Book Review: Superheroes Can’t Save You
How often do polemics books hit the market? It’s not that often, especially from academia. Most modern scholarship, much in contrast to the work of the Patristic Fathers which was almost entirely polemical, exists to promote theological ideas rather than expose false ones. The bristling at polemical or irenic theology is in part responsible for so many good theological ideas floating around today in conjunction with so many bad theological ideas. Because so many refuse to play the critic, heresies abound more than ever, even in an age that has seen some resurgence of good theology. When I saw Todd Miles’ book, Superheroes Can’t Save You, I bought it out of a sense of obligation. Polemics books are rare (and needed), so reviewing it is the least that I could do.
JUST THE FACTS
Todd Miles is a professor of theology and director of the Master of Theology program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Superheroes Can’t Save You is a 194-page book, with 9 pages consisting of Scripture and Subject Indexes, 7 pages consisting of what amounts to two epilogues, and 7 pages of an introduction. This means there are roughly 171 pages of content that form the core of the book.
I wanted to dislike the book on account of the endorsement from Russell Moore. Moore regularly exposes Southern Baptists to the other even worse Moore, Beth. Russell Moore thought it was a good idea to expose Southern Baptists to “unhitch your faith from the Old Testament” and “the Bible says so is a bad answer,” Andy Stanley. Russell Moore thinks Martin Luther King – who held to at least two of the heresies warned about in this book – was a Christian. If Russell Moore likes the book, I am skeptical from the get-go. Frankly, Russell Moore is the last endorsement I would ever want on a book about heresies.
And so starting skeptically (I’m being honest), I read the book in a single sitting.
The book attempts to expose seven heresies – all of them either Christological or ontological in nature – that people often believe. The book’s hook, schtick, and gimmick is to compare Jesus to seven superheroes and then to contrast them. Throughout each chapter, Miles explains that Jesus is better than different superheroes from the Marvel and DC Comics respective universes. If one ascribes to Jesus the limitations of these superheroes, they’ll be committing any one of the seven heresies described. Such is Miles’ thesis.
When I received the book, I was curious to see the target audience. I couldn’t tell from the publisher’s pitch who the book was designed for, but I assumed it was designed for children. After all, the book revolves around comic book heroes. I scoured the reviews and the front and back cover to see the intended audience and could not find it.
I contacted an acquaintance from back in my college days, whose endorsement graces the back cover of the book, and asked if he knew the desired audience. After all, he should know; he endorsed it. He assumed that the book was designed for undergraduates without much knowledge about Christological debates.
It’s here I give my chief complaint, but it’s not toward Todd Miles as much as it is towards our culture, which includes – by necessity – Christian culture. Are we so insanely idiotic that a book about Christological heresies has to be spiced up with references to comic book characters to get people to read it? If the answer is “yes” (and it might be), then Miles did what he had to do, I suppose, and all I can say is Maranatha. If the answer is “no,” then the book is grossly condescending and treats an ostensibly adult audience like disinterested children with low attention spans, and is unnecessarily patronizing. Or, perhaps, Miles intended his book to target children, and it’s apropos.
Personally, if I had to give a recommended age for this book, it would be ages 8-12. Again, if this is where college undergraduates are, it may be a sadder commentary on culture than on the author. I wish the reveiws, endorsements, or publisher would clarify for consumers for whom exactly Miles wrote the book.
The gimmick, as referenced above, is comparing Jesus to superheroes. The thought is, I presume, if people aren’t interested in Jesus, perhaps they’ll be interested enough in comic book characters to learn more about Jesus.
I think the gimmick falls flat for a number of reasons.
First, the title of the book is Superheroes Can’t Save You. My question is, “Does anybody really think they can?” Does not everyone already know this? And if everyone knows that superheroes can’t save you, do we need a book postulating a thesis with which we’re all in agreement?
In fact, Miles acknowledges that nobody is really looking at superheroes for salvation on page five, writing, “The superhero creators and writers did not and do not set out to create false saviors to lead the world astray.”
And he’s right in that. Stan Lee wasn’t creating a religion. He was, as Miles points out, creating graphic fiction.
So then, what’s the point of arguing that superheroes can’t save when we all know this? Miles writes, “Every bad idea about Jesus can be illustrated by a superhero.”
That thought instantly made me wonder what superhero could be used to illustrate that Jesus isn’t your boyfriend (theoerosism). I’d be interested to see what Miles came up with.
And this is the second reason I believe the gimmick is unnecessary and unproductive. Trying to find bad ideas written into pop-fiction is contrary to authorial intent, as Miles acknowledges above. It’s little different than finding “Gospel themes” in comic book movies, a stunt perfected by megachurch big-box pastors who do Summer “Blockbuster Movie Series.” Their approach is usually the opposite of Miles, which is to extrapolate some redeeming quality of a fictional character and compare it to Christ in a positive sense. Miles does precisely the opposite; he takes a limitation of a comic book superhero and contrasts it with Christ.
Doing this, however, tacitly undermines the significance of authorial intent. The fact is, we shouldn’t model eisegesis, even when committed against comic books. Pastors and teachers shouldn’t “read into” literature because it’s bad form. If we don’t want our students doing that to the Bible, we shouldn’t do that to Stan Lee.
Third and finally in regards to the gimmick, it’s just not creative. Using comic-books and pop-culture to teach theology is just old. Like, it’s 2004 old. It’s a tired old trick and should lose points, if for nothing else, on the grounds of its sheer lack of creativity.
This is the surprising part.
If you can stomach the blatant patronizing of an ostensibly adult audience and don’t mind being written to like you’re a tween adolescent with a short attention span, the book may be edifying. If you have never been properly catechized, the book will no doubt be informative. While I find it surprising that the director of the Master of Theology program at Western Seminary is capable of prostrating himself intellectually to write on such a low level, there is zero doubt that there are people with such little knowledge of historic heresies that the book would be good for them to read (even if they want to ignore all the superhero frivolity). Again, if his goal is to reach these types of people, then I’m glad he’s mentally limber enough to write what he wrote. To his credit, Miles ended the book with a brief explanation of salvation and the Gospel call and so (to make me even more confused) perhaps his goal was to evangelize the lost. And if that’s the case, it suddenly makes more sense and I fully retract the part about it being patronizing.
Regarding the superhero stuff, this is not a comic book. There is not a single sketch of a comic book figure in the book, I presume, because of licensing and copyright restrictions. The book only briefly quotes comic book superheroes and Miles vaguely describes their powers and how it relates (in his mind) to Jesus. So, that made it more bearable.
The seven heresies explained in the book, all of which deal with the nature of Christ or the Holy Trinity, include Docetism, Liberalism, Modalism/Sabellianism, Arianism, Adoptionism, Apollinarianism, and Eutychianism.
Spoiler Alert: The chapters work something like this…
Superman wasn’t human, but Jesus was. Believing Jesus did not become human in the incarnation is Docetism.
Batman was only a man, with no superpowers. Believing Jesus was/is only a man is Liberalism.
Antman could be little, normal, or big-sized but not all three at once. The Triune God, however, can be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all at once. Believing the Persons of the Trinity are mere forms of one another (or masks) is modalism.
Thor was a god, but not the main god or THE god. Jesus, however, is THE God. To believe Jesus was a created being or a has/had a lower level of godhood is Arianism.
Hal Jordan is given a ring with superpowers, and whoever is bequeathed such a ring has those superpowers. Jesus, however, did not become God’s Son like Hal Jordan became Green Lantern. To believe Jesus became God at some point in time, but was not always God, is Adoptionism.
Hulk was a smart scientist, Bruce Banner, but Banner was not always controlling Hulk’s brain. To believe that Jesus had/has a divine brain but a human body is Apollinarism.
Peter Parker was part human and part spider. Jesus, however, is all God and all man. To believe Jesus is half-and-half is Eutychyianism.
That’s basically the entire book in a nutshell. At the very least, readers might figure out that their preconceived notions about Jesus or the Trinity are heretical.
To be quite honest, it seemed that Miles’ comparisons between Christ and the superheroes were contrived. I then I realized they’re all contrived. None of those comparisons or contrasts are supposed to be read into the comics, and so Miles’ attempt to compare and contrast seemed greatly forced at certain points. Especially toward the end of the book, I felt like Miles was grasping to reach the magic number of seven, when there are far more ancient heresies to get to.
Also, there was significant overlap on certain heresies. Socinianism was brought up in a number of those. This is probably not a point to quibble with, considering these heresies overlap considerably even outside the comic book universe.
I thought entitling the heresy in chapter two, “Liberalism,” was grossly reductionist. It also seemed to be a rephrasing of much of the chapter on Arianism, which amounts to an attack on the deity of Christ. While some might say that the book wasn’t intending to split hairs, I might be more inclined to think that some hairs need split. But to be fair, that’s only my subjective opinion. There would have been more room for split hairs if there wasn’t so much talk about superheroes. But without superheroes, there would be no gimmick and, ultimately, no book.
Lastly, I was a bit disappointed that MIles doesn’t explicitly anathematize anyone for holding to these heresies, which makes one left wondering why these heresies are all that bad. He concludes each chapter with an explanation for why the heresies are “problematic,” but stops short of explaining that they’re damning.
I would give two cents for Miles’ opinion on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, who denied the deity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the Resurrection, and the plenary inspiration of Scriptures (the first two are addressed in the book). Was he a Christian? If someone embraces the heresies this book is written about, are they anathema? And if not, what’s the big deal?
The most objectionable sentence in the book relates to this issue, as Miles writes, “The theological term for ‘bad idea about Jesus’ is heresy.”
This, of course, is not only reductionist, but it’s also flatly incorrect. In the realm of polemical theology, mere “bad ideas” aren’t heresies by necessity. Heresies are those false teachings – usually of an ontological or soteriological nature – that rise to such extreme heights of error that to believe them would place someone outside the church, hence the term αἵρεσις (hah’-ee-res-is), a word closely associated which schism and division. In other words, there are some bad ideas that don’t damn you. Heresies, however, are wrong ideas that are so wrong they have an eternal consequence.
The book was a good effort and I’ve no reason but to believe that Todd Miles meant very well. My personal conviction is that people interested in polemical theology can stand up to far more serious discourse than what was provided in this book. In fact, I think that most polemics-minded Christians would consider the book patronizing. However, MIles probably didn’t write this book for polemics-minded believers.
Because I don’t really know what Miles set out to do, I can’t say whether or not he accomplished this goal.
I would encourage you to buy this book for children, and so I saw nothing in the book whatsoever that was questionable doctrinally. If you are looking for a book to accurately and more carefully define and explain historic heresies, you might have to look for one that doesn’t revolve around comics.
[Contributed by JD Hall]