Recently I heard a podcast host ask a science fiction writer named Ted Chiang what he thought about superheroes. Neither science fiction nor superheroes are subjects that interest me much. But Ted Chiang’s response did.
He said he has several problems with superheroes, the biggest one is this. A question he asks about any story he reads or writes is whether it maintains or disrupts the status quo. And Ted Chiang says nearly every superhero story upholds the status quo. Since the details of, say, a Marvel comic book are anything but ordinary, this may sound like a strange thing to say. But the arc of a superhero story is pretty predictable. Everything is relatively peaceful and fine until evil lawbreakers disrupt the world. And the superhero swoops in, whether by cape or time machine or Batcar, to bring things back into alignment.
Ted Chiang said this is a great pattern for producers of comic books because you get to start the pattern over with each superheroic rescue. The plot line keeps getting reset. But what if the status quo is what’s wrong? What if what counts as normal is deeply unjust or disordered? That’s a harder story to tell. And it’s even harder to make a franchise out of it, because what do you do with the new normal the superhero has helped bring about?
It’s interesting to note that the Bible isn’t really anything like a comic book, even if individual stories seem to be made for the genre. Things go wrong in the first few pages of the Bible, and they pretty much stay that way. Not only that, we (i.e. humans) are part of the problem from the beginning, not just the generally decent, but also mostly helpless citizens alternately being attacked and saved by superhuman forces.
This sounds like bad news since what I really would like at times is for someone to swoop in and set right what’s wrong in my life and in this world once and for all. But how often does that happen? It seems the Bible was written for a world in which the status quo is what’s broken, and you and I are mostly muddling through. And it was written by other fallen fellow muddlers through. Think of the uncomfortable laughs of Sarah and Abraham to the news of an impossible pregnancy, or Rebecca’s scheming to get her favorite son a blessing, or David’s countless betrayals and failures, or Peter’s denial of Jesus three times before the cock crowed on the morning his friend was dragged off to Golgotha. In the Bible, the heroes are part of what’s wrong with the world.
There’s a lot of wisdom in the way the Bible addresses the human condition. What it may help me with most basically is to give up the illusion that all would be well if some sufficiently powerful hero would come reset my world. When I give up that illusion, what I might find is that life is all about learning to love a little better tomorrow than I know how to love today. And I can only do this work well by admitting first that my capacity to love is part of what’s so badly broken in this world. The flawed heroes of the Bible are good news because they hold out the hope that a heroic instance of love might emerge even from a flawed and broken heart like mine.
I suppose faith does make a kind of sense as a superpower made for a universe as uncertain and imperfect as ours. So, how about I leave you with a Guy Clark song about a caped and earthbound hero I’ll take over Superman any day of the week.