The Man of Steel and the Son of Man
In a very real sense our culture lacks a mythology. Perhaps this is one reason why films like The 300, TV programing like professional wrestling, and comic books are so popular. Mythological stories and archetypes serve to flesh out a culture’s deepest values. Going on 40 years now, there’s been an ideological struggle in the comic book world, a crisis in worldview. In 1938, two young Jewish boys, Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, created Superman, a larger-than-life hero who would save us from all our fears. Superman reflected the ideals of both those who created him, and the larger culture into which he was born. Truth, justice, honesty, and integrity (and yes, the American way) were upheld as aspirational goals.
Heroes likes Superman, Batman, and Spider-man are classics. They’ve stood the test of time and come out better for it. These pillars of justice, contrary to the whims of Director Zack Synder, have vowed never to take human life. But not all comic book protagonists adhere to this code. For so-called anti-heroes such as Deadpool, Spawn, the Darkness, and the Punisher killing simply commons with the territory. Admittedly, the line between a Batman and a Punisher isn’t absolute.
But all of this is preamble to my main point. I believe there is a powerful and persuasive theological explanation for the global and time-tested popularity of Superman: Superman is a profound Christ figure, not only in his original story, but also in the hands of his successive writers. Both Superman and Christ, in an important sense, are not of this earth. Both are sent by their father, and come from a place far away. Both are saviors. Both died, taking the very wrath of doomsday it/himself upon them (for those of you who don’t know the story of Superman’s death in the early 90’s, he died saving the city of Metropolis from a creature literally named Doomsday). Both were resurrected because death could not overcome them. Lastly, in their resurrection bodies, both were transformed. Jesus was resurrected in a glorified body, never to die again. With the resurrection of Superman (perhaps the term “resuscitation” is more fitting?) a serious question is raised on whether Superman is immortal. As long as Superman is exposed to Earth’s yellow Sun it may be impossible to kill him (He is, so to speak, a solar battery).
Notice also how ‘oddly’ Superman’s dual identity strangely mirrors Christ’s dual nature. Clark reflects the lowly, servant nature of Christ, while the Man of Steel resembles the glorified, divine nature of Jesus.
|Origin: Not of this Earth||Sent from Krypton, a planet that orbited a red sun called Rao, 50 light-years from our solar system||Sent from heaven (Jn. 1: 9, 3:13), the eternal abode of God the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth|
|Sent by their fathers||Sent to Earth by father Jor-El||Sent to Earth by God (“El”) the Father (Jn. 5:37, 6:44, 8:16, 18, 12:49)|
|Saviors to their people||The people of Metropolis||The Church (Matt. 1:21, Jn. 10:11, Acts 20:28, Rom. 5)|
||1 Person with 2 natures (cf. Phil. 2:5-9)
|Their deaths save from the embodiment of destruction||Superman # 75, 1992
||Rom. 5:6-9, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”|
|Resurrection||“Reign of the Supermen!” storyline-1993||1 Corinthians 15|
Is this sheer coincidence? I don’t think so. The original creators of Superman may not have been Christians, but Siegel and Shuster were raised in a biblically-saturated environment. They’ve claimed that Superman was loosely based on Moses and Samson. The rocket in which Superman’s father, Jor-El (El is Hebrew for God) sends him to Earth in is a parallel to the basket through which baby Moses was saved. And, of course, Samson is the prototype for Superman’s heroic strength. This would seem to work against my claim that Superman in a Christ figure. But, both Moses (as prophet and savior of the people of Israel) and Samson (as judge and defender of the nation) are Old Testament types pointing to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. So is it any wonder why the Last Son of Krypton bears such a striking resemblance to the Son of Man?
What the Superman/Christ connection means for culture. Insofar as Superman embodies the ideals of generations gone by as well as today’s generation, his iconic status clues of in on a couple of things. First, since humanity is created with a purpose, and history is unfolding toward God’s goal, humans cannot escape their design. We cannot help but notice that the world is not as it should be. There are wrongs in this world that demand righting. Second, We need a hero. But, we need a hero that can do what we never could. One that is like us, yet not like us. Third, this hero must stand against all that is evil, and must embody justice to the fullest. Fourth, despite the argument to the contrary we still, deep down at our God-created core, know good from evil, and desire good to triumph over evil. Fifth, we cannot save ourselves. We are helpless to bring about the change that we so desperately need.
What the Superman/ Christ connection means for the gospel. First, the gospel presents us with the true myth. Part of the conversion of C. S. Lewis was his realization that the story of Jesus is the “true myth.” There was a time, during his “B.C.” days, when he thought the parallels between the Gospels and ancient pagan mythology proved that the story of Jesus couldn’t be true. But, in his conversion (which came about as a result of long conversations with Lord of the Rings author, J. R. R. Tolkien) he had a life-changing “aha” moment. As Lewis put it in a letter written to Arthur Greeves:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.
The similarities between the Gospels and pagan myths, rather than invalidating the story, actually proves it! God’s was guiding history, in a manner of speaking, to set the stage for Christ to walk on the stage. The belief in creation, sin, judgment, and redemption (in one form or another) are universal themes, and they strike a chord with nearly every human heart. All the highest hopes of men, and the greatest themes in all stories find their fulfillment in Christ.
Second, the story of Superman provides Christians with a cultural point of contact to share the gospel. If you live in America, then chances are on more than a number of occasions you’ve seen people wearing Superman “S” t-shirts. They’re all over the place (and Yes, I own one). The Man of Steel is probably the largest cultural icon other than Jesus in America. So, this provides us with the opportunity to turn an ordinary conversation about Big Blue into an evangelistic conversation without it seeming forced.
Anything, yes, even Superman, can be used as a springboard to Christian truth.