I watched the new Superman movie last night and thoroughly enjoyed it as a film, but less so as theology. Before I go there though let me say, go see this film. It's brilliantly conceived and directed by Bryan Singer with a good story and fantastic performances, especially by Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey.
The movie goes boldly into theological turf, and that's where it runs into trouble.
[Warning: Mild spoilers follow.]
Lex Luthor, the antagonist, early on in the film compares himself to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. He starts the theological ball rolling by calling Superman a god stating that "Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” Throughout the film the disembodied voice of Marlon Brando as Superman's dad intones words of love and providence for his son who he has sent to earth to guide humankind. Only begotten son, anyone? Lois Lane herself, upset by Superman's sudden disappearance and reappearance, states that the world doesn't need a savior. And, towards the end of the film, Superman loses his strength and is set upon by thugs, beaten, and left for dead, but has a nigh miraculous recovery. Not quite crucifixion and resurrection, but the imagery is clear.
All pretty Christological stuff there.
And Superman is a savior in a very classical sense. He is strong, good looking, clever, and brave. He is very much like Hercules. Parts of the story remind me very much of the stories from Judges about early hebrew heroes, especially Samson, when he loses his strength, due to a secret weakness, but then regains it in time to bring justice to his assailants. When Metropolis is struck with an earthquake the "Daily Planet" globe topples from the top of the newspaper building just so we can be reminded that, like Atlas, Superman has the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And here is the theological problem I have with that - I can't believe in a savior like that. It doesn't meet the real world test. I'd love to have a superman in the world who would defeat the evildoers, protect the innocent, right wrongs, and be dashingly handsome while doing it, but they don't exist. That's not the world we live in. Jesus' followers were looking for Jesus to be a kind of superman. And why not? They were living under occupation by an oppressive regime. There was all sorts of violence and injustice in their day to day lives. If there was a time for a good dose of deus ex machina, that was it. But Jesus was not that kind of savior. He deliberately eschewed that kind of imagery and taught that societal problems would not be solved by the power of one man, but by the transformative power of loving community.
The problem with superheroic saviors is that they feed into the myth of redemptive violence, that our world would be okay if only the bad guys would be squashed. It's a seductive myth that sells the idea that if only we were strong enough, smart enough, good looking enough, powerful enough, we could make the world's problems go away. It externalizes evil as a problem that must be erradicated for the world to return to a state of restful peace.
But there is nothing restful about peace. Peace is hard work that takes constant attention and practice. And there is nothing external about evil. Our struggle is with ourselves. Our struggle is within.
In the United States we are caught in the middle of just these paradigms. We have a superheroic ruling elite who have dedicated themselves to harnessing all of their powers to erradicating the evildoers from the world which they called a bid for "infinite justice." I really don't need that kind of savior. In fact, far from saving me, they are in the process of making the world more unstable.
On the other hand, I do agree with Superman that the world does need saving. Just not from a guy in tights and a cape. I can't abdicate that work to a government or superhero or god, it is my work, it is our work. Let's step to it.
[Related post - My Friend God May 17, 2006]
The Lanyard by Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
So my kids and I went and bought bikes last weekend celebrating the end of school and the official beginning of summer. I was pleased to find our local store had Huffy bikes because I knew they were made in Celina, Ohio, near where I grew up, and I told my kids this. Emma looked at the tag on the bike and said, "Papa, where in China did you grow up?" Yep, Huffy outsourced.
How do I feel about this? On one hand it felt like part of my childhood was ripped out from under me. On the other hand, I'm not sure globalization is all that bad if it includes the free exchange of ideas as well as products. I like the fact that summer blockbusters are not being rolled out into the cineplexes right now. Why? World Cup fever, that's why. While most Americans are relatively oblivious to World Cup mania, the rest of the world is glued to every play and Hollywood, who sees itself as a global distributor, won't open big films to empty cinemas in India.
We are in the process of becoming a world community. Blogging is evidence of that. And I welcome that. The more we can communicate peer to peer, without the filtering of what the media thinks is important or what governments think is important, the better I think we will be.
Oh, and Ghana, you are so going down in the next match!
It's still pretty explosive and amazing. Hats off! Check out other Diet Coke and Mentos experiments at EepyBird.com.
Recently I have become more and more aware of people and organizations who seem to use Standard Time and Daylight Savings Time interchangeably. It started with an online conversation with someone who used "EST" when he clearly meant "EDT." When I corrected him, he acted like I didn't know what I was talking about. Believe me, I lived in Indiana for a long time which, until this year, had the distinction of one of three states that stayed on Standard Time all year long.
Then I started seeing other folks who should know better using the wrong time signature. I saw it first with my beloved Duluth Huskies and then with Air America Radio. Have others noticed this? Does it matter to you or am I just overly sensitive to this as a former Hoosier? Or maybe I'm just fastidiously correct in my own übergeeky way.