Mythology and the Superhero


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


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.

On Being Asian


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


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…