Superman or Abraham?: On Modern Conceptions of Heroism


No less than in Rome or Greece, heroes abound today. The explosion of yesterday’s-comic-book-turned-today’s-blockbuster-film indicates with no uncertainty that our heroes are as meaningful to us in the twentieth century as they were to the ancient world. Even a brief comparison of ancient and modern heroes reveals the deepest aspirations and fears of current culture. The ancient heroes were born of the envy and lust of the gods. They were god-bred men who possessed in a finite form both the gods’ power and their weaknesses. They were caught between gods and men, and their enemies were fantastic creatures from the clashing, tectonic realm of the semi-divine – ancient monsters who hated both god and man alike. Ancient heroes were driven inescapably by Fate, and their lives were always cautionary tales or myths of origin.

The hero myths of the ancients were connected to the gods and were thus inherently meaningful. But the modern world has no philosophical place for gods, so there is in us a kind of void, a search for meaning and a fear of meaninglessness. In a world without Fate or Providence, where are we going? How will we arrive there? To what end is all the unrest in our culture moving? We embrace heroes who assure us that what we believe is effective and meaningful. Or, believing there is no meaning, we look for “anti-heroes” who confirm that the world is as irrational as it seems Today’s heroes are the sons of technology or superior evolution. A hero tells us that our technological or biological hopes are not in vain, that in the end modernism “works.”

If heroes are the personification of culture and help define its prevailing morality, we should be able to tell quite a lot about modern America by examining a few of our perennial heroes.

Superman is perhaps our closest connection to the heroes of the ancient world. Although from a superior race of beings, it is important to note that he is not supernatural in the Christian sense. His world is connected to ours on the same “plane of being” – that is, he is from this same physical universe. Superman is virtuous, handsome, powerful and benevolent. Both he and Batman have alter-egos, but Superman’s is opposite his true self. Superman is raised in the heartland of America and exemplifies innocence, industry and courage. Superman assures us that our American Protestant moral values are universal and will defeat evil in all its forms.

Batman has no divine connection. Nor is he the product of superior genetics. Batman is the union of the martial art of the Far East and the economic art of the Far West. He represents the hope of a new man emerging from pluralism, and therefore justifies pluralism – uniting in himself the materialisms of the Orient and of Western Europe. He is the technological monk, the peaceful assassin, the ascetic playboy. He makes the disparate appear compatible.

The X-Men are a collection of heroes made so by Evolution (even Darwinian Evolution) who gather together for mutual support because their evolution has given them powerful gifts that “normal” human beings fear. The X-Men stories assume a God-less universe driven by blind natural laws that produce involuntarily the “next step” of biological progress. (In following their story, we do not question why Evolution would blindly give us the ability to control weather or read minds or manipulate metal.) The X-Men assure us that we need not worry about having no religion. Biology is progress. Biology will take care of everything, if we give it time. Added to this (especially in the films) is the related and underlying premise that moral judgment is baseless and universally destructive. No person should censure the actions of another.

Spiderman is the by-product of science. He is an all-American boy suddenly transformed by the venom of a genetically engineered spider. Like Superman, he is innocent and unconquerably hopeful. Interestingly, Spiderman’s enemies are also the products of science. His story is the struggle of the human soul to remain human despite scientific advance. In Spiderman’s world, science is neutral. Science plus a good soul equals a good hero; science plus greed or ambition in a soul equals an evil hero. This is largely what we believe: that technology is morally blank and is whatever we make of it. We do not believe that our technology shapes and directs and perhaps manipulates us. We trust that any evil connected to technology will always be balanced by the good it provides.

These heroes (and many others) are a mirror of our collective worldview. What these men (and women) say and do is what we would want to say and do in their place. How they are rewarded or punished is how we hope to be as well. What made them and what happens to them is what we would expect from a universe that functions (as we accept) according to the American paradigm.

But as Christians, we do not share the American paradigm. Though it may be said that American culture is a product of Christian belief, it is not synonymous with that belief, and appears more and more divergent from the worldview inherent in the Scriptures. American heroes and Biblical ones are strikingly distant. Though, standing as they do at the intersection of all cultures, the Scriptures do not fail to acknowledge the Hero or the need for heroism. Heroes become necessary after the Fall, and it is of special interest to our industrialized and war-threatened culture that right at the beginning of Genesis stand both heroes and anti-heroes.

In fact, the first use of “hero” is in the negative, referring to the children of Cain who built cities and conquered each other and made names for themselves through acts of violence. These were the “giants in the earth” the “heroes of old, men of renown.” Nimrod and others of Cain’s family are obviously heroic in their activities – they seem to dwell at a mid-point somewhere below God, but definitely above other men. Scripture mentions them only in preparing to look beyond them. They are revealed as little anti-Christs – that is, they are in place of, or a distraction from, Christ who is the coming Savior. And, heroes are always saviors, even if they only save an idea or a paradigm.

The Biblical narrative mentions these violent men in passing as it sets up the story of the greatest of heroes: Abraham. Abraham is a new kind of hero because he is a hero through expectation, not prowess. Abraham is the hero whose power comes from his relationship with God. He has no power except when the personal God acts through and with him.

Most importantly, Abraham’s heroism is in his worship. He is the professional altar-builder. At every encounter with God, Abraham is seen marking the place with sacrifice and thanksgiving. At the end of Abrahams’ life, he is even asked to lay himself on the altar – in the body of his son. Some traditions would see the sacrifice of Isaac as merely the end of child sacrifice. This interpretation falls short of the full importance of the event. Some traditions see the sacrifice of Isaac as proof of substitutionary atonement. I would argue this interpretation distorts the character of the God who is Love.

At his final alter – preparing to place Isaac in the hands of God – Abraham gives us a glimpse into the full meaning of the Crucifixion. Both Abraham and Isaac are types of Christ, the Christ who on one hand offers Himself of His own will and on the other is lead “like a lamb to the slaughter.” True heroism is revealed in Abraham: the Heroism of Faith.
Christians understand that there are two hero traditions: one is the traditional hero (from Hercules to Superman) and one is the Abrahamic “man of expectation.” This second type can be heroic in the first sense, but only superficially. The man of expectation, the Christian hero, is looking to Another’s heroism and acting in His strength. Starkly, we can say that all heroes are either Christ Himself, anti-Christs, or Christians, and we should never blindly embrace the heroes of our culture, though some may exemplify a limited goodness or morality.
No doubt we need heroes. Culture begs for them and Scripture provides many models of heroism. Ultimately, our most popular heroes are just comic book distractions. There appears to be such a demand for them that the same super-men and super-women come out of Hollywood time and again and we pay millions to see them in every new sequel or incarnation. Maybe we go because the latest re-boot is in 3D. Maybe because we are existentially afraid and need reassurance. Maybe we are looking for a moment of transcendence to break up the mundane.
All of this may be true. But four-thousand years of Abrahamic Faith teaches us that only Christ can truly satisfy a hero-starved soul.

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