Monday, August 8, 2011

Messiah in Blue Tights

Man Of Steel swoops into theaters June 14. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring, Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel, Diane Lane as Martha Kent, Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent, Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Michael Shannon as General Zod, and Russell Crowe as Jor-El.

It has been 34 years since the Superman legend was revived by Christopher Reeve. In1979 we needed to be persuaded,  “You will believe a man can fly,” and the fairly primitive special effects of the era knocked our socks off. We suspected Chris Reeve was suspended in air by wires, but why couldn’t we see them?

In the three-and-a-half decades since the debut of Superman The Movie, 3D digital special effects and quadraphonic sound have advanced exponentially. The grandchildren of those of us who packed theaters in 1979 now smile indulgently that we could have been so impressed. Those of us who sit through Man of Steel this weekend may well depart with scrambled brains and nosebleeds.

But if you were among those who saw Chris Reeve bring the man of steel to life, let’s pause to remember what a mystical event it was.

For many of us it was so mystical, in fact, that it reminded us of another famous story.

I saw Chris Reeve fly when I was editor of The American Baptist Magazine, and I was so impressed that I devoted my December 1979 editorial to a celebration of both stories.

Here’s what I thought then:

Even a Sunday school dropout would recognize the plot: 
A wise, all-knowing father in the sky looks down on the earth. He sees a torn and primitive planet badly in need of help, and he sends the world his only begotten son. 
The son, whose miraculous arrival on earth is heralded by a star in the heavens, learns the virtues of working with his hands from his adopted earthly dad. The lad grows in the favor of his friends, even as he begins to notice that he has powers and abilities far beyond those of mere mortals. 
Then, the boy senses that his time has come, and he departs to the barren wilderness for a time of testing. While meditating in the wasteland, the spirit of his other-worldly father prepares him for the mission to come. 
Finally, transfigured and self-assured, the young man returns to society, which stands in awe of his miracles, his goodness and his power. Only the forces of evil stand in his way, and these forces launch a never-ending struggle against him … 
Movie makers recognize a good plot when they see one, and this particular storyline, despite its familiarity, has found a new vehicle. Superman has proven to be a critical and popular success. 
Unfortunately, Superman opened in first-run-theatres two weeks before Christmas, just as the television networks were broadcasting their own special programs about the coming of that other messiah, Jesus. Anyone whose knowledge of messiahs is restricted to what is shown on screens will have to conclude that the messiah in the manger is no match for the messiah in blue tights. 
The Jesus of the tube is a fairly one-dimensional and distant character whose ice-blue eyes look through people and who has a penchant for talking at clouds rather than to crowds. People keep their distance from him as if they thought he had some benign form of leprosy, but otherwise treat him with the same deference Philadelphians reserve for Frank Sinatra. 
For the most part (NBC’s Jesus of Nazareth being a rare exception) the Jesus of the tube never sweats, never smiles, and never relates to people as if he has the slightest idea what it is like to be the human beings he has come to save. 
Superman, on the other hand, is a perfect balance of just-folks humanity and all-powerful being. In the skillful portrayal of actor Christopher Reeve, the man of steel performs his miracles with a casual warmth. Even after he has single-handedly saved a portion of humanity from destruction and resurrected the dead – two singularly messianic acts – he is as human and as approachable as your next door neighbor. Moreover, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a kind of a bumbling Everyman who gets hung up in the same revolving doors and waits for the same never-arriving elevators as us all. Superman is one god who knows what it is like to be human. 
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to isolate those things which Jesus offers but Superman doesn’t. Superman doesn’t offer to reconcile the world with his father – there’s not even evidence Jor-El is mad at us. More important, though Superman is a nice guy who obviously wants to be liked, he certainly doesn’t claim to have the words of eternal life. Superman can only save you if you fall out of a building. 
On balance, despite the fact that people who haven’t darkened a church doorstep in years are flocking to see Superman, Jesus is the superior messiah. The question is: if it came down to the ultimate competition, would Jesus or Superman win the Academy Award? 
For those who have had a personal experience with Jesus, there would be no contest. 
For those unchurched people who rely on movies and TV shows for their knowledge of messianic figures, however, I think the competition would be a bit stiffer. Those who seek Jesus only on the screen are not likely to find him, They will only find a plastic figure seeking to portray a God to whom we cannot relate – and Superman will be a preferable alternative. 
But dramatists and actors who portray Jesus ought to learn something from the screen portrayal of Superman. People are fascinated by Superman not because he is super, but because he is a super being who acts human. He is no aloof, unapproachable person who is removed from the aches, pains and emotions of humanness – and that makes him all the more super. 
But the same is true of Jesus. The messiah who reconciles the world to God is no celluloid automaton who performs special-effects miracles. Jesus transforms history not because he is a distant God with no ties to humanity, but because he is God in human flesh: a human being capable of pain, perspiration and laughter. It is the power of his godliness which saves us, but it is the warmth of his humanness which attracts us to him. If he were merely God without laughter or tears, he would not be so humanly appealing or even, in literary terms, so unusual. But he is a wonderful savior because he is not merely God – he is one of us. And that is awesome indeed. 
It may be that television, with its infatuation with melodrama and special effects, is not capable of portraying the real Jesus. It would be a helpful start, however, if the TV Jesus were portrayed as being a little more human. 
That would be an important step toward making him more godly.

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