Superman renounced his U.S. citizenship! Fox News got all upset and Mike Huckabee was disturbed last month when Action Comics #900 was released. I just had to get my own copy of this comic — no small feat as the publicity caused it to sell out fast everywhere. In spite of the media frenzy, the comic book story wasn’t really about Superman renouncing his U.S. citizenship. (Mike Huckabee who was so disturbed by this notion had not even bothered to read the comic before condemning it.) The story was more about the limitations of a superhero and how little Superman could actually do during the protests of the Arab Spring. Superman chose to stand with a large group of peaceful, non-resistant protesters demonstrating in Iran. He admitted this was a problem he couldn’t solve with his superpowers, but he could show his support and he did by standing with them — an action which landed Superman in trouble with the U.S. government. (Since Fox News doesn’t want him, we’ll glady give Superman Canadian citizenship. After all his Fortress of Solitude has always been in the Canadian Arctic.)
June, as it turns out, was quite the month for the iconic superhero. It saw the 10-year series finale of Smallville, the show all about the coming of age of Superman (Clark Kent). After watching it, a good friend of mine said, “It was pretty good even though I never watched Smallville before. They built up the anticipation and made you want to see Superman fly.” Humoured, I replied, “The anticipation you experienced in those two hours, I’ve been experiencing over the last 10 years! They definitely built up the anticipation. I’ve been watching and waiting for 10 years now to see the blue suit, the red cape, the first flight and the emergence of Superman.”
Action Comics #900 (and other Superman comics too), the TV series Smallville and even the song “Superman (It’s not easy)” by Five for Fighting are examples of the postmodern revision of Superman. In these last few years, we’ve learned that behind the legend and the cape, there is suffering — a vulnerable hero, sometimes unsure of himself, lonely and insecure, hurting but hoping. And we had thought he was almost a god, invincible and invulnerable, a superhuman alien, the last son of Krypton. Tom Welling in Smallville and Brandon Routh in Superman Returns have revealed this more human, more sympathetic, and more vulnerable side of Superman. In the 2006 movie Superman almost dies, sacrificing himself to save the earth. This whole new way of understanding Superman’s limitations and his “humanness” may have begun in the remarkable 1992 comic “The Death of Superman.”
This revision of Superman really does make sense. When I think back to my childhood dream of becoming Superman and being able to defeat every foe and solve every problem while never being hurt by anyone nor feeling any of this world’s pain, I realize now that wasn’t quite realistic. Seriously, how could a hero, a true hero, be untouched and uninvolved in this world’s suffering? To be a hero these days, Superman must push himself through constant trials, experience pain, and be willing to sacrifice himself. Contrast the Brandon Routh Superman of Superman Returns (2006) who struggles intensely and must use every ounce of his ingenuity, strength and speed to save a passenger jet spinning out of control — contrast him with the Christopher Reeve Superman of the original Superman movie (1978) who effortlessly rescued Air Force One by subbing in for an engine. This new young hero raised in Smallville who goes through trials and struggles to become Superman is truly a superhero.
What 9/11 taught us about heroes is that they sacrifice themselves to save others, they put themselves in harm’s way, they suffer and more often than we realized, they die in the line of duty. In Canada, the Highway of Heroes is the road travelled when fallen soldiers are returned from Afghanistan. People line the way, standing with firefighters and other emergency workers to pay tribute to our military heroes. Christians ought to pay close attention to this redefinition of “heroes” and revision of Superman. After all, we follow a Saviour who said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Yet the church is still caught up in the modern era triumphalism that produced the invincible and invulnerable Superman. Whey else would we think it odd when we as Christians are touched by and involved in this world’s suffering? Why do we question the goodness of God when a young father is diagnosed with terminal cancer? Why do we as Christians believe that we should feel no pain and be healed from all diseases? Why are we so prone to insist that God should intervene at every turn and save us from harm? (Really listen to our group prayers! See what we really believe.) We don’t expect a fellow believer to land a lousy job and be underpaid or to suffer from depression or to be unable to save their marriage. Why do we protest so loudly when the way is hard and the path uncertain? Isn’t it true that the church today celebrates success, wealth and victory? Triumph to triumph!
Perhaps we’ve gotten our heroes of the faith all wrong by worshipping success. Maybe this isn’t God’s way of changing the world. Isn’t it just possible that the heroes God calls us to be in this world will struggle and be unsure at times, be vulnerable and caught up in this misery of this world, perhaps find themselves alone, hurting yet hoping. I suspect these are exactly the kind of heroes God is using to change the world. Consider again the Beatitudes, that list of what God rewards. As Christians, aren’t we called to follow the way of our real Superhero, Jesus?
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Superhero and Perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1b-3, NIV but improved)
Here’s the reason I wrote this article on today’s Superman: We need a better way to translate the Greek word αρχηγος (archagos) which is used to describe Jesus four times in the New Testament (The verse above, Hebrews 12:2, and 2:10; Acts 3:15, 5:31). Our typical translations like “author” and “pioneer” fall way short of the powerful meaning packed in the Greek word αρχηγος. Though they get at some aspect of the meaning, I don’t think terms like this say enough. The mighty Hercules, really the ancient Greek version of Superman, the half-human and half-divine hero, was called both αρχηγος and saviour — superhero and saviour. These are exactly the Greek terms used of Jesus in Acts 5:31! Anyone familiar with the legend of Hercules wouldn’t imagine calling him an “author” or a “pioneer,” certainly not a “prince”—such words do not do him justice. Nor do I think that such weak translations of αρχηγος, though they convey some element of truth, are adequate translations of this title when applied to Jesus. It would be much better to capitalize on today’s understanding of what makes a hero and proclaim Jesus to be our Superhero and Saviour (rather than “Prince and Saviour” as in the NIV of Acts 5:31). He is the one who can show us how to make a difference in this world.
When I read what Hebrews 2:10-18 says about Jesus, I see a hero who shared in our humanity, suffered in his flesh and sacrificed himself for us. Through the trials, temptations and suffering, he proved himself faithful. Because of what he experienced, Jesus is merciful toward us, ready to help us, able to make us like himself, faithful to the end. This Superhero saves us, inspires us and is transforming us to be like himself in this world. It may not be easy, but these are the heroes the world needs to see emerging from the church today, real heroes who will make a difference.