Monday, July 18, 2011

Why the world needs Superman

Superman responds to US criticism -- you'll have to buy Action Comics 900 to find out what happend in Iran as he was flying awaySuperman 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.”

Superman-then-and-nowThis 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,”becoming Superman 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.


  1. Mike Huckabee is very disturbed by a Superman comic that he never read. I clicked on that link to FOX News and watched the video. You're right! I thought maybe you were just slamming FOX News, but it's true. Huckabee is railing against what happens in a comic book, but he's never read it. He's actually brought onto this FOX show in order to comment on the Superman comic, but he's never read it. So all he's commenting on is the FOX headline.

    I've read this comic, Ken. And I agree with you. FOX News is distorting what the story was actually about. The truth is we don't know if Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship. Quite frankly, I didn't know that Superman was a U.S. citizen. Does he like have a passport or something?

    Huckabee comes across as an idiot -- why comment on something you've never read and don't even intend to read? He's ethnocentric and in some kind of warped patriotic delusion. But he does a great job of demonstrating how foolish you can end up looking if you believe everything reported on FOX News.

  2. Why comment at all about someones fantasy.  I have no idea who Mike Huckabee is nor do I care, however to accuse him as an idiot. shame on you.

  3. To compare Christ to a super hero and bring Him down to that level is a travesty.  He is verily God.  There is no comparison between super hero and God.

  4. What I tried to do in this article was to suggest a better way of translating a challenging Greek word αρχηγος (archagos) which is used a title for Jesus four times in the NT. It could be that I have failed and "Superhero" is not a good option, but I have tried to give some reasons as to why it might be good.

    Andy, do you think it was a travesty when the translators working for King James called Jesus a "captain" and an "author" -- that's how they translated αρχηγος (archagos) in Hebrews 2:10 and 12:2. Or how about when they call Jesus a mere "prince" (Acts 3:15, 5:31) -- would you say there's no comparison between prince and God?

    Some translators use the term "pioneer" and while I understand that they are bringing out that trailblazing aspect of αρχηγος (archagos), "pioneer" always makes me think of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie.

    The NLT and other new Bibles translate αρχηγος (archagos) as "leader" (Heb 2:10). I like this translation, but I'm concerned it's a little too common as there is so much of a focus on leaders and leadership in our culture.

    So I was not attempting to "compare Christ to a superhero" as you put it. No, I was trying to find a better way of translating αρχηγος (archagos). Given the honour and respect I see people giving to "heroes" today -- fallen soldiers and firefighters -- and given what Hebrews says about the αρχηγος as being one who suffers and even sacrifices himself, I wondered if "hero" might be a good way of translating αρχηγος (archagos). But Jesus isn't just another "hero," he would be the ultimate hero -- the one who is able to save and rescue all of humanity. Thus, I suggested that "Superhero" might be a way of capturing this idea. Perhaps, you'd like this variation:

    "God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, the Ultimate Hero, fit to bring them into their salvation" (Hebrews 2:10).

    In terms of the meaning conveyed and its faithfulness to the meaning of αρχηγος, I definitely believe this translation is far better than "captain," "author" or "pioneer."

  5. Ken, I also found  αρχηγος in ancient Greek texts:  (1) a champion to represent the army in a one-to-one battle (as in the movie Troy); (2) archegos Uses of the term in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and nonbiblical Greek
    suggest it carries a threefold connotation: (1) path-breaker (pioneer)
    who opens the way for others, hence, "guide" or "hero"; (2) the source
    or founder, hence "author, " "initiator, " "beginning"; and (3) the
    leader-ruler, hence, "captain, " "prince, " "king." The ideas may well
    overlap or be combined. In its fullest sense the Greek word denotes
    someone who explores new territory, opens a trail, and leads others to
    it. The archegos []
    builds a city or fortress for those who follow and leads them in
    defense against attackers. When the peace has been won he remains as
    their ruler and the city or community bears his name. He is thereafter
    honored as the founding hero.(3) in Oedipus, it is used as 'founder' of a cityI agree it should be translated as something far stronger than 'Prince'. 

  6. Thanks so much, Pat, for contributing to the discussion. You've hit on exactly what I think is the translator's dilemma.  When you try to translate αρχηγος (archagos) it's hard to find a contemporary word with the same force of meaning. Most of the suggested meanings (or translations) in your paragraph are older words that no longer carry the same connotation as they did historically. For example, some use the word "champion," but the connotation of that word today is quite different than the David-Goliath understanding of "champion" (or the movie Troy which I haven't seen). Likewise "pioneer" sounds good if you understand the term historically, but that's the problem -- who understands it historically?

    Expanding on our agreement, we both think translating αρχηγος (archagos) as "Prince" is weak and presents an oddity when applied to Jesus Christ (=Messiah=King). I think we would also agree that "Captain" does not seem an appropriate way of conveying the meaning of αρχηγος (archagos).  "Captain Jesus" makes him sound like a mid-level officer in the army not a heroic leader who forges an entirely new path for his followers. Now, would you agree that "author" is a bizarre translation in Heb 12:2? Even if you think the "initiator" meaning of αρχηγος (archagos) is in play here, when do we ever use the word "author" to refer someone who initiates or starts something new? Very uncommon. Watch this development in translation of Heb 12:2--
    Jesus the author and finisher of our faith (KJV)
    Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (NIV 1984)
    Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (NIV 2011)
    Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith (NLT)
    Jesus, the hero and perfecter of faithfulness (Ken's rough idea)

    To me the "hero" translation carries more of the meaning of αρχηγος (archagos) in Hebrews 12:2 than "author," "pioneer" or "the champion who initiates". It's simple and yet carries this idea of someone who accomplishes something amazing and new. Now, I had been wanting to translate it as "Jesus, the Superhero and Perfecter of Faithfulness" because I wanted to convey that he is above an ordinary hero, but the previous comments have me rethinking the connotation of the word "superhero."

    William Lane in the Word Biblical Commentary of Hebrews argues that αρχηγος (archagos) is used in the context of Hebrews 2 and 12 with language that is also used to describe the trials of Hercules, the αρχηγος and saviour. He believes the echoes from the Greek legend would be heard quite clearly by those who first read Hebrews. I think he's on to something. Lane translates the term as "champion" emphasizing victory over the trials, but I think "hero" is stronger because it emphasizes the kind of victory which inspires others. Just as Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him, so, too, can we endure our trials for the joy set before us. If we look to the hero and perfecter of faithfulness, we too can be faithful.

    Was "Superhero" where I went wrong? Does "Hero" work better? How can we offer a more robust and compelling translation of αρχηγος (archagos)? I gotta believe we can do better than "author," "prince," "pioneer" or "captain."

  7. Actually, Andy, I said that Huckabee comes across as an idiot. I said this because he's the host of a news program on Fox News. He was brought onto another news show to comment on the Superman comic. He had never read the comic and so he did not know what he was talking about. Why would a professional newsperson go onto a show to comment on something's he's never read. Both Huckabee and the host of this show get it wrong. I've read the comic, I know they are wrong.

    Andy, I have a question for you. You're saying "shame on me" even though you don't know me. And you accuse Ken of committing a travesty against God. I noticed you've posted on Ken's blog a fair amount. Is he your friend? In any case, he is a fellow Christian, right? I'd say he put a lot of thought and time into writing this blog post and he is genuinely struggling to better translate a key biblical term. But you come and leave a comment accusing him of committing a travesty against God. And you say on "shame on you" to someone offering Ken some encouragement. Here's my question: Do you really think you are treating Ken fairly? Why not at least offer some constructive criticism rather than just tearing him down?

    Thanks for any consideration of these points.

  8. Without This Hero saving us we would have no faith.  He's not just the
    founder, but the one who rescues us and leads us into faithfulness.

    do like hearing from those of you who think "the term 'hero' or
    'superhero' is too glib today." This is the kind of feedback that I was
    looking for, so thanks. I have to keep processing your input and
    these rather intense reactions. I can see now that "Superhero" is not a
    good idea, but in trying to be true to the Greek word, I think "hero" is
    still a strong candidate.

    When I consider how the term "hero" has developed over the last ten
    years, it strikes me as being more not less appropriate when applied to
    Jesus -- the one who truly sacrificed himself so that others could live

    This exercise has been a good reminder to me that work still needs
    to be done in Bible translation. So many current versions of the Bible
    chose to re-use terms like pioneer, author and prince rather than
    wrestle with the English language and find a better word to convey the
    idea of the Greek word.

    Thanks for all the inputs. Please feel free to weigh in, I'd love to hear more.

  9. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, our Lord Jesus Christ is fully divine AND fully human. We call him Saviour which means "one who saves/rescues/delivers." Hmm, sounds a lot like a hero, doesn't it? Since he rescues us from the greatest peril, Jesus is the Greatest Hero.

  10. Ken, I liked your translation of Hebrews 12:1-3. I think "Superhero" is much stronger than "Pioneer." You've made a solid case for translating the word differently. Unlike the other commenter on here, I don't see where there's a problem with calling Jesus our Superhero of Faith. It sounds good to me.

  11. Andy, you are reading back into the words, personifing them instead of looking at the meaning and etymology of the terms...the idea of "be[ing] vulnerable and caught up in this misery of this world, perhaps find themselves alone, hurting yet hoping"...To a calvanist...sure there is no human free will so God is puppet master...but those of a different healthier theological bent will see that as we work towards does put Jesus in a "hurting and hoping" situation...knowing he as already swept in to save the day, defeated the evil one but yet we do not fully embrace what has been done.  I like the idea of Superman not using his powers to turn around events to his benefit.... 

  12. I surprised myself the other night. I pulled the NIV Application
    Commentary for Hebrews off the shelf and as it turns out George Guthrie
    supports my proposal. Here's what Guthrie wrote:

    As the One who makes the heavenly pilgrimage of believers possible,
    Jesus is considered the "author of their salvation."
    Archegon (rendered "author" by the NIV) can be
    translated "trailblazer" or "guide," emphasizing the Son's role in
    bringing the new covenant people to glory. However, the word might be
    translated better by 'champion "--[the author of Hebrews] using the idea
    of the divine hero common in the ancient Greek world. For example.
    Hercules was called “champion” (archegos) and
    “savior” (soter). If this is the author's intention
    it is comparable to a modern preacher saying Jesus is "the real
    superman," as crass as that might sound. It was simply a way of
    expressing a meaningful analogy that Jesus has come to our rescue.

    Exactly the point I was making. Where I differ from Guthrie is where he
    suggests the modern preacher could say Jesus is "the real Superman." If
    this is the case, then the translator should do what is right and use a
    word that will bring out this "hero," "champion," "real Superman"
    meaning. I'm tired of preachers telling us what the Greek "really
    means." How about we get NT translators who will actually tell us what
    the Greek text is saying?

    By the way, Guthrie's NIV Application Commentary on Hebrews is a very
    good commentary if you're looking for a more up-to-date contemporary
    commentary on Hebrews.

  13. Ken, i like the way you compared the myth of Superman with the Myth of Jesus and the mention of Hercules, then there is the ordinary mortal hero, who sacrifices his life for his country. The Hero myth Give us hope of salvation and freedom. 
    And just for the record Superman was created by a Canadian.  


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