In 2008, Marvel released their first installation in a series of hero movies that have since been released over the past decade. Within the past several years, hero movies have risen in popularity alongside a seismic shift in our culture’s values. As it so happens, the values our culture has adopted today are at odds with the values espoused in the average hero origin story. Personal satisfaction is held out as the end of human existence while in movies like Iron Man the protagonist, Tony Stark, realizes that there is more to life than personal satisfaction after seeing the horrors of a world marred by injustice. He realizes that the weight of reality demands his response as he uses his intellect and ingenuity to serve a higher purpose and mission that would involve sacrifice instead of personal satisfaction. It is often the case that the popularity of a certain cultural artifact owes its wide-spread acclaim to its ability to expose a void in the lives of those in a certain culture.
A good example of this was the revolt of the Romantics in response to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment period was known for its emphasis on reason to expose the laws of nature which led to pride and confidence in one’s ability to master nature. Thus, nature was viewed as property. The art during this time reflected a collective pride in human ability as the portraits showed subjects treating nature as property in a prideful and complacent way. In response to this overemphasis on utilitarianism, the Romantics painted nature in a quasi-pantheistic way. The portraits lacked human subjects and the landscapes themselves were infused with colors and hues of light that gave off an enchanted aura to show the sacredness of nature as an end instead of a means of human utility and exploitation. Likewise, the presence and popularity of a decade of hero franchises both exposes the flaws of our culture’s idolatry of personal satisfaction and holds out a lifestyle of self-sacrifice under the weight personal responsibility. But, just as the tragedies and comedies in Ancient Greece provided emotional catharsis, hero movies provide a fake sense of participation and temporary inspiration without real personal reformation or change. The heroes in the movies are meant to represent what we are deep down, on a smaller scale, if we simply pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Yet, many leave the theater with no intention of being like them or they provide a temporary desire for altruism but no lasting endurance in it.
I believe the reason for this loss of altruism and self-sacrifice is due in large part to the loss of the knowledge of the Transcendent and the loss of hope in a future grounded in divine promise that guides the way we act in the present. If God does not exist or at the least is not considered important to who we are as human beings, then being human both loses its meaning and significance. For, if there is no reality outside of ourselves to bestow meaning and significance then we are left to ourselves to define who we are and what life is for. This naturally leads to a debilitating insecurity because of how fragile our hearts are apart from our Creator amid an unstable world. In addition, if there is no God to trust in as sovereign over human history, who is also benevolent, then why do anything that benefits other people. Our good works would not follow us, and in fact, would be viewed as a foolish waste of time. Consequently, the only purpose we have in life then is to maximize personal pleasure before we die. The fulfillment of this goal is viewed as greatness or the status of attaining ultimate glory. But as the apostle Paul says in Philippians 3:19, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things”.
Christianity as a religion and worldview is utterly contrary to a life lived for personal satisfaction. As Christians, we believe that human beings are created in the image of God which gives mankind value. Man’s value does not derive its significance from self-definition but from divine definition according to the Word of God. Yet, we also believe that all of mankind has fallen short of the glory of its design by rebelling against God’s ordained will. By our own merit, we are all subject to God’s divine displeasure and wrath. But God sent his Son to live out the fullness of what it means to be human in our place as our substitute to absolve our debt to God and gain for us a fixed righteousness before God for all eternity in his resurrection. Jesus is victorious over sin and death as a constant historical reality and remains our divine Redeemer.
After Jesus’ resurrection, he also called his disciples (and us) to carry out his victory in witness to the good news of his salvation, patterned after the way He had lived His life. Our ethic as Christians is defined by the mission of Jesus. This is different from simply asking “what would Jesus do?” Instead, we should ask “what did Jesus come to do?” The Bible presents Jesus’ mission as all-encompassing and summarized in the phrase the “coming of the Kingdom”. The Kingdom is God’s reign over all things and the manifestation of his will in all areas of earthly living. As I mentioned earlier, Christ lived a fully human life in our place to save us from the wrath of God but also to conform us into his image by divine grace in the midst of a crooked world (Phil. 2:15). Jesus made manifest the reign of God in Himself and retrieved His image from the depths of decay so that as all of creation fell in Adam, all of creation would be renewed in Jesus, the Last Adam. Jesus, in his Person, defined and redefined what it means to be human. He came not to be served but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). We ourselves are to arm ourselves with this way of thinking (1 Pet. 2:1). So, being human is being a servant because this best reflects God’s character. Service and sacrifice is the road to glory and the crux of greatness with the result of such a path seen in Jesus’ resurrection.
But, this way of living does not come easily to us because we still struggle with sinful patterns of living and in fact have a principle of sin close behind us when we seek to do good (Rom. 7:21). Often our growth in such a way of life is imperceptible to us because of how slow and gradual it is. This is why Jesus says discipleship is costly and requires us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses daily (Mk. 8:34). Many of us have heard this but fail to think through how this is lived out. In the Garden of Gethsemane, we see the deepest expression of what it means to deny oneself and take up our crosses. In Jesus’ prayer to the Father, He says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Lk. 22:42) This cup Jesus had to drink, was God’s wrath on the cross. Jesus evidently did not want to drink this cup but determined to drink it in our stead to the glory of the Father and his will. The cross was a one-time event. We will never have to bear the wrath of God as Jesus did. But as God’s children, we are called to live in the same way as his Son. But, it won’t lead to condemnation for us, it will lead to our vindication when we are revealed to the world at the return of Christ (Rom. 8).
Until then, we are called to take up our crosses for the sake of carrying the good news of salvation to the world and carrying out Jesus’ victory of restoration in all spheres of earthly living. This simply means doing what we know we should do (God’s will) daily even if we don’t want to for the glory and worship of God and the joy of all people. At the end of the day, such a way of living is the final evidence that a person possesses salvation. It shows that there is a Person of greater glory than ourselves influencing our wills. It shows that the love of Christ is constraining us to empty ourselves for the sake of the world that He loved and gave Himself for (2 Cor. 13:14; Jn. 3:16). This is the only path to true greatness and the only way to express to the world what true humanness is. Christianity turns all definition on its head because this world has an upside-down view of reality. All people seek greatness for greatness’ sake which means personal satisfaction and self-centered glory. Yet, the crux of greatness from a Christian standpoint is to be the least and the servant of all before a watching world so that others might glorify the Father (Matt. 23:11; 5:16). The more we live this way, the greater depth of character we’ll possess, reflecting the likeness of Christ who is the definition of truth, goodness, and beauty. Instead of people who seek the shallowness of vain-glory, we are to be “those who by patience in well-doing seek for [true] glory and honor and immortality.”(Rom. 2:7)