Superman is Jesus. More precisely, in the new movie, Superman: Man of Steel, we are meant to draw very distinct parallels between Superman and Jesus. Arguably, the movie goes a step further making Superman the modern-day, Americanized Jesus.
There should be little doubt that serious efforts were made to make connections between Superman and Jesus. In one scene, what is essentially a spirit form of Superman’s father, Jor-El, stands with his son looking over the Earth and tells him, “You can save her, son. You can save them all.” Then, Superman steps out into space, arms outstretched, his body in the perfect shape of a cross, and he does not rush off to save Lois Lane (and the rest of us) until the camera captures a full shot of that image. He is our savior.
Not just any savior. He is a savior that is both of this world and not of this world. As his Father, Jor-El, tells him, “You can embody the best of both worlds.” If Superman didn’t have a messiah complex before, surely having his dead father tell him that pushed him over the edge.
The desire to tie Superman to Jesus seems to run deep. I have even been invited to special clergy pre-screenings of the movie and have received emails, sponsored by the movie, with tips and notes on how to preach on Superman on Father’s Day. The effort to tie movie to Christianity is not what I would call subtle.
Now, I love Superman but I will not be preaching about how Superman is like Jesus. There won’t even be a children’s sermon. Why?
Violence. That’s why.
I really enjoyed the movie. Sure, it mixed some of the classic Superman comic book origin and childhood stories with those from various television series but it’s a re-boot – we expected those things, right? In spite of a thin storyline and some clumsy dialog, the nearly two and a half hour movie kept me completely engaged and the time flew by. That’s what the geek in me saw.
The minister in me left – disturbed.
There are moments when the movie wants to make a statement about the senselessness of violence. One example is the dialogue between Clark and his adopted father (brilliantly played by Kevin Costner) which comes right after a scene from Clark’s childhood where he avoids striking back at a bully. He tells his Dad, “I wanted to hit him so bad.” To which his dad replies, “I know you did but then what?” There are those few moments but, in typical superhero fashion, the movie betrays them by ultimately bashing the bad guy into submission or obliteration.
Don’t get me wrong, I am perfectly fine with superhero movies doing that. I’d argue, part of their success and appeal is specifically because they perpetuate the understanding that violence is good or at least effective. The history of humanity is littered with stories which reinforce and justify what we see as our violent nature. Making it heroic cleans up the nasty business of it and causes it to seem more presentable – even desirable. I can understand why we do that.
My issue with it occurs when we start equating the Superman story with the story of Jesus. As we hear the marvel in Lois Lane’s voice saying, “He saved us,” we can’t help but begin to connect the two. The problem is, despite the similarities of circumstance, they are so very different.
Jesus was the antithesis of the might-makes-right solutions which we find in superhero stories. In the Christian story, salvation is offered through a cross, through the hero laying down his life rather than wiping out all of the bad guys. His life and death are the embodiment of an argument which says, “there is nothing redemptive about violence.”
The peace which Jesus teaches us about, the love of neighbor that he sets as our standard, can never be achieved through violence. It is nothing more than non-sensical logic to believe that violence can bring about peace. Violence only begets violence. It does not save us. It does not bring peace, because it is self-replicating and it escalates as it replicates. Violence begets worse violence. It teaches us problems are “solved” via violence. It teaches us violence is the shortest (and possibly surest) path to victory, to establishing our preferred world order (whether it is as local as a house or as global as nations). We begin to believe the only reasonable defense against an armed aggressor is to, at least, equally arm ourselves – and violence escalates over and over again.
In the battle of Superman versus Jesus, or at least in the ideologies of the two, violence is an important difference. It was so important and central to the life and teachings of Jesus, we should never allow ourselves to conflate or relate the two. When we do, we end up with religion wrapped in flags and a Christ figure who sanctions wars. We end up with the backward, manly theology of folks like Mark Driscoll who are like the kid who bullied Clark Kent but think of themselves as Superman.
Theologian Walter Wink once said, “If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What most people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotes an absolute obedience-unto-death.” Christians have bowed down to the gods of violence for far too long. It is time to start taking the teachings of Jesus seriously. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy superhero stories but lets stop believing them. Let’s stop buying into the myth of redemptive violence and begin the more difficult work of following the Prince of Peace.