Posted by: dacalu | 22 March 2016

Batman v Superman

I’m a geek. (“This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”) That is to say I can geek out about both superheroes and theology. A preacher friend of mine expressed annoyance at being roped into talking about the upcoming Batman v Superman movie. I had the opposite response; what better way of introducing the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, the resurrection and Easter to be sure, but next week there’s no reason every preacher should not be talking about this movie. It reminded me of a song we used to sing at Church Camp. One of the verses goes a little like this:

O, you can’t get to heaven on Superman.

No, you can’t get to heaven on Superman.

O, you can’t get to heaven on Superman,

‘cuz the Lord’s a Batman fan.

All my sins are washed away; I’ve been redeemed.

Why? (Oh Dear Lord, Why?)

First, pop culture is exactly that – popular. It reflects and animates the concerns of people. Otherwise it would not be popular. In this case we have a great reflection of the question of whether we are saved – in a very physical sense – by our gifts or by our hard work. The very premise of the movie, Superman versus Batman, arises because the two heroes exemplify two extremes of what it means to be a hero. Superman is literally a superman. He has inborn gifts that give him the power to deal with the world’s problems in a way no one else can. Batman on the other hand (despite wealth and privilege), has no superpowers. All of his abilities come from hard work, both through training and technology. Batman represents the American dream (or nightmare as the case may be). Batman did it all by himself. And, if that’s not enough, the movie has a plucky hero who’s just as powerful and resourceful, but gets almost no attention because she’s a woman. Add a crazy billionaire peddling fear, promoting war, and trying to take over… there’s no reason you should not be talking about this movie. Merit and cooperation, gender, and politics – any preacher who can’t get to the Gospel from there needs to go back to seminary. I have no doubt my friend will knock it out of the park, once he gets going. So, let me geek out for a bit. I’ve not seen the movie yet; it may be awful (though I have hopes), but it certainly is fodder for some good discussions about ethics and theology.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Batman is a story about about madness, community, and activism. Really. Our story takes place in the city of Gotham. Though New York received the nickname “Gotham City” from Washington Irving in 1807, the name is much older. The town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is famous for it’s madmen. Legend has it that King John went on procession around England. It was common for the king to move his “court” around the country, so that he could try cases and otherwise do all those governmental things that we now associate with a capital city. The travelling court was important for the running of the country, but it could also be terribly expensive for the locals, who had to provide food and housing for the travelling officials. “Less government” was a very important thing for small towns who wanted the king to pass them by. The burghers of Gotham came up with a plan; they would all pretend to be mad so the King would divert his progress and go someplace else. Gotham became a byword in England for a place where everyone was crazy and neither the government nor community could be trusted.

Batman is a vigilante. He takes justice into his own hands because the community cannot be trusted. Worse yet, there is always a lurking question of whether Batman himself is mad. When he breaks the law in order to serve his personal sense of justice, is he doing more harm than good? Can Gotham be saved, or would it be better to wash our hands of it all together and move someplace else, like Metropolis? Though Batman in the mid 20th century was a much more lighthearted, even camp, figure, the original Batman and the 1980s reboot tackle this moral ambiguity head on.

Look, Up in the Sky

Superman is a story about heroism. From his earliest incarnations, Superman has stood for truth, justice, and the American way. He speaks to the hero that is in all of us, when we let our true nature come out from behind the glasses. The community is fundamentally good, but we need to be protect it from criminals and aliens. Superman is generally viewed as perfect, sound in body and mind with a true heart and an unwavering moral compass. He embodies both privilege and virtue within the context of a healthy community. This rose colored blend of power, nationalism, and ethics has been called into question (most notably in Watchmen and The Incredibles), but Superman retains a squeaky clean, better-than-human image.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Coming back to the camp song quoted above, I think we can say something important about salvation, by looking at Batman and Superman. Do we think we will be saved (made happy, healthy, and whole; reconciled to God) by struggle (against self and neighbor) or by acceptance (of self and neighbor)? Do we press onward (Philippians 3:14) or let our light shine (Matthew 5:16)? Is it better to see the world as a film noir detective story in which we can trust no one, not even ourselves? Or is it a tale of progress and community where catching the bad guy will restore us to the harmony that is our birthright?

We all need to have the conversation, not because one answer is truly right and the other wrong, but because we all negotiate between the two. We try to understand ourselves as heroes – and as those in need of saving. We are, I think, saved by grace alone, God acting through us and through our neighbors. We are fallen people among our fallen friends. We must struggle and constantly question ourselves and our communities. No magic alien or political savior can save us from ourselves; Each of us has a roll to play in saving the world. And yet each of us has unique and special talents; we should take pride in our excellence – as individuals, as a country, and as a church. We do things no one else can. Above all we strive for justice and peace that extends to and includes everyone. (And yes, there is a magic alien that does the work of saving us; just don’t mistake anyone else for Him.)

I don’t know whether the Lord is more of a Batman fan or a Superman fan. I think they are two sides of the same coin – one urging us to personal greatness, one to a greater wholeness. Sometimes we need to hear from one and sometimes from the other. The scapegoating and radical distrust of this election cycle makes me feel like I live in Gotham City. I think we could use a little more common idealism. The desire for an “outsider” who will save us from ourselves smacks too much of idolatry for me. We could use a little less hero worship and a little more elbow grease.

I believe we are saved by God acting through us. I will be saved through my very geekiness, just as you will be saved through whatever lies closest to your heart. Still, don’t discount popular culture. It tells us what lies close to the hearts of our nation – if only we’ll listen. I don’t care if you watch the movie, but I hope you’ll have the discussion. Are you with Batman or Superman?






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