Theology of Superheroes

Christian Education Series

RIGHTEOUS VIOLENCE


The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for judging the dead, for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and all who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
— Revelation 11:18

God of Justice, scripture tells us that you are a jealous God who will judge our sinful and destructive natures. Likewise, we often desire to judge the sin in the world and act in violent ways to restore "justice." Yet, the Gospel reveals a merciful and gracious God who deeply loves us and who chooses to save us while we are still sinners. In the life of Jesus, we see how we ought to live, forgiving others and seeking reconciliation. Help us overcome our violent ways and look only to you as our source of righteousness. Amen. 


I love superhero movies! And if I am being honest, before taking a course in seminary called “Faith and Film,” I had never given much thought to their cultural influence, theological value, or possible threat to religion. However, in exploring superhero movies for the final project of this class, I began to understand the perspective of my professor, Dr. Jon Pahl, who claims that superhero movies glorify redemptive and/or righteous violence and warns that these films reinforce American empire.



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Most, if not all, superheroes are not innocent or blameless. They are every bit as violent as the villains. In the storyline of every superhero movie, the moment inevitably comes when violence can only be countered by more violence. Success or failure against the “bad guy” becomes irrelevant, the real victor is always violence itself. In no scene is this more evident than in the epic fight scene in Captain America: Civil War, in which the two sides engaging in violence are both made up of “heroes.” “Good guys” versus “good guys,” emphasizing the truth of most battles, that both sides are fighting for their understanding of “right.” There is a back and forth of violence, yet the viewer is left to question which side is “just.” As long as the violence is in response to wrong or enacted in order to subdue wrong, it is considered “heroic.” Yet, that is not the tragic reality in Civil War. As Rene Girard writes, “Tragedy is the balancing of the scale, not of justice but of violence” (Violence and the Sacred, 45).

This type of glorification of violence is played out in the real world as our nationalism claims that our violence against other nations is somehow just and heroic. It can be seen throughout Christian history, as violence is used “in the name of God” to bring people to faith. We justify violence by claiming it is sacred. While in his writing, Pahl is speaking of horror movies, I believe what he writes holds true for the young audience of superhero movies. "All the young viewers of these films are thus invited to invest themselves in the maintenance of the symbolic order which operates according to a religious logic in which sacrifice and violence [are] not only warranted, but unquestioned" (Empire of Sacrifice, 73). Superheroes often fight off evil with violence and justify their actions with claims of “right” and “justice.” Yet, as evident in a film like Civil War, we must remember that superheroes are not our "Redeemer." As explored in other sessions of this series, they are not our “savior.”

So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
— Matthew 13:49-50

However, if Christians are honest, our God can be awfully violent in scripture. Of course, there are endless examples in the Old Testament, and perhaps some would find it easy to write off, claiming that the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ changes our God of judgment into a God of grace. There are, of course, strong theological problems with dividing our perspective of God in half by the two Testaments, but I won't get into that here. Rather, we can simply look in the New Testament to find a God who parables describe as constantly throwing people into “the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We find a God who struck down Ananias and Sapphira for being selfish and lying. We are told of a second coming in which God will “destroy the destroyers.” Is God’s violence redemptive violence? In the name of God, in the name of “truth and justice,” can we truly carry out righteous violence? It would appear that it is not superhero movies influencing the world to act in misguided violence, but rather, it may be the very faith we feel is being corrupted that is influencing the movies being made.

In the latest Avengers movie, an all-powerful being is willing to sacrifice his child in order to save the universe from its own destructive nature. Yes, Thanos is willing to eliminate half the universe’s population, but tell me, what do you think dividing the sheep from the goats will look like? If Jesus was the blueprint for Superman, is God the blueprint for Thanos? Is religion the blueprint for superhero storylines? There is a lot to explore in this session, and I look forward to reading your thoughts and feedback...remember to stay constructive in disagreement!


Additional Resources

  • “Avengers: Infinity War” Presents a Villain For Our Times: CLICK HERE
  • Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism by Robert Jewett: CLICK HERE  
  • Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard: CLICK HERE
  • Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence by Jon Pahl: CLICK HERE
  • Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics by Jason Dittmer: CLICK HERE
  • The Black Panther as a Nationalist Superhero: CLICK HERE

Wanna explore the connections between Jesus and Superman? How about exploring the possibility that we can be the very superheroes that are needed to save the world? Confused by this whole Theology of Superheroes Series and need to go back to the Introduction? Click the buttons below and explore the answers to your questions!


There is a lot to explore and your thoughts and feedback are needed. Please contribute in the Comment Section below!


Theology of Superheroes

Christian Education Series

JESUS vs SUPERMAN


Mighty God, you proved your power over sin by becoming human, proclaiming the truth about your redemptive Love, willingly dying on the cross, and conquering death in your resurrection. As we explore stories of truth, justice, and power, may your Spirit lead us to a deeper understanding of the greatest story ever told, that of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
— John 3:16


Superman’s story goes something like this…

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From above, a mighty father in the heavens sends his only son to save the earth. When he comes down to earth, he is raised by two earthly parents. When Superman comes of age, he travels to the arctic “wilderness” to commune with his father’s spirit. Upon leaving this solitude, Superman, at age 30, embarks on his public mission, fighting for truth and justice...using powers to do what others cannot. His mission leads to his death. But, Superman is “resurrected” and comes back to life after being killed. Then, “Superman Returns,” coming back to earth to save its people.

Sound like a familiar story?

The similarities between Jesus and Superman are striking, yet when explored should not come as a surprise. These connections are intentional. Movie producers and directors know that the world is longing for a savior...even if they are resistant to admitting it. People can reject organized religion, they can stop going to church, but the truth is we need to believe that we will be delivered from the suffering of this world.

In a scene from Superman Returns, Lois Lane tells Superman that the world doesn’t need a “savior,” and neither does she. She denies the purpose of Superman. Superman understands that the world doesn’t know what the world needs. He takes her up into the sky and explains to her that although she cannot hear all of the people crying out for help, he does. Every day he hears the cries of the people for a “savior.” It is human nature to believe that we don’t need help. One could argue that this unwillingness to understand our limitations only produces more suffering...suffering in which we end up crying out for someone to save us.

We need a “savior.” Jesus is our Savior, yet the world often looks to false “saviors” in times of need. Does a comparison between Jesus and Superman help us more deeply connect to Christ or does it serve to satisfy our need for a "savior" without requiring the gift of faith and the work of discipleship? Does thinking of Jesus as a superhero lessen his identity as our Savior? Does comparing his divine power to superpowers diminish our understanding of his divinity? I think it is a fascinating discussion and look forward to engaging with what others think about these questions in the Comment Section below.


Additional Resources:

  • Do The Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes by Ben Sanders: CLICK HERE
  • The Bible Explained - Jesus and Superman: CLICK HERE
  • Superman's Second Coming: CLICK HERE
  • Jesus Vs Superman Comparison: CLICK HERE
  • Superman Isn’t Jesus, He’s Your Dad: CLICK HERE
  • Superman: Jesus figure or ‘anti-Christ’?: CLICK HERE

Check out one of the other sessions in the Theology of Superheroes Series by clicking on the buttons below.


What are your thoughts about Jesus as a superhero? How about your feelings about Superman as a "savior"? Please contribute in the Comment Section below!

Theology of Superheroes

Christian Education Series

THE SUPERHEROES WITHIN US


Now to God, who by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory.
— Ephesians 3:20

 

Empowering God, you know we are a broken and flawed people, yet you choose to be in relationship with us. You call us to follow your Son and you empower us with your Spirit. Filled with this Spirit, let us bravely seek to do the good, to be the good needed in our world. Amen.


In another session of this series, we look at both the constructive and the dangerous connections between Superman and Jesus. Christ as a “superhero” offers quite an interesting exploration of our perception of God. Still, I hope that we can ultimately agree that God is greater than any superhero, even Superman. Yet, shifting perspectives on who is the superhero offers an equally dynamic discussion. Can everyday people, like you and me, be superheroes? As we see in many recent movies and tv shows, the answer is clearly yes!



The biggest difference between superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, or Thor and superheroes like Spider-Man, Rogue, or the Flash is that the latter heroes are ordinary people who are asked to answer the call to be superheroes for a world in need. Superman is really an alien, Kal-El, “disguised” as an average guy, Clark Kent. Wonder Woman and Thor are “demi-gods” born with powers beyond human capability. We can’t be these superheroes. On the other hand, Spider-Man, Rogue, and the Flash are just ordinary teenagers, who unexpectedly get powers and must make the conscious choice to use their powers for good. They have extraordinary abilities thrust upon them whether they like it or not, and must decide what to do with these abilities.

So many superheroes are complex characters with all the imperfections of real-life human beings. They’re not all that “heroic” in comparison to Superman, who came to embody a kind of idealized moral perfection. Furthermore, these heroes always have other real-life problems to deal with in addition to fighting crime. For example, The Avengers in Captian America: Civil War argue and fight amongst themselves like a dysfunctional family. Wolverine and Cyclops are both in love with and fight over Jean Grey. Some heroes, like The Thing and the Incredible Hulk, are closer to monsters than typical heroes and consider their powers to be a curse. The Hulk was explicitly modeled on Frankenstein’s monster, and like that poor creature, many superheroes are usually misunderstood by society. They’re outcasts, often wrongly hunted as criminals. Several heroes are limited in some way: the X-Men’s Professor Xavier is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair; Iron Man’s Tony Stark has a heart condition; Daredevil is blind.

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The idea of heroism in many superhero movies is rooted in ordinary people who find themselves with unique abilities and struggle to overcome personal weaknesses to use those abilities to be better than they thought they could be. A hero is someone who shares Spider-Man’s motto: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Deep down, they may not feel all that heroic, and they may feel like their power is more a curse than a gift, but they’re doing the best they can to use their power for good. This is not far off from the Bible’s vision of heroism. One need not be a super-human being from another planet or a demi-god to be a hero. God works through the foolish and the weak, not only the strong and powerful (1 Cor. 1:26–31). Can God..is God working through you? Can people of faith be the "superheroes" the world is looking for?


Additional Resources


If we are superheroes, is it OK to stop the villains with violence?

If we're not superheroes, is Jesus?

Share your thoughts and feedback in the Comment Section below!

CLICK HERE to start at the beginning with the INTRODUCTION to the Theology of Superheroes series.


INITIATIVE

Intentionally-Focused Faith

Scripture

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” ~ Ephesians 4:1

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7

When you believe in what you’re doing and use your imagination and initiative, you can make a difference.
— Samuel Dash

Get to know two great Biblical characters who displayed initiative in their lives. Ruth took the initiative to compassionately demanded to stay by Naomi’s side. Nehemiah took the initiative to ask the king if he could return to his people and rebuild the city and temple. Check out the Books of Ruth and Nehemiah.

 

Guiding Questions

  1. Are you a leader or a follower? What are the pros and cons of boldly being the first or strategically waiting and learning from others?
  2. If we fully have trust in the Lord, what stops us from taking the initiative in faith to answer God’s call?
  3. What does it mean to take faithful initiative in your life? To take the initiative in you faith walk with Christ?

 

Additional Resources

Taking the initiative to answer God’s call or to advance your personal agenda? Check out a great article about discerning you motives when taking the initiative. CLICK HERE

Watch the motivational video and think about it, not in terms of athletic greatness or monetary success. Ask yourself, how can we strive for a greatness of faith, seek to do the impossible in the Lord?

The Black Church

The Black Church

Today, the Gospel promise of liberation is powerfully spoken by the black church. While slavery has been abolished, and the Civil Rights Movement has made great strides in race equality, the struggle is far from over. The very real presence of systemic racism still oppresses black and African-American communities.