What Makes a Hero? offers us an image of what it looks like to be victorious over trials and temptations. Looking at pop culture heroes and others through the lens of faith, Matt Rawle shows how Jesus turned the concept of hero on its head. In keeping with his theme, “Pop in Culture,” the book examines how good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and overcoming adversity are fundamental to how Christians understand salvation. Heroes help us discern the good, fight for what’s right, define identity, execute justice, spark revolution, and save lives.
Rawle enters the Gospel story to tell quite a different victory story—one obtained through humility, obedience to the cross, and an empty tomb. How does Jesus redefine what it means to be a hero?
This Youth Study Book takes the ideas presented in Matt Rawle’s book and interprets them for young people grades 6-12.
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About the Author
Matt Rawle is Lead Pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana. Matt is an international speaker who loves to tell an old story in a new way, especially at the intersection of pop culture and the church. He is the author of a new series of books titled The Pop in Culture Series. The series includes The Faith of a Mockingbird, Hollywood Jesus, The Salvation of Doctor Who and The Redemption of Scrooge.
Read an Excerpt
Jesus Is Not My Hero!
Scripture Focus: Philippians 2:1-11
Jesus: The Heroic Non-Hero
You read that right. Jesus may be a hero to some people, but not to me. Do I think Jesus is, in many ways, heroic? Absolutely.
Jesus had to be brave to speak God's message as plainly and faithfully as he did, even though many people didn't want to hear it.
Jesus cared about other people the way heroes do. He felt compassion when he saw those who suffered, and his compassion moved him to reach out to people on society's margins when others wouldn't.
And Jesus' miracles might even seem to earn him superheroic status. His own followers wondered, after watching him stop a terrifying storm, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (Matthew 8:27).
But if we look at Jesus' life and teachings and see primarily a hero, then we need to take another look.
What Do Batman and Jesus Have in Common?
Jesus' life does look like the "Hero's Journey."
Described and made widely familiar by mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, the Hero's Journey is a story pattern found around the world and throughout human history.
It's broken down in lots of ways, but let's get a feel for a slimmed-down, seven-stage version of it by thinking about one of pop culture's most enduring superheroes, Batman.
Life in the Ordinary World — The world of fantastic wealth and social status in which young Bruce Wayne lived isn't one most of us would consider "ordinary," but it was to him. That's the point: Heroes can't be born in the world they already know.
The Call to Adventure — A criminal shoots and kills Bruce's parents in a dark Gotham City alley, ripping him out of the world Bruce knew. Bruce responds by vowing to spend his life "warring on all criminals."
Crossing the Threshold — Bruce leaves his old world to enter a new one, training as an athlete, scientist, and detective. In some versions of his story, this training means crossing literal thresholds. In the movie Batman Begins (2005), for example, Bruce travels to an isolated Asian mountaintop to study under mystic martial arts master Ra's al Ghul.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies — Comics and movies chronicle different "first adventures" for Batman, but all affirm a hero's need to prove himself or herself. Sometimes alone, and sometimes with allies like Robin, Batgirl, and Commissioner Gordon, Batman overcomes "tests" posed by such unforgettable enemies as the Joker, the Penguin, and Catwoman.
The Descent into Darkness — Sometimes a descent into a cave symbolizes the hero-to-be's darkest, most desperate hour. In both director Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" film trilogy and Batman v Superman (2016), young Bruce's literal fall into what will become Batman's Batcave helps him discover his new, heroic identity. He will harness his childhood fear of bats to strike fear into criminals.
Death and Resurrection — In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Batman's foe, Bane, thinks he has destroyed the Caped Crusader. He breaks Batman's back and imprisons him in a remote underground cavern. But "dead and buried" Batman manages to "ascend" from the underworld in time to save Gotham City.
The Return with the Reward — After his training, Bruce returns to Gotham with a new identity. Bruce Wayne is Batman's real mask, one that frees him to protect his community and pursue justice.
Batman's story doesn't match the Hero's Journey beat for beat, but the pattern isn't supposed to be a storytelling paint-by-numbers (though it's often used that way). It's a summary of the dynamics and themes found, again and again, in the stories we human beings tell about those we call heroes.
What Batman's story does help us see clearly is that, at its heart, the Hero's Journey is a story about transformation. At the end of their physical or figurative journeys, heroes are not the same as when they started. What they experience and do on the journey changes them at a deep level and forever. And because the heroes have changed, they are able to make change happen around them.
On its surface, the story of Jesus' life looks like the Hero's Journey.
In Philippians 2:6-11, the apostle Paul is likely quoting a hymn familiar to early Christians. Notice how it traces Jesus' journey along a path that could be called heroic:
He begins in his "ordinary world" of heavenly existence with God, an equality he could have used for only his own good (verse 6)
He chooses instead to be "obedient" (verse 8) to God's will, God's call, leaving the heavenly world to enter this world as one of us (verse 7)
He remains obedient to God "to the point of death — even death on a cross" (verse 8) — passing tests, perhaps, along the way? (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 22:39-46; Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-15)
He is raised from death, "highly exalted" by God (verse 9), and rewarded with the title of Lord (verses 9-11)
And when we start filling in this text's gaps with what else we know about Jesus — for example, viewing his disciples as his "allies" (though they weren't always), or remembering his burial in a cave-like tomb — some parallels with the Hero's Journey become even sharper.
To Be Yourself, Be Like Jesus
So why don't I think Jesus is a hero?
Because he's much more.
Jesus' journey isn't about his own transformation. It's about ours.
Yes, he was born an infant; he "increased in wisdom and in years" (Luke 2:52); he was fully human, and living a fully human life means experiencing some change.
But the core of Jesus' identity never changed. He was always the obedient Son of God, with whom God was very pleased (Mark 1:11). He was not made suddenly "more divine" after his death and resurrection. As the author of Hebrews says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever!" (13:8).
What has changed because of Jesus' journey is our relationship with God. Because he was obedient to God, we are free from the consequences of our disobedience. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). We are changed from God's enemies into God's friends.
Jesus' journey frees us to take our own journeys of life-long transformation as, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we gradually become more and more like him. We become braver. We become more compassionate. We may even find ourselves able to work "miracles" — not supernatural ones, maybe, but things that make a real, positive difference for our neighbors and our world. Didn't Jesus promise his followers would "do greater works" than he had (John 14:12)?
Jesus is not a hero. Jesus is the Savior! And his journey frees us from everything — sin, death, evil in all its forms — that would hold us back from taking ours.
There's a popular meme on the Internet: "Always be yourself, but if you can't be yourself, be Batman." It makes me laugh every time I see it.
But the truth is, we become most ourselves — the selves God made us to be — as we become more and more like Jesus: obedient to God's good will ... loving our neighbor as God has first loved us. ... doing all the "good works" that God "prepared" long ago "to be our way of life" (Ephesians 2:10).
Read Philippians 2:1-11.
In your own words, what was "the attitude that was in Christ Jesus"? (verse 5 CEB)
How did Jesus put this attitude into action? (verses 6-8)
Does Jesus' story fit the pattern of the Hero's Journey? Why or why not?
Why does Paul want the Christians in Philippi to share Jesus' attitude?
What makes Jesus' attitude difficult to adopt, even for Christians?
Who is someone you know or know of who adopted Jesus' attitude as her or his own?
How does your church adopt the attitude of Jesus?
What is one practical way you will adopt Jesus' attitude for yourself this week?
One: We pray that we may live lives worthy of the Lord, pleasing to the Lord in every way, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God.
All: God rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, through whom we are freed and forgiven.
One: Therefore, as God's chosen, let us clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
All: Whatever we do, in word or deed, let us do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him!
(based on Colossians 1:10, 13-14; 3:12, 17)
Holy God, who sent your Son on a journey into this world to save and change us: By your Spirit, we may grow more and more like him, that we may speak with his voice, act with his hands, and reach others with his love on every step of our own journeys, all to your glory. Amen.
Icebreaker: Who's That Hero?
Leaders: Write on index cards (or pieces of scrap paper) the names of as many well-known fictional characters or real people who you and your group consider heroes, one name per card. Put the cards in a bag.
Have each person pull a card from the bag. Play one of these guessing games:
Tape the selected card on each person's back, without them seeing it. Mingle and ask each other yes or no questions to find out which hero's name is on your back.
Have people read the cards and silently act out or draw clues so others can guess the chosen hero.
Have each person tell up to three clues to the chosen hero's identity. See how many heroes the group can guess correctly.
After the game, talk about:
If you could meet a famous fictional or real-life hero, who would you want to meet, and why?
Why are people so interested in heroes?
Walk the Hero's Journey
Leaders: Write these stages of the Hero's Journey on pieces of newsprint or posterboard, one per piece. Post or place them in seven spots around your meeting space:
Life in the Ordinary World
The Call to Adventure
Crossing the Threshold
Tests, Allies, and Enemies
The Descent into Darkness
Death and Resurrection
The Return with the Reward
Think of a story about a hero you know from movies or TV, books, or real life. Take a group walk — a literal journey — from one stage of the hero's journey to the next. At each stop, talk about whether and how that stage of the journey applies to the hero in the story you are thinking about.
Why can we find this pattern in so many stories about heroes?
What heroes, real or fictional, do you know about whose journey differs from this pattern?
How is the story of Jesus like and unlike the Hero's Journey? What do you make of those similarities and differences?
Look through magazines and newspapers for pictures of heroes: real-life heroes, movie or TV heroes, or people who in some way look like they possess some heroic quality. Talk briefly about why you chose the picture you did, then combine all the pictures into a collage. Display the finished collage for others in your congregation to see.
Science Experiment: Internal Change, External Effects
What You Need:
small mixing bowl
1/4 cup hydrogen peroxide (check drugstores)
1 tsp yeast
1. Carefully pour the hydrogen peroxide into the bowl.
2. Place the thermometer in the hydrogen peroxide. Note the initial temperature.
3. Squirt a small amount of dishwasher soap into the hydrogen peroxide.
4. Stir the yeast into the mixture.
5. Note the temperature now, and observe other changes.
The yeast causes an exothermic chemical reaction — one that releases energy, in this case in the form of heat — in hydrogen peroxide by accelerating the liquid's natural separation into water and oxygen. The freed oxygen causes the dishwashing soap to bubble.
What changes can you see happening in this experiment? What changes can you not see? How are the two kinds of changes connected?
How could this experiment symbolize the changes Jesus causes to happen in people?
How have you seen the inner, invisible change Jesus causes made visible in other people's lives? How do you think others see that change made visible in yours?
Show the scene from Batman Begins (2005; PG-13) in which Bruce Wayne, having spent years away from Gotham City to be trained in martial and mystic arts, is flying back to the city with Alfred. The two discuss Bruce's plan to take on Gotham's criminal underworld. (The scene runs from Bruce walking to the plane at about 0:41:15 to Alfred's line, "just bring it back with a full tank," at about 0:43:07.)
What stage(s) in Bruce Wayne's Hero's Journey does this scene represent?
Why does Bruce think he must fight crime as a symbol?
Do you agree that "people need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy"? Why or why not? How might this statement help explain the popularity of stories about heroes and superheroes?
What, if anything, makes Jesus more than a heroic, "dramatic example" for us?
Jesus Didn't Worry About Doing the Right Thing
Scripture Focus: Luke 6:1-11
The Truth About Spider-Man
"Doing the right thing" is a trait we generally think about when we think about heroes, including superheroes. But few superheroes stress about the right thing more than Spider-Man.
And no wonder. Contrary to what you may have heard, Spider-Man wasn't really created when a radioactive arachnid bit the scientifically gifted but socially awkward high school student Peter Parker. That bite gave Peter spectacular spider powers, sure — but what did Peter first do with his extraordinary strength and agility? As the first Spidey story, way back in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), tells it, he entered wrestling matches in order to win prize money!
Peter thought he was doing the right thing. After all, his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who were raising him, needed to pay rent and buy food. But Peter's idea of "the right thing" didn't include anything about being a social force for good. Rather than get involved and help stop a thief, he does nothing because, as he tells a police officer, "I'm thru being pushed around — by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one. That means — me!"
It wasn't until that crook who got away later shot and killed Uncle Ben that Peter realized the lesson that the first Spider-Man movie, in 2002, made into a cultural catchphrase: "with great power comes great responsibility."
Only then did the web-slinging, wall-crawling "webhead" we know truly come into being. While he has a lot of fun fighting evil, he's also always motivated by a desire to make up for that fateful night when he failed to do the right thing. "No matter how many symbolic stand-ins for the burglar [who killed Uncle Ben] he defeats," writes Danny Fingeroth, a Spider-Man comic book author, "it will never be enough for him."
Running Up Against a "Rigid Sense of Right and Wrong"
Spidey's also often confused about knowing exactly what "the right thing" to do is. In many of his early adventures, he feels guilty when he goes after bad guys because it means he's neglecting his frail, elderly widowed aunt, or his girlfriends (whether Liz Allan, Gwen Stacy, or MJ), or his studies.
And Peter's boss, Daily Bugle newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson, doesn't help bring him any moral clarity. The shouting, cigar-chomping "JJJ" seems perpetually incensed that the public praises Spider-Man as a hero. He sees Spidey as a masked menace to society, a costumed vigilante who's taking the law into his own hands.
"Maybe Jonah just has a unique sense of order," M. J. told Peter in one comic book. "You break the rules — and worse, get away with it! Maybe that just gets under Jonah's skin. He has a rigid, not very realistic sense of right and wrong!" Peter can usually laugh off J. Jonah's anti-Spidey tirades ... but not always. Sometimes, they force him to question his own sense of right and wrong too.
I wonder what Jesus would have thought about Peter Parker. Certainly, Jesus knew what it was like to run up against "a rigid, not very realistic sense of right and wrong." Some of the religious leaders of Jesus' day opposed him because the things he was doing didn't line up with their idea of morality.
Look at Luke 5 and 6, for example. At almost every turn, Jesus does something to make some of the "Pharisees and teachers of the law" (5:17) mad at him:
He heals a man who is paralyzed in order to demonstrate that he, Jesus, has the right to forgive people's sins — something the religious leaders claim (and they're not wrong) only God can do (5:17-25).
He calls a tax collector — a man collecting money from his fellow Jews for the Roman Empire's treasury and more than likely skimming some off the top for himself, making himself one of his society's least favorite people — to be one of his disciples, and then goes so far as to share a meal with several "tax collectors and others" (5:27-30).
He doesn't follow the expected, accepted patterns of prayer and fasting — he and his followers "always eat and drink" and presumably enjoy life far too much (5:33-34).
Excerpted from "What Makes a Hero? Youth Study Book"
Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
Session One: Jesus Is Not My Hero!,
Session Two: Jesus Didn't Worry About Doing the Right Thing,
Session Three: Yes, Jesus Loves "Them"!,
Session Four: What Jesus Thinks a Wasted Life Looks Like,
Session Five: Jesus Wants a New You!,
Session Six: Jesus' Death Saves Us All,