SUMMER is upon us, and the blockbusters are coming to our cinemas — some of them featuring superheroes. Wonder Woman was released this month, to critical acclaim; next month, the new Spiderman film will hit box offices, followed, in November, by Justice League, featuring, among others, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
On past experience, this latest run of superhero films will inspire sermons comparing Jesus to superheroes. Indeed, in the run-up to the release of the last Superman film, Man of Steel, Warner Bros. sent information packs, containing sermon notes, to Christian ministers. The message will be, of course, that Jesus is better than a superhero, but a superhero none the less. In the words of the Hillsong worship song “Jesus You’re My Superhero”, Jesus is “Better than Spiderman Better than Superman Better than Batman Better than anyone”.
ALL this might seem harmless enough, but I would argue that it is theologically problematic, if not dangerous, because of the way it invites Christians to see God’s action in the world and their part within it.
The theological problems are not difficult to find. On the surface, the Hebrew scriptures feature many examples of positive and negative hero types: Goliath to the latter-day David. Closer reading, however, shows that it is when these individuals neglect their place in God’s wider mission that their downfall begins.
The most obvious example is David. As a child, he trusts God so much that he goes into battle, unprotected, against the most powerful military weapon; as an adult, he spurns trust in God in favour of the power that his position affords to take whatever he wills. Moses is another example: impatient with God’s instruction, he decides to chide the people and strike the rock in his own strength rather than take the less direct and dramatic approach that God had counselled.
But what about the New Testament? Jesus, after all, possesses supernatural powers, like a superhero, and, crucially, he also saves people. The nature of the saving is very different, however. Superheroes operate as a grand emergency service, putting out fires using vigilante action and leaving the world as it was before. Jesus, on the other hand, does not rush to save people, as the raising of Lazarus illustrates well. Rather, he saves them by inviting them into a new way of life that is part of the transformation of this world.
One illustration of this is the response of Jesus to Caesar’s tribute, in which he refuses to be cast as a politically revolutionary like Judas Maccabeus. He suggests, rather, that serving God in this world takes a different mode of operation. The pattern of his ministry welcomes the stranger and outcast, offers forgiveness and mercy, and gives of itself rather than building defences.
Another contrast between superheroes and Jesus is that superheroes act alone or in groups with others like them (alien or mutant, usually). They do not, on the whole, make disciples. They are unique saviours who act for, not with, people. Jesus, by contrast, acts with people and passes on his power, offering his followers the opportunity to be like him. This is one of the key insights of liberation theology: God is to be found among the poor, not simply acting to or for them.
This matters because Jesus is not acting always, or most of the time, as the powerful one — and certainly not as a fixer. Jesus gives, but he also receives: not least in the valuable care, support, and encouragement that he receives from women disciples throughout his ministry. His emphatic “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” also casts him in a receptive mode.
IF PEOPLE think of Jesus as a superhero, as a fixer, then they may have expectations that their faith will lead to fixing things. Even more dangerous, they may imagine, when considering “What would Jesus do?”, that they have to try to adopt the position of the messianic superhero and see themselves as acting to save others, more than to be with, or receive from, them.
This has obvious implications for international politics and this country’s view of its “place in the world”, which dominates so much political discourse. It also has personal and domestic relevance. Whatever it is tempting to believe about superheroes and Jesus from films and sermons, it is vital to remember that Jesus is not a fixer. His mission is much more complicated and costly.
Christians do not share in Jesus’s mission as fellow fixers; instead, they are to be present, to listen, to look for God’s transformation. Most importantly, they are to see themselves as bit players in God’s wider mission — not as the movie’s leading characters.
Dr Andrew Hayes is a Tutor in Ethics and Church History at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education, Birmingham.