Monday, June 19, 2006

Truth, Justice, and The American Myth

O.k., I admit it, I'm pretty psyched about seeing "Superman Returns."

I grew up watching the repeats of the television series with George Reeves - although I'm with Jerry Seinfeld, who noted in one of his standup bits that it seemed odd a guy who would stand there, "S" chest out, and take a full round of ammunition as it deflected off, would duck when the bad guy threw the gun at him.

I saw "Superman: The Movie" at the Paramount theater in downtown Jackson, Tennessee (of course that theater no longer exists). I was struck by the movie's tagline "you will believe that man can fly." And I darned near did.

Superman II showed us the fall and rise of our hero even as he battled the unholy Trinity of criminals from his home planet. "Kneel before Zod."

By the time Superman III and IV came out, I didn't care anymore. Enough already. We get it, Superman may go through extraordinary trials, and Kryptonite may be involved at some point, but don't fret, in the end, "truth, justice and the American way" will win out.

That's the problem with our heroes. We need them, but then we get "hero fatigue", and tire of them, we can't believe in them any more, and then they go away--- only to return to enchant a new generation and torment the latest incarnation of Lex Luthors and the like.

Why do we tire of them? Not because we don't believe that they can do all those superhuman things - but because we can't believe that someone is really that good, and we sure as heck know that we're not.

There are websites and published works aplenty dealing with mythological forms and our penchant for returning to them. I'll not rehash it here, but clearly Joseph Campbell is the benchmark for such studies. And if you want to get into the "christ" figures of motion pictures, there's plenty available for that, too.

But this line, spoken by Marlon Brando, Jor-El, in the original film and returning for this film, at least in the trailers, leaves me to wonder to myself - "Have a messiah complex much?"
Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.

Please, spare me.

I more interested in what's happened to our American myths in the past few years.

Watch this now--

the stuff of our childhood imaginings,

the comic book heroes and heroines,

the mythologies of "space, the final frontier,"

have been handed to over to a new generation of stewards who come to the moment not from the original conception of idea, but from the influence of the original idea, they care-take it and advance the idea forward.

Sometimes this has worked well, other times it hasn't.

Take "Mission:Impossible", for example. Why hasn't that held on to an audience and built upon it? A team of ordinary people charged with the impossible mission to bring about outcomes on which the security of the world depends--who wouldn't like that?

For one, you've got the whole "Tom Cruise is a weirdo" thing, which can't be underestimated. But what did M:I in happened with the very first movie. You made the archetypal patriarch and team leader, Mr. Phelps, the bad guy and kill him, so that our new little hero boy, Ethan (Cruise) could be the new hero. Devotees of the original have never gotten over that, trust me - I am one.

When our heroes fall, we always hold out hope for redemption.

Mr. Phelps was not granted that opportunity. C'mon, it's Peter Graves, Jim Arness's brother. Marshall Matt Dillon's (ah, Gunsmoke, westerns, talk about American mythology)brother is the head of the IM force, and you're going to make him a bad guy? Are you nuts?

But with Superman, Spiderman, Batman, X-Men, there is a growing awareness that our heroes have, uh, "dark sides." (Can't you hear Darth Vader breathing?). All you little Jungians know this as the "shadow."

Add on top of that "Luke, I am your father."

It's what makes us who we are, and yet it is what was too often ignored in the original manifestations of these myths, at least on film.

To be sure, sometimes a "movie is just a movie," and without the willingness to suspend disbelief, you can forget it.

The maturing of our myths, though, is a healthy process.

A Christian minister using "myth" so much in one article, oh boy - what am I saying about the Christian faith?

Amy-Jill Levine, professor at Vanderbilt, talks about myth this way, to say that something is a myth does not mean it's not true. Myths are invariably "true," they just may not be factual.

The epic chronicle of faith that is the Christian story, is continually handed to the next generation, whose primary influence is those who've come before and handed it to them.

We are a people of story.

Jesus told them.

We tell them.

There's going to come a day, 10, 15, 25 years from now when folks look to this generation of members at Saint John's--shoot, they're going to look at the Church itself, and seek to define itself in light of what's been handed to them.

My strongest sense that the heroes and heroines they will build the story of the community on will be, in part, composed of names of those you sit in the sanctuary with every Sunday. It will be the story of those who understood God's call through Jesus to form community and to minister to the community as an expression of the grace we've received. It will be story of those who said that we will stay here, be relevant, be vital, make a difference.

It's the story of us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the Gospel According to You. Good stuff!