Sunday, June 23, 2013

Man of Steel. Superman as a Barometer of Our Anxiety

         Humans have long struggled with anxiety about everything out of their control. You can sense that anxiety in the Psalm we just read. It begins with the famous words, "I lift up my eyes to the hills--from where will my help come?"

          This Psalm, you see, was for Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem through dangerous enemy territory. As they travelled, they looked up to the hills with great fear. High alters to Baal, the god of lightning and thunder, dotted those hills—along with enemy Canaanites. Travelling under the shadows of those hills, the pilgrims feared Baal’s dark power, and worried that Canaanites would fall upon them to rape, pillage and kill. They lifted their eyes to the hills and in those circumstances, wondered where their help would come from.

         That’s how it still is, for much of the human race. The world is a dangerous place—whether merely crossing a street in car-friendly Toronto, or dodging a sniper’s bullets in Aleppo, or waiting for test results from the Odette cancer center, most of us know the worm of anxiety. And the movie Man of Steal is an unwitting barometer to that anxiety.

         First, however, a short tangent. Warner Brothers Studio claims this Superman movie is actually about Jesus Christ. At least, that’s what Warner Brothers says in their nine-page sermon outline that goes with this  specially-prepared movie trailer.

         Did you catch the parallels? Superman is sent to Earth, and his father predicts he'll be a god to us. Superman is described as an outcast, as despised and rejected, just as Isaiah described the coming Messiah. At age 33, Superman—like Jesus at the same age—sacrifices himself to save the human race. Humans will stumble and fall, we’re told, but he will lift us up to the sun, as if on eagle’s wings I guess. In the movie Superman hangs over the world with his arms spread out as if on a cross. And, of course, after great suffering, Superman defeats demonic General Zod and saves the world.

         These parallels are so obvious they’re also artless. The movie adds up to a banal commercialization of Jesus’ death that mimics the commercialization of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. The movie is devoid of mystery, allusion, and poetry. But it does have lots of flag-waving, bible thumping, apple-pie—and violent—moralism. Superman, after-all, is an all-American Jesus.

         What I found far more interesting than the Jesus parallels was how this movie inadvertently plays on our society’s widespread feelings of anxiety and helplessness and resolves those feelings through an apocalyptic war in the heavens.

         Actually, this is a common theme in contemporary movies. Star Wars was a battle between demonic Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. Then there is the Star Trek franchise, Spawn, Hellboy, the Justice League, Iron Man, the Transformers, a Middle Earth that needed saving, several zombie invasions, including Brad Pitt's World War Z playing at a theatre near you now. What these movies all share in common is a world in deep crisis, where evil is going to reign supreme. But these movies are also about a moment where, after battles in the heavens and sometimes even at the gates of hell, good ultimately prevails over evil thanks to surprising heroes: Luke and the force, Frodo with his wizard Gandalf, Spock with his cold calculation, Harry Potter and his wands and spells, Katniss Everdean and her bow, and so on.

         These movie battles mirror our own real-life battles. Except that, unlike Superman, we can’t save Syria or Iraq. Unlike Gandalf, we can’t harness the deep magic we need to defeat “the man” in Mordor. Unlike Captain Planet, we cannot create subways galore and tame traffic while also eliminating plastic bags and lowering taxes. As General Zog says of the politicians of his day, “these lawmakers with their endless debates, have led Krypton”—he means earth—“to ruin!” And so the worm of anxiety gnaws at us.

         Realizing we can’t change the system, some of us, especially those of us who benefit materially from the status quo, which is to say most of us—just go along for the ride. What else is there to do? We read the Globe or Star, we vote for the Liberals federally and the Conservatives locally, or maybe the other way around, we save like crazy for retirement, and we hardly dare think about what it is like to be a Palestinian in Ramallah or an endangered Cross River Gorilla in Nigeria. For us, these three remain: denial, anxiety, and the status quo. But the deadliest of these is the status quo.

         But there is an even darker reality.

         Somalis are starving in the Horn of Africa. Palestinians can’t get to their fields—or have just had their fields taken away from them, and can’t find work in Gaza—they feel that anxiety and powerlessness way more than we do. And a certain class of disenfranchised kids is turning to Nazi groups like the Heritage Front or the Skinheads or Aryan Nations. And all of these people—the Somalis and Palestinians and Heritage Front types—all of these people are worrying themselves to death too. In fact, the list of dispossessed people in the world is long. And some of them want to turn our movies about apocalyptic battles in the sky into real battles in our streets. At their deadliest, these hopeless people become our terrorists, who think that if they take down the World Trade Center, or deface synagogues, or blow up buildings in Oklahoma City—that if they do these things they can ignite a race war or a holy war or a civil war that will finally destroy the status quo forever . . . or they will die trying.

         Listen. We are all go to these apocalyptic movies where the future hangs by a thread. We are all on a pilgrimage to our own hoped for Jerusalems—retirement, a cottage, and the top of the ladder. And as we lift up our eyes to the places of power, we wonder who is for us and who is against us. We are either in denial, or we admit that we are relatively powerless and therefore afraid. And we understand that even so—our anxiety is nothing compared to the worries and fears of the world’s truly dispossessed. So as we lift our eyes to these scary hills, from “where will we get our help?” Warp drive? Superman? Aslan? The Force?

         The Psalmist’s answer, of course, was, “My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved. He who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep.” This answer is not a theological promise that none of us will ever suffer loss. God knows, the Psalms are full of enemies and snares, death and darkness. No—this Psalm is almost a prayer. As such, it is a recognition that since we are not in control, like soldiers in foxholes, we best turn to God and then hope for the best.

         But this Psalm only barely touches on Israel’s larger response to anxiety. There is much more to Israel’s story—especially for those of us who have some wealth, who have some power, who have some influence in the world or in our corporation or our law firm or NGO—not a few of us in a congregation like this one. In fact, the rest of Israel’s tradition tells us that when we pray to God for help, God doesn’t expect us to merely wait for Jesus or the next superhero to show up. No, when we pray to God asking for help, God answers us with these words from the prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

         It is, in the end, a sort of “think global, act local” answer. Not completely satisfying, but better than just worrying. Not a sure bet, but something to shoot for if you have a bit of influence with your friends or in your field or family. Of course, we all know we can’t save the world by ourselves. But if we do as God asks—do justice, while loving kindness, and remaining humble; if we strive to live as Jesus really lived, not fighting battles in the heavens but turning the other cheek and loving the least and the last; if we do strive after these Biblical ideals in even the difficult corners of our lives, then perhaps working together as a church or nation or as friends, we can yet accomplish more good in the real world than Superman ever accomplished for his fictional planet.


  1. A beautiful and sharp exposition of our state of being -- that of collective anxiety and the longing for a savior, a hero. When things or problems are too hard for us to understand and to solve, we turn to imagined solutions and myths; and I wonder whether 'God' is all part of this mythmaking in early Israel.

  2. Tung Tse Mao: Yes, it is a good question, one that goes to the heart of faith. Especially when you read, in Psalm 121, about the almost magical expectations that these believers had for divine protection. And yet . . . and yet . . . there is a kind of faith that does not look to God as the super fixup guy in the sky, but as the lover who seeks to show us (esp in Jesus) how life really should and can be lived.


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