It’s hard not to notice the recent resurgence of superheroes–Superman, Batman, Spiderman, The Avengers…But why are they reappearing?
Part of the reason is that people my age are having kids and want to relive their childhoods. A recent Economist article also cited “the decline of religion in a more secular world” as a reason for the popularity of modern “mythmaking.” In other words, superheroes and the like are filling our need for truth, power, and the divine. We may have intended to leave religion behind completely, but instead we have filled God’s place with a new pantheon.
But it’s a pantheon on the screen and in our toy boxes, so do Superman and his ilk really count as a competing faith? After all, they don’t cross certain lines. For instance, they usually don’t draw on occult powers. Batman just has cool gadgets; Spiderman simply suffered from a radioactive spider bite (It’s “scientific”!).
Also, unlike Star Wars (which is basically Taoism with special effects), they don’t seem to draw much inspiration from other faiths. The exception here is the Avengers, who draw from Norse mythology, particularly Thor and his magic hammer.
Still, I see reasons for concern. The first is simply the fact that anything (good or bad) that distracts us from the true God is a problem. In our modern culture with lots of entertainment opportunities (my current favorite is American Ninja Warrior), we have to monitor our screen time and keep the Lord first.
Deeper concerns, though, lie in what superheroes teach us about God and about ourselves.
Concern #1. Superheroes are not like us. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe that he is fully God and yet became flesh–100% God and 100% human. Yet, superheroes occupy a space in between what it means to be truly human and truly God. They aren’t perfect in power, mercy, love, and justice, so they are not worthy of our worship. But they also don’t seem to need God, either. Thus, they don’t teach us anything about relating to the true God.
During a Bible lesson for kids on Psalm 23, the teacher asked the little ones what the sheep should do when threatened by a wolf. One boy piped up, “Become a superhero and destroy the wolf.” The correct answer, of course, is run to and depend on the shepherd for protection because we actually need God, unlike our comic pantheon.
Concern #2. Superheroes provide models we can’t imitate. A modern kid’s song tells us, “Jesus, you are my superhero.” I don’t want to bash the song too much, but I worry about the comparison. The songwriters probably thought that since Jesus healed the sick, walked on water, calmed a storm, multiplied bread, raised the dead, and cast out demons, he is the superhero par excellence.
What’s the problem? The issue lies in what Jesus gave up and the source of his power. Jesus, according to Philippians 2:7, “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (people).” In other words, he gave up all his divine power when he took on flesh. Unlike Superman who performed supernatural deeds as a child, Jesus was just an ordinary kid.
It wasn’t until Jesus’s baptism at the age of 30 that he was given (“anointed with”) the Holy Spirit (cf. Isaiah 61; Luke 4:16ff) and he began to do miracles. Even then, his power was not his to do whatever he wanted. He didn’t use the Holy Spirit to make his life easier–he still walked (not flew) from place to place, cooked his own food (John 21:9), and died on a cross. He used his power in submission to and in harmony with God the Father (John 5:19) to show mercy, love, and compassion.
Jesus is a model we can imitate because…
…we can humble ourselves like him did and have the same attitude (Phil. 2:5).
…God gives the Holy Spirit to us as well (Acts 2).
…we can submit ourselves to God the Father (James 4:7).
Marvel, Disney, and others are rushing to fill the void in secular culture. Before we run to the box office, we need to run to the Lord to ask him if we and our children are learning to imitate the One who is completely worthy of imitation.