Where I grew up in the semi-rural South, kids pretended to be superheroes and wrestling superstars on the playground and loved monster truck rallies. Naturally, my Christian elementary school emphasized the physical strength of God. We sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” every day, examined detailed posters about the “armor of God,” and discussed how God’s dictates in the Old Testament should guide our politics today.
Loving a good fight isn’t limited to rural Southerners who voted for Trump because of his bombastic rhetoric. Americans from every part of the country and all levels of wealth and education are likely to love dramatic football games, won wars, and weapon-brandishing heroes. The religious and folk stories of every culture feature strong heroes rescuing their friends and villages.
I’ve been thinking about American mythology lately after watching The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers’ series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, where Campbell discusses his theories of universal myths and the importance of mythology. Since Americans are from a variety of traditions, we had to invent our own unique mythology. Campbell points out that a primary vehicle for modern mythology is the movies. Of course, Americans also have stories from major world religions, particularly Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Sometimes we turn these religious stories into profitable movies, but they aren’t nearly as profitable as Marvel and DC Comics superhero films.
If humanity were to die out through some method that preserved our digital debris—our articles and movies and Netflix histories—what would distant alien researchers conclude about Americans in the early 21st Century? Perhaps they would think we worshipped a pantheon of gods and that the most powerful was named Superman.
They might note that many of our gods were composites of human and animal—Spider-Man, Batman, Wolverine. I imagine these alien researchers examining our gods with wonder, much as we admire ancient Egyptian gods with the heads of cats and dogs.
Christians often successfully market their wares, but the Christian movie industry, and even the Christian figurine industry, doesn’t have nearly the cultural cache of the superhero industry.
Superheroes sell because their mythologies appeal to so many modern Americans. I’m not going all Moral Majority on you right now. I’m not saying we should ban superheroes because we’ve turned them into idols. I’m just saying the popularity of superheroes must say something about our cultural values. Perhaps it’s a sign, for example, that we still want stories about heroes with special weapons and flashy heroics. On the other hand, maybe we don’t only go to the movies for special effects and familiar storylines, but also because we hunger for stories about supernatural beings capable of justice and self-sacrifice.
Most of our ancestors began as polytheists. Perhaps we still long for a team of gods who seem human enough to relate to, to root for, to love. In movies, superheroes have clear (and usually predictable) character arcs. They are greater than we are, but not so great that we expect them to be perfect. If Spider-Man is selfish at the beginning of the story, he’ll become more giving by the end. He’s extraordinary, but he has something to learn. And we learn lessons with him. Of course, you might well point out, Spider-Man and Superman are supposed to be fictional. Our expectations for them are naturally lower than our expectations for deities at the center of major world religions.
One problem famous atheists have found in the Bible is that God in Scripture doesn’t meet their expectation for a perfect God—that God seems violent and cruel in the Old Testament, and benevolent in the New Testament. This is an oversimplification of the complex presentation of God throughout Scripture. But still.
Theologians have wrestled with this narrative issue since the origins of Christianity. When Marcion proposed that the God of the Old Testament was an entirely different (and evil) being when compared to the God of the New Testament, foundational Church fathers like Tertullian, Polycarp, and Irenaeus championed the chronology of Scripture as the portrait of one good God.
Maybe our cultural fascination with superheroes has nothing to do with our national frustration over God revealed in Scripture, with our desire for gods whose stories make sense. Perhaps we love superheroes simply because we’re scared, in need of rescue. In a world that seems increasingly complex, with endless amounts of news and bad news at our fingertips, we are looking for a hero who is simple but strong. Superhuman, but sometimes weak. Christ almost does the trick, but he was weaponless (according to most interpretations). In a violent world, what help is a weaponless God, without political or physical power?
In a larger sense, I’m asking—is it possible for our culture to crave stories about a hero who sacrifices himself for peace rather than one who wields weapons in battle?
Please leave your thoughts on this topic. What do you think about the importance (or unimportance) of superhero stories? What theologians do you think best address the differing portrayals of God throughout Scripture?