Recently I spoke at a homeschooling convention on the question of why superheroes are so prevalent in our culture today.
Already this year the movie Black Panther has been a cultural phenomenon, as Wonder Woman was last year, and Avengers: Infinity War has broken multiple records in its first week of release.
How do we as Christians respond to this trend?
First, we must ask: how did we get here?
Cultures throughout human history have had mythic heroes. Greek mythology may be the most recognizable, but from China to Native Americans to African tribes, myths have helped societies speak to things that are bigger than themselves.
Walter Wangerin Jr. said that myth is how we comprehend our own experience.
Author Don Richardson in his book Eternity In Their Hearts argues that cultures are primed for the gospel in different ways.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 states that, “He has also set eternity in the human heart.”
Paul the apostle takes advantage of this principle on Mars Hill in Athens when he speaks to the crowd from the altar for the unknown god there (Acts 17). He sees they recognize something they are missing, and he attempts to engage the crowd—not by preaching from Jewish law (his culture), but by speaking from creation (general revelation).
The idea of superheroes springs from our modern culture’s longing for transcendence out of our circumstances, and our intuitive sense that we need a savior. By recognizing this, we can use the idea of superheroes as a way to engage our culture.
C. S. Lewis talks about the idea of One True Myth. The Bible can be considered mythical, not in the “it isn’t true” sense, but in the idea that it deals with circumstances bigger than we can comprehend in human term:
“Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”
If the Bible and the stories within rise to this level of being “mythic”—speaking beyond human understanding, then superhero stories can be seen in a similar vein. In an uncertain world, it’s natural to look for hope in the stories we tell.
It’s not an unnatural relation between Christianity and superheroes. All we need to do is look at the Bible for miracles and heroic (and sometimes anti-heroic) characters. Moses parting the sea. Samson’s great strength. David and Goliath, or David’s mighty men from 2 Samuel 23. Nowadays we would call these folks superheroes.
Comic book creators have been making these connections for years. In Man of Steel, when Clark Kent heard the ultimatum from General Zod to surrender, he goes to a church to talk with a priest. Look at the photos and the placement of Jesus in Gethsemane. Director Zack Snyder knew what he was doing with this.
In Spider-Man 2, when Spider-Man stops the train, he is rescued by the passengers when he passes out from the strain. The following pictures show how director Sam Raimi echoes the stations of the cross as Spidey is brought in from the train.1
Certainly, there are unpleasant aspects of comic book culture, from hypersexuality of the costumes, to outlandish violence, to crude situations like Deadpool. We cannot fully take on any popular culture aspect without discernment.
But when we look at our current preoccupation with superheroes, what does that say about our culture subconsciously?
I would argue that heroes are so compelling because we need a hero. We realize, whether directly or subconsciously, that we cannot overcome all that we encounter on our own. Try as we might, we are not able to complete our own salvation. We may fight valiantly, but our struggle is ultimately doomed against the supreme villain.
In the end, this attraction to heroes points us to the one who fought evil without ever turning to temptation. He went toe-to-toe with our greatest foe on our behalf. He sacrificed himself in defending truth, justice, and mercy. And when all seemed lost, he rose in even greater power and strength for the ultimate victory.
Jesus is my hero.
Now we can look for those things that speak to the “eternity in their hearts” principle. We can be mindful of our culture, as Paul was, and look for those times to speak truth when the opportunity arises. Whether in relating to people in real life or in our stories, we can speak to the need for hope, the need for a savior. And point them to the greatest hero of all.
- Hat tip to Matt Mikalatos for pointing this out to me. ↩