MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
July 8, 2012
Parables and Pop Culture: Comic Book Superheroes
I Am Iron Man
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
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Can anyone name the source of the quote on the cover of the bulletin?
Live as one of them… to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you… my only son.
Yes, that’s from the 1977 movie, Superman, with Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. But if it reminded you of another unique son with awesome powers, who was sent from the heavens to be a light to the people, well, that’s no accident.
When I first got the idea for this sermon series, I knew I wanted to talk about the allure of the superhero, but that’s not my area of expertise. But I have a lot of friends who read comic books, so I asked them what they thought these about the faith/spiritual lessons that come out of comic books, especially superheroes.
I received reams of information and articles, more than could be discussed today. Several friends excitedly pointed out the similarities between Superman and Jesus, as we’ve seen… but also with Moses. Moses, you recall, is put into a basket as a baby to escape destruction, only to be found by someone who raises him as her own. He grows up to be a great and mighty leader. Replace “basket” with “spaceship” and “Pharaoh’s daughter” with “Jonathan and Martha Kent” and you can see the connection.
We could have a whole series on these matters, but it’s beyond my ability and probably beyond your interest, though I understand that there are some superhero superfans in our midst.
Superheroes are a cultural mainstay, and not just among the comic book geeks I have as friends. This summer we have the usual bumper crop of comic book blockbuster movies, including The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man. Even superheroes who’ve already made it to the big screen come back for more. Michael Keaton’s Batman of the late ’80s was good enough for me, but now we have a reboot of Batman with the Dark Knight series, which wraps up in just a few days with the final movie in the trilogy.
Often these new movies have a focus on the superhero’s origin story. How did the superhero become the superhero? Who were they before luck or providence intervened, before a radioactive spider plucked them from mediocrity and made them who they are? I remember the first time I saw one of these reboots, thinking that an origin story is redundant. We know the story of Superman, or Spider Man. Does it really need a new spin? Why rehash it?
And yet… that’s a compelling part of the story, isn’t it—this matter of identity. Who is this guy? (or gal) we want to know. It’s fun to watch the hero become the hunted as people search for clues, try to figure out, who is Superman? Even if the superhero doesn’t have a secret identity, we are still fascinated by the inner struggle, this intersection between extraordinary power and flawed humanity. Spider-Man slings webs, but is also a typical teenager; Batman is a vigilante with a cool car, but is also the devasted little boy whose parents were killed right in front of him. We like to see the struggle: How did they get to be who they are? Are they going to put on the power that they have been given? Are they going to fulfill their destiny, be who they were created to be?
One of the iconic “identity” scenes in recent comic-book film lore is in the story of Iron Man. Tony Stark has just wreaked havoc and saved the day in his specially made suit, and as we will see, the press is trying to get to the bottom of what has happened. The press has dubbed the armored hero “Iron Man”. Tony Stark has a cover story he is supposed to use… let’s take a look:
You see the conflict, the attempt to be coy. I’m a flawed person, I can’t possibly be a superhero… and then he gives up the pretense, and says, this is who I am.
In the gospel of Mark we have the origin story for Jesus. Over and over again people see Jesus as he is and call him various names: the Son of the Most High God. A prophet. A healer. In two chapters he will ask his followers: Who do people say that I am? Who do YOU say that I am? Peter says, you are the Messiah, and Jesus warns them as he does repeatedly in Mark: “Don’t tell anyone. Nobody is to know who I am. The time is not yet right.” It’s not altogether clear what Jesus is up to in Mark, but one thing is clear: there are issues with secrecy and identity, all throughout the gospel.
In today’s story, he’s just a hometown boy, and the kinfolk don’t know what to do with him. It’s easy to see why: he’s not exactly acting like your typical carpenter from Nazareth. He’s already blown off his family: his family comes calling for him earlier in Mark, and he says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?… Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
Given that comment, it’s not surprising that Jesus would be the least popular guy at the high school reunion. He seems to expect the rejection—and the rejection is great; Luke’s version of this story has the hometown folk trying to throw him off a cliff. Jesus is able to heal a few people, but his powers seem lessened in his hometown. Maybe it’s like the way many of us feel: capable adults until we go home to be with parents and aunts and uncles and people who changed our diapers, and we feel 8 years old again. I don’t know what’s going on there, but for whatever reason, Jesus is vulnerable around the people who know him best. He has found his Kryptonite.
* * *
Professor Andy Root at Luther Seminary in Minnesota has suggested that the driving question for young adults today is who am I? It’s the question of identity.
These young adults are the very people the church is losing, incidentally. Which is also the same demographic that reads comic books and goes to see the Dark Knight movies. If we cannot give them the language and tools to help them grapple with the identity question, they will find other myths and means to do so.
Sometimes that works out well. Meet 4 year old Anthony Smith, a huge comic book fan and a boy with a hearing impairment:
He has a hearing aid but woke up one morning and told his mother that he would not wear it because there were no superheroes with hearing aids. In desperation, his mother wrote to the Marvel folks asking whether there was ever a superhero with a hearing aid.
In a stroke of genius, the illustrators at Marvel invented a brand-new hero inspired by Anthony:
This is Blue Ear, who can hear people in trouble with his listening device. They sent the illustration to little Anthony, and he has worn his hearing aid ever since.
The Spirit moves in mysterious ways. [source]
* * *
Who are we? The good news for us as followers of Jesus is that our sacred story, the scriptural story, is all about matters of identity: who God is, who we are, who we’ve been and who we’re called to be in the future. What do we live for? What do we fight for? What is our moral code?
These are all identity questions.
And as followers of Jesus, we do not understand ourselves—our identity—apart from God. No less than John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation, said as much: without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Those are not the same, but there are many ties between them. Knowledge of self inevitably leads us into a deeper knowledge of the One who made us.
Jesus assures his followers of who they are and what they are to be about. You will have authority to heal and teach! You will do mighty deeds! You will be about the things that I am about!
But for followers of Jesus, there are no capes—one tunic, not two. No utility belts—not even bread for the journey. No invisible plane like Wonder Woman, just a pair of sandals.
You will travel light, Jesus says.
You will not stay anyplace too long.
It can be a lonely life.
You will be misunderstood.
You live by different rules than the rest of the world.
Doing the right thing will cost you something… but it won’t cost you your soul. Your integrity. Your identity.
Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus also maks clear, we go about this work two by two – our story is a buddy movie. We are not Batman, working alone. We are the Legion of Justice.
Speaking of Batman, you may be familiar with this guy:
This is the “Route 29 Batman.” This Montgomery County Batman gained some notoriety some months ago when he was pulled over by the police for no license plate. (The plates were in the car.) Turns out Batman’s alter ego is a businessman named Lenny Robinson. Like many superheroes, his origin story is complicated—he has had his own troubles in the past—but now he visits hospitals as Batman and provides encouragement to children who are battling life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. [source]
This may seem very grand. Who wouldn’t love to be a superhero, right? Drive a Lamborghini. Make kids happy. But it’s actually pretty hard work—he loses 5-6 pounds of water weight every time he dons the 35 pound costume. He signs every autograph, takes every picture that is requested, spends his own many on Batman bracelets and gifts to handout.
It’s also modest work. It takes an emotional toll to see so many sick kids. He has to leave the hospital each day knowing that not even Batman can fix what is wrong.
One day as Batman drove away, a little boy cried. “I want to go help him fight the bad guys,” he said. His mom said, “You need to go help your sister fight cancer.”
We’re not going to save Gotham City. Jesus promises us deeds of power, sure, but our call is rather modest: to love one another as best we can. To see the face of Christ in one another. To fight back against the darkness with every ounce of strength we have.
No superpowers. Just our own flawed humanity.
Because that’s our identity. That’s who we are.