Russell Moore

Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

For the past 75 years or so, Superman has had a girlfriend. Now he has a wife, and a son, and a new direction. And he’s not alone. Even Batman, easily caricatured as a loner in his cave, has a teenage son and has proposed marriage to a (very) complicated woman in his life (she said yes). This is, of course, of interest to lifelong comic book nerds like me, but it should also perk the attention of Christians who wouldn’t know the difference between Krypton and Krypto because it just might signal something hopeful in at least one corner of our culture. The DC Universe is, ironically, rejuvenating itself with maturity.

Under the leadership of Geoff Johns (in the comic world he’s either revered or reviled; I’m enthusiastically in the first category), DC is undergoing what it calls “Rebirth.” Here’s the thumbnail of this re-direction. In 2011, DC decided that one of the reasons for their declining sales is that there wasn’t an easy “on-ramp” for new readers and returning readers. Storylines and subtexts and relationships between characters were complicated to the point of confusing. They tried to solve this with a fresh start, a reboot called “the New 52” in which, essentially, the characters and the stories started all over again. Fans didn’t like this, for all sorts of reasons, and so, in 2016, a new direction was launched. With “Rebirth,” the comics in many ways returned to some of the best aspects of the pre-52 universe. With some inventive and often thrilling storytelling, the comics are reconnecting the characters with the larger legacy and mythology of the DC universe.

Now, this is too complicated to explain here, with timelines reconnecting and a mysterious figure found to have been robbing them of memories, connections, and even years of their lives. But one key change in Rebirth, along with a more hopeful tone, is re-establishing some relationships. A big part of that is friendship, love, marriage, and parenthood.

Notice Superman for instance (which is, in my opinion, the best of the best in Rebirth so far). The last son of Krypton was often derided in years past as a “Big Blue Boy Scout.” And, in some incarnations, this was fair enough with the image of an alien invulnerable to everything but kryptonite and magic, and often with a tendency to humorlessly cap off adventures with a moral lesson or two. The “New 52” version of Superman, though, was younger, more unsure of himself and his abilities, more sarcastic and harder-edged. But the “Rebirth” Superman is quite different still. Among other things, he is married to Lois Lane and they are together raising their half-human son, Jon (named after Clark’s adoptive father Jonathan Kent) who is grappling to come to terms with his own emerging powers.

Batman, likewise, is attempting to parent a much more volatile son, Damian, who is at the same time the newest version of Robin. Batman also is making some attempt to walk away from his (at least by daylight) playboy ways, asking his sometimes lover, sometimes nemesis Catwoman to marry him.

And it’s not just these two who are finding love and responsibility in their new ecosystems. In the one-shot issue launching the Rebirth initiative, Aquaman proposed, on bended knee with ring in hand, to warrior-princess of the seas, Mera. I could go into many, many other iterations of this in the DC Universe.

Add to all of this settling down, a theme of reconnection with parents, and indeed a broader theme starts to emerge. Both Batman and Superman are, like many superheroes, motivated by their identities as orphans. Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot to death in front of him as a child (leading to his vow to fight criminals) and Kal-El’s birth parents were blown apart, along with his entire planet. In more recent days, though, both Superman and Batman have encountered versions of their fathers.

One media observer of all things comic, sees in these love and family storylines innovation that is even bigger than what might appear at first glance. Journalist Shaun Manning argues that these marriages and children are more consequential than, say, Bane breaking Batman’s back because they are much “harder to reverse in-story.” This also brings much risk. The question asked by many is whether Batman can be both a hero and a husband.

And yet, the dynamics at play here in marriage and parenting and extended family give an insight into these characters in ways we have not seen. “This is inherently more interesting and more exciting than the perpetual teen-angst sexual tension that publishers have previously assumed is what keeps readers invested.”

A cynic might suggest that one reason for all this settling-down is that many comic book readers are not pre-teens but, like me, those who never stopped reading or came back well into adulthood and can thus relate to mortgages and figuring out curfews. But in talking to DC fans, young and old, I think there’s something else at play.

Stories that are too sanitized and uplifting eventually seem artificial and grating. That’s why comics, and other media of popular culture, swing away from such toward darker, edgier vibes (compare, for instance, the Batman of the Tim Burton films with the Dark Knight version). We can’t relate to a world that seems utopian and unfallen. But edginess can easily tip over into cynicism and even nihilism, and that’s, after awhile, exhausting.

Batman writer Tom King is, onto something when he says that the introduction of engagement and (maybe) marriage to the Dark Knight’s life will not “settle him down” but make him even more complicated. “Most superheroes, you make them happy and you end conflict—you give Spider-Man a wife and where do you go from there? But Batman’s the opposite; You give him happiness and you create conflict, because he’s fundamentally a sad character.”

Our lives are actually riddled with both glory and agony, both grace and pain, both love and war. DC is attempting to strike this balance in multiple ways—for instance with the interaction between Superman (and others) and the super-dark figures of the 1980s-era Watchmen.

Relationships and family, though, are one of those places where we see both light and darkness. There was a time when that darkness might have been most visible to aging adults in the throes of family responsibilities. But, in a world filled with the trauma of divorce and addiction and abuse, children are well aware of this too. Married/parenting adults need to be reminded of youthful joy and playfulness and exuberance. And children and adolescents and young adults need sometimes to see the stability and happiness that come with standing by one’s vows.

Unfortunately, in our culture and way too often even in our congregations, the worlds of younger and older, married and single, restless and settled, can seem further apart than alternative earths in a multiverse. We need each other. Comic books can see this. The church should too. In that, maybe Rebirth has some needed reminders for the reborn.

 

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Choreograph

Are You 'Struggling' with Sin?

Yesterday I noted on social media how frustrated I am with the common evangelical lingo of saying, “I’m struggling with…” fill in the blank with some persistent sin, anything from gossip to jealousy to pornography. I suppose there’s probably been someone out there who has said, “I’m struggling with serial killing,” or “I’m struggling with sex trafficking,” though I haven’t met that person yet. Here’s why this language is starting to wear on me.

I’ve noticed that way too often “I’m struggling with…” language seems to really mean “I don’t like the fact that I like doing this sin that I’m going to keep doing, no matter what.” In that sense, “I’m struggling” becomes a more spiritual sounding way of saying what a woman once told me about her explosive anger fits, “Well, that’s just how I am.” Often, this language comes up in discipleship settings with believers caught in some pattern or in marriages in crisis. When confronted with a pattern of disobedience, someone will say, “Well, yes, I struggle with addictive gambling,” or “I struggle with straying from my wedding vows.”

There’s something really right with the impulse here. “Struggling” is a good biblical metaphor. After all, “Israel” is a word that comes from Jacob struggling with God by the riverside. The Apostle Paul tells us we “wrestle” not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers in the heavenly places. The language of fight is all over Scripture. What’s also right is that God tells us that we should never see ourselves as free from sin. We should know not only that we are sinners but also that we should know where our specific points of vulnerability are.

It does me no good to spend a lot of time studying how to manage fits of anger, unless I’m doing so to help someone else. My anger runs cold, not hot. I’m tempted not to combust in fury but to harbor bitterness. If I were to spend a lot of energy thinking about how to rein in an out-of-control temper I would just end up with a smugness about how easy it is to do that. It’s easy for me, but maybe not for you. Likewise, it might be easy for you to forgive, when that’s where I am really, really vulnerable to sin and to self-deception. Saying “I’m struggling with” something could be a confession of an area that needs constant guarding in someone’s life. It might be the equivalent of Johnny Cash’s “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time” applied to some area of life.

But I’ve noticed that too often that’s not what we mean. We use “I’m struggling” often not as a sign of brokenness, or a cry for help, but as a conversation-stopper. It becomes the equivalent of a cable company telling the family without service, “Yeah, we’re working on that,” just to get the complainers off the phone, or a robber telling the police with the search warrant, “Move on along; there’s nothing to see here.”

If you use the language of “struggling,” you should actually be struggling. That should mean that you are seeking the way of the Spirit to escape from your sin (1 Corinthians 10:13), that you are removing every possible obstacle to your overcoming this pattern (Matthew 18:9), and that you are relying on others in the Body of Christ to hold you accountable and to shepherd you out of it (Galatians 6:1-4). “I’m struggling” shouldn’t be a way to end interrogation but to ask for it.

“Struggling” is good biblical language. We’re all either struggling with sin or surrendering to it. But we should use the language the way the Bible does. Instead we want all too often to use spiritual language for carnal ends. We should resist such temptation.

We should “struggle” with that.

 

Photo credit: Pexels.com

Where is God in a Mass Shooting?

A few hours ago I was on the phone with a friend in Las Vegas. He and his neighbors had just lived through, and will be living through for some time, the trauma of seeing in their own city the worst mass shooting in modern American history. I reflected after that conversation what my friend, a strong Christian and a respected leader, would say when asked by those around him, “Where was God in all of this?” He will have a word for his community, but for many Christians, when disaster or great evil strikes, this is a hard question to answer. Maybe that’s you.

The first thing we must do in the aftermath of this sort of horror is to make sure that we do not take the name of God in vain. After a natural disaster or an act of terror, one will always find someone, often claiming the mantle of Christianity, opining about how this moment was God’s judgment on an individual or a city or a nation for some specified sin. Jesus told us specifically not to do this, after his disciples asked whether a man’s blindness was the result of his or his parents’ sin. Jesus said no to both (John 9:1-12). Those self-appointed prophets who would blame the victims for what befalls them are just that, self-appointed. We should listen to Jesus and to his apostles, not to them. Those killed in a terror attack or in a tsunami or in an epidemic are not more sinful than all of the rest of us.

We live in a fallen world, where awful, incomprehensible things happen. When an obvious and egregious injustice such as this one is done, we should stand where God does and see this as real evil, not as an illusion of evil. This means that our response to such should not be some sort of Stoic resignation but instead a lament with those around us who are hurting.

Christians sometimes suppose that our non-Christian friends and neighbors want to hear a detailed explanation, to justify God in light of such horror. The Bible doesn’t give us easy answers. The Word of God instead speaks of the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thessalonians 2:7). When tragedy fell upon Job, an ancient follower of God, and asked why such happened to him, God did not fully answer him. God instead spoke of his own power and his own presence. That’s exactly what we should do.

We do not know why God does not intervene and stop some tragedies when he does stop others. What we do know, though, is that God stands against evil and violence. We know that God is present for those who are hurting. And we know that God will ultimately call all evil to a halt, in the ushering in of his kingdom. We know that God is, in the words of the hymn, both “merciful and mighty.”

When my wife and I were going through a difficult time, years ago, a friend stopped by, a respected theologian who spoke often and well of God’s sovereign providence. I expected him to speak to us of how God was working in this tragedy we were facing. He didn’t. He cried with us. He sat with us. He prayed with us. And as he left, he turned and said, “Russell, I don’t know why God permitted this to happen to you, but I know this: Jesus loves you, and Jesus is alive and present right now in your life.” I’ve never forgotten those words.

Our neighbors do not need us to provide easy answers to what is, this side of the eschaton, unexplainable. What they need, though, is a reminder for us that life is not the meaningless chaos it seems to be. There is a loving Presence at work in the universe. They need for us to weep and hurt with them, as Jesus did at the grave of his friend. In short, they need us to be a people of the cross, a people whose God is not distant and blank but a God who instead loved the world enough to send his Son to bear in his own body the full measure of the curse of evil. In the cross, we see evil and horror. We also see that God is there. And in the empty tomb, we see that death does not get the last word.

 

Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Hugh Hefner Did Not Live the Good Life

Overnight, we learned of the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. Hefner is the iconic figure who not only made pornography socially respectable (and even more lucrative), but also spent a life constructing a “playboy philosophy” of sexual freedom that would supposedly undo the “Puritan sexual repression he saw in American life.”

The death of any person is a tragedy. Hugh Hefner is no exception to that. We can’t, though, with his obituaries, call his life “success” or “a dream.”

Hefner did not create, but marketed ingeniously the idea that a man’s life consists in the abundance of his possessions and of his orgasms. To women, he marketed frenetically the idea that a woman’s value consists in her sexual availability and attractiveness to men.

The “bunny” logo was well-chosen because, in the end, Mr. Hefner saw both men and women as essentially rabbits. This path was portrayed vividly by John Updike in his Rabbit Angstrom series. It is not a happy life.

And yet we are not actually rabbits. We can see our deaths coming, and we outlive those deaths to give an account of our lives. If you want to see “success,” look instead to the man faithful to the wife of his youth, caring for her through dementia.

In the short-run Hefner’s philosophy has won, on both the Right and the Left. The Playboy Mansion is every house now. Many church leaders implicitly or explicitly say, “This is fine.” In many cases, those who hold to what the church has always taught on sexual morality and the value of women are the dissidents now, regardless of how “conservative” a movement proclaims itself to be. Thou hast conquered, O grotto.

The long-run, though, is quite different. Jesus will reign.

In the meantime, the Good Shepherd searches the thickets for his lost sheep. And sometimes for a lost rabbit, too. The sign of the good life is not hedonism but crucifixion. The sign of the good life is not a bunny but a cross.

 

Photo: Playboy Publisher Hugh Hefner poses at the ''Hugh Hefner and the Girls Next Door'' DVD signing at Tower Records Sunset on July , 2006 in Los Angeles, California.

Photo courtesy: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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