There’s an interesting op-ed piece by former Superman comics scribe, Greg Rucka, in the Hollywood Reporter. In it, Greg states his misgivings regarding the PG-13 rating given to the upcoming Man of Steel. He raises some good questions. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/greg-rucka-a-pg-man-448386
I don’t know what the movie will be–I find the trailer inspiring, but, you know what they say about the pudding and the proof. I do know what today’s Superman comics seem to me: too cool for their own good. The writing is intelligent–at least, sophisticated. (Sometimes I think I need a Ph.D to understand it.) The artwork pretty good, though the palate generally seems rather dark. So why do I have so little interest in buying these things anymore–I mean, besides the three-buck price-tag? Is it because they’re in such a big hurry to make Superman palatable to an ever-shrinking fan base, they’ve taken all the fun out of him?
I don’t know. Have Supe’s comics ever really been much better, much more fun? Not always. Occasionally, I buy back issues from what we fans refer to as the “Bronze Age,” more or less the 1970s. (I can’t afford the Silver Age/60s stuff anymore.) With a few notable exceptions, the stories all seem afflicted with a numbing sameness. But that’s the problem with any ongoing series. After a while, you run out of ideas; you get in a rut. Naturally, market concerns have been there from the beginning. And, contrary to the popular notion, Superman hasn’t always acted the bright paragon of virtue, even in “the good old days.”
(Along those lines, I recommend a great column at Comic Book Resources by Brian Cronin, “I Love Ya But You’re Strange,” which examines weird, even disturbing comics stories from days gone by–not a few of them stories from the Superman family. In some of these, the bizarre sexual subtext is so thick you can cut it with a knife. In others, Superman comes off like, well, a jerk!)
So is it the past I’m pining for? Or simply an ideal of Superman
that is more ephemeral than real? I don’t know. We’ve all got our ideas of what Superman should be. Sometimes the comics, the movies, etc., appeal, other times they don’t. Sometimes they do both. In the end, the situation is not unlike that of the TV commentary briefly shown in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE: “There you have it. True or false? Miracle or fraud? Your guess is as good as anybody’s.”
Even after the movie comes out, that’ll still be true.
The 1950s contained a rich vein of western movie gold. Everybody knows about the big chunks, “High Noon,” “The Searchers,” etc. But if you don’t mind doing a little digging, you’ll find some smaller but equally bright nuggets. While “prospecting” a while back, I came upon a little gem entitled, “Terror in a Texas Town.”
The black-and-white film stars Sterling Hayden, Sebastian Cabot, Ned Young, and Carol Kelly. Hayden plays George Hansen, the son of a former whaler who followed in his father’s footsteps. Having come to Texas to join his dad in farming, he learns to his dismay that Sven Hansen has been murdered. George gets the news in a bar, delivered with cold irony by the very hired gun who’d done the deed, Johnny Crale (Young).
Crale is the gun hand of a bloated opportunist named Ed McNeil (Cabot), who, after twenty years, has decided to renew his old partnership with the killer. The years have not been kind to either man. Crale is crippled in one hand. McNeil, as Crale contemptuously notes, now carries seventy-five more pounds on his belly. The businessman distracts himself with food and sex (the latter in the form of his “twenty-four hour” secretary), while the black-garbed Crale is eaten up with horror at what he has become. He distracts himself with a longstanding but loveless relationship with a faded blond named Molly. Carol Kelly plays Molly with the listless despair of the damned. “Why do you stay with him?” asks George. She says it’s to remind her that, low as she is, there’s yet someone lower.
To paraphrase the Bard, “Some are born heroes, some become heroes, and some have heroism thrust upon them.” George Hansen doesn’t set out to be a hero. All he wants to do is get back the farm that’s rightfully his. In fact, throughout the film he goes without the traditional accoutrements of the classic cowboy. He doesn’t ride a horse. He never straps on a gun. All he has that might possibly serve as a weapon is his father’s whaling harpoon, which the elder Hansen had used in vain against Crale. The sheriff is in the pay of McNeil. The other ranchers, scared spitless, don’t want George to rock the boat. McNeil’s men beat the poor guy up and put him on a train. They think they’re done with the dumb Swede.
But heroes are made of sterner, and smarter, stuff. Limping back to town, George learns that the ground is full of oil, thus exciting McNeil’s greed and violence. He believes that if he can get the Mexican farmer who saw his father fall to testify, that, coupled with the knowledge they’re sitting on a goldmine, will rouse the farmers to unite and take action.
Jose Mirada is played with almost childlike sincerity by by Victor Millan. Because he fears for his family, he’s afraid to tell what he knows. But, in a crucial moment, he forces the gun hand to realize what he’s always denied: some will die willingly for a good cause. The shaken outlaw forces Molly to sit in a chair while he subjects her to his new litany, a remarkable thing, “Some men aren’t afraid to die.”
I’d never seen Ned Young (also known as Nedrick) in anything before this. From what I’ve read, he was a screenwriter who occasionally acted. He looks much like Humphrey Bogart–and I could easily see Bogie in the role–yet Young does no lisping, shoulder-hitching imitation. Rather, he makes the part of the cruel killer memorable on his own terms, painting a frightening portrait of a man who has not only outlived his time but lost his soul.
All that is left is the final confrontation between good and evil.
It’s a great movie, offbeat, compelling–from the striking musical score to the two-gunned gunslinger who can only use one gun to the Swedish hero who goes into battle with–ah, but that would be spoiling it for you! The screenwriter was none other than the great, eccentric Dalton Trumbo. At the time blacklisted for supposedly being a Communist, Trumbo didn’t receive screen credit. More’s the pity.
I’d never seen a Swedish western hero. The closest I can think of would be a character in John Ford’s “The Searchers,” but he was more of a parody than a Swede. Sterling Hayden’s Hansen is a quiet, admirable man. He gets the job done.
A while back, someone asked me my opinion on “seeker” churches as opposed to more traditional congregations. At first, I was taken aback by the term “seeker church.” I hadn’t heard that one in a while. I supposed that it had been swept into the dustier corners of the evangelical imagination. Modern parlance changes so fast! Anyway, many congregations are still struggling with changes in worship and so forth. So it’s still a valid question.
Twenty years ago, it was certainly a question of some import to me, a church-planter. In 1994, when I started a new congregation, Willow Creek Community Church was still riding the crest of the church-growth wave. They had the playbook and we all wanted to use it. Thus, as I began a new congregation in a movie theater, I did what I thought I needed to do to attract and keep people. We provided contemporary music, performed skits, and showed video clips of popular movies. These were all, to one degree or another, useful.
In the end, however, I discovered that, while people came for various reasons, they stayed for two:
1) the word they heard
2) the love they felt.
For many, preaching is the doorway to the Scriptures and, thus, to God. For an equal number, the friendliness and openness of a church to outsiders is the doorway to hope. There are many ways to “dress up” preaching, but, when all is said and done it’s still a pretty traditional way to reach people. The means of making folks feel welcome are bounded only the church’s imagination—and their love. Love is as old as time, but it never goes out of style. Aren’t these what the seeker is seeking?
I can’t leave this subject, however, without referring to information I gleaned from a book by Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity. In it, he writes about the above-mentioned Willow Creek church, the pioneer and perfecter of the “seeker” model. The leadership there got a wake-up call a few years ago when they saw that lots of their people were dissatisfied with and/or leaving WC. After many interviews, study, and reflection, they finally came to the conclusion that the “seekers” were growing in Christ, seeking more mature ways to know and serve Him.
Jethani writes, “Rather than a utilitarian ocean liner transporting them closer to God, the church was seen as a lumbering cruise ship full of entertaining distractions, and the more mature Christians were eager to get off.” He adds that WC found that what impacted a person’s spiritual growth most were personal Bible reading, prayer and meditation, a meaningful relationship with a friend or mentor, and serving others.
By God’s grace, seekers grow to become followers. To put it another way, after a while, sizzle isn’t enough. You gotta serve up the steak.
Some of you might recall those antediluvian days when it wasn’t just country music but “country and western.” (As the perky bar lady tells Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers, “Oh, we got both kinds o’ music. We got country and western!”) I don’t know where the western music went. Perhaps it fell out of style with the Western itself. At any rate, I got me a hankerin’ for a good ol’ western ballad. Like this one.
He lay face down in the desert sand
Clutching his six-gun in his hand
Shot from behind, I thought he was dead
But under his heart was an ounce of lead
But a spark still burned so I used my knife
And late that night I saved the life of Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo . . .)
I nursed him till the danger passed
The days went by, he mended fast
Then from dawn till setting sun
He practiced with that deadly gun
And hour on hour I watched in awe
No human being could match the draw of Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
One day we rode the mountain crest
And I went east and he went west
I took to law and wore a star
While he spread terror near and far
With lead and blood he gained such fame
All throught the West they feared the name of Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
I knew someday I’d face the test
Which one of us would be the best
And sure enough the word came down
That he was holed up in the town
I left the posse out in the street
And I went in alone to meet Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
They said my speed was next to none
But my lightning draw had just begun
When I heard a blast that stung my wrist
The gun went flying from my fist
And I was looking down the bore
Of the deadly .44 of Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
They say that was the only time
That anyone had seen him smile
He slowly lowered his gun and then
He said to me “We’re even, friend”
And so at last I understood
That there was still a spark of good in Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
I blocked the path of his retreat
He turned and stepped into the street
A dozen guns spit fire and lead
A moment later, he lay dead
The town began to shout and cheer
Nowhere was there shed a tear for Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
The story spread throughout the land
That I had beaten Ringo’s hand
And it was just the years, they say
That made me put my guns away
But on his grave they can’t explain
The tarnished star above the name of Ringo
(Ringo… Ringo… )
(Ringo… Ringo… )
God bless you, Lorne Greene!
What makes a successful pastor? A successful church?
I remember evangelist Marvin Phillips saying that we needed to do seven things for Joe Blow:
1.Find him. 2. Save him. 3. Help him find his gifts. 4. Get him involved. 5. Train him. 6. Serve him. 7.Help him die.
It seems to me that if a pastor is doing those things, and enabling others to do them, both pastor and church are successful.
That being said, you can do it all “right” and still not be successful, at least not as the word is popularly understood. For various reasons–some obvious, some obscure–some churches can’t grow, at least not in number. What’s more, many congregations are riddled with pain and suffering. These things aren’t exactly celebrated in church growth literature. But the Word says that God is close to the brokenhearted. Jesus said that wherever two or three were gathered in His name, He was in their midst.
I therefore believe that before church is anything else—a mission thing, a ministry thing, a worship thing, a sermon thing, a music thing—it is first and foremost a God thing. To the extent, then, that a pastor is able to communicate this reality to his church and to the world around it—God is among us—I would count him successful. To the extent that his church believes it, she too is successful.
It’s hard to believe it happened more than twenty five years ago, but that’s when John Byrne re-envisioned Superman for DC Comics. His origin, powers, and trappings had slowly evolved over the decades, but, save for a relatively brief reboot in the early seventies, things had remained pretty much the same for the Man of Steel. Then, in a ground-breaking mini-series, Byrne threw out most of the things that, in his view, had kept Superman from realizing his full potential.
Dispensing with the noble Krypton of old, Byrne recast Superman’s home world as a cold, sterile place devoid of love. In fact, in the new version, Superman wasn’t even born there but gestated in the rocket which brought him to earth, or, to be precise, an interstellar “birthing matrix.” Superboy never happened. Rather than hiding his developing powers, this young Clark Kent became a high school football star–to the chagrin of his foster father, Jonathan Kent, who, for the reboot, remained alive into Clark’s adulthood. Eventually, this Clark became aware of his extraterrestrial origins, but, none of these things moved him. Born on earth, raised on earth, he pretty much declared himself an earth man.
The aim of all this, of course, was to “humanize” Superman, making Kent the true identity and Superman the mask, making him a hero more people could relate to.
How well did it work? To my way of thinking, not all that great. I mean, who wants Clark Kent to come flying to the rescue? I’ve always contended that Superman is our dream, Kent our hateful reality. It was all well and good for this version of the reporter to drop the “mild-mannered” bit, even leaving dumbbells lying around his apartment for Lois to see: “Oh, yeah, an ordinary guy. Likes to stay in shape.” Granted, Superman and Lois had for too long played the “Is he or isn’t he?” game. And Lord knows, a double-life is hard to pull off–on and off the comic page. But that didn’t keep the new Kent from wearing a costume under his newly stylish office togs, nor continuing that grand old tradition of dramatically pulling open his shirt when there was a crisis.
Byrne’s idea was, if not to remove the concept of a secret identity, to downplay it as much as possible. I fully understand the reasoning, to wit, if Superman doesn’t let on that he’s two people, then fewer people are going to bother trying to figure out who he “really” is.
Here, I must pause a moment to recall an amusing bit of dialogue from a classic George Reeves Adventures of Superman episode wherein a gangster and his moll come into possession of Superman’s costume. As the thug wonders what Superman would be doing without his suit, his woman says, “Maybe he took it off because he wanted to be the other guy.”
“What are you talkin’ about?”
“Look everybody figures that Superman’s really two guys, right? When he’s not bein’ Superman, he’s bein’ the other guy. Last night, he was bein’ the other guy!”
I can buy Byrne’s rationale for wanting to sweep the concept of “the other guy,” i.e., a secret identity, into the dustier corners of the imagination. I did think, however, that having Superman vibrate his head at super-speed whenever there’s a camera around, blurring his image, was really as silly a notion as Clark Kent’s eyeglasses.
Still, Byrne crafted a very good story along these lines, “The Secret Revealed” (Superman #2, cover-dated Feb. 1987). Lex Luthor, lately a renegade scientist, had, under Byrne’s hand, become a megalomaniac entrepreneur, the villainous epitome of the popular conception of What Was Wrong with The Eighties. Byrne’s Lex was as cold, cruel, and manipulative as they come. (Personally, I missed the old super-scientist who, at times, was a more complex character–but that’s another story.) In the first four pages, he threatens one female employee, does bodily harm to another, and literally rips the heart out of his robotic pawn, Metallo. The aim of all this? To learn more about the man whom he views as his only rival in the world, the newly-appeared Superman.
The misogynist ogre sends a couple thugs out to Kansas to look into a possible connection between the Kents and his enemy. When Clark’s childhood friend, Lana Lang, stumbles onto the scene, the thugs kidnap her and take her to Metropolis.
It’s worth noting, I think, that we’re nine pages into the story and we haven’t yet seen Superman himself.
It’s worth the wait as he appears, spectacularly, on the next page. In the mid-eighties, John Byrne was a fan-favorite, and the half-page panel in which Superman soars upside down above Metropolis is one indication why. The other mark of his talent is the uncluttered plot and the pacing of his story. After eluding those who are using a flying robotic surveillance camera to track him (using that vibrating trick mentioned above), Superman gets down to business. In a dramatic panel, he finds a bruised and bleeding Lana hiding in his apartment. After learning that Luthor ordered Lana’s torture, he tracks down her kidnappers only to lose them in a fiery explosion which, of course, the Man of Steel survives. He then confronts Luthor, unfortunately providing Lex with the opportunity to use his lately-discovered secret weapon–Kryptonite. As the last Kryptonian wilts before him, Luthor admits to burglary and kidnapping with relish. After all, there’s not a thing Superman can prove. “Now get out of my office…before I call a cop!” The high-living lowlife wins this round.
Luthor suffers an unwitting blow, however, from his own hubris. The last two pages do for Luthor exactly what the title of the story says, reveal the secret. Having collected all the relevant data on Clark Kent and his odd relationship to Superman, Luthor’s state-of-the-art computer chews it all up, and spits it out the answer to the riddle: CLARK KENT IS SUPERMAN. Now, watch what happens:
To Amanda McCoy, it’s obvious. To anyone it would be obvious–a forehead thumping “why didn’t I think of that?” revelation. But Lex Luthor is not everyone. He firmly believes that none who hold such power would willingly hide it for any length of time. “Such power is to be constantly exploited. Such power is to be used!”
There are none so blind as those who will not see. Blinded by his own notions of power, Lex fires his valuable assistant (who later tried, unsuccessfully, to reveal Superman’s identity), allowing his arch-rival to continue his masquerade. “The Secret Revealed” was one of the high points of the Byrne run on Superman. Though I missed the trappings of the old Lex–his war-suit, his super-heroic identity on another planet, even his ridiculous motivation for hating Superman–premature hair loss (for an interesting theory on how the Silver Age origin of the Supeman-Luthor enmity really came about, check out Glen Weldon’s The Unauthorized Biography of Superman), I have to admit that Byrne’s vision of Luthor, pure, un-repressed ambition, worked.
It’s perhaps fortunate for Superman that, in this story at least, Lex is presented as an atheist. Early on, he exults, “If I were a religious man, I’d almost say God was on our side!” For all his technical and business acumen, this Lex doesn’t seem to have read much, much less gone to church. If he had, he might perhaps have stumbled across the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. He might then have considered the possibility that power might not simply be wielded but hidden, disguised in the pursuit of a higher purpose.
From a Christian perspective, this is the mistake all tyrants make. It is said that when Julian the Apostate sought to destroy Christianity, he taunted a believer, Agathon, asking him what had become of the carpenter of Nazareth. “Does he keep busy? Are there any little tasks for him to do?” Agathon replied, “Yes, the Carpenter is busy–making a coffin for you.” What Nero sought, what Mao sought, they attained–for a while. They built their empires by force, only to succumb to that very force.
To return to the Superman comic for a moment, Luthor is shown wearing a Kryptonite ring. He believes the radiation is harmless to him. Eventually, however, it will give him cancer. From his ring of power pulsates Luthor’s own decay and death. This is the fate of all villains, “super” and otherwise.
Sic semper tyrannis. Thus shall it ever be in Superman’s world, and, thank God, in ours.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26
How big is a hand in relationship to the body? Maybe five or six percent of our total size. How big is a fingernail in relation to the whole body? Did you ever rip a fingernail off? A message flashes from the command center in your head: Attention, all stations. Condition Red. Cease all activity. Repeat, cease all activity. All units go to sympathetic mode. Everything stops while you deal with the pain.
Forget about ripping the nail off. Just think about a hangnail. A mere hangnail is a distraction. This is the importance, then, of one hand, one finger, one fingernail. And we haven’t even glanced at the other parts of the body. When one little bit hurts, we hurt all over.
This what membership means to the human body. What does membership mean to the local expression of Christ’s body?
Make no mistake; to become a church member is to make a commitment. What are we committing ourselves to? Not to whatever is happening up front on Sunday morning, not to the programs or the ministries or the missions. We’re not committing to a certain way of doing church stuff. When we become members, we are becoming members of a body, of one another. We are committing to one another, as surely as the wrist is committed to the hand, the hand to the fingers, the fingers to the nails.
In simple terms, it means we put the group before ourselves. If we’re unwilling to do that, then “membership” is a meaningless concept.
Sadly, commitment is no longer the American mindset. For many years now, commitment to the community, the group, the church has been in decline. Meanwhile, the individual’s independence has made a quantum leap in value.
The attitude comes out in different ways: we might miss church because we went last week; we might stay away if so-and-so is preaching or leading worship; we might hold tightly onto our various positions or ministries, making no effort to train others to help, let alone take over. When somebody rubs us the wrong way, we might go hunting for a better deal on a used church.
Worst of all, when somebody in the church is hurting or in need, we might look the other way. Because, when all is said and done, it’s about me, me and mine.
I say “might” because, thankfully, not all churches are like that. Nevertheless, keeping a church body strong and healthy is a matter of determination, of commitment, of guts. It’s saying, “I’m going to be a cheerleader for whoever is leading worship. I’m going to look for somebody sitting by himself and say, ‘Want to sit with me?’ I’m going to look for a job for somebody who needs a job. I’m going to give furniture or a TV to somebody in the church who doesn’t have those things. I’m going to teach kids that haven’t got a clue how to act. I’m going to rock and change babies. I’m connecting to the body; its blood will flow through me and mine back into it. Its pain, its pleasure, its life will be mine!”
A woman was attending a membership seminar in a Baptist Church. On the questionnaire she wrote, “I was baptized in High School, but want to be – and she had crossed out the word “reimbursed” and written, “reimmersed.”
What do we get out of it? What’s our reimbursement? No more than we put into it. Immerse yourself in the life of your church, sink into your brothers and sisters lives, be part of the body.