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.

An Unbroken Life


unbroken-cover_custom-0a55df2637ae96369dd0302be5ad4de816c6b0ab-s6-c85One day when I was speaking with my friend John Coulombe in his office, thinking about ways we could intentionally mix generations at church, he had a brilliant idea… “Let’s call Louie and see if he will help us!” What I came to realize is that he was calling Louis Zamperini whose biography was documented in the book, Unbroken. The conversation was short mostly because we woke him up from a nap. But in the short conversation my sense was that he was genuinely excited about helping but his schedule was pretty full as this was the early stages of turning Laura Hillenbrand’s best seller into a script.

At some point in the near future I will get a chance to see the movie and I will probably leave inspired by the courage of someone who went through horrific abuse and torture. What do we do with stories like Zamperini’s? What is it about his heroic life that catches our attention and inspires us? The story resonates with our need for an example, a heroic pattern.

James Houston in his book, Mentoring as Discipleship, unpacks the heroic pattern as the chaos of life is met head on by a determined and courageous attitude.

“…the quest to be challenged by something, accept it, and rise above it. For some, this thing is to climb the highest mountains, to sail the oceans single handedly, to create Olympic sports for the disabled, or whatever gives the plain challenge that it is ‘there to be done,’ or ‘to be discovered’ or ‘to be found out.'”

Surely this is inspiring when we hear stories of “average” people who face insurmountable odds and conquer. It’s like so many movie posters,  “A testament to the power of the human spirit!!!” Yet, if we were honest we would readily admit that while we love stories like this, we also recognize that our lives are less than consistently heroic.

This comes out clearly in Hillebrand’s book. Despite the fact that Zamperelli was unbroken by “the Bird’s” torturous methods, his ability to forgive was much more difficult to stand up under. Yet, when his life was changed as a result of a Billy Graham Crusade, he forgave his captors, beautifully captured in Hillebrand’s words,

“At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” 

In Acts 5, Peter speaks to the High Jewish Council…

The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.”(ESV)

The word for “Leader” is sometimes translated as “Prince” or “Captain”. It’s the same word used in Hebrews 12:2 translated as “Author”. Interestingly enough, the same Greek word archegon was used in ancient Greek mythology to describe Hercules as being the champion and trailblazer. Archegon really means, hero!

What Peter is saying is that Jesus is our Hero. What’s true of heroes?

1.) They are committed to some greater good

2.) The greater good is often at the cost of their own quick happiness

3.) It can include sacrificing their own lives so that what happens to them should happen to you.

4.) We live our lives through heroes. In some way, the life we live is somehow through them in that their failure is our failure, their success is our success.

Jesus is the supreme archegos as the heroic has been fully revealed in Christ. The fact that I inconsistently face difficulties in life won’t crush me if I know that there was One who actually was broken for me. My ability to be “unbroken” in life is not because of my fortitude or inner strength. If that’s the case, I will always disappoint myself because my ability to be “my own hero” is severely limited. The vision of the Hero is met fully in Christ, who gave Himself for me. His death is somehow my death and His life is somehow my life. In that way can enter into the heroic only because we know history’s true Hero.

Don’t Let My People Go: Gods and Kings Review


MV5BMjI3MDY0NjkxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM3NTA0MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_When I was a young staff member with Campus Crusade, a few of us had the privilege to spend time with Walt Henrichsen. Those were formative times as many of us look back to those days with fondness and deep appreciation for not only Walt’s friendship but how he shaped our thinking. I remember hearing Walt telling us the value in reading liberal scholars. It went something like while the evangelical scholars can tell you what the text means, the liberal scholars better understand the complexity of people’s lives and the complexity of their hearts. So my expectation in going to see Exodus, done by Sir Ridley Scott, who acknowledges his agnosticism, was not for an exact re-telling of the Exodus story but to understand how an agnostic might approach a watershed moment in time and space, like the freeing and exodus of God’s chosen people. So be warned… there’s spoilers to follow.

We went with two friends, Brad and Shannon, after the movie to gnaw on some chicken wings and talk about what we just watched. I was very hopeful when the movie’s introduction moved me – after 400 years of slavery, “God had not forgotten them.” There is something about this story in the history of Jews that needs to be told over and over again! The plot generally follows the narrative arc as laid out in Exodus (no, there’s no rock people from Noah..). Scott takes some liberty with places in the biblical narrative where there’s silence and in other places he veers, sometimes wildly from the biblical story. It was the times he veered badly whee it began to become clear about Scott’s beliefs about God and faith.

So for instance, he takes liberty with God’s interaction with Moses. While I was intrigued with God being represented as a boy (instead of the booming voice or even Val Kilmer’s deeply hollowed whispery voice in Prince of Egypt), there were a few parts of their conversation that became troubling. Scott’s views on religion as a whole are summed up in his Esquire interview where he attributes the biggest source of evil in the world to religion (Ridley Scott interview). God seems to be like a child so that when he is challenged by Moses, he erupts into anger. But even worse, it portrays God as waiting 400 years to pay back the Egyptians for their injustice with his own anger and revenge. At some level, in Ridley’s thinking there is no difference between gods (God) and kings (Pharaoh). They are both unreasonable.

Another example of the veering is the conclusion. I’m not sure what Scott was thinking by trying to resolve the brotherly tension as the gigantic waves of the Red Sea are about to come crashing down on their heads. It’s almost as if he needed to veer from the biblical narrative to keep the story fresh. In the end, it really does violence to the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of Pharaoh’s and his army’s demise in the waters. The fact that both survived was not only unbelievable but corny.

I really don’t think my Jewish friends will like the movie. As I said, it’s like having someone tell a clearly Jewish story in very non-Jewish way. I got a few laughs when I called this a Gentile’s take on the Exodus story. Again, there are a few parts done well (the lamb’s blood but even that was too short) but I wanted more depth exploring the condition of man and the horrors of being enslaved as a people group. I didn’t want “Moses the insurrectionist” as he trained his team of people to fight the Egyptians. Where Christian Bale got the idea that Moses was a terrorist, I have no idea (Bale interview). By the way, how did the Hebrew slaves even find the time and space to practice “how to overthrow” the Egyptian government? I guess I wanted a bit more respect for how important this was in the history of the Jews and not make things up taking away from the story’s tension and arc.

On a personal note, the scale of Memphis, the plagues (I’m not sure about giant crocodiles but I’ll let it pass because it looked cool), and the Red Sea added to the experience thanks to the special effects However, I think the casting of Christian Bale seemed wrong. I felt like I was watching Terminator Salvation again but in a different place and time. Bale’s portrayal of Moses felt like he was emphasizing too much reluctance. While you certainly pick up Moses’ reluctance at times to speak to Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative, Bale went too far in creating a character that was much more reluctant and even more westernly individualistic than what we read about Moses.

Would I recommend the movie? Yes, but remember that while it has moments, the movie is flawed. By all means, go and see it, but go home and read the account in Exodus. I think what you will find is that the Bible contains some seriously good stories that are more than just moral plays. Then read Hebrews. Jesus is the greater Moses: He is the one who ultimately leads His people out the ultimate slavery. He is the Hero who leads His people through the chaos of life into peace, or shalom.


Godzilla and the Weight of Guilt


iSErSEp5iXkQA few nights ago our family went with another family to see the opening of Godzilla. Not only did it remind me of watching all the Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoons when I was growing up but I also found myself wanting to build a Lego city and then destroying it! I thought the movie was great not only in terms of scale and the tension that built through the movie, but also how it was a somewhat different take on the legendary Japanese monster.

I happened to read an interview in Rolling Stone online with the director, Gareth Edwards, who offered some insight on how he approached making the movie. He said,

“The best horror always begins with guilt, As cool as it is to see giant monsters smashing things, it’s always stronger if it feels like we sort of deserve it.”

I hadn’t really given much thought to the great horror movies beginning with guilt but it’s in quite a few that I can think of and it’s pervasive in Godzilla.

Guilt is that objective sense that I’ve done something wrong, I’ve violated a norm or my own conscience, or I’ve hurt somebody I love. Of course guilt can become neurotic where one feels like Ham in Toy Story and guilt gets connected to every little thing imaginable. But there is something visceral about guilt that seems to be universal. In a Godzilla sense then, I wonder if every one does feel that they deserve some sort of verdict of destruction

Franz Kafka (who wrote The Trial, a powerful book on this real, invisible sense of guilt), wrote in his diary,

“The problem that modern people have now is that we feel like a sinner though independent of guilt.”

Kafka is saying modern people have gotten rid of the idea of guilt yet for some reason they still feel like there’s something wrong with them. Because the modern person has rejected all objective truth and morals, there is no way for them to get to the objective “something” that’s wrong with them which they still sense. There’s no way for them to know…

The joke that often gets told is that all religions are the same: They all make you feel guilty, just with  different holidays. Actually, the gospel is exactly the opposite. The gospel assumes that guilt is already sensed as a present condition. There is a verdict that has been rendered and as Kafka pointed out, no matter how we try to spin or dismiss it, we sense it. The good news is that God’s solution to guilt is not to pile more guilt on but to actually deal with it at the source. You feel guilt because you are guilty, and there must be someone other than you who actually reverses the verdict that you sense has been cast over your life.

Horror movies, when done well are great reminders of the horror of the verdict. Edwards is correct when he says that intuit that we might actually deserve destruction. The gospel’s answer to this horror is what C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien might call the most plausible, persuasive true tale there is.

The Descendants and Forgiveness


I’m a bit late in coming to the party but last week Kay and I watched The Descendants. I have been reflecting on the timing of seeing the movie and then hearing a sermon from Mark 11 by my senior pastor.

While the language is a bit on the “salty” side, the movie is an artistic juxtaposition (that’s the tip of my hat to Dan Hogan) between the paradise of Hawaii and the brokenness of humanity. The movie is on one  hand beautiful and redemptive (the soundtrack using traditional Hawaiian slack guitar adds to the simplistic feel), yet on the other incredibly sad and disturbing. The basic premise of the movie is the character George Clooney’s plays is an absentee father and husband whose wife is in a coma, slowly dying. There are moments of tension as the dysfunction of their family dynamics come to the surface – she was not a very good mother, he was not a very good father or husband. The big point of tension in the movie comes when issues of past marital infidelity surface.

The rest of the movie has the issue of forgiveness as central to the resolution. What makes the movie redemptive is it points to something about forgiveness that we all crave and realize we must give to others. What is it about forgiveness that is so central to our existence? I ended up looking for some sort of naturalistic explanation of forgiveness from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and they are eerily silent. In other words, I could be wrong, but forgiveness seems to be something so “other-worldly” and not something that has tremendous survival benefit. Of course, it helps us to get along, I’m not convinced that anyone deeply believes that’s the entire point of forgiveness or practices it like that.

C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until we have something to forgive.” I think what Lewis is getting at is the idea that forgiveness is a fine concept, maybe even a bit quaint, until you bump up against your need to forgive. I only have to think about the times when I have chosen not forgive a person (I might have said I forgave them) that I got “stuck on” thinking or wishing ill toward the person who hurt me. I’m not particularly impressed with that “me”. How does a person actually move past uttering the word, “I forgive” to the place where the virtue of forgiving others really gets settled in your heart?

At the end of Mark 11, Jesus in sort of an odd way, ties together the kind of faith in God that can move mountains and forgiveness. After Pastor Lionel’s sermon, I have been pondering what the connection is. It has seemed to me that the kind of faith that believes the gospel (Lewis’ words in The Weight of Glory, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”) is the kind of faith that moves mountains in your own heart. The real faith necessary is not the miraculous moving of mountains. It’s really about the kind of faith where another “mountain” is moved that blocks me from forgiving another with the kind of gospel forgiveness that is settled in my own heart.

The genius of The Descendants lies in the fact that it points to forgiveness as something “other than”, something from “another world”, that connects with the heart at its most fundamental level. We both want to give it away, settled that we really do forgive and we also want it so badly because we know how much we need it. The contours of the gospel are that it can’t get out of you unless it first gets settled in you.

My Thoughts on The Hobbit – A Great First Installment!


Saw The Hobbit today. A couple of quick thoughts. I haven’t read the book in quite awhile but my take on the film is that it’s a kid’s movie… an adventure. It’s set in Middle Earth but the “feel” of it is supposed to be more light-hearted… like a hobbit. So to really try and compare it to Lord of the Rings is not entirely fair. While some characters have overlap, the book has its own tone.

The book as it is portrayed in the first installment is about virtue. Tolkien, like CS Lewis his contemporary and friend, was well versed in the classical virtues. Really what you see is that one can only become wise and fully flourish in life when their life is connected deeply to virtuous living. So the movie is about Bilbo Baggins’ journey (growth) in virtue.

The virtue that struck me was courage. Lewis himself once wrote that courage was one of the primary virtues to cultivate and grow inside of us. Bilbo must leave the Shire, a very serene place that is insulated from the danger that is all around. It represents comfort, status quo, neatness, and pantries full of food. But it’s this very thing that gnaws at the soul because we were made for something bigger than personal comfort. So Bilbo leaves all of it behind to join an adventure (reminiscent of Christ’s disciples). Courage to step out into the unknown and to connect oneself to something much bigger than themselves is what Tolkien and Lewis thought was sanctifying! It set you apart for something much bigger… holiness, adventure, love, wholeness. And so on hand we have courage lived out in Bilbo.

But we also see courage demonstrated in Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king. At one point he realizes just how wrong he was about Bilbo. He demonstrates the courage to face even his own prejudices and misconceptions and admit them. The virtuous person must no only act in a way that is courageous in the face of danger or the unknown but one must act courageously to admit the wretchedness of their own heart.

This is why both Lewis and Tolkien saw courage as one of the central virtues in our lives. How is courage being cultivated in your heart? As followers of Jesus, are you on an adventure into the unknown? Are you in your own personal Shire (oh man, does Orange County feel like the Shire a lot of the times)? How do you live your life from to help those who don’t have a home, get a home (and you can take that in whatever way you want!)? Also, how courageous are you to recognize the sinful patterns of your own heart and to call them for they really are? Would people see you as honest with yourself? Would they tell you that?

Last, we saw it in HFR/3D today. I was very impressed with the technology. Honestly, I thought it was amazing. At times the CGI was rendered to look more cartoon-like but that did not detract from the overall experience. At times, it honestly looked like the characters were performing live before you.I know it’s more expensive, but go to a matinee. You won’t be disappointed.