by Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.
He is the son sent to save humankind. He is beaten, ridiculed, denied by those closest to him, and nearly gives his life in an attempt to save billions from death. Okay, I'll admit, the parallels are there if you are looking for them. One critic hailed the new hero of Superman Returns as Jesus Christ Superman – a play on the rock opera from the 70s. But the mundane side of Superman's life seems to make identifying him with Jesus a stretch. Unless you are a disciple of Dan Brown's, that Superman was married (albeit briefly) to Lois Lane in Superman II presents a problem, and that he requires an alter-ego (Jesus did not hide who He was) suggests a bad fit.
But the single, most important non-starter in trying to apply the moniker of Savior of the World to Superman is that he strayed from his mission – at least temporarily. There is no doubt that Superman is emblematic. But I would like to argue that, at least in Superman Returns, he has more to teach about the mission of the Church than the nature of the Christ. Superman Returns serves as a microcosm of what can occur when the Church abandons its mission to the world: it leads to bitterness and emboldens evil. However, the movie also suggests fruitful ways for the Church to re-engage.
Abandoning the Mission
When critics compare Superman to Jesus, one piece of evidence they provide is that his father, Jor-el, has sent his only son, Superman (Kal-el) to Earth to be "the light" that shows people "the way." Yet when astronomers discover remnants of Superman's home planet, Krypton, his curiosity is piqued and, without a word, Superman leaves the Earth he was sent to save. Jesus never abandoned His mission to satisfy His curiosity. But this lesson in Superman Returns could easily serve as a cautionary tale to the Church. God has commissioned the Church to use its time, talent, and resources for evangelism and good works – to cooperate with God in saving the world. Unfortunately, the Church, like Superman, often becomes distracted.
For example, as researcher George Barna has pointed out, only a sliver of Christians tithe, and many churches have refocused much more of their spending on themselves by way of facilities and church programs than they do on evangelism, outreach, and missions. Gene Edward Veith, reporting in World Magazine in 2005, notes that the church designates only 2% of its income to missions. We would be embarrassed to know what percentage goes to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and aid the sick – activities which, along with the Great Commission to spread the Gospel – were explicitly commanded by Christ of His followers. The Church cannot abandon the mission with impunity. We ought to expect a backlash.
The Embittered Abandoned
The only reason given by Superman for leaving his job so abruptly, without preparing anyone for his departure from the field, was that giving notice would have been personally uncomfortable. Deserting hurting people is a sure way to embitter them. In response to Superman abdicating his responsibilities, Lois Lane (reporter for Metropolis' Daily Planet) writes a Pulitzer Prize-winning column about how the world doesn't need Superman. Upon his return, she says to his face, "The world doesn’t need a savior, and neither do I." The lesson? Abandon the battle long enough and people might conclude they are better off without you.
It is not true, of course. In a world wracked by overwhelming evil only the foolish would deny the need of a savior. But when the world sees those commissioned to reach out to them looking inward instead, they cannot help questioning the sincerity of those who claim to save. Terry Mattingly reports on a story in John and Sylvia Ronnsvalle's book, Behind the Stained Glass Windows: Money Dynamics in the Church, which reveals much about the attitude that has soured some on the Church and salvation. People's discomfort with change, the authors note, often trumps the mission of the Church. A couple of men, in one case study, accosted their evangelistic pastor, one saying, "We want you to stop talking about inviting other people into this church. There are too many new people now. We don't know half the people who come here and there are new people in leadership positions."
Some of the most comfortable places in the world are museums. Everything is climate-controlled to ensure that the artifacts inside don't change. Personal comfort is a great model if you are trying to preserve the past, but a lousy one if you want to advance the Kingdom. Jesus taught His disciples to leave their own comfort behind and to seek out those that others had rejected.
In addition to embittering Lois, Superman's departure emboldened evil. While Superman was on Earth doing his job, his nemesis, Lex Luthor, was safely behind bars. But when Superman leaves to satisfy his curiosity about his dead world, Luthor schemes in the land of the living to escape his bonds. Luthor is not merely a criminal, he has pretensions toward godhood. But his parole is granted because Superman is not available at the hearing to speak against Luthor's release. Taking advantage of Superman's absence, Luthor has plenty of time to ferret out the Man of Steel's secrets and become a potent adversary.
Edmund Burke once argued that "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." When the Church becomes obsessed with her own desires, plans, and programs and forgets her commission to combat evil by evangelizing sinners and doing the good works that God has set before her, then evil triumphs. If the Church will not share the Gospel, demonic alternatives will rise to give the lost false hope. If the Church abandons the arts, the arts come to reflect an evil purpose. If the Church abandons medicine we get abortion on demand and euthanasia. When the Church abandons the poor we get eugenics programs and one-child-only national policies. When the Church is disengaged, the world does not stand still. And when we return, we cannot expect evil to give way without a fight.
Strategy for Re-Engagement
Superman Returns is as good at suggesting recovery as it is about diagnosing the problem. Once Superman gets a grip on what he has done, he apologizes and re-engages. Good re-enters the fray against titanic evil. The idea that good overcomes evil is not merely a sop to wishful thinkers. It is a truth deeply ingrained in humanity. Superman Returns relies on the universality of that feeling to work. The film also recognizes the need for sacrifice to attain the good end. This movie is not about cheap forgiveness and easy victories.
Christians, particularly those in the affluent West, might well begin re-engagement by apologizing for the fields we have abandoned in pursuing our own personal peace. We are not each responsible for every fight – none of us are "faster than a speeding bullet" – however, we all ought to be fighting somewhere. Breast-beating should be short in duration – there are still battles before us. Sacrifices must be made as we re-prioritize our time, talents, and treasure to reflect those of the Great Commissioner. By leaving the dead to bury the dead, by not looking back once we have put our hand to the plow, by engaging our culture with God's Good News we can further God's Kingdom and beat back the usurping forces of the evil one – A super analogy from one of the first big films of the summer.
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