April 28, 2016
Dear Hyde Park Family,
‘Tis the season for blockbuster movies, and I will admit to being a bit of a fanboy. My daughters and I have seen Batman v. Superman, and we already have tickets for next week’s opening of Captain America: Civil War. Throw in last year’s Star Wars, and upcoming X-Men, Suicide Squad, and Doctor Strange films, and you would think our local movie theaters have turned into perpetual comic book conventions.
So what’s the appeal?
“A good superhero is someone who is an idealized version of the reader, something they can aspire to, and someone they can imagine being,” says long-time comic book editor Daniel Fingeroth, author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. “(Superheroes) embody a lot of our hopes and fears, our best vision of ourselves, the idea that you can fail again and again and succeed, that evil is conquerable, and that even though we are flawed we can still do well. There is something about these characters that reaches out and hits people where they live.”
Fingeroth’s may just as astutely be analyzing the great American plot summary. We believe that greatness is achieved by overcoming one’s shortcomings and allowing the incubating hero within all of us to emerge. We celebrate those who rise to power despite their past, because it makes us think we can do the same. And so our culture is filled with archetypes that reinforce those ideals: the cowboy at high noon, the astronaut in outer space, the home run hitter at the plate, the home town kid made good.
It all encourages this idea: There is a hero in you waiting to emerge.
But here’s the problem. This kind of mentality is directly antithetical to the Christian faith. It brings a radically privatized dimension to American Christianity that transfers the hero’s narrative to our own faith journey. It makes us think, “If I can just get my life right, if I can only conquer my weaknesses, if I can just live the kind of life I’m supposed to live, then I can do great things for God.”
This trend is nothing new. Throughout its history, the Christian church has needed to respond to this kind of ultra-privatized spirituality. In fact, it did not take long before the fledgling Christian movement had to deal with an increasingly popular belief system called Gnosticism, which claimed that ultimate power was to be found through a radical turn inward. Gnostics believed that the way to power was through discovering it in yourself and overcoming your fleshly barriers. So when Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Clark Kent break out of the confines of their alter egos, they become superhuman. Otherwise, they are ordinary and vulnerable.
So we get bestselling books that tease us in that direction, with titles that are dead giveaways:
- Your Best Life Now (Joel Osteen)
- The Purpose-Driven Life (Rick Warren)
- Facing Your Giants (Max Lucado)
- Look Great, Feel Great (Joyce Meyer)
We might as well have a book titled, How to Become a Spiritual Superhero and Rise Above Being Just an Ordinary Nobody. It would be an instant bestseller.
There are significant problems with allowing this narrative to shape our faith journey. First, ours is an incarnational faith. The task of the Christian is not to jettison what it means to be human, but to be “living sacrifices” to God, embodying God’s love with every aspect of our being. And when we recite that line in our creed that claims a “resurrection of the body,” it means that in God’s eyes, our bodies are worth redeeming, not escaping.
More importantly, ours is a faith rooted in community. The great story of the church is driven not by the superhuman acts of persons who overcome weakness, but in the power of the Holy Spirit to work in and through a collective community, who achieve far more than they can as separated individuals.
Whenever the work of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the New Testament, it is always in the context of the community of faith. Spiritual gifts are given for the work of the church. The fruit of the Spirit is given for the edification of the community. The letters of Paul are written to congregations, not just individuals, to strengthen their love for each other and their commitment to their mission.
So this is the problem with that tired cliché: “I’m a spiritual person; I’m just not that religious.” Because what it offers is the false possibility that one can be a Christian privately without being a Christian relationally and physically. But John tells us otherwise, in this Sunday’s Scripture reading: “Let us not love with words, but with action” (1 John 3:18). It is a direct counter to a modern-day Gnosticism that suggests we can believe the right things without practicing the right things.
Despite what the superhero movies say, our world will not be transformed by the sum effect of individual “heroes” rising beyond their inadequacies. It will be transformed by the collective work of the body of Christ: a wholly distinct community that advocates and models a radically different ethic, based on the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
And that, brothers and sisters, is why you are part of this church. And that is why we are asking you this Sunday to Say Yes.
We are, together, more than we can ever be on our own. We need each other to grow in our faith, and the world needs the full complement of our individual gifts in order to effect change in the world around us. And God is calling you, this Sunday, to turn in a Say Yes card so that you can discover your role in making God’s love real.
Yes, the world needs a hero. But it doesn’t need one with a cape or a mask. It needs the body of Christ, which offers the best hope for the world. And it needs you to Say Yes to being a part of it.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist