It’s the Saturday night of the youth weekend away, after a busy series of talks, small groups, and silly activities, you’re sitting the young people down to a late night film and hot chocolate before bed. You have for the young people two options, the first; whatever the latest Pixar film is, the second; “Man Of Steel”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0770828/?ref_=nv_sr_1, the latest Superman film. Hey, maybe if they pick that film you could use it tomorrow in your talk, you think maybe you could draw parallels with Jesus overcoming sin and temptation and rescuing us? No, you can’t, because I’ve just come into your residential centre and set fire to your projector and laptop to prevent you from doing such a foul deed.
I mentioned this when it came out, but now it’s out on DVD and I’ve actually sat down and watched it through properly, I’m going to repeat it; if you’re thinking of showing your youth group even a clip of Man of Steel as an illustration of who Christ is; don’t. It’s a terrible idea. Many, wiser, smarter, and more qualified people than I have set out to write down why the film is a bad film, and why it’s a worse Superman film1. These are good articles worth reading now, but neither explain properly why the idea of someone using a clip from this film to illustrate the earthly ministry of Christ is particularly abhorrent. That’s why I’m writing this.
Superman has always been used as a Christ figure. He is after all, a guy with a jewish name (Kal-El), who is sent by his father down to earth, who takes on the identity of a human, and with great power stands up to evil. It’s not hard to make the comparison. And judging by past cultural Superman moments, we can assume that the across the country the Superman from Man of Steel will be held up as a Christ figure to congregations and youth groups. But the Superman presented in this film only bears the thin veneer of Christ. Once you look closely, you realise, he’s less like Christ and more like the other guy. This is there throughout the film, but hits you right in the face at the end.
Here’s a quick recap to get you up to speed if you haven’t seen the film (spoilers abound from here on in obviously). Superman / Kal-El has been sent to the earth from a dying Krypton as a baby and grown up there as Clark Kent. He hasn’t appeared to the world as Superman. General Zod is an evil bad-guy also from Krypton who also escaped the destruction of Superman’s home world (because he was in an alternate dimension prison). General Zod comes to earth with his mates to find Superman just as Superman decides to reveal himself to earth and establish himself as it’s protector. Superman teams up with the military to defeat Zod’s friends, but Zod escapes. Zod and Superman punch it out and destroy a large part of Metropolis (the New York of Superman’s world). In the end Clark uses his strength and skill to best Zod in combat, where he’s forced to break Zod’s neck to save the lives of a bunch of humans. The crowd go wild; “he saved us” etc… forgetting that if it wasn’t for Superman none of this would have happened, and that Superman didn’t care that he wiped out half of Metropolis in the battle.
At this point, if you’re making the Christ analogy with Superman you point out stuff about his coming to earth and having power and about his fighting for the people and over-throwing the tyrant of the world. You see, you say, he’s just like Christ. But that’s misunderstanding who Christ is. It’s not getting how he ministers on earth and how he rescues his people. It’s not getting the cross.
Let me allow Martin Luther to explain how this works. He had this whole thing going on where he pointed out the two ways of looking at the world; either the theology of glory or the theology of the cross. Here’s Carl Trueman writing about Luther explaining them both:
At the heart of this new theology was the notion that God reveals himself under his opposite; or, to express this another way, God achieves his intended purposes by doing the exact opposite of that which humans might expect. The supreme example of this is the cross itself: God triumphs over sin and evil by allowing sin and evil to triumph (apparently) over him. His real strength is demonstrated through apparent weakness. This was the way a theologian of the cross thought about God.
The opposite to this was the theologian of glory. In simple terms, the theologian of glory assumed that there was basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is: if strength is demonstrated through raw power on earth, then God’s strength must be the same, only extended to infinity. To such a theologian, the cross is simply foolishness, a piece of nonsense.
The Superman from Man of Steel is a theologian of glory. His triumph over Zod is one of power and might. Superman beats Zod because he is stronger and more skilled. He kills him because that is how the world defeats its enemies. The strongest one wins. And now the people of earth better hope someone stronger than Superman doesn’t come along who hates them. Maybe Zod has a son? Worse, what if this Superman decides he’s sick of them? Why should he protect them? They’d better hope they don’t step out of whatever line he’s imposing. What does the all-powerful rescuing messiah in Man of Steel look like? A stronger, slightly nicer, version of the evil one. Sure, he didn’t start the war, but he doesn’t mind all the collateral damage he causes in finishing it. You don’t respond with love to that hero. You cower in fear.
This is not like Jesus. Jesus doesn’t overcome Satan by coming down and beating him up. He doesn’t rip the head off Satan and place himself on Satan’s throne as ruler of the kingdom of this world. He gives up his glory and humbles himself to become a weak human, humbling himself to death on a cross. He allows Satan to kill him, and in this weakness the power of God is displayed and he inverts the whole order of the world. His death brings life to the world, and the first truly meek and humble man is set on a higher throne as Lord and ruler of all. He is not a better version of general Zod, he’s the very opposite of him. Zod seeks to conquer, Jesus seeks to serve and save.
You might say at this point, this is all very well and good, but you can’t write a film like that. Except of course, thousands of films are written like that. In fact, a superhero film with a son sent down to earth in a red cape came out only a few years ago that got this exactly right and was consequentially a thousand times better. If you want a film to illustrate Christ’s life and ministry, show them “Thor”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/ instead (more spoilers ahead). When Thor is faced with the great destroyer out to ruin the people he has come to live among, he doesn’t win by showing he’s bigger and stronger and more of a destroyer. He offers up his life to protect the people around him. And in doing so he is raised back to life and given all power and authority and recognised as the true heir of the heavenly city. And then, when he destroys the destroyer, you properly rejoice, because here is a saviour who actually loves his people, who sympathises with them, and who lays his life down for them. You don’t cower in fear in case he turns his anger against you. How can you, when he lay down his life for others? If you want to show a superhero film at your residential weekend to make a point, show that one.
1 The second of these articles is by Mark Waid, who wrote “Birthright”:http://www.amazon.co.uk/Superman-Birthright-TP-DC-Comics/dp/1401202527 which is, especially if you want an Origins of Superman story that does things slightly differently but maintains the real character of Clark Kent/Superman, a great Superman book.