Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

I’ve been wondering how to get across to first-year students the idea that you can’t just read the Gospel stories, look at the miracles and say “oh yes, that’s Jesus being divine” (and then look at Gethsemane and say “oh yes, that’s Jesus being human”). [NB feel free to fill in at this point more extended discussion of the Johannine signs, the nature miracles, the sense in which miracles do function as sort-of ‘proofs’ of divinity in the context of the biblical narrative, etc etc, but keep it in parentheses, because what I’m talking about is quotes like “he must be God because human beings can’t walk on water”].

This idea hasn’t occurred to me as a possibility for a long time, so I have trouble reverse-engineering it to find the initial assumption that needs to be corrected. I’ve taken to saying “well, does he have to be God to do that, couldn’t he just be a superhero?” And getting some rather odd responses (including, I kid you not, “Superman doesn’t heal blind people”).

But perhaps there’s a pervasive tendency to think of God as a bit like a superhero anyway.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Does the thought process start with, ‘We know there *must* be proof in the Gospels that Jesus is divine as well as human’ and then go on to ‘And those must be the places where Jesus is not acting like a normal human being’ – so that anything remarkable/’supernatural’/miraculous becomes by default a proof of divinity? If so, these things are believed to be proofs of divinity on grounds that have nothing to do with there having been assessed as good proofs of divinity… I guess that unpicking the first assumption could be a fairly simple historical matter. Unpicking the second is more fun…

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  2. Posted by Alice Wood on 27 May, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    To be fair to your students, that is how I was taught to read the Bible at GCSE and possibly also how we talked about Jesus at A-level. It’s hard to self-correct assumptions that were put in your head by people who claim to be wiser than you. Have fun disabusing your little students.

    As assumptions go it’s not as bad as ‘Jesus came to found Christianity’ though.

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  3. Posted by Lisa on 27 May, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    I think people like me, who teach these students before they get to you, are partly to blame for the sort of “superhero” mentality.

    I like designing superheros… (Don’t do God as a superhero though.)

    This term’s Year 9 assessment, of their unit on social justice, social reformers, consists of designing a superhero who could solve what the students perceive as the most serious social injustice in the world today…

    However, I think this sort of thing does contribute to the view of God as a bit of superhero… Sorry…

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  4. Posted by Alice Wood on 27 May, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    I can recommend v. good episodes of Buffy on theme of superhero with Messianic complex. Perhaps you could make this set text.

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  5. @Lisa: I like the designing superheroes idea. One of my more random Sunday school/ children’s meeting activities was loosely based around “The 99” (you know, the superheroes whose attributes relate to the 99 names of God in Islam) and included inventing Quaker superheroes. (I’m not sure the series will catch on. The sound effects aren’t that exciting).

    What do you all think, though? How big a problem _is_ this idea, and how much effort should be put into unpicking it? Alongside this course I’ve been teaching the second years about Kierkegaard, so I’m going around muttering “infinite qualititative distinction”, and maybe this has skewed my perception…

    I guess what’s depressing is that we say several times on the course, in different ways, “the thing about saying Jesus is God is that your view of God might have to change”, and then getting the message from various directions that this hasn’t really sunk in.

    But I don’t object to it nearly as much as I object to “the virgin birth shows that Jesus is the son of God” [stock response: so do you actually think God has Y chromosomes?] or worse still “the immaculate conception shows that Jesus is the son of God”, when they mean virgin birth but – I dunno, think virgin is a rude word, or immaculate conception sounds more academic… OK, rant over.

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  6. hmm, problem with my last comment. Problem I have is not with “virgin birth shows Jesus is the son of God” (that is biblical, after all; interpretation & significance can be discussed elsewhere) but “virgin birth is linked fairly directly to incarnation, in that Mary contributes human bit and God contributes God bit and that makes Jesus”. (Appearing most often in the negative: “If the virgin birth is not true/ if Jesus had a human father, Christian belief in the incarnation is under threat”).

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  7. Posted by Lisa on 29 May, 2010 at 9:55 am

    I like your 99 names of Allah superheroes idea too – Islam is one of the 3 compulsory religions for me to teach at KS3, & kids at my school are fairly Islamophobic… Islam is also one of the two religions that are taught at KS4 – reckon Yr10 would like the idea of superheroes for the 99 names!

    Do I think it’s a problem viewing God as a superhero??? I think my answer has to be “yes”, despite the fact that I most probably contribute to that sort of perception.

    I think attributing superheroes to, eg. the 99 names is good, but then, the 99 names are representative of attributes of Allah, and are there to help humans gain some level of understanding of Allah, with the recognition that they can never actually do Allah justice…

    I guess one of the main reasons I think God as a superhero is wrong is because superheroes have faults / weaknesses, and can even either be killed, or turned to the bad side (the word ‘kryptonite’ springs to mind)… Also, superheroes tend to operate in a particular time and place (e.g. when does Batman leave Gotham city), in general, and seem to need their nemesis to survive / make their existence purposeful… So, I think that even with Year 7, I would try to discourage the concept of God as a superhero – &, as I have a whole year’s worth of Year 7 work to plan (they’re being taught RS separately from the other Hums subjects for the first time from September), maybe we’ll have one called “God is not a superhero!”

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