Studios are Selling Man of Steel, But Should Churches Be Buying?

 

While Man of Steel producers are hoping that they’ve got another blockbuster on their hands, apparently they’ve been pitching to one somewhat surprising audience in particular. CNN’s Eric Marrapodi reports:

Warner Bros. Studios is aggressively marketing “Man of Steel” to Christian pastors, inviting them to early screenings, creating Father’s Day discussion guides and producing special film trailers that focus on the faith-friendly angles of the movie.

It seems they’re not just trying to get a couple of cameo references in sermons here and there either:

The movie studio even asked a theologian to provide sermon notes for pastors who want to preach about Superman on Sunday. Titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero,” the notes run nine pages.

“How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?” the sermon notes ask.

And of course, the comparisons seem so obvious: Superman is a Messianic figure, a son sent by a father from a different world, raised by surrogate parents, come to save us all. He’s not one of us, but he identifies with our cause, fights the battles we can’t against demons too big for merely human strength. He’s a shining beacon of truth, morality, and hope to a people who misunderstand and fear him despite his unrelenting will to save. The film plays this up to the point where its unmistakable, revealing him to be 33 years of age, and even setting him in a church struggling with a decision about whether to sacrifice himself for the planet, with a stained-glass picture of Jesus in the background.

As one of our editors, Jason Morehead, commented, “On the one hand, it’s nice to see media companies reaching out to Christians. On the other hand, it’s hard not to dismiss it as crass marketing.” I suppose its a good thing that studios are trying to harness the power of the market by producing quality films that cater to faith communities; giving us stories of integrity and sacrifice is nice.

The question is, should churches buy what the studios are selling? On the one hand, it seems like an easy connection–a way to bridge the gap between the Gospel and pop culture designed to use the well-known Superman mythology to highlight themes connected to God’s redemption in Christ. That said, some caution is in order for those pastors looking to capitalize on the Man of Steel craze.

Buyer Beware: Accept No Substitutes 

Aside from the obvious problem of coming off as too desperate to make the Gospel look cool and relevant, any Superman-themed preaching needs to beware of the important theological issues involved in preaching a Superman Jesus.

Every Messianic analogy breaks down and it’s particularly important to note with Superman. As strong a the comparison is, he really isn’t like Jesus in some very important ways–one of the biggest is that he’s not really human. He might identify with our cause and plight, but he doesn’t ever fully share it. Unless he’s exposed to some Kryptonite or Red Sun, he’s impervious to just about anything you throw at him. Jesus knows what it is to feel human fear and pain–he wasn’t bullet, or nail-proof. Superman can’t bleed out and die like us, but Jesus does.

The flipside is that he’s not fully divine either; Superman is at best a demi-God. His feats of power, strength, speed, flight, and lasers do not entitle him to the title “Creator.” He is not eternal, immutable, immortal, or omnipotent, no matter how potent he is. He is a being among beings but not the source of all being; a superior being perhaps, but still on the “creation” side of the Creator/creature distinction (if that holds in the DC Universe.)

In fact, when you think about it, theologically Superman is more like the Arian picture of Christ. The 4th Century teacher Arius taught a savior who was not the eternal Son of God, (“there was a time when he was not”), and yet not a normal man either. He was a mediating being, the chief over creation who was yet still a part of it, and not to be thought of as equal to the Father.

Similarly, the salvation he offers us is that of a shining exemplar, not a redeeming Savior. Yes, he sacrifices himself for us and fights the battle we could never fight, against a ruthless enemy we could not beat. And yet, like so many other popular Hollywood Messiah figures, the goal is that one day he can teach us, inspire us, when we’re ready, to live a new a better way. In a sense, he saves, yes by feats of strength and moral courage, but the redemption of mankind will come by way of imitation. There is no atonement, or conversion, for Superman is the heroic, morally-educative Pelagian Christ who teaches us to save ourselves.

This isn’t a real knock on the movie, of course, or even the Superman character. It’s not Kal-El’s fault–only Jesus can be Jesus.

And that’s really the point I’ve wanted to make. While all of our heroes, in some way, seem to point us to the ultimate Hero, all of them fall short. Some have pointed out that Batman is fully human like us, knowing our pains and plight, and in that way, he’s really the more Christ-like hero. The problem is that when he dies, he dies. Part of what makes Jesus glorious, and that the Superman myth draws on, is our need for a Savior who can rescue us from the curse of death; we need a hero who can’t be held down by it.

Down the line I could go, with blockbuster hero after hero, pointing out the various ways they either measure up, or fall miserably short. The key difference that sets them all apart is that not one of the various heroes can truly offer us the redemption we need most–that liberation of the soul that comes when our sins are paid for and the Spirit is poured out in our hearts, setting us free from our bondage to sin. None but the Crucified and Risen One is strong enough offer me the salvation of a conscience cleansed from sin and reconciled with God.

It’s fine to enjoy a Superman’s feats on the big-screen–I know I did–but churches looking to cash in on the Man of Steel buzz need to clearly distinguish him from the Incomparable Savior they preach.

About Derek Rishmawy

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He’s been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy.

  • Paul Pastor

    Good thoughts, Derek. For further background on the issue, I’d encourage people to read Craig Detweiler (the theologian who wrote the “Man of Steel” sermon notes) offering his reasons for doing the project: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2013/06/superman_sermon.html

    And concerned Christians can find an opportunity to respond (via a polite email to MinistryResources.org, the company who contracted with DC and Warner Bros. to publish the notes) at the bottom of this post: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2013/06/man_of_steel_in.html

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.ministrymatters.com/shaneraynor Shane Raynor

    People must think that Christians are never satisfied. We complain because we get ignored or disrespected by Hollywood, then when they actually do something that acknowledges us or appeals to us, we pick everything apart. I don’t think one person on the planet would confuse Superman with Jesus, no matter how bad the sermon is.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Well, yes, fickleness is one of our spiritual gifts. ;)

  • Esther O’Reilly

    _Man of Steel_ sermon notes? It’s at about this point that I’d lift up my shades, give these pastors “the look” and say “Really?”

    I saw a camrip of the movie (didn’t feel like enduring it in theaters). 5% of it was nice. The rest was lame. The Jesus parallels were as cheesy as anything I’ve seen in a film put out by a Christian company.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I find good art appealing. This ain’t. Michael Shannon was decent though. But his film _Take Shelter_ was a bajillion times better than this.

  • MatthewS

    I appreciate this. Just went through First John recently. Jesus as both human and divine is a more challenging thought than many folks realize and when you start challenging them to think about it, it can create some discomfort in the pew. This is a great foil for that: Superman who is neither fully God nor fully human. Love that. My takeaway from this movie may end up being the contrast rather than the similarity to the Messiah (neither a point for nor against the movie per se, just reality – always looking for good illustrations).

  • Mike Poteet

    I certainly wouldn’t advise buying a pre-packaged series of sermon notes (I did this once — full disclosure to the congregation and everything — but it turned out to be more work than just starting from scratch on my own!), but I think the caveats you mention apply to any work of fiction called into service as a preaching illustration (or perhaps more charitably, and sometimes accurately, a parable of the Gospel). In fact, your article here shows how effectively contrasts with Superman can be used to witness to Jesus. So, “no” to forking over money to the studios in the name of “evangelism,” but “yes” to engaging pop culture as we preach, teach, and serve.

  • Tim Peirce

    Good write up Derek.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks, Tim.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    That’s fine. We just have to be very theologically-careful about that. Also, the cheese factors is something to pay attention to as well. ;)


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