Mythology and the Superhero

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41qEUAlH+DL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was young I remember my stash of comic books. I often wonder, what if I actually carefully read them and then saved them for the future knowing that they would be worth money one day. I had a lot of the old Marvel Avengers comics as well as the very first Defenders! It seemed like my dad really couldn’t understand why I liked buying comic books back then.

As a quick aside, I remember a good friend of mine, Sam Rood, making the incredible claim that Superman was not only created by two Jewish men but that Jewish people love to identify Superman as Jewish. First, he is “born” but he is not of this world. While the reader is privy to who is birth parents are, the average person in the story has no idea where he originated except that he came from the “heavens”. Second, he’s an immigrant, and often treated like an outcast who doesn’t belong. But third, he is here to save the world, to right wrong by confronting  evil. He is often put in a place where self-sacrifice is necessary in order to save people. The only thing we don’t see is his mother nagging him because he won’t make the ultimate commitment and marry Lois…

It should surprise no one that mythical stories don’t die but are told and re-told. I’m certainly not an expert in ancient mythology but it seems to be that there is a connection between the old myths and the newer fascination with superheroes as portrayed in comics. When others were saying the comic book superhero movies had run their course a few years back, my gut was that the need for a hero would fuel even more characters and stories. All you have to do is consider Hollywood’s full plate of superhero movies and television programs!  Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth  goes so far as to write that myths are,

“so intimately bound to culture, time and place that unless the symbols, the metaphors, are kept alive by the recreation through the arts, the life just slips away from them.” (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 70)

Think though about the new focus on superheroes as introducing a modern way of communicating the power of myth:

1. With great power comes great responsibility. Over and over we see the value of acting virtuously. It is not something to be taken lightly but something that must be driven deep into the soul so that it comes out naturally.

2. The rags to riches hero who lived a life of vice but gets a second chance to make things right and to become virtuous. This certainly leaves some (if not all) heroes flawed. Whatever the case, these heroes “take up” your sin in the sense that we identify with them.

3. The superhero is committed to the greater good of humanity. It’s not simply “peace” but it’s a society that flourishes. Their creativity is intended to solve problems but sometimes it has the effect of creating even more problems!

4.The reluctant superhero who has to existentially discover what it means to stand out and stand for something, even if it means self-sacrifice. The greater good often comes at the cost of their own personal comfort or happiness. In some ways he represents the modern Odysseus who’s labor is unending.

5. In many cases, the hero has a vision of beauty. He places himself or herself at risk for the sake of beauty.

6. As I mentioned in another post, in some way their heroic effort is our success or failure. It’s really not the message that you can be a hero as well, but rather that in some way, our identity is wrapped up in their performance done for us.

7. There is an arc to stories where heroes die and are reborn. It’s hard to actually kill off Superman or Spiderman. Everyone knows that at some point heroes “resurrect”.

At the start of this year, I picked up Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings trilogy to re-read. Tolkien believed that located in the story are transcendent truths and virtues – commitment, beauty, and honor to name a few (Campbell in The Power of Myth connected ancient myths with universal themes). While these truths are “immaterial” they are nonetheless real and sensed by people. The language of myth effectively communicates these truths and virtues. What Tolkien then asserted was while other myths contain elements of both truth and error, the Christian story is historically grounded. This tremendously influenced his friend and colleague C.S. Lewis who came also to see the gospel as the one true myth.

“Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth (in other words, God bodily present on earth contains elements of the myth story but goes way beyond it). The heart of Christianity  is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from heaven of legend and imagination to the early of history. It happens – at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.” (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, pp.66-67).

To quote my son, Justin (who loves comics): “Seeing the virtue of superheroes is why [the comic book superhero] won’t die. It shows us the best of what we can become but in a way that is somehow relatable and attainable. That’s also why the Gospel will never die. Jesus Christ has taught us how to become the best of what humanity can be, what it was intended to be.” So not only is Christ the ultimate hero (see a previous blog here) but He also gives flawed people a vision the virtuous life, both full and abundant.

The Enjoyment of God Post Cyber Monday

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black-friday-meme-funny-blueprintAgain and I again I find myself drawn to read The Imitation of Christ as part of my devotion time. Originally written by Thomas à Kempis between 1420 and 1427 and now translated into modern English recently by William C. Creasy, it remains the most published Christian book, second only to the Bible. Much like George McDonald’s writing stirred C.S. Lewis’ spiritual imagination, The Imitation has stirred my mind and heart for some time now (since the mid 1990’s). Here’s a sample of my reading today, which fits well with the sermon series on Philippians that we have just begun.

In a powerful section of prayerful dialogues between the disciple and Jesus, à Kempis writes as a disciple (one who follows Christ) speaking/praying to His Lord:

When you are present, Lord, everything is joyful; when you are missing, everything is dreary. You make the heart calm and full of great peace and gladness. You make us think well of all things and praise you in all things. Nothing can give any lasting pleasure without you, for if anything is to be pleasant and appetizing, your grace must be with it, seasoned with the spice of your wisdom. To the person who delights in you, what will not taste right? And what can give any joy to someone who does not delight in you? Those who love the world apart from you know nothing of your wisdom, and those who love others for their own selfish reasons know even less. Loving the world under such terms smacks of vanity; selfishly loving others plants a doomed vine. (p. 125)

As the Christmas season is again upon us, it doesn’t take much for us to reflect on the vastness of our material blessings. These are wonderful gifts from God since none of us asked to be born into such abundance. Yet, as à Kempis reminds us that disconnected from God, such abundance is not only destructive to our souls but it is a foolish pursuit. The entirety of it is God’s grace to be enjoyed with Him, not apart from Him.

While Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays can be fun (I’m certainly feeling challenged to find good deals like everyone else), the over-fascination with consuming can rule my thinking and time, pointing to my heart attitude of disconnecting the good gift from God. Think about this… how do you express daily thanks in the midst of plenty? How easy is it to forget God’s goodness and grace and then begin to crave apart from Him? Have you ever thought about what the presence of so much does to the human heart? Thomas à Kempis gives us a timely reminder that while all of it are good gifts from Him, none of this can fill an eternal hole in our heart. Only an eternal person can.

A Christmas Rant

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black-friday-crowd-1600x935-650x379To many it seems like Christmas is coming earlier and earlier each year! It wasn’t but hours after Halloween was over that the Christmas decorations were up in stores already! If that isn’t sad enough, just today there was another announcement that the Thanksgiving holiday was getting cut shorter and shorter.
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I remember telling Kay at one point Thanksgiving as a day will soon be gone. Oh, work will still cease, offices will still close, families will still gather for a nice meal, but retail will stay open. Why? It’s because as the bottom line of big box stores gets squeezed, the pressure will be to make up for lost profit. Retailers will say, “If ‘they’ (the competition) are staying open we have to stay open as well”. In addition, in a consumer-driven culture where getting cheap goods for Christmas rules the day, Black Friday deals are now becoming Black Thursday night deals which will become Black Thursday deals. Trust me… coveting is one of the strongest vices in the human heart and people will justify it in numerous ways (“I just got a great deal”).

Here’s what it all “feels” like to me: There’s a way of praying that is quick and shallow because one is so excited about how good the meal is going to be. You know, it’s those superficial prayers that feel rote because they have no real depth or meaning, there’s no heart involved, and for sure it doesn’t feel grateful really for anything. The prayer is simply a formality that has to be expressed so we can start eating! That’s what Thanksgiving is becoming. It feels like a cheap, quick way to say “thanks” and then it’s on to the really good stuff of Christmas.

I wonder if God orchestrated it so that Thanksgiving would fall before Christmas. Why? It’s hard to receive anything in the right kind of way if you aren’t grateful for anything. In the same way it’s particularly hard to receive the message of God’s self-giving to the world if people do not have the space in their hearts to slow down and express gratitude.

Taking Back Holidays and Culture Through Cheese…

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With Halloween so close, Christians have this weird neurosis going on that we have to redeem culture and every holiday by marketing cheesy stuff. I read on a website that one group’s way to redeem Halloween was to put a Christian tract  (you know those really bad cartoon-like tracts?) in each kids’ bag when they come knocking on your door for candy.

That got me thinking more broadly. A few years ago some of us had a great discussion over the summer about art and beauty and the subject of kitsch came up. Why is there such a fascination with creating kitschy “stuff”? Of course, we had to explore things like Precious Moments (my favorite) while asking if this really was art. So the more I started exploring recently, the more I realized just how much is out there! It’s like there’s a contest who can come up with the cheesiest most ridiculous product. Here’s just a few (thanks Cracked)…

This is Ketzel the Cat Menorah. menorahChanukah is just around the bend so why not modernize the holiday a bit? When I think of this wonderful Jewish holiday, I tend to associate it with cats. I know what I’m getting my friend Sam Rood this year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I think of the ten plagues that were unleashed on Egypt, plaguesI would like some toys to remind me. These are the Ten Plague of Egypt toy. Maybe they function a little like voodoo dolls so if I put the “flies” in my brother’s room, he would suffer from an infestation.  In addition, there’s something about plagues that just warms my heart that makes me want to play with them…

 

 

 

 

 

How does Luke 6:38 read? “Give and it will given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” gumIt’s called You Measure Up gum. This is kind of like Big League Chew gum but the connection to Jesus’ words are obscure at best. Plus, I think Jesus wasn’t really saying you measure up… Bad exegesis, and really bad for your teeth…

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno. When I saw this I seriously felt like it was a bit narcissistic. It’s called Looking Good for Jesus. lookin_goodI get the fact that we should practice hygiene. C’mon, no one wants the person next to them in the pew and have them reek of B.O. the whole worship service. This not only felt kitschy but it felt over the top as well. I’m not sure if this is a good thing for kids to learn at an early age that how you look matters to God. God does love everyone unless you are a slob…

 

 

 

 

 

This could be my favorite. Are you tired of how the devil gets all the fun on Halloween? UnknownIt’s time for us to take the night back! So someone came up with something they called a Take Back Halloween Christian t-shirt. I like how the pumpkin face is not scary but smiling instead.  But then when you look at the Bible passage you realize something. There is no Mark 27. I’m not sure what they were getting at here but they have the same shirt with a John 22:52 on it. Again, there’s no such chapter! What we should take back is not letting people put Bible verses that don’t even exist on t-shirts.

 

I’m sure there’s tons more out there and your additions are always welcome.

 

On Being Asian

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Julie-Chen-admits-to-plastic-surgery-to-fix-Asian-eyesI was speaking to a wonderful friend last week when the conversation veered toward the topic of ethnicity. He shared with me how weird it is that people will often come up to him and engage in conversation by poking fun at his Asian heritage. These friends were not Asians who are “bagging on” his ethnicity… these are his “white” friends. I suppose the upside is that they think they are close enough to my friend that they can poke fun AT him. The downside is that it has a horrible after effect.

Last week it came out in the news that Julie Chen, a very talented and visible Asian-American told a story of how, under a certain kind of pressure from her boss in the newsroom, had a medical procedure done to widen her eyes. You know… make them look bigger. She was a reporter in Dayton, Ohio, and well, Dayton is not known to be a bastion of Asian Americans. So the applied pressure was, as I am paraphrasing the conversation, “Julie, don’t you want to be relevant to your viewers (hint… hint… who are not Asian)? Your eyes make you look disinterested (read “slanty eyes”) and you will always be marginalized if you aren’t relatable to them.”

What is it about Asian people that she would actually cave to this demand? Would you give in, if the majority of your clients were African-American and your employer came to you and said something incredibly ignorant like, “You need to change a facial feature because people can’t relate to the way you look.” But Julie Chen caved. Why? Because Asians have this drilled into them by their culture and their parents… “You must succeed!”

I remember what it was like for me as a high schooler. When I realized that the “white” guys were getting all the cute girls.. So when I looked in the mirror I would intentionally make my eyes bigger thinking that if I “looked” like them I would be successful. Strange. Sociologists who study Asian-Americans and the problems they face in melding into the “mainstream” call this a kind of self-loathing. You want to succeed so bad that you will do what you need to do in order to get in the mainstream, get the job, be accepted. But the self-loathing comes in because it sometimes includes compromising who you are or laughing at yourself in a hideous way. For many Asians, it is a lonely experience trying to fit in while yet at the same time denying who they are.

In my own life experience, I have found that the only thing that brings security on my part and sensitivity on the parts of others is good news, the gospel. I don’t view the gospel as something I slap on a problem and say, “Now everything is better.” No, the gospel is understandable yet so nuanced and complex that it continues to get worked out in life. This good news, the gospel, confronts my neurotic desire to fit in and succeed. I will never succeed and fit in like I want to and will always find myself chasing approval. The gospel emphatically says that I am completely approved of because of the actions of the One on the cross. But the gospel also confronts others who think that insensitive joking or simply being a prejudiced fool, by announcing that the cross has bridged the chasms between Jew and Gentile, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status are rendered null and void (Gal. 3:28). There is one thing that draws us together in unity and that is Christ.

I hope that this will lead to a deepening of my own roots in the gospel while also helping people understand that they don’t need to be hyper-sensitive around me. But leading with ethnic jokes and bowing (unless you understand the Japanese formality of bowing) is not just uncool, it’s actually an affront to the gospel that we claim unifies us.

Shopping Therapy

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A recent study from TNS Global, a global marketing research company, along with Ebates, just completed a study that focused on shopping habits and how people use shopping as a way to feel better about oneself and about life. The conclusion? There is no small amount of people that use shopping therapeutically, as a way to improve their mood. Have a bad day at work? Shop. Get into an argument with your girlfriend/boyfriend? Shop. Feeling down about life or get some bad news about something? Shop. Need to stuff negative emotions? Shop.

In the study a whopping 64% of women admitted that they use shopping as a way to reduce stress; to feel better about themselves or life, and elevate mood (shopping is fun). What’s surprising is that 39% of men admitted the same thing! In other words, roughly 4 out of 10 guys admitted in the interview that they go out to spend money as a way to feel better! What caught  my attention is that generally women use retail to function as sort of this Cartesian mantra… “I shop, therefore I am.” However, with men it’s different. The study shows that men don’t use retail, they choose food as a way to elevate mood! In their case, “I eat, therefore I am”  is literally true when you think about how many overweight men there are…

It reminded me of James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. Smith’s thesis is that while we can teach Christian “worldview” to people, the underlying narratives of culture are far too pervasive and strong for any cognitive belief to overturn them. In other words, you can learn propositions about God, about life, and self and yet those often seem powerless against the deep “pull” of messages that you receive from the culture. There is something about habits of culture that inform us who we are, what’s really important in life, and what the actual good life is. In particular, Smith points out that retail shopping has its own “worship liturgy” as there are automatic habits of the heart that seek to answer these questions. That’s why it’s so powerful… people have spent their whole life “training” themselves to respond by using shopping or food not only to dull pain but to elevate mood.

A friend once said that there is an infinite hole in your heart that can only be filled by an infinite person. That explained to me why trying to fill it with anything that is less than eternal is doomed to fail. It might fill up the emptiness and give my life temporal “meaning”. But that can’t be sustained. That is why it is the natural tendency of the heart to use things and people to fill us by sucking the life and love out of them and then discard them for something else. Only an eternal perfect person can fill an eternal void…

Why Easter Is the Best Day Ever!

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When I was a kid I used to think that Japanese New Year (January 1st) was the best day ever. Why? It’s because all we did was go from house to house eating food and watching football games. Ok, maybe Christmas was a very close second as a kid because it promoted coveting.

My favorite holiday of the year now? It would have to be Easter hands down. Here are my reasons…

1. Way less commercialism

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It’s really hard to jack Easter up with a consumeristic overdose where it has to be bigger and bigger each year! Yes, there are eggs and chocolate bunnies but that in comparison to Christmas feels minor. Think about it…  how many retail stores are there that have door busters on Easter morning?

2. No sleazy or downright scary costumes

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Halloween drives me nuts! It’s become the second biggest retail day of the year and for what? People spending incredible amounts of money to dress in ways that are completely inappropriate. Don’t misunderstand me… I love the little kids who dress like Buzz Lightyear and Cinderella but for most people it’s become an excuse to dress like you’re going to a frat party and act the fool… when you’re fifty. Ok, so Easter ring pops with a jack-o-latern was a bad idea…

 

 

3. Dying eggs and the easter egg hunt

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This was an epic fail. But otherwise, as a kid it was totally fun to dye eggs and then hide for the big hunt afterwards. I remember when I was a kid at church. We were on the balcony looking down into the outdoor courtyard of the church. When people came out of the worship service, from the balcony we launched easter eggs at people like grenades and then took off running. You know to this day, I haven’t told my parents that I did that…

4. Easter steak

Never mind the ham! We don’t have turkey for Thanksgiving so why have ham for Easter? It’s about the steak, baby…

5. The Easter bonnets

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I love Easter bonnets! There’s nothing like sitting in church unable to see over the person’s head in front of you because their hat is blocking your view. I’m thinking about making my son wear one this year…

 

 

 

 

6. Classic church signs

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Easter gives churches the creative license to pull out all the stops when it comes to sheer wit on the street marquee. These by themselves will fill the pews…

 

 

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7. Peeps

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Seriously, who came up with this? And how cool of a name is it? Peeps. Marshmallow, corn syrup (sugar), carnuba wax (that’s what you use to wax your car) and food coloring! I actually can’t even eat these things but what other holiday serves up such a confusing confectionary delight?

8. The Cross and Resurrection

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This is what Easter is all about! It is the remembrance of Christ’s work in space and time. This is why the gospel is not advice about how to live but rather about what’s been done already. We are gospel people because Christ work on Calvary meant it was no longer about our work. And that is good news! Blessings to you all this Easter!