Geoff John’s Comments on why Superman is “The Most Relatable Character Ever,” and Why He’s Wrong

I been posting my thoughts on Superman’s super-ness over the last few weeks in my series, “Capes and Flags.” One of my points was that Superman embodies, even though he is an alien, what we like the think of as a human ideal – the perfect human body and moral code. This idealism is what I find quite alarming for two reasons: (1) What about us who are not white, male, muscular, handsome, and (questionably) morally exemplary?; and (2) we must consider, then, what effect Superman’s idealism has had on American culture and the adolescent minds over the last 80 years of his existence as a comics icon and a feature film star.

I say all of this in the respect to the recent comments by Geoff Johns, the mastermind behind the new Superman comics series, “The Men of Tomorrow,” and Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics. Johns said that Superman’s ideal is something beautiful and that he is the most relatable character ever. Here are few quotes from his interview over at ComicBookResources.com:

“Superheroes — I like to call them “good junk food.” On the surface, they look like they’re candy and they’re popcorn, but I think they embody ideals that all of us get drawn to. Especially Superman. You know exactly how Superman’s going to act. I think he’s one of the easiest characters to write, because you know exactly what he’s going to do.

 

“I think it’s important to keep these characters alive, because they do inspire people. Especially this one. This is the most inspiring super out there.

 

“Everyone’s like, “He’s so powerful, I can’t relate to him.” Are you kidding me? He’s the most relatable character ever. He grew up on a farm, he doesn’t have a lot of friends, feels isolated, he can’t tell everybody what his secrets are. He’s a great character. He feels overlooked — who hasn’t felt overlooked, or wanted to connect with people? All social media is, is people wanting to connect with other people. That’s all it is. Because people long to connect with other people. And Superman is the embodiment of that. He’s more relevant now than ever.”

Johns’ sentiment is respectable, especially considering his attempt to flesh out the humanity of Superman in recent comics. However, The reasons he gives for Superman’s relatability fall short considering what I have briefly detailed above, and what you can find in my other posts. Sure, he is from a farm, but he embodies the city and its technology, able to overcome its dangers and fight its crime. His isolation is no doubt relatable, but only if you take away his great power as the cause of his loneliness and replace it with fear, rejection, and weakness that normal humans, me and you, feel and have to deal with. In this way, Superman as an icon of the small town farmer, the one who is lonely, and those of us who are cast-out and overlooked, simply doesn’t work. Real human pain, I want to suggests, cannot be relatable if it has to be first filtered through great power that then causes pain and some arbitrary form of weakness. Superman is not truly weak, nor is his truly from a farm; the only reason his is overlooked is because he is borderline narcissistic about his self-sacrifice for the sake of others (primarily women; I should say, primarily women he loves and feels need his protection). Last years “Man of Steel” movie came as a prime reminder that Superman is hard to make relatable, even if you give him Kevin Costner’s ideals and a every-man’s hairy chest.

Most people think Superman brings hope to and something to which us fallen human can aspire (just listen to Russel Crowes’ words in the trailer for “Man of Steel”), that the Man of Tomorrow is what we people of today are reaching for, that Superman serves as a Christ-figure showing us the way, or at least giving us hope for being better. Now this all sounds great and powerful, and maybe it is on the surface; but underneath, as I have argued in my earlier posts, it’s simply a way to cover over very realistic pain and tragedy with masculine salvation.

And for those who think Superman is a Christ-figure: remember that Jesus died on a cross as a homeless man who was betrayed by all his friends, and, if you believe as much, resurrected still with scars intact. Jesus was so not-super it killed him, so intimately human that his story has lasted 2,000 years.  I think we all can relate to that guy regardless of our faith, but maybe not so much to the good-looking Superman that Geoff Johns’ is talking about.

I Am Not A Blessing!: Witnessing and Oversimplified Stories

Too often in the church we dull the horror of people’s stories by our need to appropriate these stories as necessary content for witnessing and blessing toward others. In doing so, we effectively skip to the end of the story without having to experience any of the real horror and truth with these people in the moment(s) of their suffering.

I believe the same can be said about the Gospel narrative, as well. More so than not, Christians attempt to boil the Gospel down to one act: Jesus’ death on the cross. This is apparent in the majority of famous hymns, such as the “Old Rugged Cross” (hymns like “I’ll Fly Away” are equally as guilty, just in their contraction of the Gospel into the singular focus of heaven), and countless sermons directed to the cross of Jesus and its salvific operation for the “damned.”

A fancy name for what happens in these instances is called “metanarrative,” which simply means a grand narrative that simplifies and focuses smaller narrative into one main point or idea, roughly speaking. For example, if you asked me what the Harry Potter books were about, I would say that the metanarrative is that a young boy grows up through several hardships and magical encounters with the infamous Voldemort. In this definition, I have funneled the meaning of the narrative into one big, simplified idea. But, as you Harry Potter lovers will duly point out, there is much more going on in the books than that. This why, and I have personal experience with this, people will often tell you that the best way to sum up Harry Potter, or any other book for that matter, is to read it!

We see this very thing at work in the churches popular notion of witnessing. Churches go out and approach people with a three-sentence catch phrase of the Christian Drama, which often goes something like this: “Excuse me, can I share the Gospel with you? Are you a sinner? If so, (you know you are) Jesus died on a cross for you so you would not have to. Accept Jesus, believe he was raised from the dead, confess your sins, and you will be saved.” (This sentence comes from my personal experience from various churches, and, as paraphrased as it might be, it is a very real and common trend in the church.) The difficulty of this witnessing paragraph is the beginning sentence, that is, the notion that anyone could sum up the Gospel in five minutes on an isle of Walmart, or, more commonly, in one week at a African village. On a side note, I want to argue that this is the reason our churches are dying and that we are not making concrete relationship anymore in the church. Namely, people are looking for something deeper than a sermon trying to save people every Sunday, or a hymn about going to heaven. But that is another post for another day.

Oh, and this is what “witnessing” meant for the early church. Martyr comes from the Greek word for witness.

For the purpose of what I have said above about people’s personal stories and the way the Gospels are often read, I want to reject metanarratives and suggest a more intimate encounter with people’s stories and a more involved notion of reading the Bible. By denying metanarratives, we resists conflating the Gospel story into one moment, however definitive it maybe. There is so much to experience and lament and cry and laugh about in the Gospels, apart from Jesus’ death. The Gospel is not simply the sum of its parts, or paradigmatic of its climax; rather, the Gospel is meant to be read with painstaking attendance to the minor details. Admittedly, one could argue that these minor details are unintelligible without the cross; I am not denying that. But the same can be said of the reverse – the cross is most definitely unintelligible without attention to the details leading up to Calvary in their own respect.

Likewise, listening and interacting with people’s personal stories, especially Christian people, should be experienced along the way with the person; every horror, every happiness should be dealt with on their own accord and not as a means to an end, especially if that end is witnessing to others. So, like the Harry Potter books, the only way to actually know a person’s story is to experience it with them in the moment, to actually read their story with patience and loyalty, and without simplifying it into a sentence or two.

Paul the Terrorist, David the Murderer, and other Redemption Stories

A scripture that has continues to disturb me:

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady rise in Pauline Studies at both the church and the academic levels. While Dr. Richard Hayes and NT Wright (J.R. Daniel Kirk’s book is equally amazing) have led the scholarly charge in the last few decades, in the mainstream church pastors such as Mark Driscoll and John Piper have, unfortunately, defined a very skewed version of Paul for a new Christian generation.  However, I am not about going after Driscoll or massaging Hayes here. Rather, I want to simply reflect on what the above passage could mean for those of us who don’t turn a blind eye to the disturbing reality of the pre-apostle Paul in Acts 7-8.

It is interesting that we often overlook these verses in our nostalgic and heroic notions of the Apostle Paul.  When we think of the Romans 8 Paul, does the fact that he held the coats of those who stoned Stephen cross our minds? When we read his beautiful exposition on love in 1 Corinthians 13, does the image of him “ravaging” the church overtake? Even though we know how the story of Paul plays out – his miraculous conversion and responsibility for half of our New Testament – we still need to reflect on what it means to have a heroic model of faith with such a troubled past in Paul.

First, some attention to detail. In the Greek text of Acts, there are two words pertaining to Paul’s actions that are particularly telling for our purposes. The first occurs in Acts 8:3, when the author states that Saul “was ravaging the church, and entered house after house, he dragged off men and women. . .”. The Greek verb for ravaging, lumaino, connotes an image of destruction and was used by the greater ancient world when speaking of Greeks raiding enemy cities (BDAG). Lumaino is also thought to be derived from the older Greek noun luma, meaning the “filth left from washing.” Although this verse is scary enough, I cannot help hear the same type of narrative that took place in the Holocaust. No doubt, the Nazis dragged men and women from their homes for the sole reason that the Jews were polluting the earth, the remaining “filth” standing in the way of Hitler’s ravage cleansing of Germany. Holding together these two images of these decisive moments in Jewish history is riveting, and, as it should be, nauseating.

The second particularity comes from the use of the Greek dioko in Acts 9:4 in which Paul is confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute (dioko) me?” Although persecution gets a softer meaning in the modern church, of the 44 occurrences of dioko in the New Testament, over half are associated with death ( Matt 23:34; Luke 21:12; Gal 1:13; dioko can also mean “pursue” in a positive sense, and is used quite often by Paul to infer a pursuit of faith or Christian living; Rom 14:19; Hebrew 12:14). Moreover, dioko can also mean “to cause to run or flee” (BDAG). Again, utilizing some heavy interpretive imagination, my first though of dioko in the “fleeing” and “running” sense is that of 9/11 and images of thousands of people running from the falling buildings in New York after the terrorist attacks. Again, although these connections are held together by a fine thread, we should not ignore them.

As we have seen, Acts makes no effort to obscure who Paul was before his conversion. The fact that the first encounters we have with Paul in the Bible included words like “ravaging” and “persecuting” should tell us something very important about Acts and its purpose in evoking such strong images of death and destruction. Of course, Acts wants us to focus on the new Paul post-Acts 8. This new focus, however, only makes sense in light of the author’s stark and intentional contrast to the old. This contrast can also be found the story David. David, one of the most respected characters of the Bible, was a noble young man. Unfortunately, after being crowned king and getting used to having whatever he wanted, he killed Uriah the Hittite after he found out that he was the husband of Bathsheba, a young woman he fancied through his binoculars one night. Let’s call David was he is: a murder and an adulterer.  But, as the books of Samuel want to illustrate, this is not who David is, but who he was. The same is with Paul. Paul changed. Acts 9 and on presents him as a new creation, one worthy to carry the torch for all of Christianity for centuries to come. But, I don’t think, we can expect that Paul and David, or anyone who knew them, forgot about the terrible things of their past.

I think you know where I was going with this from the beginning. What about modern-day terrorists and murderers and other criminal stories? From experience, I know the inherent difficulty of the church dealing with petty criminals, let alone murderers and those whom America tries for treason. It is an extremely delicate and wrenching conundrum even at the most elementary level of criminality. At any rate, Christian have to ask themselves, “if Paul and David can been redeemed, who can’t?” If they can change and be accepted as Christian exemplars, should we not reconsider those whom we have dismissed and pushed past the boundary of redemption? I can’t stress enough the delicacy and sensitivity with which I am writing this piece. At this very moment I am juggling situations of major pertinence to this topic. I will say that if we are to take the Bible seriously and if we are to proclaim a Christ who “died for everyone,” then we must consider these questions. Before we call in the drones or advocate for death row, we must open our Bible and cry, scream, and negotiated these issues with fear and trembling, as Kierkegaard would suggest.

The Bible does not sugarcoat the facts – Paul was a terrorist, David a murderer (Abraham a psycho; John the Baptist a nut-job; etc).  However, contrary to the popular belief that the Bible and its writers have a  subtle, misleading  way of covering up the social deformity of biblical history and the conspiracies within, The Bible actually operates  in an anti-Da Vinci Code fashion by being up front about the fallacies of its characters and the tragedies they commit. If we truly read the Bible, we would see a story about severely broken people doing extraordinary things; whether the extraordinary is inspiring or downright appalling depends on which part of the story you read. The Bible slaps us in the face with the reality of life in its embodiment of all that is joyful and tragic.

Who should, could, or would we add to our redemption stories?

Check out the poll below to weight in, or, please feel free to comment. I would love to hear your voice here, or through email.

joshuacbarfield@gmail.com

Gun Control, Jesus, and the Family

_Full_candle_Candle_light_4010In the wake of the tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, I have been overwhelmed at amount of discussion on gun control and the courage of human beings to severely attack Barack Obama for trying to “take away their guns.” Let us be clear – Obama is trying to ban assault weapons and make it more difficult for people to get a registered handgun or other type of firearm. For all those who are freaking out: Obama is not going to come into your house and take the guns out of your closet or gun safe. You will still be able to shoot your deer and protect yourself. Calm down. I find it funny that it was harder for me to get my marriage licenses than it would be for me to buy a semi-automatic rifle; the last time I checked, my wife is not a deadly weapon that could be used to kill innocent people (please forgo the jokes).

Also, I have yet to hear anyone in Sandy Hook come out and advocate against stricter gun control laws. What’s more, no pro-gun rights senators would go on major broadcasting networks and discuss their opinions this week. This silence is important and Americans should pay attention to how the people closest to the tragedy are reacting. The majority of the people speaking out against gun control have nothing to do with the victims and are just separated enough from the massacre to post pro-gun Facebook statuses and such, while still seeming to have bit of grief for the victims. What they are really saying is, “ I am sad for these people, but this has nothing to do with me and my guns, so keep your hands off them. I am not saying these are not genuine people and statues; the fact that I am writing this post shows that I am, in some way, separated enough to comment on this tragedy myself. Does this situation have nothing to do with you and I?

The immediate families and friends of these children, I suspect, have a very different view on gun control post-Sandy Hook. Why is this? We state our opinions and try to be objective, but I am sure in Sandy Hook today there are few objective people. If anything, we need a little more subjectivity and personal interaction with political issues these days.

I am reminded of The Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus speaking about family. While Jesus is inside of a house, some people come to him and tell him his mother and brothers are outside and want to talk to him. Jesus answers,  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a dynamic family model Jesus is speaking of.

Christianity gives us the unique opportunity to treat others like they are a part of our own family, even when they are a different race, nationality, or we down right hate them. What this implicates is that those very kids who were massacred were our own kids; the parents who are mourning today in Connecticut are our mothers, fathers, and grandparents. There is no objectivity along these lines. If Christians would take the words of Christ seriously, if people would realize that Jesus destroys an objective view of the family, then, I believe some of us would have a very different view on gun control considering it was your own kids who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In Christ, our immediate family is stretched out to all people. So in some mysterious way, we should experience this tragedy as if it happened in our own towns, in our own households. For sure, we have to be sensitive when talking like this, because God only knows that the pain those Newtown parents and family members are feeling is unimaginable to me. But we also have to admit that something transformative happens when we are brought under Christ’s spirit.

We now have the unique opportunity discuss these issues in a serious manner, taking into account all of the pain and loss in the last year. I cannot expect people to let go of their opinions and pro-gun rights rants, but I do believe that Christianity beckons us to remember that when we talk about the people who were murdered at Sandy Hook, we are talking about our own children, friends, and relatives.

And for those who use the ever-so popular argument, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” you are right: Guns don’t kill people. Guns kill your children and your mothers and your brothers.

Things I am Working on . . .

It has been a good minute since I have posted, due to the fact that Josh Barfield met his infamous “divinity school workload.” Nonetheless, I figured I would at least state some of the things I am studying and interest me lately:

1. I really want to have a good reason to read Hegel‘s Phenomenology of Spirit. I am having a hard time finding a good reason to take on mass confusion.

2. I am taking a class on Frantz Fanon which outlines colonialism and its effect on seeing the other. As we deal with racism, sexuality, and relationships, we are concerned how the Incarnation of Jesus interrupts our field of vision, especially in viewing other bodies (skin) in light of Jesus becoming a body. My idea is to read Hegel and Fanon together in some way.

3. I want to write a book called, Why the Divinity of Jesus Does(n’t) Matter. My goal is primarily to view Jesus’ divinity as an idol –  a scapegoat to patch our misunderstanding – for the modern believer, and approach his humanity as primary.  I want to read Hegel’s death of God in the Incarnation as a humanistic approach of empowerment. This will be way down the road, and may never happen.

4. I really want to try to think about something else than Hegel. You can see this reflected in my first 3 points. . .

5. I can wait to read Jim Butcher’s latest addition to the Dresden Files, Cold Days. Harry Dresden returns from the dead!!!!!

6.  I also would love to read more Alain Badiou. Shout out to Hollis Phelps for introducing me to Badiou.

Thats all folks. Hopefully I will have time to post some more intellectual things very soon. Until next time, I would love to hear what you are interested in and where my interests intersect with yours. 

What is the Task of Systematic Theology?

What is the task of Systematic Theology?

What a wonderful and complex question; one that I am struggling with at this present moment. As I read in preparation for my first Christian Theology Class, I am struck (and instructed to review) by this question.

One of my sources thinks that the task of systematic theology is to “figure out what Christianity stands for in the world” (Emery, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity, xiii). But are we not skipping a very systematic and important question when we agree with the above quote. Why does our discussion start with taking Christianity at face value, leaving the Christian faith uninterrogated and to be foundational for our conclusions? Should we not question the authority that we are attempting to posit as our foundational lenses through which we will see our task and make our decisions?

So, maybe we should back up and frame our question from a different perspective: not “how does Christianity help me make and inform my decisions?,” but rather “why is Christianity worthy of giving authority to the decision-making process in the first place?”

What do you think the task of Systematic Theology is, or the task of theology in general? Please comment!

Incarnation as Rupture: Anti-Gnosticism in the Gospel of John

Last year during my intermediate Biblical Greek class, I wrote a 40-page paper on the John 1:1-18. This passage is better known as the Prologue of John. The prologue contains 18 verses of, what I believe, to be some of the most fundamental and well-developed Christology in the New Testament.

Many scholars today want to portray the Gospel of John as a gnostic gospel – a gospel that tries to show that Jesus brings cosmic order and knowledge (gnosis) about what is missing in the world. Essentially, Jesus brings the salvation of knowledge and order to humanity who suffers the lack of order. After studying the Gospel of John, I am convinced that the Prologue is not gnostic in any way.

As I have been reading a lot lately on the incarnation and its implications by Peter Rollins, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek, I am further convinced that the Prologue is set against this idea of cosmic order. Let us take John 1:14 for example: “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as the unique one from the father, full of grace and truth.” This is most likely the most popular scripture used to detail the incarnation – God becoming human. If we take this text seriously, does this verse entail fulfillment of the cosmic order, or a total destruction of it?

It seems to me that the incarnation is exactly the opposite of bringing order. Rather, When God becomes human there is a rupture of every structure and cosmic order. The unthinkable event happens and the world is turned on its head. To take it even farther, the incarnation culminated in God being crucified and dying. If God become human does not disrupt the order enough, then God actually dies. However, it does not stop there. There is an even greater disruption in the cosmic order when Jesus is resurrected. These three events – incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection – shatter any attempt to say that Jesus came to bring everything back into balance. No! Jesus came to bring division and to burn down every system of thought. This is what happens when we take John 1:14 seriously. God became human and nothing has ever been the same.