Finding meaning through stories of Jesus and Superman

Published 3:54 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

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Meaning is a tricky thing to figure out. What’s meaningful when we are children (sometimes) loses all meaning when we become adults. I’m still a Superman and Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. But, on the other hand, what’s meaningful when we are adults (definitely) loses all meaning in the seconds before we die. Well, not everything, of course.  But things like prestige, power, respect…none of that matters when we feel our final heartbeat give way to an absolute stillness.

But this doesn’t mean meaning is, well…meaningless.  It just means there is never one set Meaning (see that capital ‘M’?). Well, maybe there is Meaning, but we don’t have access to that knowledge yet, and we probably never will. The next-best thing, then, is meaning in a weaker sense.  We find many different ways to understand and experience our lives in deeper, richer ways than just eating, sleeping, and working like automatons. Just because there is no ‘Ultimate Meaning’ to life (and if there were one, we wouldn’t be able to know it fully) doesn’t mean there is no depth to life as we live it.  It just might mean we have to make that meaning or search for it like detectives.

Or better yet, we tell stories. I find myself going back to the cave paintings of the Neanderthals. 64,000 years ago, a proto-human told a story by painting on the walls of caves in modern-day Spain.  Though separated by such a long span of time, those cave paintings are directly related to the thousands of hours of scripted television on HBO Max or Netflix. Storytelling is at the heart of all religious traditions, even those that claim to be new sacred revelation. Take Christianity as an example: the newness of Jesus Christ only makes sense because of Israel’s storytelling. Likewise, Israel’s storytelling only makes sense in conversation with Babylonian and other myths from the Ancient Near East. The line goes back and back, all the way to those cave paintings.

One of the reasons I love the art and the act of storytelling is that it transcends the false dichotomy of sacred and secular. My life has been shaped in deeply significant ways by the story Jesus of Nazareth, by his mission and ministry, and in particular the story of his crucifixion. My life has also been shaped deeply by the story of Superman, that fictional alien who is, frankly, a better human than the entirety of the human race in fiction and reality. Out of an abundance of caution, however, I’ll make something clear: Jesus takes precedence over Superman, but that shouldn’t mask the fact that a fictional character created by two Jewish young men in 1938 has impacted this Christian priest’s life in significant ways.

I’ll go further than Jesus and Superman. Everything is brimming with the energy of the Divine, and even the most secular of resources can enhance faith. Yet, doing that requires admitting that the language of one’s own faith is not the only language that communicates truth. As Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside a lie.” Truth shows up in surprising places, places we would never expect it to nor desire it. But, as a professor of mine once said, “Never fear to tread where truth takes you.” I suspect he’d say the same thing to you too.

Chris Adams is the Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington.