Monday, April 8, 2013

Your Friendly Neighborhood Christian

So I've been watching a lot of superhero TV shows lately. Young Justice, Teen Titans, Batman Beyond, 90s X-Men, and one of my all-time favorites, Spider-Man. For those of you who haven't caught the latest cartoon iteration of the web-slinger, it's called Ultimate Spider-Man and it's well worth the watch is you don't mind a broader, wackier Spider-Man. Very kitschy, very Saturday-morning, which for me, during this frightening transition out of college, is just the comfort food I need.

Broad

Wacky
Spider-Man

There's something innately homey about superhero stories, perhaps particularly for young men. They remind us of our childhoods, of a simpler time when good was good and bad was bad and ice cream was good and homework was bad and Spider-Man was good and Doctor Octopus was bad. No messy ambiguity, no shades of gray. Unfortunately the world doesn't work that way though, as now it seems like just about everywhere I look is gray. And it's not a bad thing necessarily; complexity is no vice. Still, it's hard not to lose sight of the light through the thick gray fog, to assume there is no right or wrong just because I can't see or feel them. And that is why I treasure these hero stories, these grand morality tales, because they speak of higher calling and purer purpose to kids from one to ninety-two.

And believe it or not, these fantastical meta-stories about mutants, magic, aliens and secret government agencies communicate Truth. Yes, Truth. Recently I had a mini-argument on a HuffPo comment thread (I should know better, I know), wherein a fellow commenter claimed that science and logic are the only proper means of accessing and understanding Truth. Philosophy, poetry and story may be nice, but they aren't true in any significant way. And by his reckoning, theists like me aren't very good at discerning fact (science) from fiction (story), to which I responded "My butt!" Well no, I didn't, but I sure wanted to. I mean, I understand where he's coming from, that logic is valuable and all-too-often neglected, but I couldn't disagree more with his false dichotomy between truth and story. Stories that illumine essential elements of the human experience are profoundly true, even if they didn't or "couldn't" happen in any literal sense. For instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer speaks more authentically to what it's like being a teenager, feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, than, say, Degrassi. Even while the events in the latter might be more feasible, they do not touch on the grand, deep true-ness we see and experience in Whedon's allegories.

If it is not true, then it cannot be story.

There's more to life than just the things that can be explained by encyclopedias and facts. Facts alone are not adequate.

The life-giving, life-saving story is a true story that transcends facts.

~ Madeleine L'engle

In the same way, superhero stories communicate the truth of living morally in a hostile and ambiguous world, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more purely moral figure than Spider-Man, who, while hardly perfect, strives to serve, protect, fight for justice, and steward well his gifts and abilities. He took his late uncle's words to heart that with great power comes great responsibility (to whom much is given, much is expected, Luke 12:48) and let these words transform him (as good words are wont to do). He is tireless and relatively uncompromising in his campaign for the same Justice attested to by the Biblical narrative. He embodies the ethic of protecting the marginalized minority, and actively rejects any marriage between might and oppressive authority, unflaggingly using his own power and influence for the betterment of mankind (heady stuff for a comic book spider, huh?). In short, he sets the bar pretty high for the rest of us. 

Still, it doesn't seem he is always, or even often appreciated for it. Media Mogul J. Jonah Jameson for instance uses every resource at his disposal to lambast the wall-crawler and besmirch his good name. Consequently, public opinion is hardly if ever on Spider-Man's side, and as I watch Ultimate Spider-Man I have to actively fight the urge to get annoyed by it. Why doesn't he just snag a microphone and speak the truth to the cameras which seem to shadow his every move? Why doesn't he explain away the compromising positions in which he occasionally finds himself, bringing the truth to light of day?

Then it occurred to me: this is simply not what heroes do. They don't fight PR battles, they fight real battles. They do good deeds and serve their cities. Instead of posturing defensively against bad press, bickering, and refuting false claims, they simply prove the naysayers wrong. Thus is the way of Spider-Man, and I for one think the Church ought to take a page out of his book on this one. We do not typically handle criticism heroically; we come out swinging (with fists, not from webs), determined to argue every enemy into submission. 'Cause that's what Jesus would do (note sarcasm). What if we didn't though? What if we let it all roll off our backs and let our love and service set the record straight?

The breakdown in this metaphor is that Spider-Man almost never deserves his bad press, and we do, more often than any of us would like to admit. We fall short of the standard set by our God and behave appallingly to the poor, defenseless and marginalized, when we ought to be the ones defending them. Still, we are not always at fault, and from time to time we get worse press than we deserve. And it is on those occasions that we have the opportunity not to defend, but to serve. How much more of an authentic witness to the world would we be if instead of running off at the mouth we put our hands and feet to work, feeding the poor, housing the homeless, healing the sick and clothing the naked? Let them scoff, let them lie, our actions will be our accurate witness and the world will see. And they will know we are Christians by our love.


1 Timothy 6:18-19 ESV


They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

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