When I was growing up, Superman was the coolest superhero of them all. He was strong, fast and righteous. He could fly, which, let’s be honest, is the best superpower. For a being of unparalleled power, he was remarkably selfless. He was almost perfect. Every now and then he’d cause a problem, but only when trying to fix another one—and always with the best of intentions.
Superman was a beacon of light. He represented a world in which right and wrong were simple, straightforward concepts. There were no gray areas.
As time passed, something changed. Culture shifted. Superman’s primary-colored optimism and clear-cut pursuit of righteousness became something to make fun of rather than to admire. What was once esteemed as high virtue is now viewed with skepticism and disbelief. The Era of Superman has passed. Where he’s still around, he’s being pitted against Batman to make him seem more rugged and complex. But he’s largely been replaced by imperfect, complex protagonists like Deadpool, Wolverine, Star Lord, Arrow, Batman, Daredevil.
The heroes adored by modern society are not beacons of moral self-righteousness who stand on unattainable peaks of principles and practices. Daredevil has been a huge hit on Netflix. Part of what makes the show so interesting is that it’s raw and dark. The main character fails as often as he succeeds. What he’s trying to do may be noble, but his methods are often questionable, and his pursuit of justice is constantly hindered by his own imperfections. He is deeply flawed—and we love him for it.
We love heroes. We love the idea that there is someone with great power, determination and skill that can fix all that is wrong with the world—or least what’s wrong in our corner of it. But we’re no longer looking for heroes who stand above us. We are looking for heroes who are like us: flawed, broken, troubled, even tortured. We don’t just want to be rescued. We want to believe that even messed up people like us can still become great.
The Superman Church
Superheroes are a reflection of society. They reveal what we want, aspire to and value. Superheroes and religion have a lot in common. Throughout the years, the Church has tried to be like Superman. We’ve been so focused on outward righteous purity that we’ve become unrelatable. We continue to focus on keeping the rules, despite the fact that Jesus stood against ritualistic rule-keeping. We see the same trends throughout the history. Priests set themselves apart through rituals and practices too complex and time-consuming to be kept by anyone else. We make up similar rules today.
The Bible tells us to be holy, but we often interpret that to mean we’re supposed to try to appear perfect. We think being “holy” means we dress, act, talk and think a certain way. Of course, possible side effects of this attitude include irrelevance, unreliability, hypocrisy, superiority complexes, judgmental self-righteousness and a lack of authentic life transformation.
I am not saying we shouldn’t strive to be holy. I’m saying if our approach to holiness prevents us from truly loving God, loving our neighbor or effectively reaching the lost then perhaps we have misunderstood it. What if holiness is less about condemning “worldly behavior” and more about how we love people?
We can’t relate when Superman fights. He doesn’t really get hurt. He heals quickly. He rarely seems conflicted about what he’s doing. When Daredevil falls from a building or gets hit with something, we wince. We know he feels it like we would. We don’t want leaders to order us around. We want leaders we can relate to. When we look at these flawed heroes, we can see ourselves in them.
We need to understand something: Superman didn’t fall from favor because he wasn’t good enough; he fell out of favor because he wasn’t real. Christians sometimes pretend to be these super people: completely pure, noble, honest, selfless and good. We may aspire to those things, but we often pretend to have more of those qualities than we do. Convenient euphemisms don’t change our hearts.
We’ve pretended we are not afflicted by the same desires and temptations the “lowly sinners” of the world are plagued by. Christians have lost their influence, their rapport, their esteem because the world has caught on. People outside the Church have seen one too many stories about Christians who ignored the needs of others, of “godly” husbands who cheated on their wives, of Christians who took advantage of other people for personal gain. The world knows we aren’t as good as we pretend to be. Yet still we so often feel this pressure to present ourselves as something we are not.
If we want to be effective in this brave new world, we’ve got to stop acting like we are Superman. We have to stop pretending we don’t have problems, that we don’t struggle or fail. It’s become super trendy to be transparent, because it’s “authentic.” But trendiness is not the point. We need to be more than transparent. We need to be vulnerable. We need to be real.
The world isn’t looking for holier-than-thou Christians who think, act or believe they are somehow better than others. What they want, perhaps even need, are Christians who are like them: raw, unpolished, real. They need to see people who love Jesus, not people who pretend they don’t need Him.
We have an opportunity, like the woman at the well in John 4 or the blind man Jesus healed in John 9, to use our stories, our lives, our weakness and our shame to tell people about God. We don’t have to put on the mask anymore. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect, like we don’t have problems, like things don’t hurt us, like we always know the right answer. We aren’t Superman. We aren’t bulletproof or sin-proof.
What we love about flawed heroes is that they try. Sometimes they fail. When they fail, they own their mistakes and they work to fix them. They don’t pretend they are perfect. Neither should we. We don’t have to fake being something we are not. We can be real. We can share that realness with others. God can use that realness to change lives, including our own. When we stop trying to convince everyone else that we are perfect, then Jesus can actually make us a little more like Him.