Sermon for February 9th, 2014

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Mark 10:42-45

42So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Faith & Film: Man of Steel

Three Minute Film Summary

Just as it almost always has since its origins in the late 1930s, the Superman story begins on the dying planet of Krypton. Jor-el is a prominent scientist on Krypton, and his wife Lara gives birth to a son, whom they name Kal-el. In order to save Kal-el from the destruction of the planet, they place him in a small spaceship and launch it toward the planet Earth.

The spacecraft lands on a small farm in Kansas, and is found by Jonathan and Martha Kent, farmers who raise the child as their own, and name him Clark. Clark Kent. They don't know where he came from, but they know that he is special, and as he grows, they learn he is capable of remarkable feats of strength and speed. They instill within him a strong sense of moral values, but also encourage him not to reveal his secret to the world until the time is right.

As a young adult, Clark Kent wanders for some years away from home, trying to learn more about his origin and his purpose. In this version of the story, he discovers a spaceship buried in the arctic snow. The military is also investigating the site, as well as a reporter from the Daily Planet by the name of Lois Lane. Clark and Lois both beat the military to the ship, running into each other in the process, and Clark saves Lois' life for the first of many times. The spaceship turns out to be an ancient probe ship from the planet Krypton, and through the ship's computer, Clark encounters a holographic representation of his biological father, Jor-El, who tells him his true name, his history, and his purpose.

Jor-el is played by Russel Crowe in this film--but here I'm going to jump back to the 1978 version of the movie, where Jor-El is played by Marlon Brando. Both film versions of Jor-el tell Clark (or Kal-el, rather) similar things, but I like Brando's quote better. He says: "The people of Earth can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all...their capacity for good...I have sent them you, my only son."

Back to the 2013 film. Jor-el gives Kal-el the iconic suit and cape we all know, he flies around the world a few times just for fun, and Superman is born. Meanwhile, Lois Lane is hot on his trail, eager to find out the identity of the man with supernatural powers who rescued her. She finds him and eventually befriends him, deciding keep his identity secret for now.

Right around this point is when the bad guys arrive. Apparently, Kal-el/Clark/Superman is not the only one to have survived the death of the planet Krypton. General Zod, a banished military leader, all-around-megalomaniac, and arch-enemy of Superman's father, along with a few evil minions, have managed to escape their imprisonment and have come seeking vengeance. General Zod demands that the people of earth hand over Superman or else be destroyed along with him.

Superman surrenders himself, only to learn that General Zod plans to destroy the earth anyhow, killing its inhabitants and turning it into a new Krypton of his own design. Much fighting ensues, and with the help of Lois Lane, American military forces, and the spirit of his father, Jor-el, Superman is able to defeat General Zod and his minions, save the earth, win over the hearts of its people (especially Lois Lane) and even land a good job with the Daily Planet for his alter ego, Clark Kent.

Son of El

Alright, this is it--our LAST film of the series: This is your final exam! Remember, our goal was to become armchair theologians, watching the films that so often reflect and mirror our culture, our values, and our beliefs. Watching them through the lens of our faith, looking for points where they intersect with scripture, as well as places where they don't. I chose this film as the last one, the final exam, because I thought it would be pretty easy. but don't worry; if you don't pass, we'll do it again next year!

Alright, here's the test. A baby is sent to earth from the heavens. He is raised by earthly parents; good people. As a child, he demonstrates remarkable abilities. As a young adult, he demonstrates miraculous abilities. He wanders in the wilderness for a time, and emerges with a sense of purpose, a sense of calling. He is immersed in water. He does more miracles. He shows his love for his adopted people, for humanity. At the age of 33 he confronts a great evil, the enemy of his father. He gives himself up to the people, and the people turn him over to his enemy. He is struck down, but he rises up again to defeat the enemy and save the world.

Here's your final exam question: Is this the story of Superman...or the story of Jesus? The answer, of course, is Yes. It's both.

Now for the bonus question: Jesus, Superman...and who else? I'll give you a hint: The original creators of Superman were named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They were both children of Jewish immigrants. Remember the story about the baby who was put in a basket and floated down a river to save him from destruction? He was adopted and raised by Egyptian parents, grew up to do miracles and to save his people? That's right...Moses. Superman's creators were Jewish, so it should be no surprise that his birth-name, Kal-el, is Hebrew. El is one of the Hebrew names for God, as in Elohim or El Shaddai. It also shows up in several Jewish names: Ezekiel, Gabriel, Israel. Kal is the Hebrew word for voice, so Kal-el means "voice of God." The prophets, like Moses, were considered to be the voice of God. The prophets also fought for truth and justice...sound familiar?

But this Superman, the superman of the 2013 film, Man of Steel, is definitely more Jesus than Moses. In fact, the Jesus imagery is so frequent, so blatant in this film that I've kind of come to the conclusion that it is very intentional. More on that later. Let's watch a few clips from the film that highlight the Christ connections. In this next clip, which is actually set in a church, I want you to pay attention not just to the dialogue, but to the imagery in the background. This scene takes place after General Zod has given earth an ultimatum: Hand over Superman or else. And Superman (Clark Kent / Kal-el) is trying to decide what to do. Naturally, he goes to the local church for help.

Did you notice the scene where Jesus is sitting on Clark's right shoulder? It's a stained glass window that's based on a very famous painting by Heinrich Hoffman of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. That's the place where Jesus prayed on the night before his arrest; where he prays, "Father, if possible, let this cup pass from me." It's where he made his final decision to go through with it. And so does Superman. This next clip is of his arrest and interrogation.

Notice that last exchange, when the American general says he's going to hand Superman over to his enemy. Superman says "Do what you have to do, General." We should be reminded of John 13:27, where Jesus tells Judas "Do what you must do quickly," before betraying him in the garden.

In verse 45 of our scripture passage today, Jesus says, "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

There are two points of connection between scripture and film that I'd like to point out. The first has to do with that phrase, "Son of man." We tend to refer to Jesus by the title "Son of God" but he never actually used that one of himself. His favorite title for himself was "son of man." It's a title that emphasizes his humanity, his connection with mankind.

Likewise, several times in the film, Superman is referred to as "Kal, son of El." Remember El is the Hebrew word for "God" so this is like saying, "Kal, son of God" But just as with Jesus, this is what other people call him. Superman does not refer to himself that way. Instead, when he refers to himself, he tends to emphasize his connection with earth and humanity. At one point, he even tells the general,"I grew up in Kansas. I'm about as American as it gets."

The second connection with our scripture verse is that phrase "to give his life a ransom for many." A ransom is defined as "a sum of money or other payment demanded or paid for the release of a prisoner." In this case, the prisoner is actually the world, humanity, mankind. Giving himself up to be crucified, Jesus paid the price to ransom the world. By turning himself over to General Zod, superman pays the price to ransom the world.

A Critique

I think we've pretty firmly established the connections between Superman and Jesus. In this case, they're so blatantly obvious that I'm convinced they are intentional. Unfortunately, the type of film that worries me the most are those that intentionally take up the gospel story market it to Christian audiences. It took awhile for Hollywood to figure out that Christian money is just as good as anyone else's but they did, and that's how we got Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and the History Channel's miniseries "The Bible," each of which was promoted in thousands of churches, and each of which (in my opinion) contained some pretty questionable theology. Coming up later this year, there will be a major Hollywood production of the Noah's ark story (starring Russel Crowe as Noah) and even a feature film version of the life of Jesus Christ called "Son of God."

I think Man of Steel is in this category, although a little more subtly than the other ones I mentioned. It is a film designed specifically to appeal to Christians, with Christian imagery, Christian symbolism, and Christian values...or at least what the film writers assume are Christian values. Watch this next clip, and see if you pick up on the message that is being conveyed:

Did you see what they did there? Evolution vs. Morality. You can have one, but not the other. And the bad guys choose evolution. The implication is that Superman, our Christ figure, chooses morality, and therefore is against evolution. Because Jesus is against evolution. Right? Not so fast...As a lifelong student of scripture, and a lifelong student of science, I don't think that evolution and faith are incompatible with one another. But I realize that some Christians do--and this is the image of Christianity that the writers of Man of Steel are reaching out to, assuming it is universally shared.

There's another theological problem I have with the film, although I think it's a problem with its own solution. If Superman is an intentional Christ figure in this film, then I think he's more of a 21st century American Jesus than a 1st century Middle-Eastern Jewish Jesus. In other words, he's more like the Jesus we wish we had than the Jesus we actually got. He's red, white and blue. Or rather, he's white, and his uniform is red and blue. He's clean cut, good looking, muscle bound, and wins the girl in the end. He tries really hard to be non-violent, but then when it comes right down to it and there are no other options...he punches stuff. Hard. That's not quite how Jesus of the gospels functioned.

These are the sorts of things that, as Armchair Theologians, we should be able to recognize. To borrow a biblical metaphor, we must be able to separate the wheat from the chaff--the real faith that we practice from the bizarre theologies born out of profit margins and poor assumptions.

Incarnational Jesus

But I'd like to end on a more positive note. Superman may indeed be a 21st century American Jesus, and we need to be aware of the differences, but that's not exactly anything new. Someone once said that God created us in his own image, and we've been returning the favor ever since. Countless writers, poets, artists, and story tellers in the past 2,000 years have taken the story of Jesus Christ and adapted it to their own cultures, their own systems and worldviews. That's because it's such a compelling story.

And it's a story that lends itself to being customized. The very act of Jesus becoming human in order to dwell among us was an act of adaptation itself--in theology, we call that the "incarnation." Carne is the Latin word for meat, so you could think of it as the "meatification," or maybe the "fleshifying" of Jesus. God himself became flesh, adapted his nature to ours, so that we could see, hear and understand the story.

And that story has traveled far and wide. It shows up, in some form or another, in all of the movies we've watched over the past few weeks. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's subtle, sometimes it's just a little bit off, and sometimes it's right on the spot. It's an ancient story that keeps finding new ways and new forms in which to present itself. It is incarnational. It is inspirational. It's an adventure story. It's a love story. It's the story of Jesus Christ our Lord and savior...and it's the greatest story ever told. May you see it and recognize it all of your days, everywhere you look.