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Russell Moore Christian Blog and Commentary

Russell Moore

Russell Moore's Blog

This week marks the 1000th issue of Action Comics, and the 80th anniversary of the Superman. Quite a bit has happened in the eight decades since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created the now iconic hero. Brian Michael Bendis, long of Marvel Comics is coming over to Superman’s publisher, DC, to launch a new era for the Man of Steel. Oh, and, due to fan demand, the classic red trunks are back. As Clark Kent hits eighty, we perhaps should ask why the myth of the last son of Krypton has persisted so long in popular culture.

I do not write this as a neutral observer, but as a fan of the character—and the larger DC universe—since before I was even able to read. The stories from Smallville and Metropolis (and Gotham and Central City and Paradise Island) populated the Fortress of Solitude that was my childhood imagination in ways that, looking back, I think pointed me onward to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien and beyond. But why did I, along with millions of others over the past eighty years, want to put that red blanket over my shoulders and pretend to fly?

Superman's Appeal 

Author Grant Morrison (himself a prolific writer of comic books and graphic novels) has argued that Superman persists because he represents hope and power; he is the pop-culture equivalent of a “sun god.” Some psychologists would say that Superman appeals to us because of his power. We long for the grandiosity inherent in the ability to fly, outpace bullets, see through walls, or, as on the cover of that first Action Comics, lift a car over our heads. Some would say that children especially identify with the phenomenon of the secret identity; “I might seem to be bumbling, bespectacled Clark Kent, but if you could just see me in my Kryptonian battle armor…”

The idea of Superman as the idealization of strength and power would make sense. His name, after all, comes from Friedrich Nietzsche and his idea of the Übermensch from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. If Nietzschean power were what we longed for though, there would be other characters, more powerful than Superman, to stand in for hope. The atomic symbol of the Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan would be far more appropriate than the S-looking logo of the House of El.

No, what we love about Superman is not his power so much as his vulnerability. In this, playwright David Mamet was right when he wrote in the 1980s that the real draw of Superman is not flight or X-ray vision, but Kryptonite. “Kryptonite is all that remains of his childhood home,” Mamet wrote. “It is the remnants of that destroyed childhood home, and the fear of those remnants, which rule Superman’s life.”

“Far from being invulnerable, Superman is the most vulnerable of beings, because his childhood home was destroyed,” Mamet argued. “He can never reintegrate himself by returning to that home—it is gone. It is gone and he is living among aliens to whom he cannot even reveal his rightful name.” The Superman mythos is then, he concludes, a fable not of strength but of a “cry for help.”

A Broken Hero

Mamet is partly right. An inexpressibly powerful alien force would not be as beloved, because such wouldn’t seem to ring true to our own lives. Kryptonite is the symbol of brokenness. More than the literal Kryptonite, though, is the metaphorical Kryptonite in the background. Superman wears the uniform of a lineage far away and lost forever. So in our world, he has learned to love those who welcomed him into the human family—the Kents. But even this further reveals brokenness. Superman may be the Man of Tomorrow, but he can be hurt; he can even be killed. And, yet his greatest weakness is that he can lose those he loves. We can identify with this. We don’t all come from Krypton, but we all have Kryptonite.

This brokenness, though, leads to purpose and mission. In the Geoff Johns era of the series (one of the best, in my opinion), Jonathan Kent tells his son, “Your greatest power isn’t being able to fly or see through walls. It’s knowing what the right thing to do is.” That’s consistently true of the character over the past eighty years. That’s one of the reasons the current incarnation of Superman is especially inspiring; he is a husband and a father, trying to do his best to balance family and work.

This sense of mission, and the ethical framework, undergirding it isn’t activated by a yellow sun, but by patient parenting. It didn’t come from Krypton, but from Kansas. Superman may carry out his adventures with the powers of Kal-El, but all the while he’s really Clark Kent. Those principles point him back to the joy and hurt of love that can die, but is as strong as death, stronger even.

Much has been made of the religious imagery in the Superman mythos—especially the Old Testament echoes of Moses in the basket. Some have suggested that Superman is a Christ figure, a concept implicit throughout the Superman Returns film and elsewhere. As a Christian, though, I think we identify with Superman not so much because he is godlike but because he is, underneath it all, so very human. We might be thrilled to see a superhero flying upward in the skies above us, but, really, we’re looking past him, for Someone else.

We’d all like to be saved from danger by a real or imagined Superman every once in a while. But super-men have come and gone. This character has persisted for almost a century. That’s not because we think he can save us, but because we know, deep in our hearts, that a Superman needs a savior too.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Choreograph

After the recent coalition bombing of multiple chemical weapons sites belonging to the Syrian regime, several people have asked me the question of what happens if such military interventions develop into a full-scale war in Syria: would such a war be just? I’ll say at the outset I don’t have a definitive answer to offer, but I do think we need to ask what principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table.

On the one hand, the question is not really a hypothetical. There is already war in Syria, a war that has been raging for some time. The question, though, is about the involvement of other countries, including our own, in that war.  The question is a good one, and ought to be considered long before any potential military action, not just during or after.

Just War Theory

Some Christians, of course, mostly in the Anabaptist traditions, would argue that no military action of any kind is ever warranted. Pacifism teaches that any violence of any kind is morally wrong. And while I am not a pacifist, I respect the view, and take it seriously. Most Christians, however, both today and in the broader history of the church, are not pacifists but hold to some version of “just war theory,” as classically articulated by Augustine. While not seeking to argue between pacifism and just war theory here, it is useful to examine the current situation in terms of just war theory to ask whether, on those terms, such a war would be justified.

Just war is not the opposite of pacifism. It is not militarism that justifies all military action, or justifies military action by reason of “might makes right.” Indeed, just war theory, at its best, does the opposite. While seeing war as sometimes being a regrettable necessity in the time-between-the-times of this fallen cosmic order, the theory holds that war brings with it tremendous moral consequence. Just war theory, then, seeks to bound in the justifications for violence.

One might compare just-war theory to the “exception clauses” view of divorce and remarriage. Some Christians hold that no divorce is ever warranted, for any cause. As with pacifism, I respect that view for the seriousness with which it takes the Sermon on the Mount, though I do not think that is what Jesus was teaching. Those who disagree with the no-exceptions view, though, would be wrong to take the opposite view, that marital bonds can be broken for any reason (which is what Jesus was teaching against). In just war theory, war should be a grave exception to the norm, which should be peace and order.

While there are several “planks” of just-war theory, let’s look at a couple that are relevant to the crisis in Syria. The first principle of a just war, that of a just cause, is clearly, in my view, met in this case. The Assad regime is lawless and murderous, guilty of war crimes against the people of Syria themselves. Assad has defied international law in a way that fully justifies action against his forces, such as the limited strikes we have seen so far. It is right that the leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, are not yielding to the morally bankrupt vision that emerges from time to time in history, arguing that defenseless people should fend for themselves as they are being slaughtered.

What it Means to Prevail

What, though, if the international community were to move toward something more—toward full-scale war in Syria? This could result in a regional war along the lines of Afghanistan or Iraq or even into a World War, given Assad’s alliances with Russia and Iran. What principles would need to be considered if such an option ever comes to the table?

One of the first questions that would need to be asked is whether there is, to use the language of the classic Augustinian theory, a “probability of success.” The nations involved would need to know that there is a reasonable opportunity to prevail, which would mean, in this case, first of all, a definition of what it means to prevail. Regime change is certainly warranted in Syria, but regime change alone is not enough. The nations going to war would need to determine not only that the Assad regime is illegitimate (it is, in my view), but also what would replace that regime. Replacing one set of terrorists with another does not bring about justice or peace. We would need to know that any military action would not only be just in cause, and carried out with just limits, but also that such action would not make the situation worse.

That would entail also a clear communication, in the case of the United States, of what such war would mean, and why, morally and prudentially, it should be waged. Some wars are fought with no possibility of success because those waging them do not have the military capability to win. That’s not the case for the allied nations involved here. Sometimes, though, the issue is not ammunition but national will. Would the country be willing to sustain the cost, in blood and treasure, of a war in the Middle East? What would be the worst-case scenario, and would the country be willing to bear it? Those questions must be asked and answered.

Military action in Syria is a pressing one for us as citizens of earthly states, but Syria is even more pressing for us as citizens of the kingdom of God. As the church of Jesus Christ, part of our own earliest history is there. We have brothers and sisters in Christ in mortal jeopardy there. The refugees fleeing for their lives from Syria are our neighbors, created in the image of God. As the church, we have no military sword (Matt. 26:52). We may debate, and disagree with one another, about what, if any, military action the state should take in Syria, but we should be united as the church in the kind of warfare we have been called to: the spiritual warfare of prayer (Eph. 6:12).

As we debate, then, we should pray for wisdom and justice as we seek the Lord on behalf of those political and military leaders making decisions (1 Tim. 2:1-3), and pray for peace and order and justice and righteousness in Syria.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock/zabelin

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of public television’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The milestone will bring with it a major book, a feature film (starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers), and even a U.S. postage stamp. When one considers all the ephemera of children’s programming, the ongoing cultural resonance of this show is staggering. Fifty years from now will anyone note the anniversary of Gumball or Clarence? I doubt it. So why does Mr. Rogers, even long after his death, still beckon us into his neighborhood?

Fred Rogers, after all, is hardly the sort of person one would choose to “connect with the next generation.” He was a Presbyterian minister, of all things. Those cardigan sweaters and loafers would have seemed out-of-date in all fifty of the years since the first broadcast aired. Mister Rogers had no zaniness or charisma or celebrity pull that one would audition if one were looking for someone to speak to children.

But that is why he persists in the public imagination. Mister Rogers was never “Fred.” He was Mister Rogers. He was a grown-up, and that’s exactly what children loved.

That’s the part of Fred Rogers’s work that is probably the easiest to misunderstand. One can listen to the songs he sang… “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive…” or “I like you just the way you are…” and assume that Rogers was a live-action version of a sappy self-esteem curriculum. Rogers, though, would talk to children about the darkest topics possible, addressing children’s fears directly, whether those fears were about being sucked down the drain in a bathtub or parents’ divorcing or the death of grandparents. He even helped children think through terrorist attacks and war, in a way that neither waved away the darkness of violence nor surrendered to fear or anger.

When one listens to those old broadcasts, what is striking is that Rogers, while not startling children with graphic details inappropriate for them, deals honestly both with the children and the subject he’s addressing. There is reassurance, but it seems to be an earned reassurance—the reassurance of one who is a diplomat from the world of grown-ups.

I think often of the account I read of a man who grew up in extreme neglect and abuse but found a few minutes of respite every day when he entered Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When he said, ‘I like you just the way you are,’ it was as though he was speaking directly to me.” Rogers transcends generational differences and media trends because he had a unique ability to break through the fourth wall of the screen, to seem to be actually talking to his audience, to actually almost see them.

The idea of being seen, of being acknowledged, is almost universally recognized by early childhood development scholars as necessary for the healthy emotional and mental growth of a child. As a Christian, I think this need points not only to the foundations of nature, but beyond nature. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father’s voice announces, “You are My beloved Son, and with you I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

Children were drawn to Rogers not because he was a spectacle; he wasn’t. They were drawn to him because an adult seemed to look over that glass divide and say to them that their value was not in their striving and doing and buying and consuming. “It’s you I like. It’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair. But it’s you I like. The way you are right now. The way down deep inside you, not the things that hide you. Not your toys; they’re just beside you…But it’s you I like.”

Sappy? Yes. Awkward? Kind of. Mister Rogers would probably plead guilty to all of that. But, for at least fifty years of children, he never seemed to be selling anything. In an era in which whirl is king, Fred Rogers provided a little vision of stability. He had the same house, the same mailman, the same puppets, and in his personal life, the same wife. In a world of fractured neighborhoods and splintered families, who can honestly say that we don’t need to see, somewhere, that such is possible?

In 1997, Rogers received an Emmy Award for lifetime achievement. His acceptance speech went viral, and is widely viewed even now. What made it so was not some sort of explosive antic, but his request to the crowd to take ten seconds, in silence (“dead air” in television-speak) to think about the people in their lives, living or dead, who had believed in them, helped them along the way. Those ten seconds were filled with images of world-renowned celebrities wiping away tears. That, I think, is why Mister Rogers still matters.

His program reminded us that we are not alone. He reminded us that no matter how we display and act tough, however much we “win,” that what we really want is to be known and to be loved. Mister Rogers never seemed to care whether people thought he was old-fashioned or irrelevant or not “edgy enough.” He remembered what it was like to be a child, but he had loved being a grown-up, and he knew we could too.

We are looking, ultimately, for the weight of the glory of the kingdom of the reigning Christ. But, sometimes, along the way, it’s good to be reminded that, despite all the brokenness and loneliness of a fallen world, it can be a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Photo: Fred Rogers, the host of the children's television series, 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,' sits for a promotional portrait in this picture from the 1980's. 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood' will broadcast its last new episode August 31, 2001 it was announced August 30 in a statement by Rogers from Nantucket, Massachusetts. Rogers died at the age of 74 February 27, 2003 at his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home. He had been suffering from stomach cancer.

Photo courtesy: Family Communications Inc./Getty Images