As we look back at some of the most popular films of the past few years, and as we look ahead to movies in production, it is clear that superheroes have captured the imagination of our culture. If we’re at all into it, we have our favorites. My nine year old son has thought a lot about superman in particular, and he has concluded that the Man of Steel is, to quote him precisely, "a pansy." This is just one of the many reasons I am so proud of my boy.
Superman has it so easy that it’s hard to respect him. He’s got ridiculous strength, x-ray vision, the power of flight - and to top it all off, a full head of perfectly placed, silken black hair. (Some of us are particularly envious of that last attribute.) Batman is more like it. There’s a Gothic grittiness to the dark knight; he works in the shadows and only pretends as Bruce Wayne to like the limelight in order to keep criminals from discovering his secret identity. And forgive me if this offends you, but the quasi-realism of Batman is precisely why he and Superman should never be in the same story. Please keep reading, even in you're angry.
Whether they’re supernatural beings or humans who are super smart, super rich, or super tough, we’re drawn to fictional characters whose capabilities exceed our own. Their stories beckon us to the edge of our everyday experiences and sometimes far beyond. They make us fantasize about flying, saving millions of lives, and having a full head of hair well into our thirties. It’s the stuff that middle-aged dreams are made of. But these stories speak to us on a deeper level as well.
The tales of these powerful protagonists stir within us deep yearnings to experience life on a higher level, to see evil meet its match, to see the victimized vindicated and for those who cause terror to live in fear. We wish for such things to happen in real life, for such heroes to be sent to us or to rise from among us – well, we sort of wish for that.
In all of the superhero stories I know, the good guy saves people and then lets them live their lives the way they want to, so long as they are relatively well behaved. But what if Superman suddenly insisted that the citizens of Metropolis live lives of absolute moral perfection? What if he held the whole world accountable to his code of conduct? Even if that code was utterly upright, and even if after Superman rescued us he gave us supernatural power to increasingly keep that code, we might tell him to fly away and save some other planet, if that’s what he means by saving. In our fallen nature, we are naturally eager to be rescued; we are not naturally eager to be redeemed.
There is a profound difference between redemption (biblically defined) and mere rescue. To be redeemed is to be bought, to be owned, to renounce our autonomy, not merely to rein it in a bit. To be redeemed is to be ruled by the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. Sadly, don’t you find that, even as Christians, we sometimes treat Jesus as more of a superhero than a Savior? We call upon him to rescue us in a time of need, but when it comes to the demands of being his disciple, we try to keep him at a distance.
If we doubt our tendency to do this, we need only ask ourselves: To what sins are we clinging tightly today? What dark corner of our hearts do we try to hide from the searching light of the Savior’s Word? Do we in our hearts insist upon our right to participate in that from which Jesus died to free us? And do we want Jesus to rid us of these sins themselves, or merely of their consequences? If the latter, then we are trying to add fiction to our faith.
Scripture teaches that salvation in Christ is the means to the end of our becoming like Him. Jesus rescues us from lawlessness to a life in which keeping the royal law is our highest priority and pursuit (Psalm 119:1-5, Titus 2:11-14, 1st John 3:1-4) and the deepest expression of affection for our King (John 14:15). To live a life more and more in keeping with God’s moral law is truly the stuff of the supernatural. And praise be to God, He gives us the power to do exactly that.
In a future entry, we’ll consider the law of God itself, what it actually is as opposed to the sadly popular way some Christians regard it. For now, let’s remember that we serve a Savior, not a superhero. And let’s remember that this Savior is also our dearest friend and eldest brother in the family of God, and that he is by the Holy Spirit always with us in this world, guiding us from spiritual strength to strength until we see him face to face (Psalm 84). Even the best fiction falls far short of the imagination-capturing power of the gospel, the good news that God has provided through Jesus Christ not only rescue, but redemption.