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Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist

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Heroism of Superman

Today we finish our first series of posts exploring the connection between comic book super heroes and spirituality. For anyone who hasn’t been following along, parts one through three of our discussion can be found here, here, and here.

The past two weeks have been very exciting for me to write. As my career in arts ministry moves forward, it is my hope that I will be able to find connections between my “secular” interests and my love for God and His Church. If we can find God in the places few people bother to look, I think we will open doors for amazing conversations regarding bigger issues than fictional characters in capes. We don’t need to be only involved in “church” or “religious” activities if we can find God in all areas of life. Today’s topic, is an excellent example: Superman, Christ or Messiah?

Seventy-five years ago, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their hero to Detective Comics, forging the beginning of the super hero genre. The Man of Steel would go on to become perhaps the best known super hero, and an important cultural icon for the West. He has always stood for “truth, justice, and the American way,” and is loved by many around the world. Yet, his story is not unique.

I am not the first to point out the Christ-like nature of Superman. A powerful being is sent to Earth from far away by his father. He is raised by his adopted parents, who are simple, rural folk. He is a paragon of virtue, and aims to help humanity to realize its capacity for good. He is both a mild-mannered regular joe with a job, and a super human entity fighting for Good. And, he defies death.

The 2013 film Man of Steel makes further connections between Superman and Christ. After coming forward to the authorities, he claims to have been on Earth peacefully for 33 years, the approximate age of Jesus in the Gospels. When told by his father that he can “Save them all (humanity),” Superman floats in a very cross-like fashion before flying to save the day. It seems hard to deny the Christlikeness of Kal-El.

Yet I have to wonder, does Superman fit closer to the Christian idea of Jesus Christ, or the 1st century Jewish concept of Messiah? Some may not think there is much of a difference, but Jesus was different enough from the common understanding of the Messiah to warrant his rejection by much of the Jewish population in his day. They envisioned a conquering hero sent by God to save Israel and bring about God’s physical Kingdom. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans. They did not want a Galilean carpenter and teacher.

So, which does Superman more closely fit into? For the Christian side, Superman is not a normal human. While Christ was fully man, he was also fully God.  The Jews were expecting someone anointed by God, but they were expecting a regular person. Superman does not fit that bill.

Superman also came to save everyone. There is no particular group that he is supposed to favour. Like Jesus, he came to teach all humanity. However, he is tied to the American Way, and tries desperately to be part of the American lifestyle. This could go either way.

Kal-El was sent by his father from far away. The relationship between father and son is more pronounced in the Christian faith, but it is visible in the Jewish Scriptures as well.  The kings of Israel (other “anointed ones”) were considered Sons of God, as was the nation of Israel itself. This may lean towards Christ, but the Jewish side is not far behind.

Superman, with all of his powers, connects with the miraculous nature of Jesus Christ. However, Superman uses his powers to physically battle those who threaten the innocent. Jesus was not known for getting into brawls with local Roman soldiers. The martial prowess of Superman falls firmly into the Messianic camp.

His name, Kal-El, is fictitious, but is similar to the Hebrew words for “voice of God.” As Christ is known as the Word, Kal-El seems to be a more Christian reference than Jewish, but that may just be my bias.

In the end, I think Superman is a brilliant combination of Christ and Messiah that was never meant to be either. Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster were Jewish, but they never meant for Superman to be an analogy for Moses, or the Messiah, or Jesus. I think there is something deeply rooted within each of us that yearns for a savior, and Superman is just that. A savior. A hero. Someone to be admired and looked up to and emulated. Someone to chase after, to run with in the sun.

These are my musings on Superman, but what do you think? More importantly, who is your hero? Who do you look up to, chase after, and run with? We all need heroes and role models, so who is yours?

Blessings

Spirituality of a Mutant

On Monday, I started a conversation about the theological and faith-centered issues we can draw out of our modern day super heroes. Today, I want to talk about everyone’s favourite band of genetic misfits: The X-Men.

We’ve all been there. Feeling like we are completely different from those around us. Puberty, with its radical physical and emotional changes, can make even the strongest high school kid feel like a freak. The reality we had known throughout our entire childhood comes to a dramatic shift as we are forced to deal with the awkward growth spurts, voice changes, and hormonal imbalances. Everyone else, on the other hand, seems to have everything together.

The X-Men address these issues with a subtlety rarely matched in literature. It is impossible to fit in if you are blue and furry. Or if you suck the life out of someone by holding hands. Or if you shoot concussive force out of your eyes. The average high school student today might not have the physical abnormalities of the mutants, but it can certainly feel like it. No one else seems to be going through the changes we are, so we must be freaks. The 2000 X-Men movie makes the obvious comparison by claiming that many mutants see the onset of their powers at puberty.

The physical changes are not the only issue that many young people feel. The emergence of our personalities can become very strong in our mid to late teens. Unfortunately, this is a time where divergence from the “norm” is akin to a deadly sin. Liking classical music, or a love of facial piercings can make a youth stand out from his or her peers, often at the cost of ridicule and humiliation. Like the mutants, our youth often try to hide who they are in order to fit in. It’s a shame, for it’s in our diversity that the true beauty of humankind shines forth.

Yet youth are not the only people who feel like they don’t fit in. Those of us on a spiritual journey are often the butt of many jokes in our secular society. What kind of person prays several times a day? Who spends their Sunday morning at church when they could be sleeping in? Who has the time to meditate? Trying to live a spiritual life in a material world can make many spiritual seekers and the religiously faithful feel like outcasts among their own people.

The X-men, however, do not accept their lot in life with passive submission. They learn to fully realize who they were made to be, and turn their “freakishness” into tools to help the rest of humanity. To help with this lesson, I want to look at some of the stories of the X-men and how the characters deal with being different.

Wolverine is perhaps the best-known and most-loved of the X-men. He is the ultimate bad-boy with a disposition towards good. His ability to heal nearly any wound is usually easy to hide from those around him, but his incredibly slow aging and deep seated desire for revenge make it difficult for Logan (his real name) to keep friends. The fact that he is always carrying weapons in his forearms makes his temper even more dangerous. Wolverine is a wanderer, never at rest for very long…until he meets Professor Xavier and the X-men. As part of this group of super heroes, Logan is able to realize that the abilities he has been gifted with can be used for something greater than himself. If he can turn his drive from the dwelling on the past to looking forward to the future, he can be a valuable member of the team and a hero for humanity.

Cyclops, on the other hand, has been with Professor Xavier from the beginning. As soon as his powers manifest, he is taken in by Professor X and taught how to control them. He becomes the by-the-book leader of the X-men, using his powers to stop those who would cause harm to others. While Scott Summers may not be the most fascinating character study, he does give hope that with help, we can all get through difficult transitions in our lives and come out better than before.

I find Nightcrawler to be the most fascinating of the X-men. Born with a very visible mutation, Kurt Wagner is unable to live like a normal human being. His dark fur, glowing eyes, three-fingered hands, two-toed feet, fangs, and tail make him look like the very image of a medieval demon. Ironically, however, he is a devout Catholic with an overt spirituality rarely seen in comic books. He finds solace from his freakishness by devoting himself to a higher power. His love for adventure and excitement often causes conflict with his faith, but who hasn’t undergone a similar experience? Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a spiritual person just trying to fit in on earth while seeking the approval of God.

For each of the mutants, Professor Xavier and his school are the opportunity for something we all yearn for: true community. The school is a beautiful picture of inclusive community, as very few of the mutants share much in common beyond the fact that they are “different.” Their differences mean little to them, because it is this difference from the world that brings them together. So too should we, as people yearning for community, overlook our differences to find the commonality among us. If we can find that one thing to grasp on to and say “We have this together,” then perhaps community will grow around us.

In the end, we, like the mutants, have a choice. Do we dwell in our freakishness, whatever that may be, and hide from everyone? Do we become angry, join Magneto’s Brotherhood, and lash out at those who spurn us? Or do we accept our differences, join together, and aim to leave this world a better place than when we found it?

To close, I have to wonder: who is your Charles Xavier? Who is the one who will accept you, no matter what baggage you bring, but refuses to let you dwell on your garbage? For me, Jesus Christ took me in, is teaching me that my love of art and the church are reconcilable, and pushes me on towards a better tomorrow.

What makes you a freak? And what are you going to do about it?

Blessings

Theology of a Web-Slinger

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

We all crave heroes. The solitary figure who, through determination and self-sacrifice, defeats our enemies and saves us from whatever bad situation we are in. The hockey player who carries his team to the Stanley Cup. The politician who pulls his country out of an economic slump into a period of prosperity. The firefighter who returns to a burning building to carry a trapped child to safety. Something deep inside of each of us longs for this heroic figure.

I want to spend the next two weeks talking about the heroes I grew up with: the comic book superheroes of Marvel and DC. Each has themes and stories that point us toward a higher calling that transcends the individual characters. I will explore the ideologies and psychologies of Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and the X-men to see what we can learn about God through the colourful pages of comics.

Today, I want to talk about Spiderman. He has been my favourite superhero since childhood, and I think he teaches a few incredible lessons that everyone needs to learn if they are going to be fulfilled spiritually. We may not all have the ability to sling webs and fight crime, but his superpowers can be a metaphor for the natural talents we all have.

I think many young people feel like Peter Parker at some point. I know I have felt like Spiderman’s alter-ego many times: awkward, socially inept, and eager to win the heart of his lady-love (Mary-Jane or Gwen, depending on who is telling the story). It can often feel like we are powerless to make our situation better when confronted by bullies, deadlines, and cranky bosses. The desire for the power to change our circumstances can drive us to do silly things (like hang around radioactive spiders), or it can make us take an inventory of our skills and talents and seek a way through our adversities.

The overused tagline for Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility,” can be applied to all aspects of our lives. We don’t have the ability to stick to walls, but we have talents that were given to us by God to do good in the world. Artists can choose to explore the depths of their spirituality and help others connect to God, or they can conform to the world’s pressure to sell the shallow narcissism of materialistic consumerism. Someone gifted with a mind for business can exploit those around them to build an empire, or can realize that their resources can be used to better the lives of their employees and those in the local community. Once we realize what our gifting is, we must make the same choice that Spiderman made: serve ourselves, or serve others.

Although a lot lighter in tone than Batman, Spiderman is a similarly tragic hero. The loss of Uncle Ben is the turning point for Peter, opening his eyes to the tragedy surrounding him. I think we all need to have a similar moment in our own lives. Seeing the suffering of others allows us to see why we are needed. The world is fallen, and evil surrounds us. Are we going to join the side of darkness, fight against it, or sit idly by, claiming we need to look out for ourselves while the innocent are exploited and abused?

This choice is never going to be easy. The fallen world does not want heroes to fight against the injustice we see daily. Standing up to bullies can get you a punch in the mouth. Whistle-blowing at work can lose you a career. Fighting crime on the streets can get you killed. There is a reason that Spiderman wears a mask: he is afraid of the backlash by those he opposes. Evil, when cornered, will do anything to protect its interests, including attacking those we love to stop us. This is often the hardest part of standing up: finding the courage to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences.

Peter Parker shows us that even a high school kid, when he accepts his abilities and the responsibilities that come with them, can make a difference in the world. How much more can we, if we collectively spend time to realize our gifts and use them for good, make headway for good. If we stand against injustice, without regard for the cost, there is nothing that can stop us. Not even costumed villains and crime bosses.

For you, what are your gifts? What can you do for those around you that no one else can? If you start with small things, perhaps they will grow to become larger acts as you refine your talents and calling. Who knows, maybe you will become someone’s hero for a day.

Blessings

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