Should We Illustrate Jesus with Superheroes? Pt. 2

Okay, superheroes aren’t characters that we should use to illustrate Jesus and his redemptive work. While stories will adopt the “Jesus Myth” these characters don’t illustrate Jesus very well. Dying to save others—whether it’s merely an individual, a city, a country or the world—is heroic but necessarily Christ-like. So then how should we use these heroes as Christians? Is there even a way to use them? I think there is a way, and to see it we turn our attention from DC superheroes to Marvel.

In April (2015) Marvel Studios and Netflix released a 13-episode TV series about Daredevil, one of the best takes on a dark, gritty, noir superhero. In Episode 9 (“Speak of the Devil”) Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, is talking to Father Lantom about evil and how to deal with it. When Murdock is asking about killing the Kingpin the Catholic priest brings up Proverbs 25:26, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted well are the righteous who give way to the wicked.” Daredevil is “the righteous” in the conversation.

Here the hero, who is clearly willing to die for Hell’s Kitchen (his city). He’s also willing to kill for his city too, if need be. The priest uses this text to warn Murdock that using the Kingpin’s methods poisons the well. (What is interesting is that Murdock thinks this text says that if he doesn’t kill Kingpin then the city is poisoned, and that’s a reasonable interpretation in his context.) He is the righteous man in Proverbs, the man who seeks to live out God’s wisdom.

We need to step back at this point. Daredevil, no matter how religious he as a character might be, does not live out God’s wisdom as lived by Jesus. Just like Superman and Batman, he resolves the danger to Hell’s Kitchen (Superman::Metropolis; Batman:: Gotham City) through violence instead of redemption, reconciliation, and grace. He is what virtue ethics calls a moral exemplar. A moral exemplar is a person who typifies or models his moral code or virtues. Mark D. White, college professor of economics and ethics, shows how Captain America (Steve Rogers) is a moral exemplar in his book, The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero. Captain America is the model for his moral code. He shows readers/viewers how to persevere to that code through the hardships. He exemplifies virtues.

Christian virtues may have overlaps with the virtues of Batman, Captain America, Daredevil, and Superman. But they are not the same. The Old and New Testaments spell out the virtues that lead to the kind of eudaimonia (a tricky term to translate and understand that lies at the heart of virtue ethics that essentially means “happiness” or “flourishing”) Jesus lived and achieved via his death and resurrection. Paul talks about human maturity (or telion in texts like Ephesians 4:13) which is full conformity to Christ. N. T. Wright shows how Christians can baptize virtue ethics theory in his book After You Believe. He demonstrates how Jesus, and Paul and Peter and the other apostles in the New Testament, are the moral exemplars of Christ’s kingdom.

At this point it sounds like we can now see these superheroes as metaphors for Jesus himself when he is the moral exemplar of his own ethics, of human maturity and flourishing that exists for those who belong to his kingdom. I might be willing to debate this, but my issue in this is about superheroes modeling his climatic kingdom-bringing event on the cross and in the resurrection. Captain America shouldn’t be understood as illustrative of Jesus and his saving death and resurrection in Captain America: The First Avenger or The Winter Soldier. Neither should Superman, Batman, Daredevil or any superhero. That’s the point.

Superheroes can model what it looks like to be faithful to that code of virtue. But we cannot use them as models for who Jesus is and what he was doing, no matter how heroic their actions may be and how deeply they resonate with us as Christ-followers. Batman’s insistence on stopping crime through fear is not what we read about in 1 John 4, where John says that God is love and that love was modeled in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This God’s presence in the lives of John’s audience is the presence of this perfect love, and God’s love casts away fear. There is no room for fear in love (yes I understand that Proverbs and elsewhere says that wisdom begins with the fear of Yahweh; that is only where wisdom begins not ends).

And so we end where we begin, with the Man of Steel. Scott Snyder, the writer of Batman: End Game, presents Superman as the exemplar with his miniseries Superman Unchained. This is a story where Superman is tested as the light, the answer to the plea for humans to become more than the sum of their parts. Snyder says in Superman Unchained #9 (2013–2014) that Superman isn’t a star, a sun, to guide humanity. He isn’t the answer. Rather Superman is himself just a man (albeit with superpowers) trying to find his way in the world. He makes mistakes. But because Superman will evaluate his decisions and learn from them, he doesn’t repeat past mistakes. In that Superman is the answer to our plea. He isn’t the one who gives the answer. He just tries to live out his convictions and we can learn from that.

Maybe it’s time to move away from seeing these American gods as metaphors for Jesus and start seeing them as inspiration for how to adhere to our moral code. They should inspire us to faithfulness, not to their codes, but to Jesus and his kingdom ethics that brings us into human maturity and flourishing, into telios. It is in superheroes exemplifying what they believe is right that these gods truly serve us.

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~ by hankimler on June 14, 2015.

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