I came across this almost two weeks ago and after receiving permission to re-post, I decided to share it. It’s a reflection and answer by Leonard Cook to the Why Superheroes? question. Share your thoughts by contacting him directly or leaving a comment below.
Why Superheroes by Leonard Cook
I was asked the other day about Super Heroes and the biblical foundation for them, then in the same breath asked me, “Why Batman” and “Why Spider-Man” (my two favorite fictional heroes of all comics). I found this question to be one worth exploring.
I’ve always wondered why we find certain superheroes so appealing. I think, over all, they do represent the best of ourselves and the people we’d like to be. Take Spider-Man, one of my favorites, for instance. You start with Peter Parker, a normal guy who snaps pictures for the school paper. He sees the world much like we do, albeit through a camera lens. Suddenly the mother of all spider bites sends him climbing the walls battling evil. Oh, he’s still Peter Parker. He eats, sleeps and puts on his red-and-blue jumpsuit one leg at a time just like the rest of us. But he’s special.
Let’s take about Superman, the “Man of Steel”? While not a native of earth (he was sent here as a baby from another galaxy), he’s seems to be mortal, speaks perfect English and looks like a GQ cover boy. Yet mild-mannered Clark Kent also possesses amazing strength, plus the ability to fly and see through things.
Like Spidey, Hulk, Flash, The X-Men and countless other beloved characters, he is simultaneously human and superhuman-a person who can intimately relate to mankind, yet is uniquely empowered to save humanity from its current malaise. Sound like someone I know, who we serve?
Naturally, they’re the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into a society and cleans it up. We all want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it. We live our everyday lives that don’t allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for heroism. And therein lays the rub for me. An event like Sept. 11 starkly illustrates the difference between fantasy and the real world. No Superman swooped in to prop up the collapsing twin towers. No Batman scoured the caves of “Tora Bora” for terrorists. For the few months after Sept. 11 we didn’t need or want to fantasize about these superhuman people because we had regular citizens doing these extraordinary things. They don’t need a red cape to be a hero in terms of 9/11. Evidently, audiences are willing to forgive the shortcomings of this fantasy world with its Sept. 10 Manhattan skyline.
I wonder if it’s possible that heroes symbolize the possibility of successful action in the world. Whether it’s the world of politics, business, ministry or whatever else that entangles us, there’s the possibility. Even if we’re completely helpless, I believe that we want at least to imagine the possibility of effective action that we read and see on movies and comics. And the hero story is the symbolic way of imagining that. That’s mostly likely why I think we try to find common ground between heroes and ourselves and possibly why superheroes movies are a rising trend in our pop culture.
It’s not so farfetched to believe we are wired by our Creator to resonate with that kind of hero. I think there is the wish fulfillment in us that we can sometimes feel powerless in the world and, if we had these abilities, we could fight back. We are really living in an age of irony, when young people especially are reluctant to commit to anything and are wary of absolute ideals, especially young people. Young people want to believe in something, but they’re afraid of being disappointed, so they stay detached. “The lion the Witch and wardrobe,” and Lord of the Rings;” both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien recognized as mythopathic creatures, we respond emotionally to mythic stories. We may not always grasp exactly what these stories mean, but we usually find them irresistible, hence their ongoing appeal to succeeding generations. Rather than moralize about virtue in the abstract, it’s possible that we humans prefer to tell stories that capture these moral qualities through engaging tales, legends, and parables for a reason. Lewis said that “myth was the connecting cord between abstract truth and the reality around us.” It is a narrative way of comprehending the world. Throughout history, similar mythic tales seem to recur, such as the tale of the Dying God, which is exemplified in the story of the Norse god, Balder, and the Egyptian deity, Osiris. Heroic story patterns recur throughout various cultures and mythologies and religions, including Christianity, where Jesus answered the call to leave his humble Judean village and face a series of trials and temptations that would demonstrate his stature as founder of a new religion.
But here’s where we as believers in Christ “jump ship!” Christ was the only time one of those myths or fairy stories or blockbuster films actually happened in history. In his essay of the same name, C. S. Lewis asserted that, “Myth Became Fact” for the first and only time in Christ’s Incarnation (the Word Became Flesh). “We pass from a Balder or an Osiris,” he wrote, “dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.” The hero’s journey is finally fulfilled as the God-Man: Jesus, in real space time history, goes through the hero’s journey, is put to death to rise again and then ascend to heaven. Lewis concludes, “For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact, claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” Good theological prepositions are great, but we aren’t as modern or postmodern as we like to think. What we must have is the myth that is historically true. Its story is the key to capturing our imaginations because we are wired to grasp the truth in myth. This one “myth” is true in a way no others are. It grounds our feet to the earth and puts our heart and head in the sky. All other heroic stories from ancient legends to intrepid boy wizards revolve around the core narrative of Jesus Christ.
The ancient myths point forward to it while the heroes of today’s blockbuster films, consciously or unconsciously, draw from it. Jesus Christ arrived on this cosmic dirt clod as a baby, fully divine, yet fully man. He got hungry, thirsty and tired, just as we do. He was a blue-collar laborer (a carpenter). He laughed, loved and cried. He knew betrayal and pain. Hebrews 5:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet without sin.” At the appointed time, Jesus shed his secret identity-a carpenter whose time had “not yet come” (John 2:4)-and began working miracles, displaying amazing spiritual strength and yes, even seeing through things (including a Samaritan woman in John 4:16-19).
He came to rescue us. Not by soaring through town in a flashy red cape, but by humbly enlisting us into his own heavenly “Justice League” before heroically laying down his life. He is the one uniquely empowered to save humanity from its eternal malaise. Throughout history, cultures have concocted second-rate saviors that tap into people’s inherent need for a man-god. The most popular hero in Greek mythology was Hercules, sired by Zeus and born of a mortal woman. Destined to be the lord of his people, Hercules looked, walked and talked like your rank-and-file Athenian, yet exhibited extraordinary strength and went on to rule as an immortal god on Mount Olympus. Or so the story goes.
The parallels between fact and fiction don’t stop with the good guys. Nearly every superhero must contend with a super villain, usually a disgruntled megalomaniac bent on ruling or destroying mankind or a specific geographic center. Just as Spider-Man battles the Green Goblin high above the city streets, the Lord and his angels war against forces of darkness on our behalf in heavenly realms. There has never been a more ambitious, frustrated or vengeful super villain than Satan, the scheming, lying adversary of Jesus who himself wears disguises to conceal his true identity (2 Cor. 11:13-15). Just as we shouldn’t lose sight of Christ’s ultimate heroism, it would be equally unwise to underestimate the real super villain currently at large. I’m not suggesting that superheroes comic books are dangerous counterfeits out to distract us from the one who truly deserves our affection. However, I am simply connecting the dots back to Jesus. After all, He’s the genuine hero of all times! He is my Savior and true Father who has delivered me from the person “Lyne” (me, a lost homeless kid from Denver) and made me into the person “Leonard” (a man, minster, father and follower of Christ). When interpreting the Old & New Testament narratives God/Christ should always be, is and will always be the ultra-protagonist; and if He is the Hero back then and there, then maybe we can trust Him to be the Ulimate Hero now in our lives, if we let him.
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