The Gospel and Superman
"I don’t think this world needs Superman. This world doesn’t need a savior," Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) tells the Man of Steel in the latest remake of one of America’s most popular fairy tales.
Later on, suspended high over Metropolis, Superman (Brandon Routh) tells Lois quite feelingly, "You wrote, ‘The world doesn’t need a savior,’ but every day I hear people crying for one."
This is not the "wow" moment pastor-journalists such as myself might seize upon as a chance to pontificate, either as a recommendation for or against the movie. I’m still partial to the 1978 Christopher Reeve version where the early details are so convincing, set as they are in breathtakingly beautiful rural Alberta, that you almost believe it.
No, as a longtime Superman fan from those boyhood DC Comics days of the 1950s, I am not surprised when I hear such dialogue. Fact is, a fellow student and I offended a group of our colleagues at a seminary one day when we jokingly pointed out some of the parallels between the gospel and the Man of Steel:
for a person who is on our side."
- A being with extra-earthly origins here to do good,
- a father (Jor-el) with "el" in his name, the Hebrew word for God, perhaps being traced to a term creators Seigel and Schuster heard in the synagogue,
- the double identity, "meek" Clark Kent possessing super powers he could use at will, paralleling perhaps the humble carpenter from Nazareth working amazing miracles with the power of God,
- the evil, relentless enemy, Lex Luthor, perhaps a type of Satan with Kryptonite as a stand-in for temptation and sin.
You don’t have to be a genius to be able to continue the set.
This is why I was amused when a Christian book appeared in the late 1970s, The Gospel According to Superman. I couldn’t help but chuckle: "They beat me to it!"
Superman is a work of pop culture—one of pop culture’s classic imaginative recreations of a standard myth. Yet even pop culture, which typically deals in boringly predictable stereotypes, can on occasion touch on some universal and enduring themes. The fact is we are all looking for a Savior. Which is why hero figures still sell. Something inside us will shell out money for a tale where genuine goodness exists and where good wins in the end.
During his 1980s television series, "The Power of Myth," Bill Moyers asked the cultural critic Joseph Campbell why the same stories keep repeating—tales of heroism and nobility, striving and self-sacrifice, trying to rescue the damsel, the city, the group. Campbell answered candidly, "Because these are the only themes worth writing about."
C.S. Lewis once advanced a similar concept. With Christianity, Lewis argued, the Myth became Fact. What human beings have always longed for, have always hoped for, still yearn and even pray for—the possibility of meaning, of a person who is on our side, that the universe is not apathetic, but that love and caring and purpose exists at its core—that, said Lewis, is precisely what the gospel is all about. It is the central story of our existence, the one on which all the other child-like replicas are based.
Or, in the words of 2 Timothy 1:9-10, we need the caring God "who has saved us and called us to a holy life…. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time [yes, before even Krypton exploded!] but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."
There it is. In the gospel, the Myth became Fact and Truth and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. No wonder the human imagination keeps reinventing this Hero Story. It’s the only thing worth writing about.