For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
When Martha and I need to relax, we often turn to our DVD collection.
We like the older movies best, although this comes with a fiat that Martha believes no film actor could act before Lee Strasberg opened his theater and film institute. That leaves out a lot of my favorites, including John Wayne oaters and Marx Brothers romps, the fog-bound adventures of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Basil Rathbone, and the wonderful noirs of the thirties and forties. But watching these old silver screen chestnuts, I realize Martha is right: no one is really acting.
In recent months we have – for the umpteenth time – placed such titles on our DVD player as The Godfather and Gone With the Wind. As Holy Week approaches we’ll probably watch two rich but unintentionally funny epics, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur.
But recently, as outside stress levels intensified, Martha and I have been binge watching Adventures of Superman, with George Reeves in the blue tights and red cape.
For those of you who were not born before 1959, or didn’t see the 1960s reruns, or grew up in a culture that minimized American super heroes, here’s the scoop:
Adventures of Superman appeared on ABC TV for six seasons from 1952 to 1958. Based on the comic book character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938, the series was hugely popular among Boomers.
My brother Larry and I spent hours imitating the man of steel. We approximated Superman’s uniform by pulling brightly colored socks past the calves of our pajama leggings, wearing our tightie-whiteys over our pants, and tying towels around our necks.
That wasn’t too far fetched, because even Reeves complained he was too old to work in his pajamas. Unlike many children, fortunately, Larry and I didn’t jump out our windows pretending to fly. But there is a family story that I once pushed Super Larry off the top bunk and he thudded loudly onto the hardwood floor. It’s a subject we avoid on Throw-Back Thursdays.
But even if you weren’t familiar with George Reeves’ Superman, you can hardly have missed subsequent incarnations by Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Brandon Routh, and, most recently, Henry Cavill. All of these guys shared the lantern-jawed profile Superman’s creators gave him.
I suspect that for most Boomers, including me, the best Superman was George Reeves. The actor was personable, indefatigable when it came to appearing before his fans and signing autographs. And when he smiled and winked at the camera at the end of most episodes, we knew he was winking at us. Reeves died in 1959 after the series ended, probably by his own hand. Many boomers remember where they were and what they were doing the day Superman died.
It would be difficult to explain why Superman made such a powerful impact on my generation. One could surmise that George Reeves – who was in his forties when he donned the blue and red pajamas – was an amiable father figure who modeled exemplary behavior. His Clark Kent didn’t smoke, favored milk or ginger ale over hard liquor, was a gentleman to the ladies, treated kids with empathy and affection, and was a stalwart defender of the powerless.
But there’s more to Superman than that. In 1979, when Superman the Movie debuted with Christopher Reeve in the title role, many church folk had an epiphany. Back then I wrote an editorial for The American Baptist Magazine entitled, “Messiah in Blue Tights.”
Even a Sunday school dropout would recognize the plot (I wrote): 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 …
I thought of this messianic connection last week, when the Gospel told the story of the cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-22). As Jesus grabbed a whip and hauled ass, raging as he thrashed money changers and ejected them from the temple, there was nothing gentle, meek, and mild about him. He’s much more Superman than Clark Kent.
And the Superman of 1950s television did have a mean streak. He didn’t hesitate to knock heads. Like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges, his preferred method of subduing the unruly was to knock their heads together. He also pacified crooks by popping them in the jaw. The arrested criminals showed up in Inspector Henderson’s office with the lumps and scars of their encounter with Superman.
We know that is not the preferred method of law enforcement today. Whenever Detectives Stabler or Sipowicz tuned up a punk, liberal judges threw the case out of court.
Of course Superman is only one of thousands of Messiah metaphors in literature and film. Among the most obvious are Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, Aslan the Lion in the Chronicles of Narnia, Simon in Lord of the Flies, and Billy Budd.
Harry Potter, John Coffey in The Green Mile, and Randall Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are obvious messianic figures. In the musical Hair, Claude sings, “I am the Son of God, I shall vanish and be forgotten,” and in the end – as a draftee during the Vietnam War – he gives his life for his friends.
The myths are so ubiquitous that many have been tempted to regard Jesus as just another myth created by humans who probe the empty universe in search of God and the meaning of life.
C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, was an expert on myths of ancient cultures. Many cultures, he noted, worshipped powerful warriors and saviors who gave meaning to their lives. All of these figures were myths.
“Now the story of Christ,” Lewis wrote, “is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e., the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’”
One of the “real things” that helps us distinguish reality from myth is the nature of the God who is doing the expressing.
This God is described in scripture: rich in mercy, great in love – loving us so much, in fact, that he gave his only son to save us all.
Of course we take this God of love for granted. But what could we do about it if the all-powerful creator of the universe was a dastardly deity, a sadistic entity who enjoyed watching us suffer? Or, even worse, what if the creator ignored us? What if God was a guilty bystander, indifferent to our struggles and suffering?
Early mythological deities toyed callously with their human minions, raising them up before casting them down, infusing them with hubris before crushing them into the dirt. Early in human intellectual evolution, the worst and the best of human attributes – pride, cruelty, compassion, love – were believed to be gifts of capricious gods.
Finally, about four millennia ago in Mesopotamia, the children of Abraham brought unique clarity to theological insight: the idea that the Lord our God, the Lord is One. The Shema linked God with the concept of Love: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The obvious syllogism is that God loves you, too. God is love.
If you are a Superman fan, you know that Jor-El is the father of Superman. I wonder if his creators – comic artists Siegel and Shuster – formed his name out of random syllables, or if they were aware that Jorel means “God will uplift” in Hebrew.
Whatever their intention, Jor-El’s intentions for earth were not loving. His own planet, Krypton, was disintegrating beneath his feet and earth was the nearest place of refuge for his baby boy. For Jor-El, Earth was an orb of convenience, not a venue of love.
Thus, Superman dissolves into one of thousands of myths that fall short of introducing us to the True Creator, the One God, the God of Love.
The words of scripture are so familiar to us that we no longer react to them with the shock and awe they deserve.
They are nothing less than a proclamation of God's intentions for creation. And they blaze in our minds with an incomparable intensity for a very important reason. They proclaim the one true myth that sweeps all other myths away.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.