The Gospel of Superman?

Deuteronomy 4: 1-2, 6-8 James 1: 17-18, 21b -22, 27 Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Little Jerry Siegel was born in 1914, into a large, poor family, living in gritty Jewish neighborhood of Cleveland. He would remain a runt, the object of his classmates’ taunts. As he recalled decades later, “I got a taste of how it feels to be victimized.” Recess for him was an unrelenting retreat from bullies. Girls ignored him. When it came time for the class to exchange them, Jerry had to worry whether he’d receive even one Valentine card.


“I hadn’t asked for the face or physique I was born with. I had not sculpted my nose or fashioned my chin, or decided how broad my shoulders would be, or how tall I would become. I looked searchingly into the mirror for a clue. The mirror refused to commit itself” (4).

Sometimes kids like Jerry excel at studies, but he garnered Ds, Fs, and summer school. Instead, his refuge was fantasy, dime-novels and matinees, Westerns with stars like Tom Mix, or Douglas Fairbanks, playing Zorro, Robin Hood, and the Thief of Bagdad. But, as Larry Tye writes,

watching was not enough. Convinced he could replicate Mix’s and Fairbank’s derring-do, Jerry darted in and out of traffic on the narrow roads of his Glenville neighborhood. “Those furious humans driving the cars, who yammered and glared insanely at me,” he said, “were mere mortals. But I...I was a leaping, twirling, gleeful phenomenon!” Back at home, with his hip healed after one of those glaring drivers sideswiped him, he climbed onto the roof of the garage, holding an umbrella. “I opened the umbrella and leapt. Look out world, here I come!...I did this over and over again. Unexpectedly, the umbrella suddenly turned inside-out as I descended. I banged a knee, when I hit the ground. Just as I had abandoned berserkly dodging in and out between moving automobiles, I gave up jumping off the top of my garage” (5).

A story like Jerry Siegel’s has too many versions to track. Indeed, no one would know his were it not for the saga that emerged from his fervid world of fantasy. You see, along with Joe Shuster, another Cleveland Jew, Jerry was the creator of Superman.

As someone who can name, and explicate the properties of, the five forms of Kryptonite — don’t start with me if you can only produce green and red — you’re dealing with a true fan of the Man of Steel. But with gospel eyes, consider again the figure Jerry created.

A Man of Steel is, as the moniker suggests, impervious. He can’t be wounded by this world. (Kryptonite is from his home planet.) Indeed, the figure of Superman essentially stands above our world. He doesn’t really come from Smallville; Ma and Pa Kent aren’t his first parents. The small history he has among us is fabricated. As originally envisioned, Superman can’t fall in love, can’t enter into deeply interpersonal relations of any kind. How apt, that his name was coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, with God dead, the human person would have to rise to the challenge of being his own Übermensch, or, to use the English, his own “Superman.”

Superman perfectly expresses the Enlightenment’s aspirations for the human person. He’s self-contained and sovereign. He stands apart from the rest of the world, bending it to his will, hopefully for the good. (Incidentally, for all her new found celebrity as a Tea Party princess, Ayn Rand is essentially a capitalist Nietzsche, plagiarized into English.)

So, when the modern person hears Jesus say,

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile (Mk 7: 18-23)

we can’t help but think that he’s endorsing an Ayn Rand, Nietzschian Superman, the one who stands over and against the world, unsullied by its weaknesses.

But consider another German word for the human person. This one from the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Dasein. Literally, it means “being there.” Heidegger’s point was that we don’t enter this world fully formed, as though our true nature were forged on another planet. Instead, we are, from the first moment thrown into an enveloping world. Even as a toddler learns to prattle, it assumes the prejudices, the strengths and the weaknesses, of the world that surrounds it.

The great thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that human reason was universal, transcendent. It didn’t have to bother with history or strangers. Of course the great thinkers of the Enlightenment were white, European, and male; they presumed that the world existed in their image. They never understood that they too were Dasein, thrown into limited, particular worlds.

Today many people speak of being spiritual but not religious. They intend to seek meaning on their own terms. They don’t realize that they are the impoverished offsprings of the Enlightenment, of a cold, isolationist vision of what it means to be human.

Of the “statutes and decrees” he gives them, Moses tells the Israelites,

Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, 'This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.' For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him? Or what great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today? (Dt 4: 6-8).

It’s an ancient, pre-Enlightenment approach to human life, to human spirituality. One hears the same in James, “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls” (1:21). It’s the belief that one must bind one’s self to something larger than the self. That’s the meaning of Latin root for the word “religion.” (religio = to choose and/or to bind). It may not be the first attribute that comes to mind, but admitting to being religious is, above all, recognizing that we need others, even to find ourselves.

As Larry Tye notes in his Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Superhero (2012), Superman has changed with the times. In recent years, he’s come to question his own identity; he’s fallen in love and been hurt. In short, the Übermensch has become Dasein, someone who has to ask, “What’s it all about? Can someone help me?”

Rev. Terrance W. Klein

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
5 years 4 months ago
It is really true that we need others to find ourselves!  Fr Greg Boyle, S.J. wrote about this in his book,  "Tattoos on the Heart",  and demonstrated it through his project Homeboys Industries.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis meets with priests, religious and seminarians at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Francis focused for the second time today during his visit to Chile on the abuse scandal that has rocked the Chilean church. “I know the pain resulting from cases of abuse of minors, and I am attentive to what you are doing to respond to this great and painful evil,” he said.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2018
Pope Francis dove head-first into Chile's sex abuse scandal on his first full day in Santiago.
Jars of medical marijuana on display on at the Western Caregivers Medical dispensary in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
The Justice Department is vowing to enforce a federal ban on marijuana, even as some states try to move toward full legalization.
Ellen K. BoegelJanuary 16, 2018
Catholic women may be part of a Democratic voting wave in 2018. They are ready to welcome women deacons.
Mark M. GrayJanuary 16, 2018