Personally, I’m sick of Superhero Comic Jesus.
Perhaps you’re sick of him too. The Jesus who is depicted as a comic superhero destined to come rolling back to earth when heaven supposedly sucks up the good people and leaves the bad people behind. Because it seems that same sort of Jesus also serves as shepard for the bigoted, moneygrubbing, biblical literalists who think their brand of faith is question-proof. It’s a very vengeful cycle, you see; setting up victims and knocking them down. Arguing theology with that crowd is like arguing who is the stronger superhero, Spiderman or Superman, Batman or the Avengers? It isn’t really theology we’re talking about, you see, but a new sort of myth-making that tries to put Jesus on par with our post-Modern theories of what the human race needs to survive.
Here are the plain facts––minus the comic book dress-up clothes.
When you read the Bible with any sort of rational consideration, the Superhero Comicbook Jesus does not appear to exist. Yet that Jesus appears to reign over so much of America. He is the type of superhero that ardent Comicbook believers want taught in our public schools. The Superhero Comicbook Jesus can’t be defeated by evolution or even global warming, because those things are temporal and earthly, and everyone with any sense knows that even we human beings are more superhero than that! We’re Specially Created, the Favorites of God! We have no earthly connection to apes or insects or genetic histories, and don’t try to tell us that we do! Noah is our only real ancestor, if you take the Bible at its word. Well, we can add in Adam too, but only if you want to align yourself with a superhero prone to the fatal flaw of eating Forbidden Fruit. That was Kryptonite for Adam and Eve, you know.
Then along comes Superhero Comicbook Jesus. To rescue us average human superheroes from all our fatal flaws! Hooray! He’s the Jesus we all know and trust!
Boy, I’m sick and tired of that Jesus. And perhaps you getting a little of sick of Superhero Comicbook Jesus too.
Jesus the Comicbook Superhero just seems so, unrelatable. It’s a little hard to imagine ourselves performing miracles anything like the Superhero Comicbook Jesus, feeding the 5000 and all. So many of us don’t really try to be miraculous in any way. We leave the miracles to others, even though God himself asks us to give of ourselves in ways that really are miraculous. That is, giving ourselves away that we might be a blessing to others. Forgiving our enemies. Sacrificing wealth for spiritual virtue. And yes, even supporting social policy that might help others, controversial though it might be. Birth control. Social welfare. Racial and social tolerance. All these things are supported when you read the Bible in its fullness through tangible interpretation in which parables and metaphors are understood to help us understand the whole truth of scripture, not just its Sunday School basics. That is how Jesus taught, and that is how he admonished his own disciples to understand his teachings. Otherwise he called them stupid and without understanding. Nothing superhero about that. Just the basic facts.
Instead many people gravitate to a faith tradition that relies on a Superhero version of Jesus to convince people that the Bible is infallible, inerrant and literal in every sense. That is an armor of perception for fans of the Superhero Comicbook Jesus. The triune claims of infallibility, inerrancy and literalistic interpretation stand against any question of truth or authority. But they are a brittle armor.
The real Jesus was the first to question authority and point out the fallibility of radically conservative interpretation of scripture, especially the dangers and misappropriations of literalist and legalistic application of scripture truth to daily life. He called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” for hiding behind the rock of radically conservative views.
But to the point: the Bible clearly predicts the rise of the Superhero Comicbook Jesus. It even tells why.
In the following bible text ascribed to St. Paul in 2 Timothy: 4 we find the master letter-writer doing a marvelous job of summing up the dangers of turning Jesus into a Comicbook Superhero around which great urban myths can be built. Paul warns that faith can easily be waylaid to doctrine. These would include pursuit of personal wealth in the name of Christ, speculation about the End Times and leveraging of faith for political power.
That is exactly what’s happening in leading evangelical communities today. But Paul warned us:
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”
Here we find Paul challenging believers to rebuke those who turn faith into law, and thus a brutal, literalistic caricature of itself. Paul encourages people of true Christian faith to patiently and persistently fight back against this brand of legalism that dominated even early believers.
Paul, while no perfect human being, suffered at the hands of those within the very own faith tradition he helped to start, and also suffered the pain of the secular world around him that distrusted his ministry because it stood against the politics of the day.
Paul was of course a contradictory character, and this inner conflict sometimes resulted in philosophical rifts in the service of God. In Titus 2:9-10 we find Paul advising slaves to “be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
Then in Titus 2: 11, Paul states: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.”
Is the future promise of salvation enough to justify human slavery here on earth? Paul seems in error on this one, but his judgment was produced in context of societal norms of his day. We might expect better from the Word of God, but of course some might rationalize these conflicts by insisting that slavery is an apt symbol for holy servitude. But tell that to people in bondage or slavery today. Are we to ignore their plight? Not in the name of God, we’re not. There are other examples in the bible where human understanding of social equality (women’s rights) or biology (sexual diversity and orientation) fall short in standards of behavior and scientific knowledge that evolved in 2000 years. We also know that the earth is neither flat or the center of the universe, yet somehow the human race has managed to overcome these viewpoints that were once promoted through anachronistic interpretations of scripture. But we do not depend on them today, and we are the better for it.
Paul’s abiding tolerance toward slavery is unfortunately a brand of Superhero theology, in which the misfortunes of others are somehow judged to be the product of inferior makeup, intellect or approval by God. But that attitude essentially imbues the more fortunate with a brand of “superpowers.” Hence our societal worshipping of the very rich. They can seem like Superheroes to those who aren’t rolling the dough.
Superhero mythology also disconnects faith from the temporal reality that people of every race, gender and sexual orientation are to be seen as equal in the eyes of God. Just as no one deserves to be a slave, no one deserves to feel scorn or discrimination for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or the fact that they were born transgender. Despite what some people insist, the Bible does not support this type of discrimination. Otherwise we are playing the role of gods ourselves, using the Bible as justification for our singular or collective prejudices. This Superhero Comicbook version of faith is both discriminatory and insidious, for it ascribes at some point a hierarchy to those who claim to be destined to own and run the very faith to which all people are called.
Timothy 4 warns us that prejudice and runaway desires for power and authority are bound to come along. It is thus our duty as Christians to challenge and rebuke the Superhero psychology of literalistic faith, through which evangelists claim the very authority of God, to dispense or withhold at will, inject in politics or education, and to judge those it deems worthy of discrimination, without question or trial, nor rational appeal to human virtue.
The more humble, earthly relevant Jesus is not so much Superhero Comicbook character as genuine friend in time of need. He seeks the humble and protects the needy and powerless through the moral character and actions of those who abide by his Word. Our Friend in God Jesus cherishes the earth itself, for he taught through parables based on its rhythms and profundity, and is therefore never in contradiction with natural law or even the science upon which human beings build a celebrated and sustainable world. We also find the miraculous through science, inspiring us to both respect and explore the world in which we live, without fear or trepidation of discovering anything that God cannot explain, if we but allow scripture room for its metaphorical grace.
We don’t need a Jesus who flies around the sky shooting lightning bolts and threatening the damned. We need a Jesus who is by our side advising us on how to do good to others, who recognizes that we are intimately connected to the kingdoms of plants and animals, and who urges us to respect them as genuine products of an eternally evolving creation. We need a Jesus who urges us to restore and renew our world even as we extract and expand its resources for our use. Most of all we need a Jesus who is not vengeful or conflicted––as so many Superheroes seem to be––but who guides us to attitudes of humility, forgiveness and encouragement of these same qualities in others so that we can build a more civil society. Peace on earth. Goodwill to all people.
That is a Jesus who has escaped the comic book fantasies of those who propagate their own literalistic myths to satisfy millions of ears itching for news of power and authority, who would also gladly vote or give money to those who promise shares of that same power and authority if elected as earthly Superheroes with all the rewards and attention it accords.
But that’s not how God calls us to love and reflection of His image.
In the end, even Paul seems to have redeemed himself on the issue of slavery. In the tiny book (letter) of Philemon he pleas to a slave owner on behalf of Onesimus, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good––no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”
Those are the words not of a Superhero Comicbook character, but of one loving human being to another. We could use a lot more of the latter than the former to make the world a better place.