That Superman debate: Moses or the Messiah?

Without a doubt, it’s one of the most famous and magical incantations in American pop culture.

“Look, up in the sky!”

“It’s a bird!”

“It’s a plane!”

The last line in this mass-media chant is, of course: “It’s Superman!”

However, whenever a major product is released in the Superman canon — such as “Man of Steel,” which grossed $113 million on its first weekend — many fan boys and scribes will immediately begin arguing about two other potential identities, symbolically speaking, for their favorite superhero.

Visit almost any online Superman forum and “someone is going to be saying, ‘It’s Jesus!’ and someone else will immediately respond, ‘It’s Moses!’ and then back and forth it’ll go, ‘Jesus,’ ‘Moses,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Moses’ on and on,” said the Rev. Gary D. Robinson, pastor of North Side Christian Church in Xenia, Ohio.

The 58-year-old Robinson freely admits he is a passionate participant in these kinds of debates, both as the author of the book “Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan” and the owner of a inch-plus scar on his left arm created by his attempt — at age 6 — to fly like Superman through a large glass window.

Like many theologically wired fans, he can quote the key Superman facts, chapter and verse. He thinks the parallels are fun, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

“I see the Superman myth as a shadow thrown by the Light itself,” he said, referring biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. “In it’s own way, it’s a crude substitute … but there is no question that there is some kind of allegory in there.”

First of all, the future Superman was born on the doomed planet Krypton into the “House of El” and, in Hebrew, “El” — from a root word that means strength and might — is one word for God. His father gave him the name Kal-El, or in Superman lore “Son of El,” a kind of science-fiction parallel to names such as Dani-el or Samu-el.

Then again, his mother and father saved their baby from persecution by casting him into the river of time and space, hoping he would be a source of hope and protection for others. They used a rocket, not a wicker basket, but it’s hard to miss the Moses connection. It also helps to know that writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster — both were sons of Jewish refugees from Europe — created Superman in the tense 1930s, inspired in part by anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

Experts in both camps can offer litanies of similar details. Meanwhile, “Man of Steel” director Zack Synder has packed his film with iconic images and symbolic facts. The film stresses that Clark Kent soars into his Superman role at age 33, the same tradition says Jesus began his public ministry. Told by the techno-ghost of his father, “You can save them. You can save all of them,” Superman pauses in space — arms extended and legs together, as if on a cross — before racing back to fight a demonic figure who is attacking in the earth.

In one audacious scene, Superman visits his local church in Kansas while wrestling with the question of whether he should willingly surrender his own life so that humanity can be saved. Over his head is a stained-class window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion.

The question, of course, is how seriously to take this often dark and humorless video-game era salute to “The Matrix,” “Avatar,” “The Dark Knight” and hosts of other recent blockbusters, with a few undeniable 9/11 images in the mix as well. “Popcorn and a (World)view” columnist Drew Zahn argued: “Though I won’t claim it was written by an author the caliber of C.S. Lewis, nonetheless, the metaphors and messages make ‘Man of Steel’ a sort of ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ for an ‘Avengers’ generation.”

Robinson is convinced Superman and other pop-culture myths are fine hooks for conversations about deeper issues and truths. But, in the end, how can ordinary women and men, struggling with the pitfalls of daily life, form a healing bond with Superman?

“Superman is a poor substitute for the Gospel,” he said. “Superman offers himself to save our lives. Jesus wants to save us forever, for all of eternity. … In the end, there’s only one real story and we keep trying to create new variations on it.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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