(Interspersed lyrics by Steve Taylor)
When the house fell asleep, there was always a light
And it fell from the page to the eyes of an American boy
Are there any of us who began life so prosaic that we never yearned as a child for heroism? I believe God built it in us. It’s the desire to worship, and it’s the desire for nobility, and it’s the desire to be part of something transcendent.
In a storybook land, I could dream what I read
When it went to my head, I’d see: I wanna be a hero!
But the practical side said the question was still
When you grow up, what will you be? I wanna be a hero!
I’ve asked myself why we create superheroes. There are some answers that float naturally on the surface: they make us feel uplifted. They provide an archetype. They assure us that good will win out, that somehow right will unite with might, and drive out evil. They speak to us of something greater than ourselves that sweeps in to save the day, and they call us to emulate that in some small way.
The swimming layer is more complex: the superhero might be you. You could receive a call that sets you apart for a grand task, granting you secret information and license, endowing you with new powers, maybe revealing a secret birthright or latency to be brought to fruition. It speaks to the burning in our hearts that says, “I could be better than what I am now. I was born for more than this!”
The undertow is more subtle. When we create a superhero –for a novel, a movie, a primitive religion – what we have made is, technically,an idol. Strip away the Old Testament abhorrence for the word “idol” (and your fear that this column is about to take a far-right turn and forbid you fiction) and look at it in its barest form. An idol is something made by a human hand and then invested with a set of imaginary properties determined by its maker. This perfectly describes a novel character, a movie protagonist, or, for that matter, pop stardom (just because you can sing does not make you the font of all knowledge!).
The most salient feature of an idol is that it is actually controlled by its maker. The maker determines its features, its functions, its lore. Fool enough people into believing that the block of wood or metal contains a spirit, and you can start to control those people through your control of the idol. An even greater fool invites an actual spirit to inhabit the idol (or creates the idol at a spirit’s request) and that’s where things get weird. But always it comes back to control. If you worship a demon, you fall under its control, though it has no legitimate claim on you. If you worship what you create, you are worshiping something of your own determination – your own ideas. You are, in fact, worshiping yourself. Believe your own hype, though, and you wind up worshiping nothing but an object: a person enslaved by your own invention.
None of these ends satisfy the drive to behold and adore the divine. That’s probably why God forbade us to go down any of those dead-end roads. He is Truth, and He will have nothing but truth for us, for nothing else will satisfy both His rights as supreme being and our needs as driven worshippers.
You can’t look up to a sculpture for its fine intelligence or morals, and it can’t manipulate circumstances on your behalf. You can’t look up to a demon who is using you for its own ends; and it isn’t interested in manipulating anything for anyone but itself. But oh, we like to look up to ourselves. We like to think we have the power to enforce our will on the world. And God has given us enough rope, but also enough warning, for us to see how that plays out, pun intended.
I am mystified at people who idolize deceased artisans. In 1994, Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and out came the t-shirts with his portrait and dates. Promoting his talent and mourning him as a human being is one thing. But putting him on a pedestal of worship is something else. Why should we look to Saint Kurt? He did not hold any answers. In fact, he had so few clues about life that he took his own. What could he possibly teach us, that we should revere him so?
Growing older you’ll find that illusions are bought
And the idol you thought you’d be was just another zero
I wanna be a hero!
Many of us in the church were rocked by the fraud of Mike Guglielmucci, a talented and anointed singer/songwriter who lied about having cancer in 2006. His ability to look leukemia in the face and sing that he believed God was His healer, raised him to icon status in the church. Seeing him tumble off his pedestal and revert to being a confused and complicated human being like the rest of us, was devastating. Did it mean we had chosen the wrong hero? Are they all the wrong heroes? Did it mean it was wrong to have heroes? Does God “take them down a notch” if they get too big for their boots? Or is the size of the boots the problem – that we’re bound to trip over them sooner or later?
A quick stroll through Bible shows us that we could have seen it coming. Noah saved a skerrick of humanity from a global catastrophe, and then became an alcoholic. Gideon rescued Israel from the powerful Midianites, and then took up idolatry. Samson was given superhuman strength and a noble quest, but ended his life committing genocide as a blind slave. David was said to be “after God’s own heart”, but deviated enough from the heart of God to engage in doubt, adultery, poor parenting, insecurity, and vindictiveness. Judas had grand dreams of being the Messiah’s right-hand man as He overthrew the Roman oppressors. But his plan to force Jesus to prematurely declare Himself backfired … mostly because Jesus was not an idol, to be controlled and agenda’d by one of us.
So far, I’m inclining toward the “boots are too big for us” theory.
Jesus told His disciples to watch out for people who maintained a deliberately heroic persona, but whose lives and heart did not match up with their public image. Both Mark and Luke remember Him saying that such hypocrisy would be severely punished, and that it was connected with their indifference to the plight of the disadvantaged. Matthew recounts Him thus: “Do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach … everything they do is done for people to see … But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers … For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Mother Teresa comes to mind – a woman who spent her life serving beggars, and became a household name because of it.
Heroes died when the squealers bought ‘em off
Died, when the dealers got ‘em off
Welcome to the “in it for the money as an idol” show
When they ain’t as big as life, when they ditch their second wife
Where’s the boy to go? Gotta be a hero!
It’s a nice-boy notion that the real world’s gonna destroy
You know it’s a Marvel-comic-book, Saturday-matinée fairytale, boy
It makes me nervous when I realise how much, as a local school chaplain, I “like to be greeted in the marketplace” by my students and their parents. It’s not that I make myself out to be better than I am – it’s that my job title itself does that for me. So I have to take opportunities to confess my own frailties. I have to do the best I can (as hopefully we all do) to pull my life up close to the ideals I espouse. This isn’t always easy. I ask the kids to make allowances for new arrivals. Do I extend that same grace to drivers who have come to our roads from places where traffic courtesy leaves you at a standstill all day, and cars are cheap to replace if you do clip someone? I encourage my students to look to the long-term results of their actions. Am I thinking about that when I go all diva about something going missing from my office? And over and above all that, I must never get confused into thinking my B- performance is a better thing to present to God than the A+ He won for me at Calvary. No. The B- is just a thank-you present. On days when it looks more like an F, I’ll need you to “bear with the failings of the weak” as I lean on His grace to fill the gaps in me that I cannot.
When the house fell asleep, from a book I was led
To a Light that I never knew: “I wanna be your hero!”
And He spoke to my heart from the moment I prayed,
“Here’s a pattern I made for you: I wanna be your hero.”
Humanity will go on demanding, “Make us a king!” and “Show me the money!”. But we must never believe the hype of human hubris. Our hero is Jesus Christ, and He is all the might, goodness, nobility, power, justice, inspiring example and self-sacrifice we need. He is the Once And Future King, the righter of wrongs, the pure one, the awesome power from beyond the world, yet also the lowborn youngster raised in obscurity to rise up and claim a royal birthright. He is the one who gave His life to rescue the enemies He loved. He is the one who reclaimed His lifeforce to lead us in triumphal procession. And He calls us all to be endued with power from on high, but reminds us that we have but one Teacher,and we are all brothers. Hold your heroes lightly, and with a forgiving heart – for, like you, they are but breathing dust.