Thursday, January 12, 2012

We Could Be Heroes, Part Two of Three

The second of three posts from a talk I gave recently about the spirituality of superheroes.

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What’s really interesting about superheroes—what keeps people like me coming back again and again to read their exploits—isn’t their powers. It’s their weaknesses.

Don’t believe me? Here we go: Superman is undefeatable; any fight is weighted inevitably in Superman’s favor. Add kryptonite, though, and suddenly there’s a chance that Superman will lose and the villain will win. Thor is a god; the only way you beat a god is when the god gets all caught up in his godliness, gets cocky and makes a mistake. That’s what happened in the movie Thor; that’s what happened to the angel Lucifer who was close to God but fell to earth; that’s what happened to the human race when people made in God’s image chose to defy God in order to be more like God.

The reason weakness is more interesting than power is because while only some people have special gifts, all of us (including the powerful) have weaknesses and struggles that we have to contend with. It’s the struggle that interests us, because while we can’t fly or turn invisible or shoot fire from our eyes—we can struggle, and we gain hope and insight into our own struggles through the experience of others.

Weakness is also more interesting than power because of how different weaknesses work with each other. Here’s a quick list of the central flaw or vulnerability of each member of the Avengers:

• Tony Stark is an alcoholic who is alive only thanks to his artificial heart, which happens to also be the engine of his Iron Man armor.
• Thor is from another world, where he enjoys the deference and worship of everyone around him, which gives him a sense of entitlement and superiority wherever he goes.
• The Hulk is alone in the world thanks to his uncontrollable rage.
• The Black Widow is aloof and detached, unable to trust anyone thanks to her childhood experience and her work as a spy.
• Hawkeye, a sharp-shooting archer, is a reformed criminal with an inferiority complex.
• Captain America is a product of a bygone era with different rules about how people relate to one another, different morals and different expectations of their heroes.

Imagine a room full of these alpha dogs, each feeling just a little bit threatened by the others, each trying to make sense of a world in which they don’t feel quite at home, each trying to figure out why they were given these special gifts, this chance at a special life. It actually sounds a little bit like high school.

It also, if you think about it, sounds a little bit like the early church. In the days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, the disciples were left to think about what they were and what they were going to do for the rest of their lives. They were known for bickering with each other, for jockeying for position among themselves, for trying to get Jesus to elevate them over the rest.

They were, for the record, not all that special. None of them was particularly educated, none of them held any positions of power, none of them had much of a future laid out for them. Here’s what the apostle Paul, a relative latecomer to the followers of Jesus, wrote to the Corinthian Church.

"Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." (1 Cor 1:26-29)

This is how Paul perceived the early church. They were generally thought to be unwise, uninfluential, common, weak, despised, lowly. Nothing to brag about. This is, in fact, how many people see people of faith today. It is, in fact, how many of us perceive ourselves. And the fact is, Paul was speaking the truth. The early church was populated with the powerless, the broken, the marginalized. From the first of the apostles to the least of these, they had nothing going for them. All they had was this world-altering experience with the Son of God and each other.

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