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Superhero or saviour?

26 February 2016

Andrew Davison explores depictions of Jesus in contemporary culture

Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Dawn of Justice? Batman-v-Superman 2016

Dawn of Justice? Batman-v-Superman 2016

OUR theological account of who Jesus is needs to be rooted in the Gospels’ storyof who Jesus is: the story of what he said and did. That story has received extensive attention in popular culture, not least on film, even if the theological quality is patchy.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964) communicates powerfully (despite the fact that the dialogue is in Italian), not least because the script is drawn entirely from the Gospel of St Matthew, and the untrained actors give it an unpolished immediacy.

Shorter chapters from the life of Christ have received individual treatments, such as the BBC’s 2010 four-part series The Nativity, which I, at least, found deeply moving. Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ is not for a whole family audience.

Other films have attempted to reflect the life of Christ in a contemporary setting. In Jésus de Montréal (1989), events among a theatrical troupe who are putting on a life of Christ come to parallel the gospel story. Ultimately, however, this cinematic attempt to find an analogy fails, not least when it depicts the new life of the resurrection in terms of organ donation (a noble gesture, but not the recreation of the world).

Treating Jesus artistically has not always been something to be undertaken lightly. Until the Theatrical Licensing Act (1737) was withdrawn in 1968, for instance, what could be depicted on stage in the UK was regulated, and any portrayal of Jesus was potentially sensitive. Dorothy L. Sayers was proud to have got The Man Born To Be King on to the radio in 1941.

 

APART from simply re-telling the story of Christ, it is worth looking at how the culture around us picks up, or parallels, broader Christological themes. Theologians have found rich pickings in the superheroes of comics and graphic novels, film and TV.

Luke Bretherton, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina, and the Rt Revd Robert Barron, now Auxiliary Roman Catholic Bishop of Los Angeles, have both pursued this angle. Following Professor Bretherton’s lead, we can identify Spiderman as an ordinary figure, who received extraordinary powers at a particular moment in his life. This mirrors the “adoptionist” position about Christ: that God adopted an otherwise ordinary guy.

Professor Bretherton associates this with the Ebionites. They were a group in the Early Church, and, although we do not know a great deal about them, they have gone down in theological history as representing the Jesus-is-not-divine position. Superman, on the other hand, can be taken to illustrate a “Docetist” view: the idea that Jesus only “seemed” (from the Greek, dokein) to be human. In fact, Superman comes from somewhere else entirely.

Then, with Batman, we have an illustration of Jesus as a moral example: he is just a human being, without superpowers, although an exemplary one.

Bishop Barron points to recurring explorations in this sort of story of Christologically charged themes, such as redemptive sacrifice and vocation — not least in confronting the question, as Jesus did at his temptation, of how to use his power. Mark Meynell’s half-hour audio documentary on this theme, entitled Why We Love Men in Capes, is available on iTunes. It does a terrific job of exploring this Christology/superheroes link, in a Christian-apologetic type of way.

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