Saturday, July 08, 2006

Superman vs. Jesus Christ

I am sitting here in my office, the door blocked by formidible stacks of books, beating back repeated assaults from two young boys who are demanding that I take them to see the new "Superman" movie.

As I sit here, occasionally taking nourishment from food and coffee passed to me through small holes in my defensive fortifications from my sympathetic wife, I am pondering a recent post on The Acton Institute’s website by Jordan Ballor about the tendency on the part of Christians to see Christian symbolism in the most mundane of cultural artifacts.

The operative statement in Ballor’s piece is this: “The comic figure of Superman may indeed point us to Christ. Many Christian commentators are right in recognizing this. But if we do truly see Christ through Superman, it is by contrast and not by similarity.”

His argument is that the character of Superman in the movie has more to do with Nietzsche’s “ubermensch” than the Christ of the gospels. The Christ of the gospels, he argues, “embodies mercy, weakness, and suffering.” He “humbled himself and became obedient to death…”

Well, yes, if the story stopped at crucifixion, then that would be a complete picture of Christ. But there are a few things that happened after this that really shouldn’t be ignored; namely, his Resurrection and Glorification–and his installation at the right hand of God Himself. We can’t simply limit our view of Christ solely to the role he undertook in his 33 year mission on Earth.

He was “made a little lower than the angels”, but He doesn’t remain that way.

The main point Ballor sets out to make is that we have a tendency to overstate the significance of the typological similarities of the characters in movies and books. And why not? It gets us out of the problem of being more discriminating in what we watch and read if we can simply attribute some sort of Christian significance to it.

Just look at the popularity of Mel Gibson’s "Braveheart" among Christian ministers as a type of the Christian leader. There’s a lot of discussion of his leadership qualities, but little remark on his little brush with fornication in the movie. That’s not to say that I don’t like "Braveheart" or that I see don’t recognize the Christian symbolism in it. My point (and this is where I agree with Ballor) is that this tendency has turned into an unthoughtful reflex action rather than a critical aesthetic confrontation with the work of art.

Witness the books that play off of this tendency in evangelicals, such as “Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through the Lord of the Rings.” Say whut?

Look, I like the "Lord of the Rings". I think it is one of the greatest Christian books of all time. But a devotional? This kind of treatment just demeans the work itself–just as the silly repackagings of the Bible demean the Holy Scriptures.

Part of this, of course, is due the increasingly trivial and opportunistic Christian publishing industry, which tries to milk every evangelical trend for every dollar it can squeeze from it. (Do you have your “Prayer of Jabez Daytimer for Teens” yet?) And if it can do this by being parasitical on the broader secular culture, all the better. It does save us from the trouble of actually enriching the culture ourselves.

I agree with Ballor’s main point, but not the reasons he gives in support of it. There is very obviously typology in movies like "Superman Returns" that evidences Christ–through similarity as well as contrast.

I haven’t seen “Superman Returns.” But my ramparts will be breached in time, and I will be dragged from my redoubt, forced into a well-cushioned stadium theatre seat, and made to ingest mass quantities of buttered popcorn and Cherry Coke. Once thus installed, I will be able to offer informed commentary on the movie itself.

But there has to be some responsible way for Christians to recognize in a work of art the symbolism that follows necessarily on the fact that all nature bespeaks a Creator without getting silly about it.

See Quiddity for responses to this article by Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute and others.

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