(Orange, Texas)

Local News

June 29, 2013

That old Superman-as-Messiah question

ORANGE — Without a doubt, it is one of the most famous incantations in all of American pop culture.

"Look, up in the sky!"

"It's a bird!"

"It's a plane!"

The last line in this chant is, of course: "It's Superman!"

However, whenever new material is added to the Superman canon -- such as the movie "Man of Steel," which grossed $113 million its first weekend -- some scribes and fanboys will immediately start arguing about two other symbolic identities that are often pinned on their favorite superhero.

Visit most online Superman forums and "someone is going to say, 'It's Jesus!' and someone else will immediately respond, 'It's Moses!' and then back and forth it'll go, 'Jesus,' 'Moses,' 'Jesus,' 'Moses,' on and on," said the Rev. Gary D. Robinson, of North Side Christian Church in Xenia, Ohio.

The 58-year-old Robinson admits he is a passionate participant in these kinds of debates, both as author of the book "Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan" and as the owner of an inch-plus scar on his left arm created by an attempt -- at age 6 -- to fly like Superman through a glass window.

Like many theologically wired Superman fans, he can quote the key facts, chapter and verse. The pastor thinks the parallels are fun, but shouldn't be taken too seriously.

"I see the Superman myth as a shadow thrown by the Light itself," he said, referring to biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. "In its own way, it's a crude substitute. ... But there is no question that there is some kind of allegory in there."

First of all, the future Superman was born on the doomed planet Krypton into the "House of El" and, in Hebrew, "El" -- from a root word meaning "strength and might" -- is one name for God. Then his father gave him the name Kal-El, or in Superman lore, "Son of El" -- a kind of science-fiction salute to names such as Dani-el or Samu-el.

Then, his real parents saved their baby from oppressors by casting him into time and space, hoping he would be a source of hope and protection for others. They used a rocket, not a wicker basket, but it's hard to miss the links to Moses. It also helps to know that writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster -- both sons of Jewish refugees from Europe -- created Superman in the tense 1930s, inspired in part by anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

Experts in both camps offer lists of telling details. Meanwhile, "Man of Steel" director Zack Snyder has packed his film with iconic images and symbolic facts. The film notes that Clark Kent soars into his Superman role at age 33, the same age that tradition says Jesus began his public ministry. Told by the digital ghost of his father, "You can save them. You can save all of them," Superman pauses in space -- arms extended and legs together, as if on a cross -- before racing to fight a demonic figure who is threatening humanity.

In one audacious scene, Superman visits his local church in Kansas while wrestling with the question of whether he should willingly surrender his own life in order to save the world. Over his head is a stained-glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.

The question, of course, is how seriously to take this moody and humorless salute to "The Matrix," "Avatar," "The Dark Knight" and plenty of other video-game weight blockbusters, with a few undeniable 9/11 images in the mix as well. "Popcorn and a (World)view" columnist Drew Zahn argued: "Though I won't claim it was written by an author the caliber of C.S. Lewis, nonetheless, the metaphors and messages make 'Man of Steel' a sort of 'Chronicles of Narnia' for an 'Avengers' generation."

Robinson is convinced Superman and other pop-culture myths are fine hooks for conversations about deeper issues and truths. But in the end, how can ordinary women and men, struggling with the pitfalls of daily life, be saved by the likes of Superman?

"Superman is a poor substitute for the Gospel," he said. "Superman offers himself to save our lives. Jesus wants to save us forever, for all of eternity. ... In the end, there's only one real story and we keep trying to create new variations on it."

Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the project to study religion and the news.


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