In 1977, a few years before glam rock bands and Olivia Newton John helped “spandex” come into its own, the Fruit of the Loom underwear company stumbled upon a brilliant idea. Fruit of the Loom realized that kids love to read comic books about superheroes. Kids will don bath towel capes and their mothers’ gardening gloves in order to create superhero costumes in which to run around the yard as Superman or Batman. And, kids must wear underwear. (Well, they should wear underwear. In some households even that is a challenge.) All those makeshift superhero costumes are bulky and cumbersome, but underwear fits snugly like the heroes’ costumes in the comic books. And so, Fruit of the Loom created “Underoos,” colorful kids’ underwear imprinted with Superman’s “S” or Shazam’s signature lightning bolt on the t-shirt. Now, kids really could look like the heroes they emulated. Underoos sold as fast as Shazam’s lightning, but the new product presented an unexpected problem for families. When kids wore Underoos, they didn’t want to wear anything else! After all, what kid would want to cover up his Spiderman costume with actual clothes? And indeed, somewhere in a photo album at my parents’ house, hopefully buried deep in a bureau drawer, are photos of me (excuse me, photos of Superman) walking hand-in-hand with my mom around Wal-Mart and the grocery store, adorned in nothing but tennis shoes and my red and blue Underoos.
No less than children, we all crave our heroes. We can’t get enough of them. The four highest-grossing movies of 2012 were the Avengers, Batman, the Hunger Games, and James Bond. (You have to move all the way down to the #9 movie, a film about an irreverent Teddy bear who comes to life, before you bypass hero movies.) In each of those four highest grossing films, the heroes are those who live by a bedrock set of rules. They never waver or stumble. Through sheer grit they reach their goals with their integrity intact.
This love of heroes exists outside of fantastic stories as well. The reason the television show “The West Wing” was so popular wasn’t primarily because of Martin Sheen’s acting (as good as that was). It was because President Josiah Bartlett virtually never faltered. He didn’t make indiscreet comments into an open mic. He didn’t take bribes or give out patronage for political favors. In other words, he didn’t do those things to which our real-life politicians and leaders seem to be so prone. And that’s what made him a hero.
The idolization of heroes is not a distinctly modern phenomenon. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews demonstrates to us today (Hebrews 11:29-12:2), people have looked to heroes for inspiration and guidance since biblical times. The names listed in the epistle, other than those of Samson and David perhaps, are likely unfamiliar. But their exploits are exactly what we’d expect. The author says these heroes, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, shut the mouths of lions, escaped the edge of the sword.”
In other words, the Bible would make the best action movie. And very often in Christianity today, that’s how the Bible is presented. There’s even a term for it: “Muscular Christianity,” that articulation of the faith in which the biblical characters are presented in their muscle-bound glory, spiritually and in some cases physically, and in which we are called to emulate them in our own spiritual, physical, social and even political lives. Muscular Christianity finds its way into our world in sports figures like Tim Tebow. It’s preached from many pulpits, and—returning to the kids—it’s embodied in many Sunday school curricula. A quick perusal of the Cokesbury store Sunday school rack will reveal curricula such as “the faith of Abraham,” “The goodness of Joseph,” and the “pure heart of David.”[i]
There’s only one problem. This telling of these stories isn’t true. Half the time, Abraham is laughably fickle. Joseph is a grade-A, narcissistic jerk, which is why his brothers beat him up and sell him into slavery. And David—the archetypal great king—covets another man’s wife and then orchestrates the man’s death so he (David) can have her. The other “heroes” mentioned by the author of Hebrews don’t hold up any better. Rahab earns her living as a prostitute. Sampson breaks his sacred vow to God out of lust for Delilah.
Maybe the New Testament heroes fare better. Let’s see: Peter denies Jesus three times. The apostles bluster and brag only to abandon Jesus at the foot of the cross. Paul idly holds the coats of those who stone an innocent man, and even after Paul’s conversion he is so hard to get along with that his companions keep parting ways.
This is hard to say and hard to hear, but whether we’re talking about standard Sunday school curricula or the inspirational vignettes we find online, the heroic images we construct from the biblical narrative usually just aren’t true. These characters aren’t heroes in the Hollywood mold. And this realization makes some people so nervous that they conveniently disregard it. To reference another Hollywood film, they prefer to look at the projected image of the great Oz rather than the real, small man huddled behind the green curtain.
But if they’re not heroes, why does the author of Hebrews offer us this laundry list of pretenders? If they’re not the stuff of James Bond and Superman, what good are they to us?
It’s important to know that the original, first century audience of the Letter to the Hebrews was very familiar with all of the names the author lists. They knew Samson’s flaws. They knew David’s weaknesses. They knew Rahab’s bad reputation. And they knew the wonder of these characters isn’t their heroism. The wonder—the miracle—is that God called them and made them the agents of his purpose and plan despite their painfully obvious warts and flaws.
I mean, truly, how many of us can relate to Superman? Or James Bond? I can’t lift a car, and I invariably get crumbs in my cummerbund when I wear a tuxedo. But Abraham’s tendency to make matters worse by taking things into his own hands, and David’s covetousness, and Paul’s chronic irritability, and Peter’s false courage…those things I understand. They are the things about myself that sometimes make me squirm when I approach this pulpit to speak a Word to you. I mean, who am I, with all my warts and flaws, to speak for God?
You know how that feels in your own walk of life and faith, don’t you? Each of the characters in Scripture knows how that feels. And yet, we are told, they shut the mouths of lions. They quenched raging fires. And, when they had to, they endured mocking and flogging and chains of imprisonment.
Here it is: Superman is of no use to God, because Superman is not real. Neither is James Bond. Neither is President Josiah Bartlett. What is real is the person who begrudges, and waffles, and gets tired, and lets others down, and occasionally makes really bad mistakes. And that’s the person God pursues and says, “I need you,” and will not let alone.
Why is this so? Why would God deign to pay attention to us, for any reason other than to turn his head in disappointment? Why would God pursue Samson, and Gideon, and Rahab, and us?
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (who is worth reading) says that, though God does not see us as some false, heroic projection, neither does God see us as the pitiful man huddled behind the green curtain. So what does God see?
Von Balthasar’s answer stresses why it is that the Incarnation is central and indispensable to our faith. In the person of Jesus the Christ, God joins himself to our humanity—to us—and God will not see us apart from our connection to Jesus. In other words, God does not see us as defined by our faults and flaws, no matter how awful they are and no matter how much damage they’ve done. God sees us through the power of Jesus to redeem us, any of us. And God declares that his vision is the real us. Von Balthasar says, “The way God sees us is in fact the way we are in reality–for God, this is the absolute and irrevocable truth…Through God’s creative and transformative love, we become what he takes us to be in the light of Christ…our being represented in Christ becomes Christ’s being represented in us.”[ii]
“The way God sees us is in fact the way we are in reality–for God, this is the absolute and irrevocable truth…Through God’s creative and transformative love, we become what he takes us to be in the light of Christ…our being represented in Christ becomes Christ’s being represented in us.” Hans Urs von Balthasar
Do you get that? When God looks at Rahab, God sees Jesus. When God looks at Joseph, God sees Jesus. When God looks at you, God sees Jesus. The author of Hebrews goes on, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings to us so closely.”
We are, indeed, surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, both ancient and contemporary, and from their flaws we can gain strength. This is why they are given to us as examples. God call us, too—even us—to pursue the good, to quench raging fires, to shut the mouths of lions. The same Christ who presents us redeemed before the eyes of God empowers us to do these things. And the more we do them, the more God’s vision of us becomes the reality, the more Christ within us becomes our identity. Think about that through the lens through which God sees you. You and I can shut the mouths of lions! We live in Christ as the joy of God, not as a heroes, but as part of that great cloud of witnesses and saints.
[ii] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Love Alone is Credible, pg. 103-104.