ultra-computer, but instead from the One who was, and is, and is to come.


[1] Steven Pinker, “About”, StevenPinker.com, https://stevenpinker.com/biocv

[2] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York, NY.: Penguin Books, 2016), viii.

[3] Ibid., viii.

[4] Ibid, 3

[5] Ibid., 138.

[6] Steven D. Gredanus, “The Theology and Philosophy of the Avengers: Age of Ultron, CRUXnow, October 2, 2015.


About the Author

Karen Rouggly

Karen Rouggly is the Director for Mobilization in the Center for Student Action at Azusa Pacific University. She develops transformational experiences for students serving locally, nationally, and internationally. She completed an MA in Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and is passionate about community development, transformational service and helping students understand vocation and service. Karen is also an active member at the Vineyard Church Glendora where she is a small group leader and serves on the teaching team. She is also a mom to two sweet boys, wife to an amazing guy, and loves being a friend to many.

8 responses to “Pinker and the Avengers”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    And to think you willl miss our conversation about this book! You could have dropped so many Marvel references.

    Great post!

  2. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Excellent, Karen. While reading your post I kept thinking about the downfall of Lucifer, Adam and Eve, and me when we try to be like God in our own strength and ingenuity. Oh how easily we are seduced by the words, “God knows the day you eat of it you will be like him knowing good from evil.” Who doesn’t want to be like him? Who doesn’t want to solve the evils of the world? Maybe that’s why we’re told to be followers first and foremost, rather than independent agents.

  3. Sean Dean says:

    First off, from where you are you really only need to see Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War while having a rough idea of what happens in the Guardians movies, Dr. Strange, Antman 2 and Captain Marvel to enjoy End Game. (Even watching all 20-something movies you’ll never catch all the references in End Game, so don’t waste your time if you don’t want to).

    That being said, I love how you’ve translated Pinker into the discussion in Ultron. The discussion will continue into Captain America: Civil War. Finding a good analogy is super helpful for these discussions.

  4. Jenn Burnett says:

    I think there must be a book called ‘how to talk about movies you haven’t seen’ that would be quicker than watching all the movies. Anyway…I think you pointed to a very important problem that comes with the extreme side of the nature debate, just as Pinker centers in on the extreme blank slate. Let’s say it is all nature, then as soon as a baby is born we could use genetic testing to determine whether it will be beneficial to society or whether it will grow up to commit heinous crimes and then the only debate would be how we treat these people from the beginning. In fact, we are already exploring this with genetic engineering. We won’t even have to waste energy growing humans that will be anything but beneficial to society—however those with power choose to define beneficial. So what does it look like to appropriately co-labour with Christ in the work of reconciling people to God? And is there a situation where knowing what is within our genetic potential could lead us to preventative action? I appreciate your contributions to this discussion Karen!

  5. Mario Hood says:

    Super awesome post, that’s all!

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I really like the fancy stick metaphor; it explains so much about Marvel and Pinker! Thanks for leading our thoughts and conversation back to our God.

  7. Wow! I think I should take more interest in movies. I have been seeing my children watch the avengers but have had no interest, I have only taken alot of interest in the “Designated Survivor”. Thank you Karen for sharing, I might take to watching Avengers.

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