We have a lot more in common with the ancient world than we probably realize. For one, we share a love of superheroes. Granted, they didn’t call them superheroes–instead, they called them gods and demi-gods (and plain heroes). We love their stories too–from Thor to Zeus–we share a fascination with super-powered people/gods. In fact, our modern day superheroes are really just a new (and not so new) take on a similar idea: our struggle with the idea of the supernatural.
Because we worship what we value, we can make some assumptions about the Greeks. They appeared to love power and beauty as their gods were noticeably beautiful and had unique skills. What is also noticeable though was their lack of morality–Zeus, the king of the gods, was the most immoral of all. He was frequently unfaithful to his wife (often raping the person he desired). He was selfish and prideful with a hatred for humans.
When the Romans conquered the Greeks and assimilated their culture, they spread their ideas far and wide as well. This love of superpowered gods took hold for a while until Christianity began to spread. There is a marked change in the literary climate. For sure, people still loved their powerful heroes, but we see the stories start to be changed. For example, Beowulf (written down in the 700’s) takes a Viking story and adds Christ-like traits to the superhero. He is humble and confesses that the outcome of his battles belongs to God.
The Effect of Christianity
Over the years, British literature moved from heroes like Beowulf to knights in shining armor. They no longer had the great superpowers previously celebrated, but they had honor and some supernatural elements (Arthur’s sword for example). Since the Christian worldview had permeated the culture, our heroes sought to honor God with their actions.
There was a huge shift, however, with the writing of William Chaucer in the 1300’s. In his book, Canterbury Tales, we have the first story of a common person as a focal point of the story. For the next few hundred years, more and more stories became about the complexities of average people–sans superpowers. People reveled not in great heroic acts but in the simplicity of a life well lived.
Creating our gods
However, this was not to last. The first clear indicator of this cultural shift came with the infamous Sherlock Holmes. His superpower was not a thunderbolt or prodigious strength–instead, it was his impeccable reasoning ability. Mirroring the cultural love of intellect and reason as a means of finding truth, Holmes represented the modern superhero.
As culture has continued down the path of rejecting Christianity and God, we have now once again seen the re-emergence of the superheroes. Since everyday life has been stripped of the supernatural, we must find it again in our stories of men and women, who are like us except more.
Hating our gods
Interestingly, though, the superhero movies also reflect our antipathy towards the supernatural. We see this in the X-Men films and their clear theme of strife between the normal humans and the mutants with power. Fearful of their power, regular humans even develop a vaccine that makes the mutants normal.
The Duffer brothers’ movie Hidden, released in 2015, displays a world where the supernatural is hated as well. In this film, children randomly get supernatural powers overnight. The adults’ response is to create a system to chart the children’s powers. They are organized according to levels of danger with the goal of controlling and killing those who have changed.
The last few Marvel movies have also grappled with the complicated relationship the superheroes have with the regular humans of the world, who alternately revere and revile them. This is best demonstrated in the people’s request for the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, essentially limiting the powers of the superheroes.
It makes me wonder–are we rejecting our gods even in fiction?
We seem to realize that we need the supernatural in some form, but we also hate that we need it. Pixar’s Incredibles 2 echoes this sentiment with the villain’s motivation stemming from her disgust at people’s dependence on superheroes.
Explaining the Tension
Francis Schaeffer says in his book The God Who Is There that every person lives in a tension between what they want to believe and the actual world we live in. It is in uncovering this tension that truth can be received.
Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension. At this point of tension the person is not in a place of consistency in his system, and the roof is built as a protection against the blows of the real world, both internal and external.
Our universal tension of desiring yet hating the supernatural is one that goes back to the garden. Adam and Even wanted to be gods and rejected the gift given to them of a simple life, yet one lived in communion with God. We learn here that our hatred of the supernatural stems from the fact that we don’t just want the supernatural, we want to be supernatural.
It’s interesting to consider that a cultural embrace of God’s supernatural preeminence sparks an interest in the ordinary. Perhaps when we make room for Him, we are free to appreciate who we are, outside of the guises of power and beauty. It seems that unless we have a good view of Him, we cannot have a good view of ourselves.
Our love (and hatred) of fictional superheroes reveals a battle going on within. Unable to accept our mortality but unwilling to bow our knees to true immortality, we live in the tension that cannot be resolved. We want to be more than we are, but we cannot seem to imagine what this more really is. Our gods are to quote the Hulk after thrashing Loki, “puny.”
Finding the True God
The only way to resolve this dichotomy is to allow for a true God who isn’t just like us, except stronger and more physically appealing. A real God, one worth worshipping and trusting, is one who cannot be contained in our stories and ideas. He is the one who defies description. Once we understand our humble place before Him, we are free to be ourselves. We are valuable simply because He created us.
Maybe then, we can, like before, embrace the ordinary heroes, knowing that the highest level of hero cannot be touched by mere mortals. As Schaeffer observes in Escape from Reason
We cannot deal with people like human beings, we cannot deal with them on the high level of true humanity, unless we really know their origin-who they are. God tells man who he is. God tells us that He created man in His image. So man is something wonderful.
We may not be super powered or invincible, but we are still something special. Our lives, however ordinary and simple, are still the best lives to live. When we stop being afraid of standing in the shadow of the Almighty, we will realize this is the best place to be!