The Cause of Superhero Culture

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Who will rise up for me against the wicked?
    Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?
Unless the Lord had given me help,
    I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Psalm 94:16-17)

Last week I presented on Ministering to Millennials at a conference in Phoenix. One of the last questions I received was about the superhero culture so prevalent with young adults. It’s become big business. Actually, it’s become the BIGGEST genre in the entertainment business.

To date, in 2016 the highest grossing films around the world are superhero/fantasy films. Currently the order looks like this – #1 Captain America: Civil War ($1.1 bil), #4 Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice ($872 mil), #5 Deadpool ($778 mil), #8 X-Men Apocalypse ($509 mil). Further telling is the fact that none of the top 10 movies in revenue are even remotely based in reality.

Thus, the fascinating trend that Hollywood has fallen into in recent years is that the Academy Award for Best Picture each year ends up going to a film deeply rooted in painful realism, yet the movies that make the most at the box office are anything but reality. So we have this tension, as though the cultural elites, the arbiters of quality film-making, are trying to continuously bring us back to the harsh realities of life, all while the general populace is showing (with their attendance and dollars) that they’re yearning for something far greater than the present reality.

None of this, at least in retrospect, is surprising for Christians who take the Bible seriously. In the 20th century, higher academia did it’s best to refute the supernatural. But you simply can’t suppress the truth forever. Often, it’s like trying to press down a bubble under cellophane, it’s going to pop up elsewhere. And you certainly cannot suppress a supernatural God. The 20th century was a good try. But it seems as though the cultural corner has been turned. Even famous scientists, in somewhat controversial fashion, are now claiming to prove God’s existence.

But the rise of superhero culture in the 20th century serves as evidence of mankind’s collective subconscious acknowledging the truth that there exists a being who can surpass mere human capabilities.

C.S. Lewis, following previous theologians who had argued for the existence of God on the basis of something they called the sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine), echoed,

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.” (Mere Christianity)

So, why is Wolverine’s ability to heal so compelling? Because there really is someone who can cure all wounds (Luke 17:19). Why is Superwoman’s ability to speak in any language so compelling? Because there really is a Spirit who works in every language (Acts 2:5-6). Why is Superman’s ability to fly so compelling? Because there really is someone who can be everywhere at any time (Jer. 23:24). Why is his X-ray vision so compelling? Because there really is someone who sees all things (Job 34:21). Why is Spiderman’s ability to swing between buildings of a congested city so compelling? Because there really is someone who can move through huge crowds without problem (Luke 4:30). Why is Nightcrawler’s ability to pop in and out anywhere so compelling? Because there really has been someone who did the same (Luke 24:31). Why is the Hulk so compelling? Because there really is actually someone strong enough to move mountains (Matt. 17:20) and cause the sun to stand still (Josh 10:12-13).Why is Professor X’s mind-reading so compelling? Because there really is someone who knows your deepest thoughts (Psalm 139:2). Why is Aquaman’s ability to influence sea creatures so compelling? Well….he’s really not all that compelling. I’ve always been sympathetic towards Aquaman’s relative lameness – but, truth be told, there really is someone who can control the fish for his purposes (Jon. 1:17).

Now what would you have if one person embodied all of these abilities and more? His name is Jesus. And he showed up to overcome the darkness of our present reality. You can only suppress his truth for so long.

I believe the undeniable superhero culture in which we currently live is only one of many indicators of a society longing for supernatural truth. For instance, as society rebuked not only supernatural talk of God, but also angels and demons in the 20th century, we experienced the rise of alien phenomena. So, if I said… “Mysterious extraterrestrial beings, less than ‘God’ but more than man, who though they do not fully dwell on this planet, interact with this planet using unexplainable advanced powers greater than those seen from the beings of this planet. And these beings typically either bring messages to the people of this planet or remove people from this planet and take them into a different realm (cf. Luke 16:22).” Am I describing aliens….or angels and demons? I’m convinced the former currently serves as a placeholder for the latter.

Or consider the fact that dark matter is the current theory for why the observable matter of the universe doesn’t either collapse upon itself or expand to stretch itself as uninhabitable for life. Somehow it’s okay that “dark matter,” which we cannot observe by any instrument, only by the effects it has on observable matter, is accepted by faith in the scientific community, while God, whose effects are also observed on everything, is denied. I believe the former, in a sense, is a placeholder for the latter. “(Jesus) is before all things, and in him all things HOLD TOGETHER.(Col. 1:17)

So what if a superhero actually existed? What if all superhero powers were actually placed into one person? What if all the great stories about heroes who come from far away to earth to struggle, sacrifice, and use otherworldly power to conquer our deepest villains – what if these great stories were merely leeching off the richness of the greatest, truest story ever told?

And what if our hero’s Spirit actually lives inside us now? If we work together as people whom the Spirit dwells in, the Church, what kind of healing power could we bring into the world?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.(Eph. 3:20-21)

 

Millennials Might Kill Holidays…and Why That’s Okay

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I ran across an interesting article recently, the thrust of which was the idea that Millennials have turned once simple birthday party gatherings into “holy month” monstrosities. The author states:

But millennials took those simple pleasures for granted, and now, many parties have evolved into ravenous emotional beasts: month-long, highly intricate ceremonies that eat up all your savings and Facebook notifications. Absence is not an option. Sickness is not an excuse. The rise of the birthdayzilla has transformed birthday parties from simple one-offs to totalitarian birthday months, and everyone must comply.

Now it’s not particularly noteworthy that Millennials have pushed the boundaries of extreme behavior on self-focused holidays. It’s not even all that surprising to me that the author freely uses terminology like “HOLY months” to describe these events. Since humans were designed for worship, we carve out portions of our lives as sacred and we’re going to worship something as holy. Therefore, if you take God out of the social consciousness, we’re likely going to worship ourselves. Makes perfect sense.

What’s really quite intriguing to me, however, is the idea that Millennials are tampering with the traditional notion of holidays (i.e. from the Middle English for “holy days”). In other words, the surprising twist to me is not that the Millennial generation would consider their birthdays to be “HOLY days.” The unique and telling part to me is that they’ve moved beyond “holy DAYS.”

Millennials are largely asynchronous (i.e. not bound by traditional time structures). For instance, the idea of having to watch a TV show on a certain day of the week at a certain time not only seems foreign to the Millennial mind, but inefficient and wasteful. They do their classes online when they want. They stream entertainment content online when they want. They shop online when they want. Those are significant changes from prior generations.

Consequently, from the perspective of time, Millennials are pushing humanity to become less event (time) driven and more lifestyle (content & attitude) driven.

There are unquestionably some implications here for Christianity and the church.

For instance, for years humanity has thought in terms of special events. Even the Church has thought in terms of special events – Christmas, Easter, etc. But consider this – Would we have to have a Christmas Day (or Eve) celebration? Would we have to have an Easter Day celebration? Think carefully here… As Christians, we cannot help but celebrate the sin-removing, life-changing, eternity-altering facts of our Savior’s birth, death, and resurrection. That’s a given. But are we primarily tied to certain days for these celebrations? Or do these facts primarily tie us to new life (and new lifestyles) in Christ?

If there’s any doubt about this Millennial shift from time to content & attitude, event to lifestyle, just keep this post in mind next Christmas when you hear a Millennial say something like, “We’re ‘doing Christmas’ with my parents this weekend and then my husband’s parents next weekend.” That mindset, or language, didn’t exist several generations ago.

Without rehashing the entire history of why Christians arrived at certain dates for celebrations, I think many believers today are in tune with the fact that Christianity borrowed pagan Roman dates for its celebrations. Christmas was in all likelihood linked to Saturnalia. Easter was in all likelihood linked to Eostre. There remains scholarly debate about the exact years, let alone the exact dates, of Christians attaching themselves to these events. So the idea that we MUST celebrate on certain days seems a little silly. Furthermore, we know that Christians were NOT celebrating these events as specific holidays until hundreds of years after Christ’s life on earth. (Dr. Paul L. Maier’s In The Fullness of Time is my top recommendation for such corresponding data.)

The bottom line is simply this – the early Christians did NOT find it necessary to have special celebrations on special dates. The early Christians, did, however find it essential that if you were a follower of Christ, ALL 365 days of the year be fully dedicated to the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior. While the commercialization of “event days” like Christmas is widely understood, it remains a potentially valid case that perhaps such days are more detrimental than helpful.

So, am I advocating the removal of celebratory Christian festivals? No, not necessarily. And I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone is inherently doing anything wrong by celebrating on such days. The more relevant question though is whether or not God designed for the Christian Church to have such days, i.e. are they wise or not?

The words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians should at least give us pause for consideration:

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:16-17)

This would appear to give some legs to the argument that special day events were the product of religious observance, but lifestyle is the product of the gospel of Jesus.

At its peak, it’s believed that the Roman Empire had festival celebrations somewhere between half and two-thirds of the days of the calendar year. There seems to be something about the human heart that wants to make one day more sacred than the other.   Hmmm.

Realistically, do I think Millennials are going to overturn the concept of holidays? No. It’s been around too long. And I think there are too many Millennials who, while they aren’t wired to think in terms of events, nonetheless enjoy days off from work.

That said, do I think the way we perceive time is changing? Absolutely. Do I think that’ll have profound implications for the way we exist as The Church? Yes. And do I think that’s all bad? Nope.

Most of all, I’m excited for my time in eternity, about which Peter says, With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Pet. 3:8) At that point, I won’t be bothered by my stupid mistakes from the past. At that point, I won’t be anxious about the uncertainty of future events. At that point, I’ll just be…with the Lord, who by grace washed away my past and secured my future, so that I could finally live in the eternal moment. 

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The Idols We Never Knew We Had – Bible Study

A little different direction this week – wanted to share with you some of the other stuff I’ve been working on of late. Linked above is an interview with Northwestern Publishing House Editor, Daniel Schroeder, for the now available study “The Idols We Never Knew We Had.”

I had a ton of fun putting the lessons together and, after piloting the study on my own, was really pleased with the results.

A more nuanced view of idolatry has been one of the top two or three spiritual insights I’ve gained in my adult life as a Christian. I’m hoping to share some of the good news that I learned along the way. Please encourage your church to consider running the 8 week series, either on Sunday mornings or in a Small Group setting. You can purchase a copy at the links below.

A downloadable version is available HERE.

There is also a CD version available HERE.

NOTE: You will not be required to look at my adult braces during the course of the study.