Robert and I went to see 42 last night. Good film, well worth seeing. There was the tiniest layer of cheese over the movie, and the score was not the least bit subtle. But it was well done, and it captured the essence of his story, at least according to Robinson’s widow.
A church member had told me to be on the lookout for references to faith, and they were certainly there. Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) quotes scripture as a justification for signing Robinson to the Dodgers, though he’s also clear that it’s a good long-term business decision. Loved the line at the beginning: “Robinson’s a Methodist! I’m a Methodist! God’s a Methodist!”
During their first meeting, Rickey talks to Robinson about how he is to respond to the racist vitriol that will come—he cannot fight back, even if provoked, because he will inevitably be deemed the instigator by a wary and suspicious public. His job is to play ball and to do it well. (Which he does… and there are clear elements of the trickster in the way Robinson toys with the pitchers when stealing bases.)
Jackie Robinson: You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?
Branch Rickey: No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.
This idea is connected explicitly to Jesus’ teachings later on during a conversation between the two characters.
Given the Christian images that wove throughout the movie, I longed for just one scene of Jackie Robinson in church. It’s not that I need that validation as a Christian or anything. But there is no real sense of the community Jackie grows out of. Whenever we see him in the movie, he’s either on the field, with Rickey, or with his wife.
We see him inspiring countless African-Americans at the time (and it was cool to read that one of the most “Hollywood” moments of the story, involving a young boy at a train station as Robinson and the team pull away, was based in reality). But who inspired and sustained Jackie Robinson? Who did he look to for support? During the torrent of abuse, the pitches thrown at him, the petitions circulating behind his back, was there a community that he leaned on?
Even trailblazers need a community.
As I wrote last week, John Lewis talked recently about the training the civil rights activists received around non-violent resistance to racist attitudes and barriers. That kind of training didn’t spring fully formed in the 1950s, post-Robinson; it rises from a long history and a deep grounding in the stories of liberation in the Bible. I understand that in a movie you have to be economical with the story, but it felt a bit strained for Rickey, an old white guy, to be Robinson’s sole mentor helping him along the way. (Though I loved the character.)
Maybe a Jackie Robinson fan will come along and shed some light—and for all I know the film may be accurate that he was kind of a loner. But there’s a bigger point. I’m always a bit bothered by this kind of portrayal of our heroes. It strikes me as a very American way to tell the story—it’s the bootstrap myth on steroids—but it’s ultimately inadequate. What’s powerful about real-life hero stories is that they tell about real flesh-and-blood people who rise out of a community in a specific time and place. They may see themselves as nothing special, but their gifts and circumstance conspire to thrust them into greatness. Even so, they cannot do it alone.
Not everyone is called to be Jackie Robinson. Heck, not everyone can be Jackie Robinson. But our world needs people to aspire to great things. If the cultural story we tell is of the lone hero, I suspect that most people will choose to sit out because they think they don’t have what it takes. But if we get to stand on the shoulders of others who’ve gone before, I suspect that more people will get to climbing.
Everyone knows that cell-phones work because of radio waves. Sure it’s complicated and, in general, few of us really get it. But we all know that cellphones work because the natural world is built in simultaneously subtle and complicated ways.
What is remarkable about the fundamentalist perspective, however, is an unwillingness to see spiritual life in the same light. Instead of seeing subtlety and complication that require a lifetime of intense dedicated effort — a genuine personal investigation of the world — to understand, everything is reduced to magic-marker outlines with unwavering, absolute answers….
While writing on science and religion, however, I have met lots of really amazing folks who are quite serious about their spiritual lives. They have come from a diversity of faith backgrounds: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and more. Some of these people were highly educated, some where not. What struck an atheist like me about these folks was their dedication to the investigation.
Fighting back with nuance in a sloganeering world…
So what, then, are we to do? One possibility, of course, is simply to give up; to acknowledge women’s destinies as something different from men’s and stop complaining about it. This, however, hardly seems fair, either to the generations who fought so hard for women’s freedoms, or to those who have not yet had the opportunity to give these freedoms a try. A second possibility, trumpeted most recently in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her examination of why women still can’t have it all, is to keep fighting the proverbial fights—for better day care, better family leaves, more flex time at work and co-parenting at home. These are all important goals. Yet they will never be sufficient to address the underlying issues.
A good point/counterpoint on the efficacy of children’s sermons in worship. Most forward-thinking pastors I know have already done away with them or would dearly like to. I get the impulse. But I still do them. I try to avoid interactive questions that set kids up to be entertaining*. My approach is to tell the biblical story so that they’re ready to go upstairs to the Upper Room for the remainder of worship, or to Sunday School, where they engage the story they just read. It’s a way of setting up the rest of the morning’s experience for them.
What a treasure trove of wisdom. I’ve watched a few of the shorter ones, and others I’ve seen before, but I might make it a goal to watch the others during my time away for CREDO. I leave in a week and will spend a few days with my BFF before it starts. Squee.
Here’s a specific vid I liked, about the importance of constraints in fostering creativity:
I’ve had two different people recently ask me to help them think about the process of writing a book. One of their concerns is how to get it done with everything else going on in life. I’ve tried to explain how that busyness can benefit them. Assuming you have enough motivation to start, of course–if you’re lukewarm about doing it, the rest of life will conspire against you. But if you just have to write that book, you will find a way. And the limitations will help you. At the end of the process you will have an imperfect thing on paper, rather than a perfect thing in your brain and nowhere else.
*My favorite children’s sermon story: I was talking about Jesus’ parable of the yeast and I’d brought some yeast from home. I showed it to the kids and said, “What is yeast used to make?” One of them piped up, “BEER!”
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.
* * *
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.
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.