Friday, October 28, 2011

Origin Stories

Every hero has an origin story. Superman’s parents sent him to earth as his home planet exploded. Batman saw his parents murdered when he was just a child. Daredevil lost his sight when he was splashed with radioactive chemicals. The list goes on, and for most of our comic book heroes, tragedy is an integral part of their origin. It’s the defining moment that forever shapes them into the heroes they are.

This is often the case for those of us in the Christian faith. Many Christians came to the faith after suffering some horrible tragedy: losing a loved one, a debilitating injury, betrayal, abandonment, drug abuse, incarceration, divorce, or a hundred other unfortunate events. Those defining moments that brought them to faith left a permanent imprint and is integral to how they live their new-found beliefs.

You may ask about the Christians brought up in the church. In fact, you may be one of them. (I am.) In this case, your faith wasn’t something borne out of tragedy, but something you inherited. You are like mutants and meta-humans. (DC’s answer to Marvel’s mutants) While you may lack a defining tragedy, it doesn’t mean your life was any easier.

After all, I’m sure at times growing up in your Christian faith made you feel like an outsider. You looked at the rest of the world, at normal, and longed to be just like them. However, because of your family’s faith, you couldn’t truly live in the normal world. At school, around your friends, you may have felt like a mutant, an outsider.

And like Charles Xavier’s mutants, you faced a choice. Do you embrace your faith and do good with it? Do you follow God? Or do you choose to leave the church, go out into the world, and even reject that faith? Do you become everything your parents and your church preached against.

Many Christians’ lives include this chapter in their histories, a time away from the faith when they had to decide who they were, who God was to them, and what they intended to do about it. After all, not every hero began life as a pure and noble servant of good: many had their wild years, even villainous years, until they either grew up, met an influential mentor, or suffered a later tragedy.

Take Spiderman for instance. (And you thought I forgot about our friendly, neighborhood web-slinger.) His spider powers didn’t come about because of tragedy; they were fortunate happenstance involving a radioactive spider bite. (or genetically modified spider bite depending on your continuity) Peter Parker found himself in full possession of super strength, speed, and the ability to cling to walls. What did he do with this power?

He tried to make some money. Noble pursuits weren’t part of his five year plan. He dressed up as a wrestler, won the match, and demanded his cut of the proceeds. He got stiffed, and when a lowlife thief robbed the place that same night, Peter just let the guy go. Serves them right for ripping him off.

Except you know the rest. That same thief kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben. Peter could have prevented this tragedy had he not been selfish. From that moment on, he abides by the wisdom of his departed uncle: with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much the exact lesson of one of Christ’s parables. Spiderman would not be the hero he is without that tragedy. His commitment to saving the innocent, even if it makes his own life difficult, is because of that one time he made the wrong choice.

Heroes are shaped by their origins, as are we Christians. Your brand of Christianity comes from how and why you came to faith, as well as your own personal struggles as you tried to figure out who you are and whether you want to embrace or reject your family's faith. Whatever baggage you bring in will also shape how you see the world through the lens of faith.

Take Mary Cooper, Sheldon’s mother on The Big Bang Theory. She's a bit racist, a little more judgmental, and a lot fundamentalist. At the same time, she has a very strong belief in right and wrong and she'll be there to love and support anyone who has a need. But why is she like this, so quick to point out other people's sins and faults but love them all the same? It's because of her origin story.

Mary Cooper came to faith because she had a very tough life and made a lot of poor choices. In fact, she knows all about “living in sin” from hard personal experience. The capper was when her husband left her, and she turned to faith to cope. So it's pretty understandable that after her life and the pain she's experienced, she might turn a bit too fundamentalist for my taste. It's what helped her survive, and she's a better person for it.

She's kind of like Batman in that regard. Both she and Batman have pretty severe rough edges that everyone else puts up with. She's quick to judge; Batman drives away everyone close to him because of his single-mindedness. At the same time, you want them around when trouble strikes, whether it's the Joker trying to kill all of Gotham or Sheldon isn't acting right and needs to be put in his place.

That's right, she's just like Batman. Don't make her reach for her utility belt!

Their origins shaped them, but at the end of the day, they both made the choice to do good. When her husband left, she could have made many selfish choices rather than turn to God and learn how to care for others. When (insert current DC continuity) killed Bruce Wayne's parents, he could have just spent his fortune on an indulgent lifestyle. Instead, despite their pain, they both made better choices.

And that's no different for any other Christian. We're all a little like Batman (but not all of us can pull off the cape and cowl look) and a little like Mary Cooper. We have our origin story that's shaped us, and we have a choice regarding how to use that pain.

There's one more takeaway. Heroes rarely go it alone. They have the pain of their origin, but there's always someone there to teach them, to help them figure it out. Batman had Alfred, as well as many other teachers. Mary Cooper no doubt had a strong and vibrant church community who helped her with her pain. As Christians, that's the role we play. We're the people who reach out whenever others are in pain, to help them understand that God loves them no matter who they are. It's important that we do.

After all, not everyone with a painful origin becomes a hero.

If you want to see more of my geekiness, check out Guardians of Suncast Dale, a satirical fantasy adventure on Nook and Kindle. My Christian Scripts also approach faith from a clearly geeky angle. (Both acute and obtuse.)

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