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274 Garry St.
(Between Portage
& Graham)

Winnipeg, MB
Canada  R3C 1H3
204-943-7555

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ideaExchange Transcript 2.19.05


Jesus as Superhero:
Why spandex sells better than sackcloth and ashes - Kalyn Falk 2.19.05

When I was growing up, I was transfixed by Superheroes like Superman, Wonder Woman and the perhaps not heroic but certainly superhuman Charlie's Angels. What I liked about them was how shiny and competent they were. No matter how desperate the situation, they would always be able to save the good guys and let the bad guys receive their just desserts. It was comforting to watch these shows because you knew it would all work out in the end and, no matter how perilous things seemed for the hero, they would emerge unscarred without a hair out of place. So when I started hearing about Jesus saving me, I assumed that he would fit into the same sort of paradigm, maybe King of the Superheroes. I might fall out of a burning building, but if I were "Jesus' girl," like a Christian Lois Lane, he would catch me and never let me get hurt. It made me feel special and it seemed exciting. I got caught up in the world of shiny super Christians who "did good in the world and helped overcome evil". As my story came to include my youngest son's diagnosis of autism, my own depression and sense of dislocation within the Christian community, family chaos and a general sense of things going not the way I planned, I realized that my understanding of Jesus was inadequate.

My premise is that, perhaps without realizing it, a large part of the North American church has imagined Jesus similarly as a kind of superhero. I worry about how this affects our theology and our understanding of what it means to be a disciple.

The superhero Jesus acts as a kind of lucky penny: if I say the name of Jesus the right way, my problems will all disappear. Or, if my life is going horribly awry, I'll call on Jesus to save me and take care of everything. But here's our problem: bad things do happen, even to people who call on Jesus' name the proper way. This then leads us to question why God is letting bad things happen to us and we can quickly get stuck in a rut of self-pity. It also makes it less likely to take responsibility for our own actions or to find the path that leads toward life.

Consider Spiderman as an example. New York was a violent city before anyone heard of Spiderman. People accepted that reality and lived accordingly. There were probably a number of ways that were used to address it. People would have locks on their doors; governments would be planning programs to make streets safer. Ultimately, the situation was recognized as a human problem that required human effort. But when Spiderman came onto the scene, people came to expect him to save them and turned against him when he didn't. Let me be clear that this analogy is useful in looking at crowd behavior - at people's responses - and isn't meant to compare Jesus to Spiderman. To do that paints a picture of Jesus as a reluctant hero who is in effect subject to both his special powers and his audience.

To cast Jesus as Superhero not only allows us to relinquish our responsibility for our own life, it strangely also encourages us to take responsibility for other people. As disciples, we feel called to save other people from their circumstances, just as we hope Jesus will do for us. A brilliant example of this double-edged dynamic is from the movie "Saved". A girl discovers that her boyfriend is gay and comes to believe that God has called her to sleep with him to cure him of his homosexuality. You can see the train wreck coming. She gets pregnant, he comes out anyway and she becomes disillusioned. To continue the cycle, her friends arrange a prayer rally for the boy's healing and attempt to save the girl in a drive-by exorcism. Throughout these scenes, there is no room for ambiguity, compassion or dialogue. The assumption is that the main characters need saving, and they're going to get it whether they've asked for it or not.

This idea of salvation objectifies both hero and victim - both are defined by function. I think that this has something to do with some people's reaction to the film, The Passion of the Christ. I haven't seen the movie myself, but I've heard from several people that they were moved by the level of suffering that Jesus endured. I think this view leads to a substitutionary view of atonement. Through the lens of functionality, it makes sense that Jesus had to suffer more than anyone else. It becomes a payoff - the more he suffers the more we owe him. The resulting view of discipleship leads to a focus on external behaviors and obligation.

Fundamentally, this whole view requires separation - the focus is on Jesus' otherness. We've probably all seen the popular painting of Jesus - white robe, nicely combed hair, the only white guy in Jewish circles. He can't be portrayed as having bushy hair, a sense of humor or a need to go to the bathroom. It's as if we don't want to acknowledge his sameness, some fear that to acknowledge that will bring us to a place of responsibility. He needs to be special, to be superhuman, to be the bridge part of the diagram of the four spiritual laws. If there's more to it than that, we will have to enter a darker picture that involves ambiguity, mystery and suffering.

The danger of ending with the nicely scrubbed superhuman Jesus is that it easily leads us to believe that the work is done. Jesus the Superhero saves the world and ends our quest. Our journey of faith ends at conversion.

If we instead embrace Jesus' sameness, a new paradigm opens up. A presumption of separateness is replaced by integration and relationship. In emphasizing sameness, however, I'm not trying to discount Jesus' divinity. Just that the "fully human" part can't be glossed over or "made pretty". My basic understanding is that Jesus came to earth to teach us how to be human not to lead us to believe that we may be invulnerable.

If we see Jesus as the in breaking of the new age of God's shalom, we see from both his life and death a model for our lives. Instead of a Superhero, we find Jesus the Pilgrim, walking into this new age and showing us how to live and be. Rather than ending our quest, Jesus leads us to a deeper reality. Our hunger for righteousness and yearning for connection are not quenched; they are intensified. Jesus teaches us to live in ambiguity, in vulnerability and in openness to God. This is not a model of behavior or law; it is one of trust and of walking in step with the Spirit.

Discipleship is about developing the traits necessary to sustain the quest and live in openness and vulnerability. Looking at Jesus' life, particularly at his temptation in the desert, offers a portrait of a constant opening to God.

The story tells us that the devil tempted Jesus three times: to change stones to bread, to worship the devil and be given the authority to rule all the kingdoms of the world, and to throw himself from the temple. In iconic terms, the first temptation dealt not only with immediate hunger, but also security. Jesus would be able to meet his own physical needs; there would be no need to pray for daily bread. This temptation also echoes back to the Israelites' exile and provision of manna. The ongoing miraculous sustenance did not build their faith or open their hearts, and Jesus recognizes the need for something deeper that will sustain him.

The second temptation has to do with power and hierarchy. The devil uses the phrase "I will give their glory and all this authority," (Luke 4:6) indicating that it's not simply control that he's willing to give, but prestige as well. This arrangement could also give Jesus the opportunity to bless the kingdoms as well. I am reminded of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Galadriel is tempted to take the ring of power. She assures herself that she would wield it wisely and that it would benefit all before acknowledging that it would also eventually destroy her. Though Jesus was tempted to claim his kingship in a way that most people were expecting, he dismisses the devil with a focus on single-minded worship.

His final temptation was about being extraordinary and invincible. By now, the devil is wise to Jesus' tendency of quoting Scripture and he uses his own reference to Scripture to make his appeal. This temptation is one of death-defying spectacle and recklessness. Jesus would never need to feel pain or face death. Jesus' response is succinct and final. His temptation in the desert ends.

This section reveals Jesus' call. By rejecting the bread, Jesus remains hungry and reliant on God. By not worshipping Satan, he gives up hierarchical power and demonstrates his servant heart and devotion to God. The third temptation reveals Jesus' choice to be vulnerable and open to suffering. It also reveals the things that the devil acknowledges are effective at blocking the work of the Sprit and the building up of God's kingdom: security, control, and certainty. Another tool of the devil also becomes evident; all of his suggestions are quick fixes. They require no patience. This in itself teaches much about discipleship.

Echoes of this story come through Jesus' entire ministry. Luke 4:14-30 shows Jesus moving into great popularity, declaring his purpose on earth and then being rejected by the crowd. The temptation to be the superhero the crowd wants him to be is again overcome by God's will, which blesses the weak and oppressed. Another example of this cycle begins in Luke 19:35-38. The triumphal entry is a pivotal piece of history. The Israelites were waiting for the Messiah: the king who would restore Israel. However, Jesus rode on a donkey instead of a warhorse, proclaiming a different understanding of the kingdom of God. The entry echoes the temptation of Jesus; go in political power or choose the servant path. Another example is found on the cross. The crowd tempting him to choose invincibility over death in Luke 23:35 is an obvious echo of the third temptation. Jesus responds by committing his spirit into God's hands. And in an inverse of the first temptation, Jesus turns himself to bread at the Last Supper. Behold who you are. Become what you receive. Embrace the mystery.

In contemporary society, it is clear that we live with the same temptations. Our patience is easily eroded as we accustom ourselves to instant gratification. On a physical level, we have become obsessed with eating, especially falling prey to the promise of eating whatever we want while still losing weight. Our hunger for gratification is tempted on a number of levels.

Self-reliance is admired. We worship a minority of people who have more wealth than some small countries. We give power to the beautiful and listen to their advice on decorating, fashion, lifestyle and politics. We create the illusion of invincibility by staving off death and aging at any cost. How can we, like Jesus, resist the temptation of society?

Rather than waiting for a Superhero to save us from reality, I believe we are called to embrace reality. We are fragile and vulnerable. We are in need of grace. Instead of hoping that Jesus will take us away from pain, we are called to rest in God's hand.

But before going on, I have to tell you about my week. I was down with a sore throat and cold for most of the week. On Friday morning, I went to a meeting regarding Noah's transition into school and discovered that we would not receive the funding we had requested. Friday evening, we got back from a concert to find our front door had been pried open and many of our belongings stolen. This week, I wanted a Superhero to take me out of reality. I didn't want to be reminded that I'm vulnerable. I wanted to clutch my magic penny and wish away all of the complications of my life. After all, I had this paper on suffering to write and didn't need the hassle of real life getting in the way.

Really what I wanted was a god I can control who will protect me from suffering. It's this kind of mentality leaves me as part of the crowd on Palm Sunday, still hoping for the Messiah to show up to fulfill my own agenda and definitions. In that light, Jesus as Pilgrim is a disappointment.

I used to be so confused about how the crowd who was ready to "Celebrate Jesus" on Palm Sunday moved so quickly to the mob yelling, "crucify him" less than a week later. Jesus resisted the temptation to be a Superhero and when someone refuses to play the role they've been given, people react. In conflict resolution terms, the greater the perceived gap between our expectations and our experience, the greater likelihood for conflict, anger and violence. This is called relative deprivation. The important part of this equation, then, is not so much our experience, but our expectations of what our experience should be. Our work, then, is to let go of our expectations of Christ coming to save us from our circumstances and instead allow ourselves to be pulled toward the center of our reality, which is to be pulled into the love of God.

I want to illustrate this point with a story from John. Jesus came to the disciples ready to give a gift; he wanted to wash their feet. Peter objected. First, he refused Jesus' actions. As Jesus explained the blessing of this gift, Peter then demanded that Jesus wash his head and hands too. He still needed to control what was going on. Finally, he relinquished control and received the gift that was offered. The model Jesus gives is one of service and humility. Not to objectify one another or to control or manipulate each other, but to serve one another in love. We have a choice too. We can clutch our magic penny and refuse to accept reality. We can try to direct our lives and the lives of others to make us feel in control. Or we can open our hands to receive: to invite God and others into the reality of our lives. Thanks be to God.

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