Sunday, February 16, 2014

Law & Disorder: Samson the Superman [sermon excerpt]

It is not a happy ending. Samson is the last of the Judges. His death is a tragedy. And it is the tragedy of the human race. In John Milton’s telling of the story the Israelites are singing to Samson and they lament him as a “mirror of our fickle state.” As we conclude today I want us to reflect on how this is so to this day. To do that I want to talk about Superman.

Samson is superman. He's Superman in the sense meant by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was German so the word he used was Übermensch, meaning Overman or Superman. Nietzsche’s basic claim was that God was dead and it was time for humanity to take it to the next level. To outdo itself.

Nietzsche wasn’t unappreciative of God or religion, in fact he felt that belief in God had done a lot of good. This was how humanity reached for the stars. But now that civilization was coming of age religion had reached the end of its usefulness. The death of God would be good for us. Instead of leaning on religion we should put faith in the human race and reach for our real potential. By force of will we could be Super-humanity. Our dreams of God it will only hold us back.

I suspect this idea lies behind the popularity of superhero stories these days to some degree—telling us more about our fundamental beliefs than we’d like to admit. Our superhero stories sustain the myth that we can be whatever you set our minds to be. For Nietzsche the key was the human will. Accepting the death of God might hurt for a while, but if we could break the shackles of faith in God and put faith in the power of self-belief—we could outdo ourselves.

Of course, there are other interpretations of the power of the human will. A philosopher who touched on this was Arthur Schopenhauer. He also thought that human willpower was a powerful thing, but he thought that the will of man was its kryptonite, so to speak. He thought that human will was an evil power that would take us down at the peak of our desire. Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer talked about the power of the human will, one thinking it the key to greatness, the other thinking it our ultimate demise.

Which story does Samson tell?

To be honest I think he tells both. Yes, cut loose from the God who would hold us back from building our Babel Towers, cut loose from the God who would hold Samson back from the donkey’s jawbone, we humans are capable of immense and incredible things!

"If you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (and if you are cut from the right cloth), you too can find the success of a self-made man."

"If our intentions are right we can build a relatively benevolent global empire on the strength of our goodwill."

Nietzsche was partly right. But history has shown: so was Schopenhauer. And Samson tells the story that Superman is an overreach on our part: our will to power brings self-destruction. We’re still telling Samson’s story to this day. He’s a mirror for our broken souls; a reflection of our disordered world.

The Judges are a mirror held up to see our fickle state. We’re fickle because we swing on the pendulum between optimism and pessimism; between Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, between dreams and despair. And the pendulum swings on the myth of Superman---a myth Jesus came to destroy.

You wouldn’t know it from those Jesus films with the blue-eyed hunk of a carpenter’s son who goes to the cross like William Wallace, but the Jesus given us in the gospels is one who steps into the shoes of Samson at the end of his rope and at Israel’s bottom line, and who dies in our place to put to death our myths of the self-made man.

Jesus is not self-made but self-giving. Of all the people to live a life of total submission to the strength of God, you wouldn’t think it would be the Son of God himself, but he does. At every step Jesus lives from the love of the Father, drawing strength each day rather than relying on himself. And Jesus gives himself to the people around him too. He’s not self-made but self-giving---giving himself to us even to the point that he lets us take him down.

"God's Hand is in the World" by Yehuda Amichai
(thanks Dave McGregor for showing this to me)
In Jesus the Son of God throws his lot in with us and ends up standing there with Samson, a mirror of our fickle state, dying with us as well. It's Nietzsche's death of God and Schopenhauer's death of man!

And if you’ve never stared into the depths of it you’ve likely not taken seriously the words of Paul, who said: “If Christ is not raised our faith is futile and we are dead in our sins.” If Christ is not raised then Samson’s end is our end too.

No matter how many sappy-ending superhero movies you watch it doesn’t change the fact that, left to ourselves, Samson’s end is our end too.

But Paul wasn’t done, and neither is Scripture. There’s a long epilogue to the story of Samson and in a very real sense we’re still involved in its writing. Gratefully, the conclusion has already been written for us in Christ, as is spelled out for us by Paul:

“If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins and all of the dead are lost. And if only for this life we have hope in Christ, we of all people should be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep..."


Shepherd said...

This is why Batman is the best of the superheroes. He's not a superhuman Greek god, and he's self-sacrificial. (Sorry, couldn't resist)

Shepherd said...

On a more serious note, I think while some superhero movies are indeed about the myth of the self-made man (Batman would be one... all those heroes who gain their powers through "science" would be others), the superhero myth is at its core about a desire for there to be some powerful person who will bring justice to the world and put an end to evil. In other words, its a desire for a powerful hero, a Messiah. The comic-book Superman (as opposed to Nietzsche's Superman) was invented by two Jewish guys, and its not a coincidence that as a Messianic figure his bears a strong resemblance to Moses'.

That's just an aside... I agree wholeheartedly with the broader point that Jesus destroys the myth of the self-made man.

Shepherd said...

*as a messianic figure his story bears a strong resemblance to Moses'.

Jon Coutts said...

Nice. Thanks Shep. I wasn't sure if anyone would take me up on my jabs at superhero genre (which I admit I am for some reason predisposed to dislike). I am happy to offer mine as one of many possible readings of the genre, and to accept that there may be Christ-figures or properly Messianic elements in some of them.

I hadn't looked into the DC Comics origins but that' genuinely fascinating what you've pointed out there.

Like I said to someone after the service today, even if I grant that there may be some more Christ like superheroes, I still want to keep alive this alarming notion that the Son of God in the flesh turns out to be more human than the superheroes.

Shepherd said...

Yes, I absolutely agree with you there. Of course, the "True Myth" of the Gospel (as Tolkien put it) will always be superior to our cultural or imaginative myths.

We definitely need to resist the notion that Jesus is some sort of superhuman or Greek god... and that sort of confusion is out there! I occasionally find people who seem to think that is what the incarnation entails.