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Superman Soups Up Sermons

Should Christians help promote cinematic Christ-callbacks?
| Jun 20, 2013 | No comments |

Last week1 I made what I thought was a joke. In a Speculative Faith News piece, I wrote a satirical evangelical reaction to the film Man of Steel:

Fantastic, now I have the perfect topic for my 14-part megachurch Savior of Steel “sermon” series.

Oh, why did I say anything?

Because after I do, articles like this one come out:

Warner Bros. Studios is aggressively marketing “Man of Steel” to Christian pastors, inviting them to early screenings, creating Father’s Day discussion guides and producing special film trailers that focus on the faith-friendly angles of the movie.

The movie studio even asked a theologian to provide sermon notes for pastors who want to preach about Superman on Sunday. Titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero,” the notes run nine pages.

“How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” the sermon notes ask.

Just please, no un-Biblical sermons with titles like this.

Just please, no un-Biblical sermons with titles like this.

In response I wrote this, slightly edited here, after of course having my “called it” moment:

Do understand: I completely agree about the parallels [between Superman’s story and Christ’s true Story].

My objection, if any, is to Christians and pastors:

  1. Needing Hollywood PR firms — no blame on them; they are simply doing their jobs — to sell them on a fantastic Christ-reflecting film (assuming it is).
  2. Deciding to Use the story for silly sermon references or over-the-top “wow, we’re getting recognized in culture!” rhetoric.

Stories should not work like that, as Tools to be used for self-promotion or solely to push for others’ conversion. Stories are means of worship, of exploring God’s beauty and goodness and truths and delights (and only secondly to draw connections for possible conversion help, etc.).

supermanjesus_youdontsayI suppose my objection, then, isn’t to the Warner Brothers marketing effort, but to how some Christians with good intentions will inevitably apply it  for wrongly pragmatic ends.

At least that’s not the reason outlined by Craig Detweiler. Yesterday he “outed” himself as the author of the infamous stock sermon-notes, and shares why he participated.

I wrote the Sermon Notes for the recent Man of Steel blockbuster film. Thousands of pastors took the time to visit a website, enter their address, and download the notes. I am glad that many have found the parallels (and distinctions) drawn between the life of Jesus and the myth of Superman helpful. Countless moviegoers from different faith traditions (or lack thereof) noticed the rather obvious connections between Jesus of Nazareth and Kal-El of Krypton. Hopefully, such comparisons do not detract from either story. My sermon notes were designed to connect (and separate) the superhero film from the enduring testimony regarding Jesus.

Nevertheless, some see the structuring of a sermon around a blockbuster movie as everything that’s wrong with church in the 21st century. It is compromised and compromising. Why would we surrender a sacred service to a secular movie?

I would say this: because, after Christ’s victory, the entire world is becoming a “sacred space.”

When I find a filmmaker asking all the right questions, I make an effort to come alongside that spiritual search. As Philip came alongside the Ethiopian Eunuch, we can ask people, “Do you understand what you’re reading (or creating)?”Our attention (and ticket buying) encourages studios to create even more spiritually informed sagas.

Yet how does this inform our actions? Can Christians, for God’s glory, work with “the world” and even directly with film studios to remind others of Biblical reflections in “secular” stories?

If not, perhaps we at Speculative Faith have some soul-searching to do.

  1. Superman is Like Jesus? You Don’t Say, Speculative Faith News, June 11.
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Sarah
Guest

>>Can Christians, for God’s glory, work with “the world” and even directly with film studios to remind others of Biblical reflections in “secular” stories?<<

I say, “yes”. Why not? People write fiction for God’s glory, can’t they dissect fiction for God’s glory?

Austin Gunderson
Member

My reaction to this story is entirely dependent upon the quality of those sermon notes.  If they’re shallow or confused or stretch for parallels that aren’t there, then it was a bad idea to write them.  But if they’re insightful, comprehensive, and manage to maintain perspective, then this whole story is one of the more awesome things I’ve read this month.

You’ll notice that Warner Brothers didn’t ask an imam to compare Superman to Mohammed or a guru to compare him with Krishna.  Neither did they commission treatises regarding his reflections of Buddha, Thor, or Joseph Smith.  This means that a major Hollywood film studio A) acknowledges the Christian majority composition of America, and B) recognizes that the heroic attributes of Christ eclipse those of all other faux-messiahs.  These are good things.  Who cares whether there’s money to be made in the process?  It’s not as though Christians sell their books for free …

Austin Gunderson
Member

Ultimately, this story makes me happy because those sermon notes — at least in their title — don’t take that repellently desperate and wheedling tone so common among anecdote-laced ‘comparative preaching’: “Hey, look — Jesus is kinda like Superman!  That makes Him cool!”  Instead — in both the film and, apparently, the sermon notes — it’s Superman clinging to Christ’s line of heroic credit: “Hey, look — Superman is kinda like Jesus!  That makes him cool!”

There’s a world of difference between those two approaches.

Paul Lee
Member

Wow, you certainly did call it.  This goes to show that we can trust Mr. Burnett’s insights into Evangelical pop culture and the entertainment industry.
 
I guess the only cause for concern in this is that the initiation came from Warner Brothers instead of from Christian pastors.  Still, there’s no cause to be overly cynical or pessimistic.  Yes, the outward professing church and the world sometimes use each other, as they have for many centuries.  This has certainly been a bad thing at times, and Christians can lose sight of their spiritual purpose in the face of worldliness and pragmatism.  But all the people involved in this — both in “the church” and in “the world” — are individuals with personal motivations that are either good or self-serving.  There is no reason that this venture could not be used for genuine worship by many.

Galadriel
Guest

I think I’ve heard of similar approaches for,  say, the Narnia films, but not for superhero movies.  It can be done well, but, like all things, should be approached with discernment.
(Side note: has anyone noticed that some books are being written as combination novels/devotionals? Maybe it’s an attempt to skip the intermediate step and go straight from ‘good story’ to ‘Bible study.’)

Audrey
Guest

I don’t have a problem with pastors mentioning Superman—or making any other culture reference for that matter—if it’s focused on preaching Christ, as Austin says. For me, it’s fun when a pastor refers to Narnia, or Moby Dick, or something else I know and enjoy. It means the pastor is acknowledging my language, even if he doesn’t speak it well. I expect anyone who is really into Superman would feel the same.

At the same time, I don’t like the idea of handing out sermon notes—especially if pastors use them to write their sermon, instead of doing their own homework. I’m talking in ignorance, since I haven’t seen the ‘notes,’ but borrowing someone else’s sermon like this strikes me as plagiarism and just plain laziness.

I also don’t like the idea of a sermon themed around a movie. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I do prefer sermons based on Scripture, with cultural references, rather than the other way around. Again, I wouldn’t mind a pastor mentioning Superman, but I would like him to teach me some Scripture while he’s at it.

Austin Gunderson
Member

I agree that a pastor who just parrots someone else’s sermon notes should take way more pride and show way more initiative in his work, but every pastor out there — unless he’s some kind of hermit — resides in the marketplace of ideas. The pastors I know are constantly ingesting and evaluating literature which purports to help them interpret Scripture. Why should a movie-themed examination of Christ’s status as the Ur-Hero be any different than Generic Devotional 583-B? It’s not as though the folks at Warner Brothers wrote the notes themselves; they asked a pastor to do it. I just don’t see a downside to this.

Audrey
Guest

As I said, I haven’t seen the notes. If they are intended to spark ideas, as you suggest, I wouldn’t have a problem either. It may only be the label ‘sermon notes’ that concerns me, along with the idea of preaching of a movie, rather than preaching from Scripture.