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No More Heroes

August 2, 2013

A few months ago, after one of the horrendous shootings of this year, there was a display table set up in the student center of a certain Christian liberal arts college in the Midwest. The table’s purpose was to get students to donate to the victims of the shooting. The banner on it said “Anyone Can Be A Hero” or something to that effect, and had a picture of several humanoid stick figures, a few of whom had superhero logos pasted onto them. I didn’t want to say it at the time, but the picture nauseated me. I was glad that students were working for a good cause. But I was sad that our culture had reached a state where our only idea of heroism comes from comic books and popcorn movies. In the face of unspeakable evil, we have…Batman?

Don’t get me wrong–I love comic books and popcorn movies. But neither of them are providing many examples of real heroes. I watched Wolverine today. The title character is a superhero of sorts, but in the movie he barely does anything that qualifies as heroic. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of honor or justice that he lives by. He is never faced with any serious ethical dilemma where he takes the right road rather than the easy ones. He doesn’t sacrifice his own good for the good of others. He doesn’t show any heroic virtues. He does protect an innocent person throughout the movie, but that’s about it. The conclusion drawn from Wolverine is that the modern idea of being a hero mainly involves having powers and killing a lot of people.

The problem, however, goes deeper than the violent aspects of the movie. The problem is that Wolverine, or Iron Man, or Superman or any of the superheroes, aren’t real people. They aren’t even close to real people. They are comic-book characters, larger than life figures made for pulp fiction. They can get thrown up against the wall and their bones won’t break; they can get shot and not die; they can go through immense stresses and (almost) never break down. If Wolverine had been a real person, he would have died two minutes into the movie. Superheroes can be entertaining in a story, but they can’t show us real heroism, because, at the bottom of things, they’re just glorified cartoon characters.

It saddens me that most of our idea of a “hero” comes from these characters rather than from real people in history who went through real ordeals. Most childrens’ “heroes” will be comic book characters, movie stars, or pop singers. They will probably know a bit about Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, George Washington–though their knowledge will be very sketchy. But they will be missing out on the true heroes from history. Heroes like:

  • Cincinnatus: The one man alone who could save the Roman Republic. He was plowing his fields when the Senators of Rome came to him and asked him to become Dictator and assume absolute power so that he could defeat the Aequi. He left his plow and went to Rome, where he took command of the army and defeated the Aequi. Though he could have seized power, he instead resigned the Dictatorship after holding it a mere 16 days. Legend says that after he resigned the Dictatorship, he went back to his farm and picked up plowing exactly where he had left off.
  • Thomas Cranmer: The Archbishop of Canterbury under the Tudors. He was a major figure in the English Reformation and was the prime writer/editor of the Book of Common Prayer. After the Catholic Mary I ascended the throne, he was prosecuted for his Protestant beliefs. He signed a recantation of his beliefs, but then recanted his recantation. When he was led to the stake to be burned as a heretic, he put his right hand, the right hand that had signed the recantation, into the fire first. Few have taken such a stand for their convictions.
  • Winston Churchill: The man who helped the British win World War II. At points during the war, Hitler was very close to victory–in fact, some things I have read say that if he had attempted an invasion of Britain he would have succeeded. One of the things that kept Hitler from winning was Churchill. The rotund Prime Minister fought the Nazis with “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” but also with his sense of humour and his speaking ability. Rejecting his predecessor Neville Chamberlain’s naive idea of “peace in our time,” Churchill fought the Nazis with a determination unequaled in our time, a determination that shines forth in his famous speech: “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”

These are just a few of the many great heroes of history. Many other wait for us to discover them–Frederick Douglass, George Washington, St. Thomas a’Becket, Leonidas and the Three Hundred Spartans, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alvin York, Jenny Geddes, and countless others. These men and women can inspire us far more than any comic books or movies. If we think that we are too weak to take on the troubles that surround us, we can remember a weak, sickly, asthmatic child named Theodore Roosevelt, who was determined to condition himself to be as strong as possible. If we think that we cannot stand in the face of ultimate evil, we can remember Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and the millions of others who survived the Holocaust. If we think that one person cannot stand up against the corrupt power structures of today’s world, we can think of Chen Guangcheng, or Malala Yousafzai, heroes for our own time. Knowing about these true heroes will help us to live heroic lives today, even if that merely means doing a small act of kindness or justice.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 1:35 am

    Any Iron Maiden fan knows the Churchill speech by heart. Please. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=37UPhgEqwN8

    I dont wanna be “that guy” but comic book Wolverine isn’t really a hero anyway. We love him but because he’s super dysfunctional.

    Have you read Paul Johnson’s book Heroes? Very good, right in line with this post.

    • August 2, 2013 3:22 pm

      You’re right about Wolverine–he’s more of an antihero. But without an adequate concept of the hero, the idea of the antihero loses its significance.
      I haven’t read that Paul Johnson book, but I’ve read his biography of Churchill, which was quite good.

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