Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ figures

The return of Superman in Man of Steel means the return of something that’s nearly as invincible: talk of Christ figures.

Never mind that he was created by sons of Jewish immigrants, Superman has surpassed the likes of E.T., Cool Hand Luke, Gandalf and Harry Potter to become the definitive, pop-culture Christ figure. A child sent from another world and raised by parents of this one? Who grows up to demonstrate miraculous powers? And saves the planet? Man of Steel even adds a shot of Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) in church with a stained-glass image of Jesus in the background. What more could Christians ask for?

A lot.

It seems to me that the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.

In “The Pedagogical Challenges of Finding Christ Figures in Film,” his contribution to Teaching Religion and Film, Christopher Deacy notes that focusing on Christ figures can be both superficial and misleading. He writes: “Classroom discussions would be more productively spent looking at wider debates between theology and film than ones that see cinematic characters as little more than ciphers whose existence is predicated upon the existence of the New Testament Jesus and who are accordingly not instrumental in their own right.”

And this isn’t only because Christ-figuring does a disservice to the movie character, which is Deacy’s main point. It also does a disservice to the character of Christ. If any figure who dies and returns; any figure who offers sacrifice in any way; any figure who comes from another world to do good, is a Christ figure, then how is Jesus all that different from so many of our movie heroes? At what point does Superman become less like Jesus and Jesus more like Superman? (Keep in mind that Warner Bros., the studio behind Man of Steel, even provided sermon notes for pastors titled “Jesus: The Original Superhero.”)

Every Christ figure will fall short in some way, but what’s commonly lost in these glib associations is the difference between sacrifice and atonement. And atonement, as Swiss theologian Emil Brunner notes in his book The Mediator, is the main point: “There is no other possibility of being a Christian than through faith in that which took place once for all, revelation and atonement through the Mediator.” At the movies, Christ figures will sacrifice themselves to save another – or maybe even all humankind – but they rarely do so to atone for the fallen state of others. If we take that away, what’s left?

Admittedly, atonement is hard to capture onscreen partly because it is an act that we can barely comprehend, let alone depict. Rather than capture that sense of salvific mystery, Christ figures pin Jesus down by focusing on more tangible traits: otherworldly powers, saving acts, flying. (Surely Jesus flew as part of the Transfiguration, right?)

Yet what we lose in this literalization is what American missionary Samuel M. Zwemer identified as the inexplicable crux of Christianity. “If the Cross of Christ is anything to the mind, it is surely everything – the most profound reality and the sublimest mystery,” Swemer wrote in The Glory of the Cross. “One comes to realize that literally all the wealth and glory of the gospel centres here. The Cross is the pivot as well as the centre of New Testament thought. It is the exclusive mark of the Christian faith, the symbol of Christianity and its cynosure.”

If you’re looking for Christ figures, then, look for the sign of the cross. Let’s not be too quick to replace it with an “S” on some guy’s chest.

(Both the Zwemer and Brunner quotes can be found in John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, an exceedingly helpful book in putting the notion of Christ figures into perspective.)

Comments (16)

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I seem to remember that Christ asked us to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. And, when persecuted himself, he prayed for God’s forgiveness upon his enemies. I haven’t bothered to see Man of Steel, as I roll my eyes at the amount of chaotic, noisy, explosive smackdown that so-called “Christ figures” bring down on their enemies in superhero films. When Jesus uses military terminology in talking about fighting evil, he uses it subversively. The sword? It’s the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God, not a weapon of mass destruction. The breastplate? It’s the breastplate of righteousness, not bulletproof self-preservation. Most superhero movies indulge our fantasies of doing exactly the opposite of Christ’s call to humble suffering, love for our enemies, and peacemaking.

Your point is well taken, Jeffrey, and I think also applies to another commonly cited Christ figure: Gandalf. Yes, he is resurrected, but he’s always been a bit too militaristic for me to function as an instructive Christ figure.

Hollywood always blurs lines, doesn’t it Josh? It might be the line between love and lust, or righteous indignation and revenge. Here they blur the line between a superhero and people’s understanding of the Son of God. The Deacy quote really gets at what would be more productive than merely allowing the line to remain blurred: how does media fit in with our doctrine/theology of God, others and self?

Cheers,
Tim

Great read, Josh!

I think that Christ-types in literature and film is unavoidable if for no other reason than this: the story of Jesus runs deep in the consciousness of the Western world.

Of course these figures fall short of Christ. If they didn’t, they’d be unbelievable because there is only one who is Good.

Okay yes, but you have to admit the movie was really good. I totally agree and see the dangers of implanting Christ into characters, especially if only to pander to the Christian audience. But I do think there is value in telling certain values and characteristics in a fiction form. I’ve totally benefited from C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy as it gives God a whole new perspective in my life.

http://forthisisthetime.com/

Well, I actually disliked Man of Steel quite a bit, but that’s another conversation. I think we’re in agreement, though, on your second point. What I appreciate about the Deacy quote I use above is that it recognizes the value of theological readings of art (we do a lot of that here at TC). It’s the emphasis on Christ figures, specifically, that I find limiting.

Generally speaking, I agree with Jeffrey that too often these sort of “Christ-figures” appeal to the conquer-by-might Messiah that so many then and now were expecting and hope for.

Even so, I also wonder if the type of movie like Superman—which has an other-worldly, mythical quality to it—shouldn’t be judged on such a 1:1 ratio. I mean that in the sense that the villains in these sorts of movies are more often larger-than-life symbols of evil that, in these worlds, a Christ-figure *would* destroy while sacrificing for the people who are on the verge of being crippled by it. I guess I just wonder if, in these worlds, the “sword of the spirit, breastplate of righteousness” type of stuff doesn’t deserve a bit more slack for going literal.

Like I said, I generally agree with thrust of article and Jeffrey’s comment. More thinking through these things than directly countering.

That said, I’ll always think Samantha the Hairdresser more heroic than Superman.

I am curious Josh, are you advocating that more films inform our understating of Christ? That is the obvious antithesis of your headlining quote.

The theology found in cinema is obviously meted out.

I think the tiredness you are pinning down is the capitalized approach some Christians (pastors especially) take on tying pop culture to Christianity.

Now that a decent Superman film has arrived, glaring christological symbolism with the obvious fate of atonement being “hard to capture,” it isn’t that film has failed to teach us about Christ, it is that we have failed to establishing the Christ of Scripture.

Snyder’s Man of Steel is as good as I think Hollywood will ever get to give Christian’s a look at Christ on the big screen, but this should cause us to stir in our spirit’s to be reminded that the Christ of Scripture reigns supreme and none can compare.

Then we do see a good film, with explicit Christology and we see that it fails…we do exactly what I think it is you are suggesting., and fill in the gaps. Teach why Superman isn’t Christ and why the atonement is a crucial determining factor for that understanding.

If I’m advocating for anything, it’s caution in the labeling of Christ figures. I’m certainly not demanding that more films inform our understanding of Jesus - there are plenty of other avenues for that. Rather, I’d ask that our theological exploration of movies go beyond, “He flies, he saves, he’s Superjesus!”

As for Man of Steel, I’m afraid I found it to be weak in general (see my review here: http://www.larsenonfilm.com/man-of-steel) and unhelpful as a “Christ figure” movie in particular.

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