You can barely walk down the street without tripping over a super hero these days. We all know the feeling of getting home and finding Spider-Man on the bottom of our shoe or one of the Fantastic Four in our bag – they’re everywhere.
It seems that one hero isn’t enough anymore – Captain America needs Iron Man, the Hulk needs Thor, and over in the DC Universe, 2016 will finally see Batman and Superman bash heads and join forces. As a comic book geek, it’s incredibly exciting. As a youth worker and lover of Jesus… well, if only our faith had some kind of compelling hero narrative to invite young people into… Bingo! Jesus is about as close to a comic book character as has ever existed. Let’s break this down.
Key to any hero is an unlikely birth, a start that nobody saw coming: Batman’s parents are murdered, Spider-Man’s lack of responsibility led to his uncle’s death, Captain America was… well, it’s complicated. But Jesus’ origin story is right out of Action Comics. Born in a small town in the middle of nowhere to unassuming parents in surprising circumstances, he grew up with no illusions of grandeur, no silver spoon in his mouth, and for 30 years went under the radar.
One of the best scenes from any Batman book comes in Year One when the Bat disturbs and attacks a meeting of mob bosses for the first time. He bursts onto the scene upsetting those on both side of the police line: the powerful criminals and the authoritarian cops. So when Jesus reads scripture in the temple in Luke chapter four, proclaiming freedom to the captives, good news and hope… BAM. It’s a whole new political paradigm – the carthorse has been toppled over. Suddenly, in the darkest of times, under religious laws, a foreign empire and in a period of history when it seems like God has stopped talking… hope shows up out of nowhere.
Building a team
What’s Batman without Robin? What did Professor X achieve without Cyclops? How did Popeye cope without spinach? All of the best superheroes know that no man is an island – they don’t travel alone, and often their companions are pretty surprising. Jesus’ team selection was similarly unorthodox: fisherman, religious extremists, tax collectors - the kind of nutty team who might make up a quirky B-movie.
The darkest hour
Every superhero movie has a moment when all seems lost and the bad guy seems to have won. Batman has his back broken, Superman gives up his powers… Jesus dies on a cross. He’s humiliated in front of everyone, and in this moment the Jewish people’s great hope for freedom is nailed to a couple of planks of wood for a whole city to see. His ministry appeared to be over, the revolution forgotten, and his humiliation complete.
…but we all know what happens next. The good guys win and Jesus channels his inner Obi-Wan Kanobi: ‘If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.’
I mean… if young people want a story, if they’re looking for a hero, then we should be shouting this from the rooftops. The question then becomes: why isn’t this story connecting? What are we missing? Have we made Jesus safe and unappealing?
The best superheroes are edgy, and you never quite know what they’re going to do next. Batman takes the law into his own hands, Superman hides his identity, Spider- Man is on the run from the authorities… and Jesus, well Jesus doesn’t fit into our neat middle class boxes. CS Lewis put it best (when talking about Aslan): ‘Is he safe? Of course he’s not safe, he’s a lion! But he’s good, he’s the king!’ It’s time to let Jesus out of the box: he’s not safe, he wasn’t safe when he turned over tables, upset those in authority, set up emergency food banks on the side of hills, hung out with all the wrong people, got into arguments about taxation, stood up for those facing capital punishment and grew up with a teenage mum. Yet somehow we’ve allowed this radical activist to be turned into some guru who the world imagines espousing empty sentiments while sitting in ancient buildings. The guy who took every moment of life and stretched it to its absolute maximum is seen as a quaint story rather than an action packed, comic-esque adventure.
The life of Jesus is one of an underdog kicking back against a regime, inviting people to join him in a new way of life, showing them that another world is possible, and reigniting the passions and imaginations of a dormant people. He wasn’t safe, but the best.