Of Supermen & Zombies
(A Gospel of Hope)

Originally written in June, 2013


Full disclosure here; I have not yet seen Man of Steel. I'm sure I will. I am however quite familiar with the Superman mythos and well aware of the conversation surrounding the apparent gospel imagery that the movie contains. I'm not overly interested in whether or not churches should use Superman as a cultural on-ramp or if Hollywood should use Jesus to sell tickets to Christians. Both seem a tad underhanded so I guess it evens out.

What I am interested in is what our telling of this, and other gospel narratives says about how we understand ourselves.

The Superman story at its heart is really an awareness of humanity's desire for rescue from forces that they are unable to overcome themselves. This is perhaps the basic premise of all superhero stories; that we are in need of a saviour. Someone more than human - more than what we are - to overcome on our behalf. It's a top down telling of the gospel in which someone from outside of our world, removed from the human condition, enters into it with a redemptive mission. In this way, Superman is cast as a messiah-like figure, offering our world hope from the things that threaten to destroy us.

This has become a dominant (and often helpful) way of explaining the Christian gospel; but it is only one part of a larger whole. Where it falls short is that it leaves the responsibility of the world solely in the hands of a superhuman saviour while we remain at the mercy of forces beyond our control. This is especially problematic when it becomes the only narrative by which we understand the gospel and other versions are drowned out.

We need to give voice to other gospel narratives that are being told , especially ones that can help us paint a more holistic vision of hope for our world.

The other night I was thrilled to finally watch the newest zombie comedy, Warm Bodies, by director Jonathan Levine and I was pleasantly surprised with the humour, the characters, and the writing. If you're not familiar with this title, it takes place in the aftermath of some sort of apocalypse in which most of the human population has become the living dead while the rest just wait for their inevitable extinction. Where this story differs from most zombie movies however is that it tells the story from the perspective of one of the zombies, named R, who just desperately wants to connect. In the movie we are given a running commentary from inside his head despite his inability to communicate with anyone else. 

What's wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right, it's because I'm dead. I shouldn't be so hard on myself. I mean, we're all dead.

I've long been fascinated with what zombie lore says about the human condition. Consumptive, never satisfied, not quite in the ground, but never fully alive. Or as Rick Grimes so profoundly affirms, "We are the walking dead."

The  major storyline of Warm Bodies takes place when R rescues a living human survivor named Julie from the other zombies and discovers that he actually feels something for her. As the two of them form a bond and she begins to accept and even care for him, R becomes more alive - more human; and as a result of their relationship, the living dead from all over discover hope and a whole new reason for living as they are accepted by the remaining humans. It's in this loving acceptance that the world is made new.

While the Superman story is a gospel narrative told from the top down, Warm Bodies offers us hope from the ground up.  In this telling, humanity is suffering from an inescapable disease. One that tears our relationships apart and leaves us an empty shell of what we were intended to be. A walking corpse. Rather than focusing on a more-than-human solution, zombie stories examine the dehumanizing problem. However, where Warm Bodies stands apart is that it delivers liberation from this bleak existence. Through the very humanizing acts of mercy, kindness, and embrace the walking dead can be restored to a fullness of life that they had previously been cut off from. It is a hope that is not found outside of us, as in superhero stories; but one that is found within our own capacity to love one another.

"The gospel is," as I read on Twitter recently, "liberation. [Maybe] the most Gospel thing we can do is let people be human again."

I think what scares us about this narrative is that it places the responsibility of the world back into our hands as opposed to surrendering our fate to a supernatural force that rights wrongs and punishes all evils. We'd rather sit back, call out for help, and let the Holy Spirit work than to imagine that the Spirit works incarnationally through human beings for the hope of the world. This is why the gospel narratives we tell matter so much; because they affect how we see our role in all of this. What is the church? Are we the lucky, chosen few that have been saved or are we meant to partner with God in the ongoing, life-giving redemption of this world? Are we to embrace the other in restorative love or erect walls that keep the dehumanized other separate unto our own mutual destruction? The narrative being told in Warm Bodies calls for a much riskier vision of hope for our world than that of Man of Steel.

The truth is that it's a lot easier to wait for Superman than it is to try to love a corpse.

But as Warm Bodies states in it's beautiful ending summary, "what wonderful thing didn't start out scary?"

"If, however, the gospel summons all men to the hope and the mission of the future of Christ, then it is possible in the light of this particular event to reflect also on the general structures of human nature. For indeed the believer does not understand himself as the adherent of a religion which is one possibility among others, but as being on the way to true humanity."
- Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope

The top down gospel narrative is important and should not be ignored; however, a ground up narrative is just as necessary in envisioning a world where we are actively involved in redemptive love and new creation rather than passively waiting for God to rescue us from a sinking ship.