Category Archives: Christian Education

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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Reimagining the Seminary

This essay originally appeared in Fuller’s campus magazine, The SEMI. What follows here is a revised version of the original essay, which can be read on The SEMI’s website.

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I have to begin by overstating the humility with which I’ve tried to write about the future of seminary. Like writing about the future of anything, we have to first say, “We don’t really know what is going to happen.” What I write about here is also deeply rooted in my personal experience of seminary. Of course, those who know me well know that I don’t believe in the possibility of an objective point of view, but I find it necessary to acknowledge that my observations come from what I and others I know have seen.

The future of seminary is vastly complicated because it is the only institution I know of that is affixed and must answer to a particular culture [Christianity] but also the larger culture in which the particular is embedded [both Academia and American/Western culture.] We have a double consideration, two standards, sometimes competing, held in tension together. That tension is worth exploring because it is within it that I believe seminary must forge ahead into the future.

When I think about the first consideration, our particular Christian culture, here’s what scares me, and many others I’m sure, about viewing the future of seminary pessimistically:

The perception of many today seems to be that Christianity, Western and American in particular, has regularly failed over the last century to address the serious questions and most pressing problems held by our larger culture in any relevant way mostly because of the rise of fundamentalism. Think about the focus of the media on very particular aspects of the Christian public persona. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the false dichotomy painted by mainstream cable news networks [CNN, Fox News] all point to a severe mis-education [there is certainly no lack of bad education out there] of both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Seminary seems vital because, given this climate, we need educated pastors to speak the healing power of the Gospel into those situations because I believe that the Gospel narrative provides us with the tools to overcome empire, violence, and empty religion. I know Fuller offers that sort of education. I’ve seen it completely overwhelm fellow students to the point of breaking down as in some sort of conversion experience or manifest itself in a standing ovation for a professor who has masterfully and compassionately demolished pervasive and damaging readings of Scripture or understandings of doctrine. Fuller grads [and current students] are out in the world working for the sort of difference that I’m taking about, fighting against the public perception that Christianity is a religion of fundamentalism, whether directly or indirectly.

Yet, is seminary necessarily the location of that sort of learning? I don’t know that it is. I think it is a mistake to assume that people can’t learn how to properly read Scripture and be transformed by it and thus lead other people to the same transformation without a seminary education. Not just a mistake—it’s wrong on every level. It ignores history, and like many others have with the same hubris, such a belief claims the end of history. This is as good as it will ever get. It’s hegemonic. It assumes that millions of pastors around the world who are legitimately doing God’s work are under-qualified and what—perhaps not really doing God’s work? Is Fuller or any seminary in the world prepared to say that? Maybe some are, but I know Fuller isn’t. The question isn’t whether or not education itself is important. It is vital. I just see seminary as one option, born out of a particular culture and not as the pinnacle of all theological learning. Thus, any reflection on the future of seminary must first recognize that we are not the height of understanding when it comes to theology. There is no Babel here.

We also have to recognize that believing a seminary education is necessary for the practice of ministry, as most mainline and evangelical denominations do, also assumes that seminary adequately prepares students for pastoral ministry in the first place. It’s no secret that Fuller has struggled to make Ministry Division courses relevant to MDiv students. Those course requirements are one of the primary reasons many people switch from the MDiv to the MAT every year. Who wants to pay $10,000 or more in tuition and add another 18 months of time for courses that are teaching you something you are learning already in practice at your church? Maybe those courses simply can’t teach certain things that practice or even other programs can give students, especially for students who are planning to enter a specialized ministry area.

A friend of mine dropped out of Fuller this quarter. The news was surprising to me at first. He had already put over a year into his MDiv, so I wondered, Why now? When I asked him what he was going to do instead, he told me he was applying to MSW [Master of Social Work] programs. “So you want to be a case manager, work for the government?” I asked him.

“Oh, no way,” he replied. He had recently been brought on as the Pastor for Recovery Ministry at his church. “I just realized that an MDiv wasn’t going to give me the training that an MSW would for what I’m doing. I really wanted to believe that I could get that at Fuller. But I won’t.”

His decision is a really important picture of the future of ministry not only because he is proving one does not need an MDiv to do ministry, that other graduate programs may actually prove to be more useful, but also because it alludes to the reality that the days of the theology or Bible major who goes to seminary and becomes a pastor are dwindling. Look at the wide, wide, range of educational backgrounds students at Fuller come with. I know more fellow English majors than I do Theology, Bible, or Christian Studies majors. Part of that is Fuller seems to attract many students who are looking to expand their horizons beyond their particular perspective. Many of us are looking for an intellectual challenge, a forging of our faith rather than a confirmation of things we already think we know.

Still, it may only be a matter of time before most people who feel called explicitly to ministry simply go directly into church leadership, or non-profit work, or missions, bypassing seminary all together, allowing the church itself [organization or mission field] to be the training ground. More and more church plants seem to value real world experience rather than seminary experience in their pastors. [Note that I’m not talking about those churches that take an anti-intellectual stance towards theological and biblical study.] More and more church goers want to know that the person who is helping them through their struggles with the real world also lives in the real world, is affected by the real world, exists outside of the circles of Christianity—which can be vast and impenetrable to some people. I don’t think we lose anything if one day we end up going to a model that resembles this—as long as honest, critical education as opposed to indoctrination exists.

This is where seminary can maintain its relevance. All of what I’ve said so far may seem like I’ve been pointing to the growing obscurity of seminary. However, there are developments occurring outside the seminary in that second sphere, secular academia, which say otherwise and may help us reimagine the purpose of seminary—not as a location of practice but as a space to explore the significance of religion and theology in both academic and public life. Stanley Fish, in his New York Times blog, writes from time to time about the growing pessimism surrounding the humanities and the arts at colleges and universities around the country. The study of religion possesses the good fortune of being situated sort of on the border of the humanities and the social sciences. Religion is a social, human phenomenon and thus is an object of study of anthropologists, sociologists, archaeologists, and so on—people who can secure major federal funding for their research projects. However, in recent years, it has also gained renewed interest among humanities disciplines, particularly literature, philosophy, and film studies.

Fish usually alludes to this intersection, and in this case from his December 26th post in which he is surveying the changing landscape of the latest MLA [Modern Language Association] Conference presentation catalog, Fish is referring to literary studies:

Religion is the location of, and for many the source of, renewal, aspiration, redemption and hope. The very fact that so many papers explore the intersection of literature and religion may be evidence that literary studies are attached to a value that will sustain them even in these hard times.

The hard times he is referring to are the questions of relevance that have been circling the humanities for the last decade like vultures. People make a number of arguments in support of the humanities: They produce more well-rounded citizens and workers, they enhance our culture. They give life a certain value that cold, fact-laden Science, simply cannot produce. But no one really believes those any more. English professors can’t pull in federal research dollars like physics professors can, and that really is the bottom line for university administrators, as Fish wrote in an October 2010 post regarding SUNY Albany President George Philip cutting the French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theatre departments from the university. What humanities discipline is safe? Maybe none. But perhaps the question of “relevance” occurs because we are too close, too caught up in Enlightenment thinking that has refused to die in culture—that scientific and science-related disciplines [finance, for example] are the only “practical” degrees offered. Perhaps it is also blindly tied to the inescapability of capitalism. You’re getting a science degree so you can get a job that pays well, or because it’s easy to find a job. You’re getting a degree in art or music because you can teach or you hope to be paid for your performance. We tend to measure seminary the same way: With the rising cost of tuition, is an MDiv really worth the money? How can a new pastor expect to be paid enough to begin paying off the debt he or she racked up in seminary? And if we’re talking about making a seminary education strictly academic, then doesn’t that make the problem worse?

Fish makes the case that these sorts of “outside” considerations—opinions about certain disciplines held mostly by the man-in-the-street—are not asking the right questions when it comes to their relevance. Instead of asking whether or not an academic discipline like theology or religion can compete practically in the free market with a degree in chemistry, we should be asking whether or not theology and religion are disciplines that the chemist would find useful, that would inform his work in a way beyond the sphere of personal spirituality. The seminary could be a place that more fully explores the intersection of religion and other disciplines. We already do that at Fuller. We’ve had courses on biomedical ethics, literature and theology, film and theology, theological anthropology. We have professors (Nancey Murphy, Robert Johnston, and Bill Dyrness all come immediately to mind) who are already able to explore the intersections of disciplines from the arts to the sciences with religion. Fuller offers two, sometimes three courses a term that could be deemed interdisciplinary. Imagine five or six more training students to flesh out the ways in which religion informs and is informed by other disciplines.

Of course, this is tricky, because theology can never be a purely second order discipline, which is what I’m describing above. Fish doesn’t take his idea of disciplines informing one another as far as theology proper. He uses examples like French or classics in conjunction with architecture or engineering. And he’s taking about universities with multiple colleges and departments. Theology is a special discipline and seminary a special case. We cannot forget about that first sphere. Here’s that tension coming back again.

Before coming to Fuller in 2009, I was living in Fort Collins, earning an MA in English at the University of Northern Colorado, working on a career as a composition instructor, and becoming increasingly fascinated with how post-structural thought related to the future of the Church. My closest friend while living out there, the associate pastor of the church I was attending, said this to me: “The study of theology has to come back to Earth somehow. Because the Bible isn’t something we just read and dissect; it’s something we live. The last thing the world needs is more scholars in ivory towers—especially scholars of Christianity.”

The most dangerous thing about suggesting that the seminary evolve into a space for the exploration of theology and religion’s intersection with and reciprocal impact upon other disciplines is that seminary could also very easily become a place that furthers a separation between academically elite Christians and those who are self-taught, devout followers of Christ. No location of theological education can become a purely academic institution. If taken to the extreme, what I’ve suggested would be terribly damaging because Christianity is first and foremost a lived faith, theology a lived discipline. This is where our education differs the greatest from other graduate programs. To illustrate this difference with an analogy, note how Fish describes the line between literary studies and literature appreciation:

The “Hamlet” you enjoy as a reader or a playgoer is one thing; the “Hamlet” laid out and etherized upon an academic’s table is another. The first needs no defense. [. . .] There is no reason that non-academics should understand or appreciate the academic analysis of the aesthetic productions they love with no academic help at all. The mistake is to think that the line of justification should go from the pleasure many derive from plays, poems, novels, films, etc., to a persuasive account of how academic work enhances or even produces that pleasure. It may or may not, but if it does, that’s an accidental benefit.

Replace “Hamlet” with “Jesus” or “Paul.” Replace “aesthetic productions” and “plays, poems, novels, films, etc.” with “biblical texts.” Replace “pleasure” with “understanding” [though pleasure can certainly be an effect of the Bible.] Suddenly, I’m not that comfortable with a defense like this for the study of Christianity. Should the Jesus or Paul I understand as a graduate student and aspiring scholar be different than the Jesus or Paul that the people in the congregation of my church, the students of my youth group, or even my own family understand? If so, then what’s the point of studying and making arguments about scripture? Fish can argue that such a study of literature or French philosophy or whatever can inform other disciplines. I’ve made the case that the study of religion can as well—but not without working toward a shared understanding among all believers. Christianity has absolutely no meaning apart from the believers who live it everyday. There is no such thing as theological analysis apart living it, no academic table apart from the pleasure of the text.

That is the crux, the greatest point of tension when considering the future of seminary: With the increasing irrelevance of practical training for ministry, how do we make the academic study of theology, Christianity, and religion in general practical and relevant for all believers? How do we return theology to Earth?

I don’t think anyone could ever answer that question definitively, but we should allow it to shape our imaginations as we consider the future of the seminary.

by Joel Harrison

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