How Box Office Superheroes Reveal American Spiritual Beliefs
Well, maybe they are. But as a Vanity Fair blog (not linked due to content) recently suggested, perhaps there's more of a spiritual edge to this cultural trend than one might think. Here's what a couple of hugely influential figures, writer Frank Miller and director Guillermo Del Toro, had to say about this trend:
“Every great civilization has its superheroes,” says Miller. “America is just a much, much younger civilization… You couldn’t find a better version, in America, of the Pantheon of ancient Greece [than superheroes],” which could be why they’re such an enduring draw.
Del Toro seconds the point: “There is still a longing for mythos, for a spiritual Pantheon. And in an era where we have enshrined materialism to such a degree and we have killed off every conceit that seems to be weak and based on religion—New Age, all those types of things—the only sort of acceptable mythology, I think, is superhero mythology.”That may sound like comic-book-nerd hyperbole, but the comparison with Greek mythology is actually relevant, to a point. For one thing, to the ancients, preposterous tales of heroic feats were not to be taken literally. “It’s not that they were ‘believed,’” says Harvard Classics Professor Gregory Nagy. “That is a Christian concept. Rather, myths about heroes were accepted as valid narratives about moral truths that helped explain life.”
There's something here, I think. There's a certain slice of American society that wants little part of traditional religion. The idea of God as a sovereign being is less attractive than a picture of divinity that emphasizes humanness. Aside from the massive explosions, cool graphics, and technological gadgetry, one reason that so many people may be flocking to superhero films is that they tap into a current of American spirituality. People want heroes who are unlike them--heroes who can vanquish their enemies--and yet they also want heroes who are like them, who have real flaws and weaknesses and battles. The Greek gods fit this mold millenia ago, and the American comic book superheroes fit it today.
What does this mean for the Christian church? It's fairly obvious, I suppose. While teaching unbelievers about our sovereign God, we need to keep in mind that people are looking for a person who is both like them and not like them. In other words, Jesus Christ fits well with this current of spirituality. This is not to say that Christ had flaws or sins--He did not. However, He did take on human flesh, embrace the difficulties of an authentic human existence, and face terrible temptation, suffering, and pain, just as we all do, even as He was powerful to an extent that confounds the imagination (another point to raise with the lost). The doctrine of Christ's humanity is not a theological afterthought, a footnote to the more majestic stuff. It is a strange, mysterious and quite moving aspect of the faith we claim. As the little poster says on the door of TEDS professor John Woodbridge's door, "History is filled with men who would be gods...but only one God who would be man."
In your conversations with unbelievers, particularly those who might be drawn to superheroes (and that's a pretty sizeable populace, given current box office numbers), make sure that you share about both the divine and human aspects of our Lord. Though we may not fully comprehend the wonder of it all, Jesus became like us in order to save us (see Hebrews 2, 4). He is a majestic Lord, and He will return to this world in flaming majesty to judge it in a level of spectacle no movie can present. Yet He was also a human being, one who wept and hurt and bled. He knows the sorrows of this earth, having become intimately acquainted with them in His incarnation.
The people around us do not need an Iron-man, or a Batman, or any other superhero--they need a Christ, a Messiah, and the good news is that He has come, and died, and He waits to receive the broken, the weak, the lost, and to give them His life, His strength, His love.