In the United States the end of October brings with it Halloween. In our neighborhood, the children will come pouring out-of-doors on what promises to be a cold autumn night to go from house to house begging candy. For many children it is a chance to indulge in the year’s best game of dress-up, be it as a princess, clown, pirate, or ballerina. At our neighborhood Halloween party in the park, the most popular costumes were, however, those of superheroes, be it Spidermen, Batmen, and Supermen.
The many pint-sized heroes reflect an ongoing attraction to the idea of the “hero” in Western culture. From ancient epics to cartoon strips, our stories are filled with heroes, men (typically) who enter into a troubled situation and rescue others from danger, sometimes using superpowers, but more often relying on more prosaic methods to defeat evil. Heroes are so ubiquitous and so predictable that some high literary genres (like the contemporary “literary” novel or the “realist” novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) eschew, parody and transform such figures, turning them into anti-heroes like Walt in Breaking Bad or failed heroes like Jude in Jude the Obscure. In popular literature, television, and film, the hero is generally alive and well. If he does not arrive at the last minute, every time, Jack Bauer-style to save the country, then he at least manages to achieve justice after the fact and set the community back into a state of narrative equilibrium (at least until next week’s episode). Be it a western, a detective novel, a spy-flick, or even comedy, this trope continues haunt the stories we tell.
Why? There is much to say about the constructions of masculinity here but, I think part of the answer is found in the power narrative has to ask and answer our deepest questions in open-ended ways. Our world is broken—climate change, large scale war, terrorism, and epidemic diseases aside—we are enmeshed in messy lives. In America, young girls at university or in the military are sexually assaulted by the men they are supposed to trust. Parents betray their children’s trust, husband and wives betray each other, and friends are often “not there” when needed. Amid the small and large-scale chaos we long for a hero, for someone to come in, rescue us from present danger, comfort in distress, and avenge injustice.
And we simultaneously push against such heroics. We know well that there is no one who will open the door and, at the last minute, push the villain away—and we resist the role of victim or implications of weakness that the need for such action bespeaks. Depicting these contrary impulses, our stories ask us, time and again, about our need for some sort of redemption, for some sort of rescue. But, rather than offering self-reform, self-help, therapy, and individual fortitude (although all these may be present), with surprising consistency our stories answer the need for rescue with the actions of a hero.
The Christian narrative offers a hero who promises the rescue, comfort and justice we seek. More importantly, he has a plan underway to achieve those very ends. However, the rescue-plan depends on trust. Like the heroes in so many of our stories, Jesus asks us to trust him with the endgame, to trust that he sees all the players and all the pieces and he will work it to a just and even joyful resolution. In the meantime, we are in the middle of things, like a scene echoed in many a Western: we sit (probably in barn, on a pile of hay), bound together with Jesus and facing down the barrel of the gun. Jesus whispers gruffly, sadly matter-of-fact when the villain’s back is turned, that there will be some pain first—his and ours. But, he promises that we will make it through and that he will get the villain in the end. The question the Christian story asks then, the question on which our own salvation depends, is will we trust him? Will you be the foolish character who insists upon your own abilities, plans and personal vendettas? Or will you be the wise character—the sidekick or lover (or both)—who trusts Jesus with your life?