I recently watched Man of Steel, and holy moly what a silly film, but fun. It was basically The Adventures of Space Jesus. The thing is I went into the cinema knowing that it had overt Christian themes, and I was looking out for them. And actually in the end I kind of liked seeing them there. A lot of the Jesus references were a bit ham-fisted, but it was fun, and there are plenty of explosions and fistfights. Plus it’s refreshing to see a big budget Hollywood film play around with Christian imagery and ideas.
Now apparently there are quite a few churches that are not happy at all about the Jesus imagery. Some of them have even labelled the Superman character anti-Christian, because the real Jesus would never fight back against the bad guys, punching and heat-raying them. The most Christ-like figure in the whole film, one critic says, is Kevin Costner’s self-sacrificial character, not Superman.
Here’s my two cents: Space Jesus is horribly silly, but I see more similarities between him and the Jesus of the Bible than the never-fight-back Jesus.
What’s more, I think if “turn the other cheek” is our chief characterisation of Jesus, we have a problem. If for us the defining characteristic of Jesus is pacifism, we have a problem.
I think the above misgivings about the film may stem from the way many modern churches make Jesus the Nicest Guy in the World or some champion of enlightened living, while sidestepping a lot of uncomfortable truths about him. True, Jesus said turn the other cheek, and he did not resist his arrest; Jesus did not retaliate or defend himself during his show trial, and he even prayed for the men who were putting him to death.
But he didn’t do this because he is the nicest guy in the world, he was doing this to usher in a new era of salvation, (one where all people are welcome into God’s kingdom without the need for earthly go-betweens) and to teach his followers how to go about living in this era. Even the crucifixion itself was an act not of niceness but of the fiercest love for sinful man and for God the Father; it was an act of supreme strength, and contempt for Satan.
But this era of salvation is not the be-all and end-all. It is headed toward a final time of judgement, one where Jesus will come back like a conquering King – which only lends extra urgency to making use of the free salvation of this era, and living out the self-sacrificial love that lends such power to evangelism and ministry. When Jesus comes back at the time of judgement a sword will come out of his mouth, and he will judge the living and the dead. It’s terrifying stuff. This is Jesus the King, not Jesus the Nicest Guy in the World. (SPOILERS: I think the film actually did a fairly good job of this, in that Superman at first submits to the villains in order to spare humanity, but when he learns that the villains intend to murder all humans anyway, he flips into action hero mode and beats the crap out of the bad guys)
And this identification of Jesus as the Nicest Guy in the World also sidesteps the fact that he is the Son of God. He is God. Yahweh God, who did some pretty scary stuff in the Old Testament. The God who hates sin and punishes evil, whose holiness will kill any man who looks at him, and whose righteousness demands death wherever there is sin. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And Jesus is his Son, is him. But in fact acknowledging that fear makes us treasure even more the salvation God has freely given us, while lending extra urgency to telling other people the good news; ignoring and sidestepping that fear tends to produce cheap grace and complacency in spreading the good news.
I think when we are happy with pacifist, Nice Guy Jesus, we are happy with a Jesus who is agreeable and kind, but for all intents and purposes is also dead. Dead people can be as nice as we want without having to be scary, or without having to intrude on our lives. And most importantly dead people don’t come back to judge us. And in our taming of Jesus I see a taming of God as well. But that is not only grievous to God but also dangerously self-delusional. We may well end up worshipping ourselves when we worship a God or a Jesus that we want to see (in this case one that is primarily agreeable and comfortable), but not the one who is real.
So yeah, Space Jesus with a cape punching bad guys may be silly, but I’d actually prefer him to Nicest Guy in the World Jesus.