This past week fanboys of the superhero genera flocked to their local movie theaters to watch the much anticipated Batman vs. Superman. The Dark Night and the Man of Steel on screen at the same time battling each other and the forces of evil is enough to send any geek into apoplexy. I’ll admit—I’m a sucker for an epic good vs. evil showdown whether it’s in Middle Earth, Gotham City or a galaxy far, far away.
Not long ago I watched a documentary on the evolution of comic books in popular culture and I was surprised to learn where the artist and writers got their inspiration for Superman. In order to trace this development we have to go back to the 1930s, which was a time of rampant anti-Semitism, not only in Europe but in America. Many Jewish cartoon artists couldn’t get jobs as illustrators with major publishers or publications, so they turned to creating comic books.
In Cleveland, Ohio, two Jewish young men—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—lived near each other and worked side-by-side on the high school newspaper. Afterward they stayed in touch and kept on working together on various projects. These two young men seemed to feel that Jewish people and all around the world needed a new Moses, a figure who could bring hope to a world that was engulfed in prejudice, slavery and an encroaching holocaust. So they created a modern-day Moses for the comic books—Superman—who was really he was an alien named Kal-el from the planet Krypton, sent to earth by his father moments before his home world was destroyed. On earth, he tried to blend in to humanity as the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent while keeping his developing super powers under wraps.
Like Moses, he was a man whose own people were facing annihilation; whose parents placed him in a kind of ark and set him adrift in an effort to save his life in infancy; who was discovered and adopted by someone from another culture who raised him as a son; who had a double identity; who had to keep his real heritage under cover; who had a strong sense of justice;
who was bold on the one hand, but on the other hand was meek and mild-mannered; who was a self-sacrificing person, yet with access to profound power and who became a fabled deliverer who saved people with superhuman feats of wonder.
How fascinating that Moses is such a powerful figure in the Bible that he evidently became the inspiration for the greatest superhero of modern science fiction. This speaks to something in our society and of the human condition. We need a Savior from outside this world. The hero archetype is probably one of the most powerful in the human experience. Just look at the big budget special-effects laden movies that seem to be coming out of Hollywood on an assembly line—The Amazing Spider Man, The Dark Knight, The Man of Steel, Ironman, Captain America, The Avengers, and the list goes on.
Innate to the human condition is the knowledge that our world is broken and we are totally incapable of fixing it, much less managing our own problems. Thus, the superhero ideal is a dominant one—imbued with special abilities these crusaders of good always find a way to save the day. And so, the Greeks had Hercules, The Vikings had Thor and we have Clark Kent. Humanity longs for a Savior, so much so, that have invented stories to live vicariously in them.
I submit to you that all these tales of heroes are successful because they are derivative of the true story arc that God has revealed in the Bible. Superheroes are sign posts that point us to look deeper at the philosophical/spiritual issues. At the heart of the Gospel message is a sinless Savior who takes up the hopeless plight of humanity—Jesus goes up against the forces of evil, He turns back disease, demons, death with miracles and in the ultimate act of heroism, He sacrifices himself for humanity, only to rise again as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
C.S. Lewis has written, “In the Christian story God descends and reascends,” he writes. “He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must also disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.”[i]