For some reason, I can’t get away from Superman this week (is it the abs, do you think?). My last post puzzled over Man of Steel, I brought the movie up in my Introduction to Literature class, and here I am responding to more critics of the film.
This time, I want to address the phenomenon of Christians taking umbrage with the Christologizing of Kal-El.
Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for journals of cultural criticism that aren’t stupid and petty. The quest led me to an article called “Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ Figures” at a website called think Christian. The author, Josh Larsen, has written a thoughtful and somewhat surprising diatribe against finding Jesus in secular movies, Man of Steel being the occasion for his argument.
I find the article intriguing, if only because it is so unexpected. The overwhelming trend in Christian cultural criticism (if such a thing exists) seems to be to (maybe a bit desperately) usurp popular cultural artifacts and re-purpose them as extended metaphors for the Cross. I think there must be some money to be made here in packaging youth group bible study curricula or something. “Finding Jesus in True Blood.” Coming to a Christian bookstore near you.
But I digress.
At any rate, Larsen argues that this is a wasteful endeavor and he makes a sound case for his position. In addition, I find it admirable that someone writing for what seems to be a mainstream Christian publication has the courage to stand against that very current. His willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxy is a welcome sign. Somehow though, his claim doesn’t sit entirely well with me.
The following statement is where I get stuck:
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.
Larsen is a good writer, and the claim he makes here offers an insightful dissection of a shallowness in much Christian thinking about culture. He is right; often, Christians who try and apply the Jesus-stamp to movies like Man of Steel approach it in an intellectually lazy way that serves neither the faith nor the film very well.
Yet while Larsen correctly identifies a flaw in contemporary attempts at what he calls “Christ-figuring,” I think he unnecessarily pushes the practice as a whole into the mud as well.
If anything, a film like Man of Steel should be a very productive theological exercise if the viewer is willing to challenge his or her own imagination. The film presents what is clearly meant to be a vision of Jesus, yet this is not the same thing as presenting Jesus himself. It is in that distinction, subtle though it may be, that the “one way street” Larsen identifies can open up a new lane.
If we are to accept the analogy of Zack Snyder’s Superman as Jesus, then it offers a challenge to the Jesus that Christians widely accept. This Sacrificial Lamb takes out a whole lot of buildings on his way to Golgotha, mostly by throwing a rather sympathetic Satan through them. This is a motif in the film that many critics point and laugh at, but to the Christian viewer who is willing to stretch his or her imagination, it can be thought-provoking and it might just be profound.
Does a Christian really believe that the coming of Christ had a profound impact on the world? If so then we must accept that it was an act of utter violence, not just to the body of Jesus, but to the structures and fabric of human civilization. Christ is every bit as offensive to our world (including us) as Superman is to Metropolis’s version of Grand Central Terminal.
I do not suggest that this is a great film (though I freely admit enjoying it a great deal). I do, however, think that it offers the Christian who is willing to challenge his or her own personal orthodoxies an opportunity to do so. For the Christian who is, as Larsen complains about, simply trying to project dogma upon the movie, I agree that their efforts are juvenile. Shallow readings such as these have done incalculable damage to the Christian Imagination.
There is, though, a possible second direction in this cultural exchange. There is a revolutionary quality to Jesus’s messianic work, and revolutions do not look like Vacation Bible School crafts. By reflecting the horror of abject violence back at Christians who want to see smiling, gentle Jesus in everything, Man of Steel forces the imaginatively vibrant Christian to come to terms with a disturbing element of the faith, and though perhaps not entirely orthodox in itself, this vision can strengthen Orthodoxy in the long run. This, however, requires a dedication by the Christian to engage with culture via multi-lane highways, not, as Larsen identifies, one way streets.
Though we may like to imagine Jesus as muscle-bound in spandex, there are consequences inherent in that image. But I argue that the Christian Imagination is an underdeveloped muscle that needs tossed against a few buildings from time to time.