Superman or Suffering Servant?

The sixteenth-century Reformed theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli once wrote that “nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.” This was such a standard doctrine in the Christian tradition that two hundred years later Jonathan Edwards, [considered by some] America’s greatest [Protestant] theologian, could write of something as mundane as the life and death cycle of insects as attesting to the “wisdom of the Creator.”

These days it has become commonplace for Christians to make far more specific claims that worldly things display the reality, power, and wisdom of God. Indeed, a distinctively Christ-oriented interpretation is a regular occurrence. For example, mega-church leader Mark Driscoll wrote recently about Jack Bauer, the lead character from the hit TV series 24, as a “type” of Christ.

This typological language is derived from a long-accepted tradition of interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, specifically that the Old Testament foreshadowed the things of the New in signs and figures. In this way, one might say that King David was a type of Christ, because he was the head of God’s people, or that Moses, as God’s prophet and lawgiver, was a type of Christ.

The latest example of this application of typological interpretation to contemporary figures comes with the recent spate of articles in connection with Superman Returns. Religion educators in the UK are using Superman “as a modern-day example of Jesus Christ” to “give children an insight into morality and religious thinking.” Dr. Greg Garrett, professor of English at Baylor University, says that Superman “is just about as near as popular culture can come to showing us what a savior might look and act like.” Steve Skelton, author of The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero as well as the video-based Super Man Bible Study, says that the similarities between Christ and Superman are so close that he has to wonder, “Who else could it be referring to?”

These kinds of observations stem from a laudable impulse to engage the culture responsibly and bring religious convictions to bear in the public square. But Christians risk undermining our own influence when we simply latch on to the pop icon of the moment in undiscerning and uncritical ways. We simultaneously risk becoming unwitting tools of clever marketers, who wish to tap the financial and moral resources of evangelical Christianity.

Some things point us to God in rather direct ways, others more indirectly, and still others show us divine truths by opposition and contrast rather than by similarity. Superman is a figure who is striking not so much for his similarity to Christ, but rather for his dissimilarity. We might say that the typological relation between Jesus and Superman is that of Christ and anti-Christ. Indeed, those looking for a more direct analogue to the comic hero Superman would do well to look at the writings of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose intellectual influence was in full bloom on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s, the decade when the Superman comic was born.

Many Christians embraced the Superman hero when a trailer for the new movie was released using the words of Superman’s father Jor-El, voiced by Marlon Brando: “Even though you’ve been raised as a human being you’re not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I sent them you… my only son.”

The superficial similarities between Jesus and Superman are clear. Both are sons sent to Earth to save humankind. But it is here that the likeness ends and the more fundamental differences appear. What the preceding quote illustrates is that Superman is supposed to lead humankind into a future in which we realize our own innate potential.

The title character in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra teaches the people about the coming of the Superman, and speaks of this potential: “It is time for man to fix his goal. It is time for man to plant the germ of his highest hope.” Humans are “something that is to be surpassed,” and “a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman.”

This goal is the Superman, who is “the sense of their existence” and “the lightning out of the dark cloud.” In a posthumously published book, aptly titled The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche makes the explicit case for his opposition of the Superman to the Christian, whom he calls “the sick human animal.”

Nietzsche’s Superman is a being who embodies the will to power, for “Life itself is to my mind the instinct for growth, for durability, for an accumulation of forces, for power: where the will to power is lacking, there is decline.” Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound — the comic-book figure Superman is the embodiment of such invincibility and power.

The antithesis of power and strength is weakness and suffering. The Apostle Paul writes of Jesus Christ, who “humbled Himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross.” Christ the suffering servant, who sacrifices Himself and endures the ignominious death of crucifixion for the sins of the world, is the scandal of Christianity, the stumbling block opposing the wisdom of the world. And this is why Nietzsche, who captures worldly wisdom so well, writes so disparagingly about “the death of the Nazarene.”

Superman, the secular savior-figure, manifests the superlative qualities that the world worships: power, strength, immortality. Jesus Christ embodies mercy, weakness, and suffering. But as Paul also writes, “The foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

The comic figure of Superman may indeed point us to Christ. Many Christian commentators are right in recognizing this. But if we do truly see Christ through Superman, it is by contrast and not by similarity.

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute —, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)

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