Superman: Coming to a Church Near You

Superman: Coming to a Church Near You June 15, 2013

There was an interesting article on the CNN belief blog yesterday. It’s about the marketing effort Warner Bros. is making toward pastors in an effort to get them to help market their new Superman franchise entry Man of Steel, via their pulpits this Father’s Day. I would love to get my hands on the study guide by theologian, writer/filmaker Craig Detweiler. I took Craig’s theology and film class a few years back. It was the best sustained conversation about theology and culture I’ve ever had.

Craig blogs at Patheos – Doc Hollywood. One of his unique gifts is the ability to break down films, analyzing their themes and images, considering the spirituality and back-story of the directors and writers, and thinking about the whole picture theologically. He’s also a really good teacher and a humble guy (He’s “Doc Hollywood” but he’s not all Hollywood if you get what I mean). I often wish I could get him to break down films for me when I’m done watching them… my own personal Detweiler – he’s pretty insightful.

Superman/Jesus references are nothing new. There’s an interesting UK blog post on Top 20 Reasons Superman is Jesus. It’s mostly silly stuff… he has a beard, his dad has a beard, he was betrayed for money, he can walk on water, he willingly sacrifices himself for humanity. I think the strongest similarity is rarely mentioned: the Superman motif has this man of sorrows kind of feel to it. Not as much as Batman does, but it’s there in Superman and really all of the comic book movies. There’s a lot to work with to be sure.

Still something in me wants to resist this just a little bit. It’s not that I object to using movie themes, or that they are marketing to churches. It’s certainly not that I think Christianity shouldn’t engage culture – I love that part of this story. The critique mentioned in the CNN story seems a bit off to me:

“…other Christians are heaving a supersized sigh at the movie marketing. “Any pastor who thinks using `Man of Steel Ministry Resources’ is a good Sunday morning strategy must have no concept of how high the stakes are, or very little confidence in the power of God’s word and God’s spirit,” writes P.J. Wenzel, a deacon and Sunday School teacher at Dublin Baptist Church in Ohio. “As they entertain their congregants with material pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers, lives are kept in bondage, and people’s souls are neglected,” according to Wenzel, who said he was e-mailed information about the movie.”

I don’t resonate with that at all.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why marketing Man of Steel to churches bothers me a bit. I think my hesitancy has to do more with the churches than the movie. I think its the fact that the Superman franchise – and the character itself – is always pretty violent and usually wins by winning, not by losing. The two narratives – Jesus/Superman – don’t have the same trajectory, which is fine. Yet, to make too close of a comparison is to risk pushing a fully Americanized, puffed up, super-human, triumphalist Jesus, not the Jesus of the gospels, of Mt. 5-7. (I’m nitpicking… if you are running with it this Sunday – go for it. I hope it goes well.)

I think this could be fine in the hands of a pastor who is willing to make a distinction between the two narratives (I’m guessing Detweiler does this in his notes… If you have them send them to me!). However in churches where Jesus is a blonde haired, blue-eyed bad-ass with a conceal and carry permit draped in an American flag ready to kick some ass and take some names, this movie could exacerbate a few of the all too common misunderstandings of who Jesus really was and is. (My disclaimer is that I’m not steeped in the comic book movie genre, so there might be something to this that I’m missing.)

Nevertheless, I’m glad Detweiler is getting some pub because we need to be paying attention to his work. We need more people involved in this industry, people who can teach us to think theologically about movies, because films of all kinds are exerting incredible influence on culture.

…the effectiveness of the campaign? I’m not a huge superhero fan, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to see the movie now. Well played Warner Bros.

Here’s an excerpt from the article at CNN.

Baltimore, Maryland (CNN) – As the new Superman movie takes flight this weekend, filmmakers are hoping the Man of Steel lands not only in theaters, but also in pulpits.

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.

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.

(Disclaimer: CNN, like Warner Bros., is owned by Time Warner.)

Similar campaigns to corral the country’s large number of Christians into the movie theater have been used for “Les Miserables,” “Soul Surfer” and “The Blind Side,” all of which had at least some faith angle.

Baltimore pastor Quentin Scott is among dozens of ministers who received an e-mail invitation from Grace Hill Media, a Hollywood-based Christian marketing firm, to an early screening of “Man of Steel.”

“There was an actual push to say `We’re putting out something that speaks to your group,’ ” said Scott, one of the pastors of Shiloh Christian Community Church in Baltimore.

At first, Scott said, he didn’t buy the religious pitch. Then he decided to attend a free midweek screening in Baltimore.

“When I sat and listened to the movie I actually saw it was the story of Christ, and the love of God was weaved into the story,” said the pastor.

“It was something I was very excited about that with the consultation of our senior pastor, we could use in our congregation.”

Grace Hill’s sermon notes are specially designed for churches like Shiloh that integrate multimedia into their services.

“Let’s take a look at the trailer for `Man of Steel,’” the notes suggest after briefly introducing the movie’s history and themes.

The man behind the notes, Pepperdine University professor Craig Detweiler, has prepared similar material for films like 2009’s “The Blind Side” and “The Book of Eli” from 2010.

The spiritual themes in “Man of Steel” are abundant, Detweiler said, and his notes enable Christians to thoughtfully engage with pop culture instead of shunning it.

“All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service,” Detweiler said.

It will be hard for even casual Christians to miss the messianic metaphors in “Man of Steel.”

The movie focuses on the origins of Superman, who was sent from the planet Krypton as an infant to save his species.

He is raised by surrogate parents who help him grapple with his special powers, even though they don’t fully understand the source of his extraordinary abilities.

When he turns 33, Superman must willingly sacrifice himself to save the human race.

Sound familiar?

If that’s not enough, as a boy Clark Kent is shown wrestling with his superpowers, and asks his earthly dad, Jonathan Kent, “Did God do this to me?”

“Somewhere out there you have another father and he sent you here for a reason,” says Jonathan Kent.

Even the visuals hammer home the messianic motifs.

During a fight with his archenemy, General Zod, Superman plunges down to Earth, his arms outstretched as if he were being crucified. Of course, he rises again.

Detweiler writes in the sermon notes, “What Jesus and Superman both give us, through their `hero’ actions but also their `human’ actions – is hope.”

“I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace,” said Ted Baehr, who runs Movieguide, a website that reviews family friendly films from a Christian perspective.

“Where it gets sticky is when they try to manipulate the market and when Christians try to manipulate Hollywood. But here I think we have the right balance.”

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