In a time of great scientific and technical achievement, when humanity seems to revel in a self-praise approaching hubris, how can it be that fictional superheroes occupy such an expansive position in the shared cultural psyche? What does our modern-day obsession with these spandex-clad über-menschen say about us? In this paper, we will attempt to shed light on this cultural phenomenon by examining C.S. Lewis’s ideas of imagination and story, myth and epic as well as his critique of modernism and postmodernism.
In Lewis’s essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes”, he argues that while facts about the universe in which we live are obtained via human reason — proposition, deduction, and syllogism — the way we make sense of this data is via the process of “stitching together” data into images. “Reason is the natural organ of truth,” Lewis tells us, but “imagination is the organ of meaning.” We only grasp the meaning of something, understand it, when we are able to form images in our minds. It is the way we are “wired.”
Story and Epic
Where imagination is a necessary precondition of meaning, a transformation of mere facts or data, story consists of an ordering of images into a narrative whole. Story is how we make sense of the world. We each have one.
Epic, the highest form of story, consists of grand, sweeping accounts, stages upon which heroes and superheroes play. The form resides at the very foundation of a culture and is a primary means by which a people make sense of the world and their place in it. Our post-Christian sensibilities revolt against the very idea of a grand, sweeping story, which in our soul-poverty we have replaced with the notion that life is but an accident — and humans are animals at best, a sort of virus at worst.
But is mere accident, a materialist world in which reality is little more than billiard balls colliding with other billiard balls and human thoughts are but atoms banging about in skulls, an accurate reflection of reality? If story is how we make sense of our world, could it be that the Christian account of the nature of things is actually better than the ascendant sordid and cynical modern worldview? Christian author John Eldredge tells us that:
. . . when we were born, we were born into the midst of a great story begun before the dawn of time. A story of adventure, of risk and loss, heroism . . . and betrayal. A story where good is warring against evil, danger lurks around every corner, and glorious deeds wait to be done. Think of all those stories you’ve ever loved–there’s a reason they stirred your heart. They’ve been trying to tell you about the true Epic ever since you were young. . . . There is a larger story. And you have a crucial role to play.
Another form of story is myth. Where epic is broad and monumental, myth — while similarly set at the conjunction of divine and human worlds — consists of a single episode, one of deep, often enormously profound, import. Myth is a brief story, one made of “images that roots far below the surface of mind.”
In common parlance, myth means that which is false. Lewis, however, tells us that the standard myth, while factually untrue, is a pointer to deeper truth. It is something “extra-literary,” something “which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached . . . by some medium which involved no words at all.” Myth is story that strikes deeply.
Heroes and Superheroes
The success of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, depicting warring Olympians and Amazons, continues to stoke moviegoer interest in Greek mythology. . . . But is Greek myth simply a favoured and enduring wellspring for heroic sagas full of supermen and monsters or are there deeper forces at play?
Epics are the stages upon which heroes play. And a hero is a good person, the best, strongest, smartest — larger than life yet fully human (though often of divine descent) — one who battles evil on our behalf. To be a hero is to be a rescuer or conqueror. Sometimes heroes are fully human but simply endowed with exemplary ability; basketball “god” Michael Jordan comes to mind. But, throughout time, our heroes have descended from divinity, a result of interrelations between god and man.
The key is this: Heroes are one of us; they’re on our team. And nine times out of ten (if not ten times out of ten), they’ve come to unequivocally dominate, to impose their will with physical force, to rescue the village, the city, the region, the country, or the world from evil forces that have come to destroy all that is good and right. One thinks not only of Western heroes Aeneas, Achilles, or Beowulf, but also non-Western figures such as the Indian hero Rama or the Samurai of Japan.
What then is a super-hero? By definition, they are a hero with more. Yes, they’re our guy (or gal). Yes, they are the strongest, the smartest, the best of the best. Yes, they fight evil, that which threatens our way, our families. But the “more” consists not in mere superior strength or ability, but super-ability, super-strength; in short, super-human qualities.
Where Achilles is a hero of the Trojan War and Michael Jordan is a hero of the basketball court who plays the game as if he could fly, Superman actually can fly. But where Jordan is real, Superman is not. Having abandoned the supernaturally-touched worlds in which god and man used to play, our superheroes are gods come to earth.
Christ and Superheroes
Enter the figure of Christ. Jewish messianic, heroic expectations generally held (and still hold) that Messiah would come to forever rescue Israel from her earthly overlords. He certainly would not do something anti-heroic like being utterly, completely, and finally humiliated by being publicly flogged, spit upon, and nailed to a cross, executed by the very powers whom he’s come to conquer!
Jesus is a just, courageous, noble, rescuing figure, both human and divine, and with superhuman powers. He did come on the scene where dark powers were strongly evident, and with the purpose of setting the world to rights. But, unlike the superhero, he very strongly eschewed violence.
The Recent Rejection of Christian Orthodoxy
Modernism rejects such nonsense. Myth is fine and well, as long as it’s kept in its place and one does not get the ridiculous notion that mythic figures could possibly exist in reality. Lewis, a thoroughgoing orthodox Christian, was an able critic of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment secularism.
Though the roots of Christendom are deep, even to this day, we have been engaged in a program that rejects the core assumptions of the faith, not least the idea of the Fall. We moderns have held that people are at their core good beings who have simply been corrupted by their environments. Where Christianity says that people are quite literally a damned mess, we now believe that people are blank slates. These are not new ideas, the tabula rasa and the noble savage. Variations of such arguments were put forward by Aristotle in De Anima. But the idea found new favor with Enlightenment-era rationalist thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the assault on Christianity continued with Marx, Freud, and Nietzche arguing that rather than being creations of God, God is our creation. In Das Kapital, Marx gave us the notion that good and evil are not part of the nature of a created order but rather a mere reflection of the values of whichever group happens to possess the most political power. To Freud, God is mere wish fulfillment. And Nietzche, more than any other modern thinker grasping the implications of the seemingly-newfound realization that God is but a human invention, declared – heroically, but with reluctance and regret — that God is dead and life is abysmal.
Another key modern idea is reductionism. Freud informed us that we’ve built imaginary beings such as God as a defense against what is really a cold, hard world. Love is only sex, he tells us, friendship only a sublimated means by which we get what we really want. Following that theme, we now know that Christ is only (there’s the key reductionist word, “only”) yet another retelling of age-old myths.
Let’s take the story of Jesus’s descent into Hell. Many cultures, perhaps most, tell the same story. For example, “to the Greeks, the underworld journey was an ideal vehicle for the hero to display his exceptional qualities, often involving the rescue of a soul trapped there.” So, like Jesus, both Odysseus and Aeneas journey to the underworld and return. And since the Greek stories are older, the Christian account must be only a copy, a derivative retelling of the same fictional story that has been told since time immemorial.
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis turns the reductionist idea on its head by showing us that if the Christian account of the world is true, if God is truly the author of all reality, it is no surprise that earlier cultures would tell such stories. Lewis held that all human societies have at least some truth about them and are not to be rejected outright. But Christianity is God’s ultimate revelation about the true nature of the world and our place in it. Where paganism reflected bits and pieces of truth, to Lewis, “Christianity fulfilled paganism.”
Every human has a story, a way of making sense of their place in the world. Every culture has their larger story. We moderns – in our arrogance believing that, of all peoples who ever lived, we have the best grasp of the nature of reality — have since the Enlightenment expended great effort to attempt to show that life is but an accident, the universe but a random collocation of elements. But try as we might, we cannot escape the allure of epic and myth, hero and superhero. It is the way we are wired.
We can, however, escape the present. We were born into a real-life grand, sweeping epic. Our superheroes, whether Superman or Wonder Woman, the Green Lantern, or Captain America, are but recent instances of the age-old desire for a savior, one who will right all wrongs and wipe away every tear.
James M. Swayze, “Superheroes, Saviors, and C.S. Lewis,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 225-236.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///superheroes-saviors-and-c-s-lewis/
John Eldredge, “The Story You Fell Into,” Wild at Heart, accessed May 8, 2021, https://wildatheart.org/story/larger-story/story-you-fell-into.
Paul Salmond, “Journeys to the Underworld: From Ancient Greece to Hollywood, “ Ancient Origins, accessed May 8, 2021 www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/journeys-underworld-ancient-greece-holywood-008880.
It is an interesting question as to the degree to which cultures over time believed in the literal existence of their heroes. For instance, did the Roman believe that Romulus and Remus were actual human beings raised by wolves? One would guess not.