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01 January 2015

{Guest Post by Cody Doremus, aka Hubby Bear} Biblically, Critically Thinking About Superheroes [and everything else]

I wrote the following to further a discussion started by a blog post about why a family does not do super heroes. I am not trying to directly contradict it, but to make sure there is a larger context on critically thinking how this decisions relates to different decisions and where these fall within the context of sin as presented in the Bible. Before I begin a discussion of super heroes, let’s first clarify a world view that I believe is a Biblical truth (Ecclesiastes, words of Jesus, James, passages about God not desiring sacrifices, etc.):

1) Things are not inherently bad when reduced to their simplest level

2) WHY you do something is what makes something sin or not

Examples: Sex is not bad. Abusing sex and using it selfishly (even inside marriage) is sin.

Reading bad things is not sin. If it were, we could not read the Bible since it is full of bad things. Reading/Seeing bad things is not inherently sinful. If it were, all apologists who say "I read/saw this and these are the reasons it is not Biblical" are apparently sacrificing their souls for the sake of others. Reading/watching something bad BECAUSE you get pleasure from the bad thing, now it has become sin.

On to super heroes…

Using Bible verses that say “abstain from evil” as proof for something being evil that is not specifically stated in the Bible is a misapplication. In the case of media, I can accept drawing a line that only specifically designed to honor God programming and history is acceptable (and you would have to throw out a lot of the specifically designed to honor God programming because it is almost impossible to get all the details right). If you move the line anywhere from there (Curious George, Thomas the Tank Engine, etc.) you have just moved yourself firmly into 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 concerning foods sacrificed to idols. In other words, it’s complicated. It is not about a thing that is good or evil, it is about you and the people you are around and everyone’s conscience. There can still be a black and white, but it is based on circumstances and will not necessarily be the same for everyone. If it is okay for someone (freedom in Christ) it will not necessarily be right for them based on who they are around. My pastor made a good flowchart based on this section.

Question 1) Are super heroes inherently sinful? I will break down some of the different parts of the medium.

-Is violence inherently sinful? Not necessarily because God used violence to correct or punish as documented in the Bible. Is it the ideal? No, and quite a lot of super heroes try to avoid violence whenever possible. If force is required, they try to capture, not kill the villain. Quite often there is even a moral discussion on these lines as super heroes who have a moral view will even use force against another super hero to prevent them killing a villain.

-Are super heroes morally relative? Some maybe, but most are like real life people as in “it’s complicated.” Are people with good morals perfect? Nope, we still sin. In fact, while the summation of how to live a Christ honoring life is very simple (Love God, Love others) how to put that into practice every day in every situation is very complicated and requires a lot of thought (see 1 Corinthians passage and above flow chart). Do we struggle and grow with that? I know personally I have grown in my faith and figuring out how to love people when I went through collage, when I got married, when I started having a pastor that teaches critical thinking, and when I started doing marriage counseling (if you have problems, it really does help. Just having someone there to force you to not get emotional, make sure both people listen, both sides get a fair hearing, and summarize the big picture instead of getting hung up on details). [note: I did not list having kids because my parents did such a good job I have felt very confident in how to raise mine, even though I am still learning]

Super heroes are a medium to have morality questions brought up and asked without having to screw up in real life. The Green Arrow keeps having sex with different women and it screws up his life every time. Tony Stark is a womanizer but after he finds he can do some good as Iron Man he slowly starts to get better (He’s still a jerk but I know some Christians who are jerks and need to grow some more too). I think part of why Spiderman has stayed so popular for so long is Peter constantly struggles with what is the right thing to do. Quite frequently bad things happen when he makes the wrong decision. Quite frequently different bad things happen even if he makes the best decision (bad things happen to good people in real life too). He and many other super heroes end up having an Ecclesiastes moment asking “Why? No matter what I do the people I love get hurt! What’s the point?” which is an excellent teachable moment. Occasionally they even have the right answer like in the 90’s X-Men cartoon where many of the X-Men have the exact opposite of peace and are trying to figure out their purpose. Enter Nightcrawler, the German Christian Monk who has found peace from God despite looking like a monster. He prefers not to fight and he shares Jesus with the X-Men seeking answers and consequently to a whole bunch of kids watching that may never have been to church before.

Villains range from “this person is pure evil” to “this guy is really trying to do the right thing and they just are not getting it.” In real life, according to the Bible, we are supposed to Love our Enemy (Matthew 5:44). In fact, the only real enemy is Sin (Yes Satan is a bad angel. That’s not who Jesus defeated at the cross though (1 Corinthians 15:54-58). Sin is a lot more powerful than Satan is and a lot harder to defeat. You would either have to make everyone perfect or get rid of everyone who is not perfect… See Revelations…). People are always to be loved and if possible saved. Having “grey” bad guys is actually real life. We should be rooting for the super hero to convert the villain just like we should be rooting for people to find Jesus (which means we should tell them, not just wait for someone else to do it). In the comics/shows sometimes the villain just won’t change. Just like in real life, sometimes you tell somebody about Jesus and they don’t want anything to do with Him.
Super heroes actually are one of the few mediums in modern programming that actually deals with morals. Many current Nickelodeon cartoons and Disney TV shows have characters that do absolutely whatever they want with either no consequences or good consequences for bad morals. No way are my kids (or me) watching those.

-Are super powers sin? This one again is complicated. There are super heroes with no super powers. Are these fine? There are “heroes” and “villains” that get power from Demonic forces. Does that mean these need to be completely avoided or since people try to do that in real life is it a teachable moment like the morals? (It’s a teachable moment in the Bible when Saul sought this out) There are heroes and villains who get powers from physics that don’t work in real life (I include mutants in this category because evolution in real life only breads out traits to exemplify another or is harmful [dieses, missing/distorted limbs, etc.]. Mutants can be another teachable moment: “Do people really get born with super powers from genes going wonky? No”). If an imaginary world with different physics is evil, that means Thomas (how else could Trains talk and have personalities), Curious George (sorry, monkeys don’t really act like that), and anything with talking non-people or otherworldly physics are out. The original concept for the X-Men was to have an extreme example of people born different and feeling on the outside like Jews (Stan Lee is one) or practically any teenager. Then there is a moral dichotomy about what you do if you are in that position. Do you like Professor X love people that hate you or do you take the route of Magneto who, persecuted as a Jew during World War II, essentially becomes Hitler, i.e. hate those that are different for hating you and become the thing you hate. Is using an alternate universe to get people to think about something by framing the same topic in a different light inherently wrong? I don’t think so, unless you are drawing the line I made in the first paragraph.

Question 2) Is this going to edify me? This is going to be dependent on each individual. Are you going to think critically and have teachable moments? Is it going to be like a philosophy class where you get hard moral questions? This could be edifying. Are you in it to watch the violence and laugh at everyone’s problems? Maybe you should abstain… Are you letting kids watch super heroes? You should be selective about what you pick (The 90’s cartoons are good, the current movies are probably not for under 13 or older) and watch with them so you can have teachable moments instead of giving them the opportunity to just want violence (just like you should watch most ­shows with them seemingly benign or not).

It is important to note that I believe this is where the arguments actually lie against super heroes. It is important to distinguish between an argument with Question 1 or 2 because it is the difference between anyone engaging in the thing or the thing itself being sin verses anyone abusing it being sin. Examples: Is Sex inherently bad (The Catholic Church declared this at one time) or is sex outside of marriage bad? Is the marijuana plant itself evil and from the fall or are people abusing it doing evil (are hemp crafts and diapers allowed? What constitutes abuse anyway?)? Is alcohol evil or is getting drunk evil (I don’t drink but I really don’t buy the fact that Jesus never drank fermented grapes or that Paul meant just grape juice when he told Timothy to drink some wine)? Is everyone who watches super heroes sinning or if you don’t like super heroes do you just think people can find better uses of their time?

“I don’t really want violence in my house before it comes there naturally. We are not going to watch any shows with violence. We will re-evaluate when my son starts making weapons out of his cheese.” – Completely valid

“I don’t have a problem with make believe but I don’t see anything beneficial to the super hero world.” – Valid even if I don’t agree. Don’t do them.

“I don’t have a problem with make believe but I think X aspect is bad. I don’t want it as a teachable moment, I want it out of my house.” – Valid

“I don’t want to present morally complicated situations to my kids until I feel they are old enough for us to talk about them constructively” – Valid

“X super hero is bad and has nothing good I can teach.  Any super hero eventually leads to super hero X and badness.” – I don’t agree, but if this is how you think you better not start. It is very good to know you have a personality that will make you want to get into every facet of something so you can make wiser decisions on if something is good for you or not.

“I think X about super heroes is bad. Therefore it is sin for anyone to engage in them.” – Not Valid. Now you are forcing your answer to Question 2 into Question 1.

Question 3) Is this going to make others stumble? If someone starts believing the occult and disbelieving God because of a specifically fictional world, they have a problem with almost all media and you probably need to work on that and not watch anything with them. If someone has a problem with being violent, they should not watch super heroes, history, or anything else that has violence (like a recovered alcoholic should not go to a bar). Mostly, I think you need to answer question 2 for the people with you to decide if it is going to make them stumble or not.

This is also where “You will know them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:18-20) I don’t think you can say watching super heroes is a fruit. You can definitely say HOW someone watches super heroes is a fruit. HOW someone plays super heroes, action figure or pretend, is a fruit. HOW someone talks about super heroes is a fruit (I just had a good conversation with someone the other day who said they thought The Punisher was under appreciated. I talked about how I did not care for The Punisher because other super heroes eventually realize revenge is wrong and do their best not to kill. I know he leads a pretty tormented life, but I have not read or seen enough of him to know if he ever starts to think twice about his methods.). If anyone is showing that all they care about is violence or they are not learning from the moral mistakes, apparently super heroes are making them stumble and you should not do super heroes around them.

As my Pastor says in parenting class, “It is better to world proof the kid then try to kid proof the world.” We selectively do super heroes in our house because we believe all of the discussion points help us start that process early. Our kids also get grounded from super heroes if they hit or do anything violent and we have a discussion about reality verses make believe and how to love people. Our son very rarely hits anymore and when he does he is usually super cranky and tired and just acting out randomly because his brain is not working. (We also had to cut out almost all spanking because us hitting him was teaching him he could hit. I think a lot of people would say spanking is not discouraged in the Bible.) We have also been able to use concepts from the imaginary world to help him start to get a grasp on deep Biblical concepts.

I understand this approach is not for every family but God has blessed us through it. I ask that you critically think about your objections to any topic and realize where they fall within the 3 questions so you know if everyone is sinning that engages in something or if it depends. Also do not use this line of reasoning as a license to sin. If you have to think critically about everything instead of following rules it is possible to butter your toast in a sinful manner. Loving correctly is complicated and takes thought.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post,

Along the lines of superheroes and villains, in Eastern media like anime and manga, the villains are not truly evil but human like our heroes. It's pretty common that a series villain after defeat, time passes, they grow and develop and from circumstances become an ally to the hero.

Japan as a country wouldn't be seen traditionally as Christian. Christianity is not even the major religion there, however Christian influence has reached its shores and embedded itself in areas of their culture. Dragon Ball Z is a very super hero violent fight scene kind of cartoon series. Typically consisting of your cast of super strong heroes duking it out with super strong villains. Think Superman vs General Zod. The series superman is named Goku. He's a super strong human born from a different planet. Inherently good, self sacrificing, and also a husband and father. When evil arises, he has the strength to defeat it. He gives the villains a chance at mercy, even though he won the battle and could completely destroy his enemy, he chooses to spare them for he sees that people can choose good just as they choose evil.

The General Zod of is named Vegita. He's from the same planet as Goku sent to destroy the Earth. The two battle it out in the typical destructive context. Both worn out, barely alive, Vegita surrenders to defeat and attempts to escape. Goku immobilized from the battle rests as he watches Vegita crawl to his escape vessel. Goku's earth friend sees the weakened Vegeta trying to escape and grabs a weapon for the opportunity to end his existence so he can never harm anyone else again. Goku shouts out telling him to stop! Let him go. Using an act of mercy to give Vegeta the opportunity to change, rather than continue on his evil path or worse, come back stronger to enact revenge. Vegita scoffs at such a concept and considers Goku a fool for showing him mercy and escapes back into space.

The series goes on and the hero recovers. A new villain shows up that is difficult to defeat. This villain is also enemies of Vegeta. "An enemy of thy enemy is also thy friend" Reluctantly the two pair up to combine their strength to defeat the greater enemy. Vegeta's character grows being shown mercy and forgiveness that he witnesses the path of destruction he was on was a dead end. It was rough and long coming around, but at the end of the lengthy series Vegeta is seen as a hero and a friend and ally of Goku. The story mimics America and Japan once at war, delivered devastating blows to each other, but time and forgiveness, Japan is now one of America's greatest Allies.

I guess you can draw Christian parallels to such a superhero story. We can be villains in life. do things for selfish reasons, do evil, commit sin. However Jesus defeats all sin and will defeat us as well. Jesus's purpose wasn't to destroy us for our evil but show mercy so we can be forgiven.

I have sinned much in my past. Wasn't raised in a Christian home nor had much care or interest in Christ. I was a villain. Out for my own selfish desires. Superman (Jesus) defeated me. crushed me, my sinful ways could not overcome his righteousness. I should be destroyed and the world would be made safer removing my ability to do evil, but in my own defeat, Christ shown mercy. From that mercy I began the path of redemption, now I honor Christ through my own works.

I guess western media doesn't have many examples of defeated villains becoming the good guys. Kinda sad really. I would love to see someone like Batman influence Mr Freeze to save Gotham instead of destroying it, or a Lex Luthor to accept that Superman is stronger and decides to better Metropolis instead of dedicating his life to defeating Superman.

Anonymous said...

Also to add on to the X-men bit.

If you want to draw a parallel to Christian value. Look at mutant superpowers as the gift God has given every one of us. X-men are born with great strength and talent, some use that ability to harm, create destruction, hurt others, while others use their gifts to help and save. We are all born with superpowers from God. What do we do with those powers? Do we hide our talents and bury them deep down. Treating them as socially unacceptable and shouldn't be used? Do we use our gifts for evil. Like the Wall Street worker who's talented at making mass amounts of money only to selfishly spend it on sin and harming others. Or like the venture capitalist who's similar gifts enable him to raise vast amounts for charity and good works.

People can be superheroes too with mutant superpowers. We gained these powers at birth, or honed these powers through life. How do we choose to use these powers makes us a hero or villain :)

p.s., enjoyed this blog post as a comic/tv/superhero nerd.

Cody Doremus said...

Thanks a lot for the comments and your story (I had friends who really liked Dragon Ball but I did not have cable).

There are villains in western culture that become good depending on the version and how deep in the timeline you go. Some of them have been rebooted enough that the same thing does not happen.

In Spiderman Sandman in many versions ends up trying to be a good guy and helps Spiderman. Harry Osborn as the second green goblin sometimes breaks the craziness his Dad induced, remembers Peter is his friend, and helps (I think in the 90's Spiderman Cartoon, definitely in the 3rd Toby McGuire movie (though I have to pretend that movie does not exist due to a lot of the writing)). Kraven the Hunter turns good. Scorpion usually at least tries to be good. Michael Morbius turns from blood sucking vampire trying to turn others into vampires to fighting vampires.

Catwoman in Batman tends to go back and forth on being good, bad, or grey.

In X-Men, Magneto usually ends up giving up on the conquest of humans and just wanting to get away from the people trying to kill him. He teams up with the X-Men on occasion. Archangel turns from bad to good (yeah he was brainwashed by Apocalypse, but aren't we brainwashed by sin?). Emma Frost turns good, well sort of, but eventually she turns actually good (at least in Wolverine and the X-Men which was an extremely well written show, too bad there was not a second season). Senator Kelly goes from trying to legislate against mutants to being their biggest supporter in the government. X-Men: Evolution (also amazingly well written as far as the overall series) has a ton of character growth as far as which side people stand in the end versus where they started beyond just Rogue. Gambit has a rather sketchy past that would probably qualify him as a bad guy prior to joining the X-Men.

Deadpool (at least in the first series) is constantly struggling to figure out if he is a good guy or a bad guy and goes back and forth. I have read a couple of the more recent comic books and it sounds like he is pretty much just insane now with no allegiance, so I am not sure that dynamic exists anymore.

Silver Surfer goes from [effectively] destroyer of worlds to fighting the destroyer of worlds.

I am sure there are more I am missing and I have not spent as much time with DC to list beyond the 1 Batman character.

Cody Doremus said...

In Iron Man the Living Laser turns good. In Iron Man: Armored Adventures the Mandarin realizes he is wrong and changes his ways.