All superheroes are Christ figures, to a degree. Some are more distant echoes than others, of course, but all have one similar characteristic: someone more than we are, someone special and more powerful, come to help us. Superman in particular stands out: an extraordinary not-quite-human child, sent by his father to be raised by human parents, who died and was reborn.
But comic-book superheroes only save a certain kind of people.
They save people from accidents, and fires, and car crashes; they save cities from bombs, and asteroids, and armies of killer trees. Above all they fight other superpowered people to protect the helpless. But they’re never around when people are dying of hunger. They never build houses for the homeless, heal the sick, or take back the money from people who got rich by slimy and nefarious yet legal means.
This is because they aren’t following the original script well enough, which played out roughly 2000 years ago in a minor regional capital called Jerusalem. (If you’re not huge on Jesus, you can insert some other archetypical savior-character in his place, but you can’t ignore the general trend of heroic fiction: mysterious origins, heroic journey, death, resurrection, apotheosis.) Jesus, although he had deeds to do, came to save us through inspiration. Literally. He put spirit in our hearts, and the word on our lips, so we could learn to save ourselves. Why do you think he concealed himself afterward, except to clear the way? We could not come into our own with him always obviously present: we would always come to him with all our problems, to fix what we ought to be setting right ourselves. Why did he gather the disciples — ordinary and often quite obtuse women and men — but to show us we had to work together and care for each other?
My experience in public school, first as a student and then as a teacher, taught me a valuable lesson: if you want students to behave properly, using the teachers and principals with their authority and power doesn’t work. All it does is make the kids sneakier about doing what they want to do. And the tighter the adults squeeze, the more rebellious and troublesome the kids get. (Heck, when adults squeeze each other, the squeezed rebel too.) This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any rules, and that there shouldn’t be any adults… but the way you really get results is by establishing and maintaining a different kind of culture. And you get that culture not by imposing, but by inspiring — by being a visible counterexample, by being in all ways worthy of the children’s trust, and being ready to help the kids up when they stumble. By doing things differently, just as Jesus did things very differently. The comparison is particularly apt, considering Jesus was always teaching.
Superheroes, however, rarely teach in quite that same way. We get hints, but the lessons are more implicit than depicted, because if they taught ordinary folks how to do what they did, then the authors would soon run out of stories. So they always have the heroes swoop in, rescue Little Timmy from the railroad tracks, and save the day. We cannot do without the hero to show us the way. But if the hero saves us every time, we remain children forever. And that is not what we were meant for; this universe was not created to be static. We must rise, we must grow, we must follow our heroes. Nor can we do it alone. But we have to make a choice and lift ourselves.
Now, the heroes do inspire people, so in a way superheroes aren’t getting it completely wrong. Personally I’m much less inspired by the Caped Crusader than by a young woman who hails from Sunnydale, California — but the point is, I am inspired.
And here’s where it gets really interesting: if Jesus wanted to inspire us, then it no longer matters if his particular story is literally true. You don’t have to believe the story to believe in what it teaches; some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned were taught to me by fictional people. So we don’t have to pester/cajole/intimidate people into believing in Christ’s literal truth.
Live for others. Die for them if you have to. Love all you meet, even if they don’t love you. Believe in a better world than the one we’ve got, and build it by helping those around you. That is the heart and the soul of what Jesus teaches, and there’s no literalism required. It’s still an immensely hard task. But anyone — fictional or not — who helps us with it should be welcome, and there’s no need to fight over which story is the most important.
We constantly turn to heroes — men of steel or slayers of vampires — as instinctively as we turn to our parents. But the greatest gift our parents can give us is, one day, to step back and say, “You don’t need me any more. Time to leave the nest.” Jesus is no different. He showed us how to live. But we have to do that living ourselves.
When we do at last — on that day we learn to fly.