The Devolution of the Super Hero and the Decay of Social Capital

While everyday that passes can certainly be considered just another day in the books, there are particular events that you know, even as they are still unfolding, will remain the topic of conversation for years to come. The types of events that will likely make there way into textbooks. That our kids and grandkids will ask us about. That will be considered pivotal moments for our culture. The cliché phrase “we’re living through history” seems all too fitting for these trying times.

Is it an overstatement to say the rioting at Capitol Hill fits that category? Or even that much of the social strife experienced over the past year will be worthy of reflection for future generations? Events filled with opportunities to teach lessons or at least offer a snapshot of what life was like within the United States in the early 21st century?

While it’s always difficult to assess the significance of a particular event within such a short timeframe, this feels even more difficult to put into words. Was this the climax of a long-building crescendo? Or is this just another “bump” in the long road of turmoil within our nation?

How did we get here? Whose fault is this? Where do we go from here? And how could this have been avoided?

As to be expected, there are many who are quick to give answers or at least vent their frustrations. Who’s at fault? The President? His base? The party that never reeled him in? Fascists? White supremacists? The patriarchy? Fake News? The Swamp? The Deep State? It depends who you ask. But for so many in this country, still living through the fog of a tumultuous year, the answer is crystal clear. The problem is the other tribe and it has been for a long time.

What’s sad is that in almost every rant that makes its way onto social media, there are at the very least kernels of truth. There’s no shortage of reasons to cast blame on pretty much everyone mentioned previously, which is what makes this so messy. One can easily make the case, that just about everyone has contributed in some way to getting us to this point.

And so, as much as we may want to cast judgements on the events of the recent past, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that this isn’t an isolated incident that came out of nowhere. It may be even more helpful to view this event against the backdrop of larger undercurrents that have been forming within society over many years and decades. To take a step back and try looking at it from a 10,000-foot view.

As I so often do in many of these posts, I find movies and TV shows so incredibly helpful because they represent the stories we tell ourselves that both inform our culture and reflect where it currently stands. Often popular art can give us a glimpse into where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. And I can think of no genre of movies and TV shows that reflects this evolution (or maybe better put “devolution”) more clearly than the super hero genre.

these aren’t your granddaddy’s super heroes

I’ll admit. I’m no comic book junkie. The extent of my comic book reading as a kid consisted of Calvin & Hobbes, Dilbert, and The Far Side. I never really dabbled in the super hero genre. It just wasn’t my thing.

My exposure to super heroes as an adolescent was largely relegated to an occasional viewing of the Batman animated series and the live action Batman and Robin movies. You know, the ones with the over-the-top “KAPOW” and “BANG” lettering intermixed with each and every fight scene. It was enough for me to ask for my own Batman utility belt. But that was about the peak of my interest.

But my love for the super hero genre, really began with the first Iron Man movie and the introduction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). I know I’m not alone in feeling this. Marvel Studios has been producing many of the highest grossing movies of the past decade, (for good reason) and continues to pump them out at an increasing frequency, no doubt to capitalize on an opportune moment while popularity remains high.

Sure the visual effects and CGI has taken current films to a completely new level of production quality than the older films. But maybe one of the most notable changes has come with the with the characters themselves.

Unlike the typical superhero trope of the past, none of the super heroes within the MCU maintain their secret identity. Ever since Tony Stark revealed his identity as Iron Man in the first movie, almost none of the characters have maintained an alter ego. There is no stark division drawn between their public and private lives. And that means for the viewer, you are presented with all of the flaws and weaknesses of the heroes.

In the past, clear lines were drawn between good and evil without much of a character arc required within the individual. But in today’s movies, although there are certainly clear “good guys” and “bad guys”, the protagonists have flaws, and deeper context is given for why the antagonists became who they are. Changes that certainly make the movies all the more engaging and are worthy of note.

But where this genre really takes a turn is with one of it’s most recent adaptations. The Boys, a very popular TV show on Amazon Prime that just finished its second season, demonstrates this shift in culture by very clearly contrasting itself against the many super hero stories of the past. And boy oh boy (pun intended), is it a doozy.

The show was recommended by friends of ours. With an 8.7 rating on IMDB, many award nominations, and considered one of the most popular shows today, this show is certainly drawing a lot of attention. And as usual in our household, Morgan started watching without me. Go figure. But I just so happened to sit down in time to catch this scene from the fourth episode which gave me an introduction into what this show was all about and I was immediately intrigued by its message.

Disclaimer: There is swearing, blood/gore, and disturbing content in this clip. The show is rated for mature audiences. While there is no sexual content in this clip, please know for future reference the show itself does contain pretty gratuitous amounts of it in the remainder of the show. In short, I don’t recommend this for kids.

I’m not sure if this scene hits you as hard as it hits me, but I can’t help but feel my stomach turn when they lie to the passengers that everything would be okay and abandon them to their demise. This scene encapsulates in just a few minutes what this whole show is about.

Clearly Homelander is a parody of Superman. Queen Maeve, a parody of Wonder Woman. There are other super heroes that allude to Aquaman and to The Flash. This whole show takes the oh so familiar concept of a group of super heroes like the Justice League, and flips it on its head. What if those who are responsible for our protection aren’t just incompetent at times, but they’re actually malevolent?

If you watch the show, you will see that this twist doesn’t just occur with the super heroes. Nearly every institution in this show is untrustworthy. A Christian organization is led by a man that is sexually deviant in private after condemning it publicly. A big pharmaceutical company is led by completely dishonest leaders and misleads the public every step of the way. Politicians are corrupt. Cults take advantage of their followers for monetary gain. Many of the relationships depicted are absolute train wrecks. Innocent bystanders killed all the time in both domestic and foreign affairs. And the show makes barely veiled allusions to many of our cultures hot-button topics like white supremacy, the #MeToo Movement, and police brutality. It has it all!

This show is at its core a thought experiment. What if we took the super hero concept and made a dystopian version of it? That my friends in a nutshell is The Boys. A show that probably would not have received anywhere near this level of popularity in the past. A show that probably won’t stand the test of time. But a show that shows so saliently what so many are feeling today.

And what’s their proposed solution? “The Boys.” A group of nobodies who have been hurt in the past by these super heroes and who group together to take down them down through not only non-violent means, but also through violence. The solution is a grassroots resistance rebelling against the powers at hand. Does this sound familiar?

The Decay of social capital

It may not come as a surprise that public trust in government has been hovering around an all-time low for much of the recent past. The below chart from Pew Research shows just how precipitously we’ve declined in trust in public officials these past 60 years.

Then one could look at the status of marriages over the past century and the waning influence it has within our society. And with the reduced rate of marriages, we have seen related patterns in the increase of babies born out of wedlock, certainly a condition that does not afford stability to the children – a storyline I would note that one can also find within the plot of The Boys.

I’m sure one could easily find similar studies showing trends for diminished trust in the police, our neighbors, clergy, state and local officials, schools, etc. And similar levels of disconnection from other institutions like church, community groups, friends and family. Despite having the ability to connect more easily today with anyone around the globe, we are more disjointed and less trusting of those around us.

Is it any wonder why a show like The Boys would resonate with people today yet almost certainly be incredibly off-putting to generations past? Is it any wonder why so many on both the right and left are resisting and rebelling against who they perceive to be the perpetrators of these conditions? Is it any wonder that many feel that resorting to violence is the only way for them to feel heard?

Social capital is rarely mentioned measure of a culture’s health. Honestly I wasn’t familiar with the term until very recently, but it is quite obvious once you hear it. Social capital is the value of the relationships within a society that not only bind us together, but propel us to live admirably and function effectively. High trust within a society reduces the need for regulation. Moral behaviors that arise from constructive relationships reduce the need for law enforcement. Social capital provides increased levels of satisfaction, stability and predictability to our lives. And it affords opportunities for the most disenfranchised to be heard when those relationships are prioritized between all levels of the hierarchy.

When societies are functioning at their best, social capital is high. Sadly many of the previous attributes mentioned do not describe the experiences for many in our nation today. In many regards, that dystopian vision of The Boys is not too far off from what many perceive to be reality. So what can we do?

so how do we build social capital again?

One may say that maybe our trust in the government in the past was too high. That the very carefully crafted propaganda of our past that afforded such a unifying vision of our country’s leadership cannot occur in this modern era, nor would we want that. Can you imagine a current president being able to hide for years their limited mobility like FDR did in the past?

Like that aforementioned change made in the MCU movies, for better or for worse, we are presented with far more of the strengths and flaws of our leaders than at any time in the past. With cameras everywhere and an expectation that communication not just come from polished speeches but from half-baked tweets, we will get an up-close view of not just their public lives, but their private lives too. In fact, with the advent of social media, we’re confronted with the best and worst of many of our peers as well. To some degree we need to learn to live with the messiness of one another that is aired out for all to see in ways it hasn’t in the past, including our leaders (not to be mistaken as an excuse for these recent riots).

But there are many other changes that have been occurring within our society over the past several decades. Many seemingly small and innocuous decisions are made by all of us that over time accumulate. The decision to continue a marriage or end it. To get to know our neighbors better or ignore them. To attend church and invest time into the community or spend every leisure hour on ourselves. To be diligent at our work or let our quality slip when no one’s looking. To be dependable to our children, parents, and friends or look out for #1. To build social capital, or to let it decay.

We didn’t get here overnight. And we’re not getting out of it as quickly either. We don’t have to live within a dystopia. But in order to promote trust in our institutions again, the people who make up those institutions have to start generating more social capital again. And violence is never constructive.

Jesus said to his disciples in the hours leading up to his execution, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

Jesus found himself within the midst of a very harsh culture war and instead of resorting to violence he encouraged his disciples to seek a new way. The Boys glorifies violence as its solution to the problem of malevolent actors. Jesus proposed a different, albeit far more costly and difficult way to approach others, even our enemies.

To continue to invest in others, even when it’s at the cost of yourself. Those aren’t the type of heroes we glorify today. But those are the heroes we need to turn things around. Then, and only then, will we actually begin to see and feel indications of healing. And maybe, just maybe, we will look back at these recent events as the pivot point towards something better.

It’s up to us.

A Different Messiah

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” 
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”  
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah." Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. 
- Mark 8:27-30 

I recently finished reading through the Gospel of Mark and noticed something that I had never realized before. What is it with Jesus constantly requesting of his disciples and those he heals to not tell anyone about him? If you reread the story closely, you will see that this happens consistently throughout the story.

He requires this of the possessed man after he drives out the spirit (Mark 1:24). After he heals many sick and demon-possessed people (Mark 1:34 and Mark 3:11-12). After healing a man with leprosy (Mark 1:44) and restoring a deaf man who could barely speak (Mark 7:36-37). He even requests this after raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5:43).

Jesus also orders Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about his Transfiguration as they came down from the mountain (Mark 9:9) and the same to all his disciples after Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah.

It is an incredibly strange pattern throughout this entire story. Why would Jesus require this silence about who he is? And if he truly was the Messiah, why wasn’t he comfortable with others proclaiming it?

rethinking “Messiah”

Throughout the Gospel of Mark you will see a stark contrast drawn between the faith (of lack of faith) of the disciples and the abundant faith of all women and healed people within the story. The Gospel of Mark does not show the disciples and especially Peter in a good light.

Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Messiah follows shortly after the feedings of the five thousand and four thousand. Significant miracles to behold for anyone, but the disciples had the added privilege of having front-row seats to the spectacle. They were responsible for the distribution and collection of the fish and bread. They saw firsthand how the food had been multiplied to serve the people.

And yet, after witnessing these miracles, Peter and the other disciples still lacked faith that Jesus could feed them, the twelve disciples, with the one loaf of bread they brought with them on the boat. I don’t think it takes high-level math to see how Jesus could have provided for a dozen after tending to thousands.

Many of us believe if only we saw a miracle or God revealed himself to us that we would believe. But maybe, as the disciples demonstate, we don’t quite work that way. But it’s pretty fascinating that Peter would then, shortly after demonstrating such weak faith, profess that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah.

For Christians living on this side of the resurrection, this seems so obviously to be the right answer to Jesus’ question “Who do you say I am?” I mean it is the right answer, isn’t it? Jesus is in fact the Messiah, correct? Jesus certainly doesn’t dispute it.

But maybe we miss the context of what was really being said here. What did Peter think being the Messiah meant? How did he envision Jesus’ ministry proceeding? He didn’t have the luxury of foreseeing all that would transpire like we do. And maybe for those very reasons, Jesus steers their conversation in an unforseeable dirction, like he seems to do with every conversation.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” - Mark 8:31-32

Peter could not fathom how the Messiah would have to suffer, be rejected, and then be killed. That wasn’t at all what he had in mind for the one who was expected to restore the throne of David from underneath Roman occupation. They had waited so long for the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.

Jesus, the king they were waiting for, could not fulfill his role if he were to be killed. Which is why Peter so emphatically insists that his friend Jesus would not be killed. That this plan had to be thwarted. He was so convinced he knew who Jesus should be that he actually rebukes Jesus himself for not fulfilling Peter’s vision of the Messiah. And as a result, he was met with incredibly harsh and pointed words from Jesus in an exchange that unsettles anyone’s belief that Jesus was just nice and harmless with everyone all the time.

Could it be that Jesus requests the secrecy of his disciples and those he heals in order to allow him to show what type of messiah he would be? For him to be able to preach and teach what his ministry and the Kingdom of God would actually look like? That the disciples and so many of the Jews had some preconceived notions of who the Messiah would be that needed to be changed? That just knowing him to be the Messiah wasn’t everything?

the messiah of easter week

Quite possibly, this contrast between the messiah envisioned by so many peers of Jesus and Jesus himself is no more clearer than in the events that occur between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was initially met with the offering of palm brances, a symbol of royalty and triumph. He rode into the city on a colt echoing the prophecy from Zechariah that they would receive a king who would bring peace and reestablish his kingdom. The crowd shouted “Hosanna!”, meaning “Save!”, a clear proclamation of what they expected of Jesus.

But by the end of the week, he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples. Arrested by the very people he came to serve. Disowned by one of his closest friends. Mocked with a purple robe, crown of thorns, and sarcastic proclamations to his royalty. He was beaten, humiliated and led out to be crucified.

What started out with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, ended as the most degrading execution a “king” could incur. The Messiah who was greeted with palm branches and shouts of joy just days earlier was now pierced on the cross after the same crowd shouted for his crucifixion.

His execution was by one of the most harrowing contraptions conceived by man. The man without sin receiving the same punishment of death alongside criminals. And he was taunted to save himself. If he truly was who he claimed to be, he could prevent this from happening. And yet he didn’t. There was no way this could be God’s promised savior. This wasn’t the Messiah they were anticipating.

Would he have been the Messiah we were anticipating if we were in their shoes?

“who do you say I am?”

2,000 years later, many of us, including me, are still wrestling with the same question Jesus asked of Peter? “Who do you say I am?

Some say he was a good teacher, a really kind person, a revolutionary, a prophet or possibly even a lunatic. Or maybe you would claim that he is the Messiah, our savior. But what does being the “Messiah” really mean to us? Are we, like Peter, giving the “right” answer but bringing our own preconceived notions to the table about who this Jesus was and is? Are we quick to try and recruit him to our political or ideological agenda? Or to project our own wishes and desires onto him?

Jesus has an awe-inspiring way of escaping our categories and avoiding our recruiting efforts. The more you study his words and actions, the more he continues to undermine our preconceived ideas of who he is to replace them with something incredibly more glorious. The Lion and the Lamb. The Prince of Peace. The Good Shepherd. Wonderful Counselor. The True Vine. The Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Son. The Messiah.

I don’t think the author of the Gospel of Mark is asking us to be secretive about who he is. But maybe this story encourages us to take a step back and see, that though we may know and claim Jesus as the Messiah, that he can still surprise us in the way he goes about saving us. That his Kingdom is different than the kingdoms we have come to know here on earth. That even when things don’t unfold in the manner we would have prescribed for ourselves, he will continue to work through it all.

As we live our lives, and lean into Christ more and more, we will be amazed at just how wonderful this different Messiah is and how there is an endless depth to who he is. And that we can shout “Hosanna!” and know more and more the fulness of what it actually means to be saved.