Ordinary superheroes

by Scott Steigemeyer

Unless you’ve got your head in the sand, you can’t have failed to notice that comic book superheroes are kind of a big deal in American pop culture. This is not exactly something new. After all, Superman made his debut in 1938 in the pages of Action Comics, issue #1. Things have really ramped up in recent decades, however, as superheroes have leaped from the printed page and made an impressive impact in film and television.

One overarching theme in the books and movies is that superheroes have a mission. They typically realize that they have been given unique gifts and that those gifts should be used in the service of humanity. So they fight crime, defend the weak, blow up alien invaders and set wrongs right.

Many Christians today treat the Christian life as if they were playing superheroes. “To be a true servant of God, you must do something truly heroic and churchy. We all have a mission to fulfill, and the bigger yours is, the better. If all you’ve got going on is that you change diapers and love your family, you’re not really living up to your divine calling.”

In reality, however, people who work professionally in the church are not holier or more God-pleasing than the moms and dads who do the laundry and feed the children. Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he’s only fiction. In real life, men, women and children are given gifts and placed in settings where God wills to work through them.

Many comic book heroes have alter egos they use to try to appear normal day-to-day and keep their true identities hidden. The truth about our lives is even more dramatic than the comics. Martin Luther used the term “masks of God” to refer to human beings fulfilling their daily callings. That is to say that the Almighty Creator of the universe chooses to do his work of sustaining creation by hiding himself, not with a reporter’s sport coat and tie, but in men and women who simply go about their business. That is actually pretty amazing when you think about it.

Of course, God does not need us to get stuff done. He could feed us by raining down bread from heaven every morning. He’s done it before and could do it now. But that is not His ordinary way of working. God likes to work through means. And much of the time, “means” means “us.” He gives me my daily bread through farmers who grow my food, truck drivers who deliver it and grocers who sell it to me. Can God heal miraculously? Absolutely yes. But usually God heals through the ministrations of nurses, doctors and technicians. The Lutheran view, if you will, elevates our normal daily work to divine status.

God does not call on me to don a cape and trounce bad guys, vigilante style. But God does take care of my neighbor through my rather mundane actions, as I fulfill my various vocations as husband, father, professor, citizen. My mission is not necessarily to be heroic in the eyes of the world but to love my neighbor through everyday ordinariness. Real heroism is not found in the escapist mythologies of comic books nor in exercising super powers to subdue evil, but in ordinary men and women, like you and me, who daily love and serve one another, just as they are loved and served by God in Christ.

The Rev. Scott Stiegemeyer is assistant professor of theology and director of ministerial formation at Concordia University Irvine. 

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