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.

Social Justice in a Post-Christian Society

Avengers: Endgame was a unique theater experience. I can recall going to see many several of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies shortly after they hit the big screen but those experiences pale in comparison to that of watching Endgame.

I couldn’t find more recent data on how many people have seen Avengers: Endgame since it debuted this past April, but this article indicates that their survey conducted prior to its release showed that more that half of Americans planned to see the movie. It currently sits at the top for the highest grossing movie of all time at the box office, with a gross of nearly $2.8 billion worldwide (although they had to use some trickery to get there). The amount of conversation devoted to this movie among friends and families probably serves as enough of an indicator of how popular this movie was.

The movie felt like a cultural moment. It was the 22nd movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the culmination of their first big overarching story line that weaved throughout each of the preceding films. It signaled the end of a chapter of movies that had been made for over a decade leading up to this point and it’s difficult to see anyone except Marvel Studios pulling something of this magnitude off again.

Yet, the euphoric feeling of that culminating movie didn’t really last too long. Yes, another Spider-Man movie came out (which I haven’t seen yet so no spoilers please!) and more Marvel movies are slated to hit theaters for the foreseeable future. But unless we plan to partake in Comic Con, there aren’t really opportunities for us to engage in these superhero stories beyond purchasing our tickets, reclining back in the theater, and wolfing down some popcorn. We can discuss the movie among friends and families, but even the novelty of that conversation wears off as time passes. It seems like it pulled so many of us together, but only for a short while. It’s like the movie points to something we all want, but the MCU thus far, even through 22 movies, hasn’t quite fulfilled it.

Can the MCU point to something that we desire? And what implications can it have for discussions on social justice, and how do we go about fostering good conversation.

we’re living in a post-christian society

We are divided along political, racial, geographic, gender, and generational lines. Except for the rare case like Endgame, there aren’t too many opportunities where we come together despite these differences. But were there always this few opportunities for community?

We could take a look at organized religion as an example. It’s no secret that church attendance is in decline, especially among younger generations. Studies everywhere show that pretty much across the board numbers are dropping as indicated in the figures below. Whether it’s the argument that science has disproved the claims made in the Christian belief system, the scandals and hypocrisy that have eroded its credibility, or the dangers posed by fundamentalist religions, there have been a number of reasons to avoid associating with any type of religion. However, as we can see from this graph, a significant portion of the nation belonged to a church just a couple generations ago.

Church membership was incredibly stable up until the late 90’s when it started to sharply decline. And this trend is represented even more starkly in the following chart.

I think it’s safe to say that these charts point to a seismic shift in our culture over the past few decades and as with any change their are side effects, often both good and bad.

Set aside the metaphysical claims made by religions for a minute and consider what the institutions of religion have provided historically. I mentioned that the Marvel movies have given reason for about half the nation to sit in front of television and movie screens a couple times a year for a few hours to enjoy what are essentially mythical tales. Consider that even today after all this decline in church membership that 50% of the nation are still members of a church that get together weekly to take part in a narrative of their own. A narrative that they have continued to take part in over vast periods of time. It’s almost like a weekly Comic Con and yes, some of the people are just as interesting.

We all know that these communities have not always been a perfect reflection of the diversity of the community at large and as I mentioned earlier there are understandably concerns with the church. But traditionally churches have provided a place for people to come together and ideally consider how they were meant to live both in relationship with God, or the highest ideals for life, and with one another. Why do you think an event like the Notre Dame Cathedral fire had such a profound impact on people religious and non-religious alike?

Notre Dame Cathedral

There’s a reason that churches were placed in the center of communities and often had their steeples set at the highest elevation within towns. They served as a central meeting place. The ideals taught there were embraced largely by the surrounding community. And the prioritization of religion within the community provided a space that could draw people together to commune, share meals together, and take part in a narrative. Something starkly similar to I think what we try to find in the MCU movies (kudos if you can find the pun in there). Yet, can movies replace the type of community an institution like the church produces?

where can we go for community?

It is within communities that we have conversation. I don’t think that’s a radical idea. The question is what can replace the role that religion has played historically as people leave the church? And where do we hear and engage with difficult topics like social justice?

As I discussed in my previous two posts, the news and politics don’t seem to provide a great locus for dialogue. And if the church is no longer the place for many of us to tease out these principles where do we have to go? K-12 public education? Colleges or universities?

Public schools are probably the closest to offering this type of community because students have to live in community with each other for hours a day for years. But consider the fact that schooling for most people ends by your mid- to late twenties. Is there an institution that can take the place of church for adults? The workplace? Meetups? I honestly can’t think of one.

a conversation on the hierarchy of values

Let’s assume we find some place to have conversation. Whether it’s in a church or elsewhere, what type of conversation are we having? When we tackle difficult issues like social justice, what we are often discussing is what values are of most importance. Kindness, love, justice, freedom, fairness, etc.

It often seems that the virtues of kindness and compassion are king within the social justice movement. Often there is no narrative offered to support why these virtues are of most importance. To many who subscribe to this belief, these virtues are self-evident. We ought to be kind and compassionate towards others.

I would ask the hypothetical question, do you think the self-sacrificing scenes throughout the MCU movies would arise from every other culture in the world both throughout history and geographically? I would think we would be naïve to think it would. The question then becomes where did we learn that kindness and compassion were important?

With the diminishing attendance at church and role of religion in society, we are trying to replace the Judeo-Christian narrative that for a long time has served as one of the most substantial influences in our culture with the virtues that we believe to be self-evident without a religious narrative coupled to it. But can this modern social justice narrative adequately fill that void? Author G.K. Chesterton seems to indicate that they aren’t the same in his following quote.

“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Consider the fruit of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. How would you define each of these?

Take kindness for example. Kindness as I mentioned is pervasive throughout the current democratic party’s platform and it seems straightforward. Kindness would probably be defined most often in this setting as tolerance and permissiveness. A “stay in your lane” mentality. Wokeness may even be considered kindness. Is that what Paul was referring to in this passage?

Or consider joy. Joy in isolation from these other fruits can be reduced to happiness. Do whatever makes you happy. Don’t change yourself. Don’t commit or get tied down. Life is short. Life for your enjoyment. Is this what Paul meant by joy?

When Paul wrote about these fruit he didn’t mean for them to be used in isolation because it is in their isolation that they each become distorted. Yet, we have done exactly that. We have separated these virtues that were learned over a long period of time through interaction both with myths and narratives and with other people through community. We thought they were self-evident and have distorted their meaning and application in life. And now they have gone wild and have taken on a life of their own.

why narratives are important?

So what was it that made Endgame so special? With more movies came the opportunity for more screen time for characters to develop their narratives. We got to see the maturation of their personalities into some absolutely beautiful moments of sacrifice, love, and courage for one another.

I know I left the theater feeling like the movie exceeded any expectations I had for it. It truly was a masterpiece of storytelling. I have to believe that’s a large part why people got so emotional, even to the point of requiring hospitalization.

There isn’t a problem with Endgame. It’s just that a movie like this is limited to providing entertainment and a limited amount of conversation because we can’t live within the story. We can contemplate the significance of the inclusion of female and minority superheroes and the virtues of the characters on screen, but at the end of the day none of us will be fighting alongside Tony Stark, Captain America, and the rest of the gang.

Without a story that we can participate in, I’m not sure that we have the ability to tease out how all of these virtues should interact. That’s where a narrative like the Christian narrative is different, because the story claims to occur within human history.

God as depicted within the Bible demonstrates in part all of these virtues interacting with one another. Even the statements “God is love” and “the greatest of these is love”, only have meaning within the context of the greater narrative and his interaction with humans throughout history. Similar to how the self-sacrifice of certain Marvel characters (avoiding spoilers here) has that much more significance because we know their backstory, the story of God’s relationship with humans and eventual self-sacrifice can illuminate these virtues and give them life.

It’s through our engagement with this narrative and the stories of others in the context of church in our communities that we can start to see how we can respond with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of difficult situations and confront these problems. We can avoid the temptation to elevate one virtue above the rest and as a result diminishing all of them.

what narrative does the church provide?

So what is the meta-narrative offered by the church in regards to social reform and change? I’m still unpacking for myself just how significant the story of the Bible is. I will spend the rest of my life doing so. But if I could try to boil it down to a few relevant ideas they would be these.

First off, I find it interesting if you consider the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, how the Israelites told the story of their own nation’s history. These are the stories they passed down orally and then eventually wrote down to explain their origins. They descended from people who were lazy (Abraham), deceitful (Jacob), willing to trade their brother into slavery (Jacob’s sons), drunk (Noah), disobedient (Adam and Eve), murderous (Moses), and idolatrous (the rest of the Israelites) among a variety of other mistakes.

The story they chose to tell of their own nation’s history was brutally honest about how they had failed their God. They don’t applaud these behaviors, but decided to remind themselves of how often they fell short. Maybe a little honesty on the shortcomings of our past is healthy to have.

Second, I would consider that Jesus didn’t spend his life trying to change Rome’s system of government. He spent his ministry investing mostly in 12 men, a lot of time in prayer, teaching principles, performing miracles to heal the sick and lowly and communing with the outcasts and dispossessed. He restored relationships between the dehumanized and the society at large by giving value to the very people that no one at the time saw value in.

It was in this way that he would build his church and change the world in a grass roots manner. The locus of change was the individual that resulted in widespread impact. The early church constantly showed that community could be formed across racial, generational, class, and gender lines. A little more of that sounds like exactly what we need today.

Lastly, when John starts his gospel off with the phrase “The Word became flesh”, I think we need to consider how significant this statement is. The Greek used here for Word is “logos,” which essentially means in the context of this passage that God revealed Himself by speaking.

If we were in a classroom and a dog were to randomly show up in the room and be running around there would be chaos and confusion. However, if a faculty member were to come into the room and explain that their dog got off the leash and that it was friendly, everyone in the classroom would suddenly have context for the situation. Order would be restored. John is essentially saying that Jesus has provided context for the chaos of our world and revealed God to us through his speech and language to provide order.

Speech is important for all of us to figure out the chaos around us. There may be temptations to silence certain voices, but I would argue this silencing of differing opinions would be to our detriment. There’s a reason we have the First Amendment. There’s a reason John emphasizes the importance of “logos.” And there’s a reason you see cultures go in terrible direction when people are silenced. We need to value others thoughts even when we don’t completely agree. It’s through truthful and honest conversation that we can mold each other. We need more of it not less.

where do we go from here on social justice issues?

Does that mean we do nothing then within politics? I don’t believe that to be the case. I think we should advocate for change and when it’s in our power, try to make changes, but we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s happening in our own lives, families, and neighborhoods. Should we look down on progressives? By no means. Compassion for the dispossessed and disenfranchised is to be lauded and we should be able to discuss these issues. The desire to want to do something is not a bad instinct.

Should we disparage conservatives for resisting social reform? I don’t think so. There are stark differences between statutes that abolish slavery and ones that provide reparations. Just like there are stark differences between giving women the right to vote and requiring women on executive boards. Some regulations should clearly be supported. Others, despite seeming similarly compassionate, may not produce the same effects they are desired to. And systematic sin, if you’re willing to call it evil, is not always rational and therefore rational solutions cannot always be found for these issues.

Systemic sin is real. It’s difficult to quantify, but always present. And as we see in my own post from four years ago, I think it’s important to be patient with one another because viewpoints on these difficult subjects often change over time. I’m sure mine will change and evolve even more over the coming years.

Unfortunately the solutions to these pervasive issues are not so easily prescribed. Let’s resist the urge to buy into quick solutions, look for the principles that can be developed to move us from pity to action, and try to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost. Maybe you will find that in church, or maybe new institutions will come about to fill this void.

And maybe… just maybe, these issues may start to resolve themselves without policy. Whether you’re a Christian or not, we have to admit that the historical figure of Jesus changed the world and undermined the Roman empire by communing with those on the outskirts of society and not through political and legislative means. I think it’s through rediscovering our local community and investing there, that the public sentiment of the nation will be changed and good conversation can resume.