Messianic Superman: Why the World Doesn't Need a Comicbook Savior
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]