Thursday, June 4, 2009

How Christian Are Superheroes, Really?

[From JC: I had to re-edit this. I wrote it far too 'wonky' from lack of sleep. Thanks for your patience.]

A viewer posted a comment and a topic request on this subject so I thought I should tackle it. It doesn't hurt that I just got a brand-new copy of "Comic Book Character" yesterday by InterVarsity Press editor David Zimmerman - we have a mutual acquaintance: Author and Poet Tony Trendl (blog link to right: One Man, One Place, All Said).

Superhero Tropes: Good or Bad?
There is a terrible aspect of superheroes and a beautiful aspect. When treated as a adolescent male power fantasy it devolves into a war of powers with no moral value whatsoever. Captain X beats up Mr. Y today - and next week - and next month - and so on and so forth, ad nauseum. Its a bit like some of the drek we see pumped out of mainstream comics to "boost sales" with unnecessary violence and senseless deaths (the killing of Ralph Dibney's wife Sue for instance).

You rip out the root cause, the basic value of a superhero out of the equation, altruism out of a love for humanity and a righteous indignation at evil and injustice, and you end up with supernerds who think they are 'too sexy for their bod'! :P

You remember Right Said Fred, with their classic "I'm Too Sexy!" don't you? That's what the superhero genre becomes with no moral or empathic motivation. Its narcissism at its height.

"He who wishes to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven must serve - for the son of Man did not come to be SERVED, but to SERVE - and to give his life as a ransom for many."
"Is this not the carpenter, the son of Joseph? Where did he get these miraculous powers?"

Heroic Opera -and Soap Opera
When a hero of fantasy serves others ceaselessly and they devalue him - a classic trope for heroes with secret identities - the genre becomes VERY Christ-like. Clark Kent is a loser. Spider-Man a geek. In Batman, Wayne plays the part of the modern, self-absorbed wealthy fop.

But they are willing to die, to give up their position in life - either socially or physically to save others. That's the big part of their heroism, serving the needs of the people they protect.

We see it in Batman's sacrifice in the end of The Dark Knight, we see it in Spock's death in Star Trek II. [Edit: I think of Star Trek in many of the same terms as the superhero drama: strange powers and villains, teamwork, a moral directive, nearly magic superscience devices.]

We see it in Spider-Man - but with Spidey there is also an adolescent struggle to mature. He has to watch out how power and a little fame goes to his head. [Another good reason for superheroes fighting "incognito" is it protects them from their OWN success.] His smugness caused the death of his uncle and in the movie Spider-Man 3 we see how terrible a little pride can become. His unforgiveness of the man who killed his Uncle Ben turned into hardness of heart and revenge and led to wounding his beloved.

Again, we see the spiritual principles Christ taught and proclaimed as the Son of God who KNEW our hearts and what they needed far better than we realize. "If you do not forgive your brother who sins against you, your heavenly father will not forgive your sins."

I take that to be a very personal command. I have to forgive my Christian brothers the FASTEST even though their behavior may have been the most inexcusable. But it applies broadly, especially when I see how staying a victim after being rescued keeps the person in slavery to their past abuser.

"With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility"
In the Old Testament, Joseph, ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, kept his humility and fear of God. Once he had great power and authority, second only to Pharaoh, and the ability to do WHATEVER he wanted to his older siblings, he tested them to see where their hearts where. When he found they had changed, he forgave them and blessed them.

They freak out at his revelation and again at his mercy to them. They are dumbfounded. Joseph simply declares, "Guys - chill out. I'm not God. Yeah, you meant to do me bad, but you know what? God used it for good."

That is also superheroic. To know the limits of your power and of judgment.

That's what we like about the superhero: they may be "gods" physically to us, but they refuse to act like they can replace the Almighty.

Joseph did NOT say "There's no God." He said "Oh no. Be cool. I ain't HIM!"

Whence Superman?
I've been wondering about the disparity between physical peace and justice and spiritual peace and justice, and I think we like things to be just, and right and for the powerful to help the weaker. I think that is common.

We want someone to stop physical bullies - whether in school or in the national arena or where ever we feel oppressed.

Superman expresses disdain for an abuse of power - hard!Superman was not created to be a poster boy for good morals. He was created to kick some butt that needed kicking. His earliest adventures have him dealing with wife-beaters and mobsters, not aliens. Soon he, like so many others, led the anti-Nazi propaganda (IMO, 'good' propaganda) BEFORE the US entered the war.

Batman was created as a very dark character, who used guns, ala The Shadow. He soon became a bit lighter and more friendly, but still kept fighting the grim fight in the dark streets of Gotham.

You see, they were fantasies created by adults who saw a lot of injustice in their world and community. They sold incredibly well (Superman sold 500,000 copies a MONTH in 1938) and were both escapist and encouraging. You had people coming out of a Great Depression and watching Europe go right back to a world war. England was being bombed out of existence. France was conquered in weeks.

You needed hope. Something to inspire you. I think this drove the creation of bullet-proof men and women who could fly. The times and the technology - a MAN who could "bend steel in his bare hands"? Who could "leap a tall building in a single bound"? The environment was bigger than ever - so we needed not just heroes, but SUPER heroes.

And the Holocaust? What can you do about it in New York City? Is it any wonder most of our superheroes were created by Jewish creators? (Yes, I am aware at this time we were not fully cognizant of the true horrors, but the rumors were coming out and the anti-Semitism was clear.)

You could pray God would show up - or you could create a god to show up. In either case, the souls listening to the radio nightly in the late 1930's and watching the newsreels thoroughly enjoyed Superman.. A meek guy with great power. An approachable savior who really wanted to be one of us.

I don't know. Maybe those Jewish boys loved Jesus and did not know it. They took the superstrong and abandoned heroes of their Bible and projected through a science fiction lens a glorious messiah, who had a secret identity. Who only did certain deeds to save, but did not take over the task of rulership.

He'd battle evil, but not become evil.

Fighting Evil One Way or Another
Now I've got to deal with a hairy topic here, and its gonna get ugly because if you have had great physical damage ever done to you - especially by a 'religious' abuser - you will not hear what I say next with much charity.

Christianity is not pacifistic. It is not war-like, either - unless you adopt a false doctrine or two (cf. Crusades).

Christ was not and never will be a pacifist (we can see this in His return on a white horse in the Book of Revelations). He did, however, refuse to answer spiritual needs and problems with physical force. In other words, Christ came to save our souls, not our bodily frames. He will give us NEW bodies in fact.

But as any parent knows, there can be great escalation in treatment of a rebellious child; if the child becomes a physically strong adult with abusive behavior, we have to incarcerate them. That is what jails and prisons are for. If they resist at THIS level, it gets ugly. Police officers are to use the MINIMUM force necessary to halt dangerous men and women.

Our society has found such physical peace and prosperity recently, we view ALL violent acts - that are not safely ensconced on film or on a playing field voluntarily entered - as bad, dangerous and evil. If a parent spanks a child's bottom (with fair warnings and informed consequences), you can still hear threats of "ABUSE!" which is, IMNSHO, insane.

Jesus DOES fight and does stop evil with force. Its just that the force Christ used was in the spiritual realm. He cast out demons. He told the winds and waves to shut up. He called the religious professionals of his day snakes and vipers, and even went so far as to chasing every businessman out of the Temple so the God-seekers could have some real worship and prayer and peace. Now THAT, He did with a whip He made of cords of rope. That wasn't gentle, meek or mild, folks.

But here's why:

Jesus doesn't like ANYONE being prevented from knowing God's love or care. He gets downright direct when He saw God mis-characterized as either a lawyer or an anal-retentive micro-manager or worse, a money-grubbing thief.

So is Punching the Bad Guy Un-Christian?
Let's cover how the genre works.

In the superhero genre, we are limited to showing the battle between good and evil with fists and super powers mostly. True, good writers go farther: they show the inner conflict and turmoil of the hero and once in a while, the nobler side of the villain, but frankly, someone sometime is going to get hit or blasted or whatever - because words will NOT suffice.

Not killing the bad guy (another superheroic moral), but punching them out so they can be turned over to the police.

Direct action is the LAST thing a Christian should do, but it is authorized at a certain point. As one t-shirt said "The Last Thing on Earth I Want to Do is Hurt You - But It IS on the List."

This is the pattern we see in the Bible when God speaks to His people: blessings, kindness, commands, promises, warnings, second warning, personal intervention, final judgment.

By the time superheroes appear on the scene, we conclude that all else has generally failed.

Is the Superhero Multiverse Christian?
You mean with Zeus and Odin and all the other mythos and such? Nah. But let's face it, they are not there for religious reasons but simply to be mouthpieces of "ancient and timeless wisdom" - like in a Greek play. When Odin or Zeus shows up, we are not dealing so much with theology as with mythology. If kids in America actually worshiped those personages as TRUE deities, they probably wouldn't be used.

But the stage and setting of the comic book superhero is the ENTIRE universe. The characters are either humans or humane beings with souls and great abilities, sometimes even god-like. They are merely mouthpieces for our hopes dreams and fears.

If you want your hair raised, read how the apostle Paul and Barnabas went from being nearly worshiped as "Zeus" and "Mercury" to almost getting killed! You cannot read the Book of Acts and come away that the purpose of Christ-followers is to 'play nice' and not shake up the world with the Word of God and power bestowed by God.

Why Should Kids Read Comics?
Its a primer for some of us to faith. We struggle to not let the banality of our world kill us.

I live in suburbia, not of my original will or design. It is very anti-Christ in THIS aspect: too much hope is placed in health, employment and a drama-free existence.

Kids who grow up here are itching for something GREATER than "a sale at Penny's!" and "Milk for $1.99!." We want to wage war against evil, not against dandelions in the front yard.

And so we read our Bible and our comics and say "Evil must be stopped, the innocents must be protected, and the world saved - but how?"

In comics we experience a visceral answer.

In Christ we find the spiritual answer.

What I hope to do in my work is to show the compatibility of those desires. We read comics because we know there is something more glorious for our hearts. A striving for goodness and power to fight evil.

I think that's what's missing in our suburban churches: empowerment to change the world in Christ's authority and power and love.

Like Joseph, like Christ, and like that 'strange visitor from another world' when we realize the power we have - and its God-given nature for good and not for evil - we CAN become meek and kind.

Because at a word from our lips, lives are changed forever. Souls can be saved or lost for ETERNITY.

That is the power of the Gospel. I have seen villains repent and fools become wise by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fists do not have that power, and that is where superheroes fail - and they usually know it under a good writer. Even the Joker says the physical battle is not the real battle in the end of The Dark Knight [watch on YouTube]:

"You didn't think that I would risk losing the battle for Gotham's soul in a fist fight with YOU, did you?"

If your view of Christianity is of nice people who help the poor and never fight back, you have the World's view of God's children.

Not the worst thing, but very incomplete - and really missing what Jesus did.

Jesus the Mild-Mannered Warrior King
Jesus fought the real battles with the right weapons. He spoke truth and blasted the wicked hearts. He was, like the King in Henry V, walking the field in disguise to see how His men were doing, to speak with them.

Jesus often scared His disciples with His power and then spoke kindly to them, reassuring them of His love (see Matthew 17:1-8). He was power incarnate and had to be careful with what He did. Thus, like any unstoppable alien with invulnerability and the power to move mountains, He was mild. Like Black Bolt of the Inhumans whose very whisper could rend stone and send armies to their knees, He was meek.

He HAD to be.

In Mark Waid's excellent re-telling of Superman's origin, Superman: Birthright, we discover WHY the Man of Steel wears no mask but lets Clark Kent do the job: he wants people to trust him and not be afraid. We find out that Clark as a young man did accidentally reveal his power while overseas, and from then on, those who witnessed him avoid him out of fear. So he needs a disguise to STAY close to people.

When you read the Gospels, it is impossible to ignore the power Christ used against demons, death and disease and not wonder why He's treated so shamefully.

He pulls a Clark Kent. Or rather, Clark Kent pulls the same stunt as the Son of Man.

He's meek. He's mild-mannered. He's a good boy.

Until it is time for action. For lives to be saved for eternity.

Then He comes out of the Wilderness in "great power and authority."

If a Christian wants to become like Jesus - and we SAY that is our goal - we are going to have to submit to God, get rid of our self-reliance and accept the power that is from above. The disciples did it and they changed the world. Neither Satan nor death stopped Christ or His ambassadors.

We should let nothing stop us either. From serving, from loving, from enjoying stories of heroes who gave all they can to save others.

And folks, frankly, if Christians believe their Lord was raised from the dead, we really need to be less fearful.

Its not like we aren't going to live forever, you know? ;)

Amen.

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