Theologizing superheroes (or, revealing my inner geek)

Original post: December 5, 2008; repost: March 20, 2010.

Last night I satisfied for a brief moment my inner comic book fanboy and watched Superman: Doomsday, the cartoon adaptation of The Death and Return of Superman series. [Some of you may be saying, “Superman died?!” Others will be rolling your eyes that I even need to explain that, and there will undoubtedly be a few who don’t really care.] I’ve always loved superheroes. Maybe I’m mindlessly buying into what Robert Jewett in Mission and Menace calls “the American monomyth paradigm” (236-238); maybe I’m just indulging in childish flights of fancy. Regardless, since I was a kid, I’ve loved Batman’s fun gadgets, Wolverine’s ridiculously cool adamantium claws, and Spider-Man’s webbing (and humor). But Superman has always been my favorite superhero.

Every hero has angst. It’s part of the comic book code: everyone struggles with something, whether it’s Spider-Man trying to figure out how to balance school and girls and fighting crime, or Wolverine wrestling with his shadowy past and trying to control his feral nature. Superman’s angst is his otherness, his difference, his rootlessness; his struggle is to find his place in a world that is simultaneously his home and yet not.

Here then is the first parallel, one of the reasons I like Superman: because I identify with him. Both for myself as a Third Culture Kid, and for myself as a Christian, whose citizenship is not in this world but in heaven (Phil. 3:20), this search and longing for home—to find people who really understand me and welcome me for who I am—is one of the struggles I face. Where do I fit in this world?

But the second parallel is what struck me (again, but with more clarity) last night, when I watched Superman: Doomsday. What makes Superman who he is? It isn’t just his super-strength, or his laser sight, or his super-speed, or his ability to fly, or his invincibility. It’s his values. It’s the fact that, even though he’s got the capacity to have the world fall at his feet, even though he’s got the power to subjugate all people and do whatever he wants, he chooses to be a servant, even to the point of laying down his life to defeat evil. Uh … obvious analogy, anyone?

Of course, the Superman mythology can be interpreted another way, as feeding into some of the American myths that Richard T. Hughes looks at in Myths America Lives By: of invulnerability, of always trying to do good, of American innocence. But I think even this way of understanding the Superman/Christ/America association belies the way that we as Americans (and we as Christians) can sometimes tend to (consciously or unconsciously) claim for ourselves a messianic mantle. (New discussion … go!)

Anyway … just wanted to bare my comic book-loving soul for y’all.

[Disclaimer: The movie isn’t all that amazing; but it is 75 minutes of fun.]

Spectacle over substance, quirk over quality

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin has a fascinating post up, entitled “Driveby culture and the endless search for wow.” In it, he critiques how our culture feeds into and perpetuates our already-consumeristic (thanks to modernism) mentality, creating a shallower and more easily distracted society.

We’re creating a culture of clickers, stumblers and jaded spectators who decide in the space of a moment whether to watch and participate (or not).

Imagine if people went to the theatre or the movies and stood up and walked out after the first six seconds. Imagine if people went to the senior prom and bailed on their date three seconds after the car pulled away from the curb.

The majority of people who sign up for a new online service rarely or never use it. The majority of YouTube videos are watched for just a few seconds. Chatroulette institutionalizes the glance and click mentality. I’m guessing that more than half the people who started reading this post never finished it.

This is all easy to measure. And it drives people with something to accomplish crazy, because they want visits to go up, clicks to go up, eyeballs to go up.

Should I write blog posts that increase my traffic or that help change the way (a few) people think?

Should a charity focus on instant donations by texting from a million people or is it better to seek dedicated attention and support from a few who understand the mission and are there for the long haul?

It bears thinking about, especially for us as Christians. Do we seek to draw and engage people, online or otherwise, with substance or spectacle, with quality or quirk? With spectacle, with quirk, with cheap entertainment, we may draw more, and more immediately; we might have numbers to point to or more easily-categorizable statistics; and we might look, at least in the short-term, like we have found success.

But those we attract with such an approach are not, and will not be, the ones who will dig deep, who are genuinely interested, genuinely seeking, genuinely wanting to know more, and who are willing to sacrifice and work on the journey on which we are inviting them to join us, and more importantly, God. It is with substance, with quality, with genuine depth, that true change comes about and true disciples are made.

And that, going against the grain of culture, will be a challenge. But, as Seth concludes–and obviously, I’ve appropriated what I learned from him into my own framework of theology and life:

In the race between ‘who’ and ‘how many’, who usually wins–if action is your goal. Find the right people, those that are willing to listen to what you have to say, and ignore the masses that are just going to race on, unchanged.

We do the best we can with what we have and with what we know, and trust that God will do the rest.

It is his story after all.

God’s will for your life

Today’s commentary from slacktivist on the Left Behind series features a great section on God’s will–especially in its critique of the perspective which is prevalent in the American evangelicalism that subscribes to the theology found in the books. (Wow, that was a convoluted sentence!) Many of you, I think, will know the kinds of things we’re talking about–I certainly do, having grown up in certain church traditions that subscribed to this–what I’ll call “misguided”–theology.

Anyway, I’ll let slacktivist speak for himself (with a couple of added annotations and emphases):

This idea of God’s Will For Your Life is not an easy thing to describe to those not wholly immersed as natives of the American evangelical subculture. I doubt I can fully convey the meaning or pervasive influence of this notion for those inside that world, but let me try.

God’s Will For Your Life is far narrower and more specific than the notion of a divine “plan” that you might glean from Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws tract — “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (Or, as those of us more critical of Campus Crusade’s genitalized Gospel sometimes put it, “God loves you and has a horrible plan for your wife.”) [Ed. Hahaha … Nicely put.]

What it means, rather, is that your life and happiness have been mapped out ahead of time with a suffocating specificity. There is one job — one particular, singular job — which is God’s Will For Your Life. And there is one potential spouse — one particular, singular spouse — who is GWFYL. And thus every decision which might in any way lead toward or away from either of those must be pondered with an agonizing consideration of just what is GWFYL. Every date (or “courtship”), your choice of college (or Bible College) and choice of major is a fork in the road leading closer to or farther from this narrowly appointed happiness.

This notion of GWFYL transforms the process of living into something like the fairy-tale path through the haunted forest — the Mirkwood trail or the Yellow Brick Road. Except that those paths in those stories are always clearly marked, whereas the trail of GWFYL is invisible and inscrutable and can only be intuited by some visceral sense of spiritual leading.

The idea is a kind of spiritualized version of the romantic pipe-dream of The One — and it tends to produce the same fearfully tentative, second-guessing approach to living. There’s a bit of good advice in Conor Oberst’s “First Day,” in which he sings, “I’d rather be working for a paycheck / than waiting to win the lottery.” But the notion of GWFYL or of waiting for The One turns that advice upside-down, viewing such practical work as a dangerous distraction from one’s lottery-playing duties.

One reason I don’t much care for this idea of GWFYL is that I’ve seen its effect on young evangelicals forced to shoulder its crushing burden. No one can live like that, governed by an ultimate-stakes gamble based on unwritten rules, offering no assurance other than that the potential for inadvertent-but-damning disobedience lurks in every decision.

Just as importantly, I don’t care for the way this notion takes something explicitly clear and invariable — the will of God — and twists it into something mysterious, ever-changing and idiosyncratic.

What is God’s Will For Your Life? the prophet asks, and then answers his own question, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” That’s from the Bible — a book that’s rather repetitive and unambiguous on the question of GWFYL. On God’s will for everyone’s life, actually. See for example here or here or here or here or here or here or here.

But somehow none of that ever enters into evangelical conversations of career and romantic prospects and GWFYL. Whatever it is supposed to mean, GWFYL doesn’t seem to have much of anything to do with acting justly or loving mercy or breaking the chains of oppression or setting the captives free or feeding the hungry or comforting the sick or giving freely to those in need or planting gardens or ensuring that the city prospers or loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

P.S. His commentary on the Left Behind series is hilarious, insightful and theologically sound. Go check it out!

P.P.S. One book that really helped me on this subject was Kyle Lake’s Understanding God’s Will: How to Hack the Equation Without Formulas.

Forming a Theology of Ecology

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Today is Blog Action Day 2009, an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. The aim of the organizers, including Change.org, is to raise awareness of said issue, and in so doing, to trigger a global discussion. This year’s issue: Climate Change.

So here’s my take on the story of environmental stewardship, according to the Bible:

God created the earth. (Genesis 1:1)

God created human beings. (Genesis 1:26)

God told human beings to look after the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

Human beings screwed up. (A large portion of the rest of the Bible.)

And that’s that.

Or at least, that’s the (over-)simplified précis.

A theology of ecology, a theology of creation care, is part of—and is consistent with—a grander biblical theology, woven through with themes that can be found throughout Scripture:

It’s about stewardship, about being respectful and responsible with the resources and the gifts that God has given us in his creation. It’s about sharing in God’s appreciation for the world which he called “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and recognizing, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).

It’s about the poor, those who have not are often the hardest hit by the excesses of those who have. The writer of Proverbs said, “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker” (14:31), and even if we’re not directly treating them badly, such an injunction should at least make us think twice about how we live.

It’s about relationship and community, about a harmonious and healthy interaction not only with the people around us but with the world around us, realizing that what we do with the latter will always impact the former at some level. Jesus said that loving one’s neighbor was akin to loving God (Matthew 22:36-40), so if we love God as we claim to, we will love those with whom we share in the gift of God’s creation.

It’s about children, those to whom Jesus said the kingdom of God belonged (Mark 10:14). I have two nieces and three nephews, aged between 18 months and 13 years, and the world they will inherit depends on what we do with it. To quote a Native American proverb (yes, I know it’s not in the Bible!), “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” Put more bluntly, those that follow us have to deal with our mess. Jesus values children; if I love Jesus, I will also value children, and I will care about what I leave to them.

It’s about justice, about recognizing that when a small proportion of the earth’s population exhaust its resources and the rest have to face the brunt of the consequences, that isn’t right. And when the God you worship, serve and follow, is described as a God of justice,* and when you’re encouraged to “do justice” (Micah 6:8) … well, it should probably make a difference on how we live, shouldn’t it?

Because, on the most encompassing level of all, it’s about God: the one who made the earth and everything in it (Psalm 24:1). Wendell Berry wrote, “our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy” (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, 98). Whatever we do with what God has made or given—human or otherwise—is a reflection on what we think of God, the Maker and Giver.

I think the world might look very different if we lived like we knew that.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … God saw all that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.

(Genesis 1:1, 31)

* I’m not going to post all the references to God’s justice, because that would take up too much space (which says something in itself), but here are a few: Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Leviticus 25; Psalm 37:28, 103:6; Amos 5:23-24; Jeremiah 22:16; Isaiah 58:6-10. You can read more on God as a God of justice here.