saving the World the Marvel Way
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
How is the world saved?
It's a big question! It is a central Christian theme. It's also a pressing question for society today. Our world faces many challenges and threats.
I am a fan of the Marvel movies. Recently I watched the movie, 'Avengers: Endgame', which was the culmination of a series of movies stretching back over ten years or so.
I find the world-view and the universe of Marvel fascinating. It is very detailed. One of the themes of the movies is salvation. Indeed you could say all Marvel movies are about salvation.
As a priest I also find this stimulating since Christianity also offers a description of how the world is saved.
The Marvel writers represent a popular view of how the world is saved. It may be the prevailing salvation narrative of our age. It is also, I believe, a salvation narrative that is heard in some churches and adhered to by many Christians. For this I think it is important to understand, review and critique it.
In this blog I will explore how the world is saved in the world of the Marvel movies. I will examine how the methods to save the world according to the Marvel universe shape up against our real world. I will outline why I believe the Church's salvation narrative is more realistic and compelling.
I do this with three assumptions:
First, that the Marvel movies are modern myths.
Secondly, that myths are powerful and have an important purpose in uniting society and in giving direction.
Thirdly, that salvation is a quality of human communal life. This life is characterised by the rule of a just and accountable law and by the full implementation of human rights. It is realised when the whole human population can live in peace with one another, enjoying all the blessings of 21st century technology. Integral to salvation is humankind's sustainable living within our global environment.
I paint a big picture. Salvation is a big word. It's meaning may appear nebulous, covering many dimensions of life.
I want to clarify that I'm not talking about salvation as something supernatural or involving life beyond death. I'm thinking of salvation in a practical and immediate sense: saving society from self-destructive behaviours that perpetuate violence, discrimination and inequality.
I'm keeping the meaning of salvation centred on the immediate, real world for three reasons:
1. This is how the contemporary salvation myths, such as the one I'm exploring, understand the meaning of salvation.
2. I believe the salvation of the immediate, evident world was the primary concern of Jesus. This was why he taught his disciples to pray for the Kingdom to come on earth. I think Jesus thought of salvation as immediate and this-worldly: Jesus affirms Zacchaeus' action of reparation by saying, "Today salvation has come to this house". (Luke 19:9)
3. I also believe that saving the world in a practical and immediate way has been the primary mission of the Church through the centuries. That is why the historical and contemporary Church, in almost every context, has developed, and continues to propagate an extensive ministry of social transformation.
Let's begin the analysis of the Marvel world and our world.
1. Who saves the world?
In the universe of Marvel the world is saved by the courageous, selfless action of righteous heroes and heroines.
This is a tiny minority of exceptional individuals with superhuman powers, many of whom are gifted in extraordinary ways and some are from alien cultures with alien technologies.
2. How is the world saved?
The righteous minority use their exceptional, superhuman powers to destroy the evil enemy.
The enemy is defeated by being utterly destroyed. All and any means are used to destroy the enemy.
The vast majority of the human population watch passively, trying not to be killed in the conflict.
In the Marvel universe it is clear that there is an evil enemy who must be utterly destroyed if peace is to prevail.
3. How is peace made?
By the complete annihilation of these evil powers.
How does this square with our world?
1. Who saves the world?
In our world the world is saved by the selfless, courageous, often anonymous action of countless people. We all have a role to play. We don't use superhuman powers, we use our simple human gifts and skills.
2. How is the world saved?
It is saved through the slow long work of building trust to form strong relationships, and friendships. It is saved through dialogue. Salvation comes through patient and reasoned conflict resolution and through education. In short salvation comes through individuals living and acting with compassion.
3. How is peace made?
The following is a statement of faith. Marcus Borg outlines four different meanings of faith. I think Christian faith is not so much to do with ascribing to certain intellectual propositions, but mostly to do with faithfulness to a way of living, adhering to a vision, and committing to a certain direction. Christian living involves courage as well as conviction. For example, take Jesus' teaching on loving one's enemies. This involves a commitment to live a certain way, trusting that not returning violence with violence is salvific: believing that love can prevail over hatred.
So here is what I believe the Church tells us about how peace is made. Although it is a statement of faith, I believe it is grounded in historical, sociological and psychological truths.
Peace will come when all people can coexist together.
Peace will come when every person can live fully and be recognised, valued and integrated into all the amazing blessings of our contemporary world.
It will come non-violently. It will not come by killing a portion of perceived-to-be-evil human beings. It will come when those who use violence turn from their violence. Peace will come not through bombs but through bread: by feeding each person so that they can flourish.
That was why I started this blog with the story of the risen Christ telling Peter to feed his sheep. This resurrection story is replete with the core Christian beliefs about salvation.
First, salvation is about loving, nurturing action: Jesus asks Peter,'Do you love me?' and tells Peter to 'Feed my sheep'.
Secondly, salvation is sacrificial: Jesus warns Peter his loving action will result in execution: 'When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.'
Lastly, Jesus commissions Peter to continue his ministry: 'Follow me'.
Peace is made by the selfless and courageous actions of people: by individuals denying themselves, 'dying' to themselves, serving others, and being prepared to make sacrifices so others can be recognised, acknowledged and valued, and be integrated fully into society.
The mythological narrative of Marvel is a strong salvation story. But ultimately it will not serve as an effective salvation narrative for our world. It has two fatal flaws which undermine the world's peace:
1. It encourages passivity. The world is saved by a righteous few.
2. It is dualistic about human nature and human beings. It feeds the notion that people are either good or bad. The good must vanquish the bad by destroying them. This is not the truth. And it makes matters worse.
The Christian myth of the servant church, commissioned and empowered by the servant Christ, is an appropriate narrative that will facilitate the world's salvation.
This last statement merits a few supplementary comments.
I am describing the Church as a myth. What I mean here is the Church as aspiration. This is the Church in the language of its doctrines, liturgy and mission.
In reality the Church is an institution with many imperfections. Clearly the world of the Church's doctrines, liturgy, and mission is not the same as the everyday Church. Mixing up the two will only lead to misunderstanding, frustration and disappointment.
Nevertheless, I believe there is a sufficient degree of authentic continuity and consistency between the Church's ideology and its reality. By sufficient I mean that despite its institutional limitations, the Church is able to authentically represent and to truly perpetuate the ministry of Jesus. In my experience, by and large, the Church tries to act in keeping with its lofty doctrines, its inspired liturgical language and mission statements.
My main point is this: in the Church's doctrines, liturgy and mission it offers a salvation narrative that I believe is effective and practical. At its heart this is a continuation of Jesus ministry: a ministry of service, forgiveness, healing and social transformation and inclusion.
The narrative of the foundation of the Church is of a commissioning by the risen Jesus to continue and extend his ministry to all peoples. The Church created doctrines, religious services, and a mission in keeping with its self-perceived status as the body of Christ, in effect, Jesus-on-earth-now.
At times the Church has incorrectly understood Jesus. Most Christian theology is an attempt to understand accurately what Jesus was doing and to faithfully continue that work in our context.
So here I think I should briefly summarise how the Church has understood the salvation that Jesus has brought. This is rooted in the life of Jesus and continued by the Church.
1. Concerning Jesus.
Jesus lived a non-violent life.
He saw himself as a servant of God. His mission was to realise God's Kingdom on earth.
This Kingdom was universal. It challenged status and the violent use of power. It was characterised by the inclusion of those excluded by the authorities.
Jesus anticipated that the dominant forces of society might find this threatening and resist the social change implied. But Jesus believed God's rule would triumph.
Jesus believed the kingdom was coming through God's direct intervention in the world. Crucially it was coming through Jesus' being faithful to a life lived in obedience to God. At the heart of this was Jesus' decision to live a selfless, courageous and compassion life, setting others free. Jesus understood this as the realisation of the hope embedded in his scriptures. Jesus understood that doing this might lead to his being killed by the authorities, especially when he went to Jerusalem to confront them.
Jesus schooled disciples to continue this Kingdom project in the event of his death.
2. The Church
After Jesus' execution the disciples were disillusioned. After a time, with hindsight, those schooled by Jesus understood Jesus' death as a vindication of his life. It truly was the way of God, the way of salvation, the way of life, and God's Kingdom.
The contemporary Church is divided on how to describe the resurrection of Jesus and its role in the life of the Church. One point of agreement is that at the 'resurrection', (however it is understood), the Church was entrusted to continue Jesus mission.
One key person in continuing the legacy of Jesus was Paul (Saul) of Tarsus. Paul was not a disciple. He had a transformative religious experience in which he encountered the living Jesus. He interpreted this as a commissioning. After a while he sought out the disciples to assist him in this commission. Paul along with the other key disciples founded church communities across the Greco-Roman world. The purpose of these gathered congregations was to save the world by following the way of Jesus.
These first church leaders attributed bold and confrontational titles to Jesus to demonstrate the essence of its salvation myth. Some of the titles, 'Lord' and 'Son of God' were normally attributed to the Emperor. The Church developed a narrative of salvation that was in contrast to that of the Greco-Roman world. The world was not saved through the imposition of force via a Pax Romana, but through the sacrificial giving of God's servant. This salvation was realised by the continued sacrificial actions of the church. These two conflictual world views led to the persecution of the early church by the imperial Roman authorities.
(In some ways the prevailing narrative of Jesus' time, which I characterised as Pax Romana, is close to the prevailing salvation narrative of our time which I have identified and characterised in the Marvel Universe.)
After three centuries, the persecution of the Church ended when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. The classic creeds and liturgy of the Church advanced in this new era of Church peace.
Since then Christianity has had an ambiguous relationship with society.
Many times the Church has deviated from continuing Jesus' ministry. But the majority of those times it has discerned the failure and repented of it. In my lifetime it has been diligent in evaluating how true it is to Jesus' ministry and mission. Many changes have been made across all the denominations to align the Church more closely to Jesus' way of saving the world.
The secular world is searching for a salvation narrative because people are painfully aware of the imminent threats to the survival of our planet, and how delicate is the fabric of society.
At the start of the 21st century the mainstream Church is positioned to preach and practice a message of non-violent servanthood. It sees this as the way to realise the salvation of the world. It believes that this message is an authentic continuation of Jesus' ministry.
In this blog I have argued that the Church's message of salvation is more realistic and meaningful than a rival (and possibly the prevailing) salvation narrative in popular culture.
It's an exciting time to be part of the Church.
I'll finish with the painting of the Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. This painting roots the Christian (in this context 'New World' Quakers) hope for salvation in the Hebrew scriptures' vision of a world at peace. This is a reminder that the closer we get to Jesus' understanding of peace, the nearer we draw to the Hebrew scriptures longing for peace.
My point is this salvation narrative has stood the test of time.