As we sit in church and hear many of the same ideas and stories repeated again and again, we can begin to lose sight of the significance and beauty of these ideas and stories as they become overly-familiar. Fantasy and science fiction can sometimes help us to appreciate timeless truths for which we have lost appreciation through frequent repetition. C.S. Lewis expressed the idea in this way: “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.”
I saw the new Superman movie over the weekend, Man of Steel, and found it to be one of those stories through which we are reminded of greater truths than those which are literally represented in the movie itself. While Man of Steel was not a perfect movie, I enjoyed the way in which the producers unapologetically drew parallels between Superman and Christ. Some that I noticed (though there are probably more) were: a miraculous birth, competing pre-earth plans for predetermination vs. free agency (ironically, so far as I am aware, only a Mormon concept), being raised by a step-father, being rejected by the people of his home town, having a step-father who is gone by the time he started his ministry, spending time in the “wilderness” and then with his real father before setting out to save mankind at age 33, visiting with a “father” with a scene of Gethsemane in the background while asking if he had any options but to sacrifice himself, being held out as a symbol of hope and an ideal that we should strive for, but will be unable to attain, as well as frequent crucifixion imagery.
An interesting aspect of the Superman story that goes back to the earliest years of Superman is that the names of Superman and his father, Kal-El and Jor-El, respectively, both contain the Hebrew name for God: “El.” This word can also refer to might, strength or power. While I am not a Hebrew scholar, it is my understanding that in Hebrew the word Jor-El means “God will uplift” and Kal-El means “voice of God.”
Parallels and symbols pointing us toward God, and Christ in particular, can be found in stories from around the world. Some of these include stories of Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, Baldr, and Quetzalcoatl. The fact that many such stories pre-date the birth of Christ is unsettling to some people. They have wondered if the story of Christ itself is no more than another retelling of a popular myth: the one in which a god dies in order to bring his people happiness and prosperity.
The young atheist C.S. Lewis started from this perspective, but later became a theist, and later still, a Christian as he came to see pagan myths as a retelling of the one, true “myth.” He came to see the story of Christ as the myth that is also a fact.
Professor Michael Nelson explained the thinking of C.S. Lewis as follows:
[T]he gospel story was mythic and should be appreciated as such, “but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. … The dying god really appears—as a historical person, living in a definite time and place.” As Lewis later wrote, “By becoming fact [the dying god story] does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” But “it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.” “The Christian story of the dying god, in other words, lay at the exact intersection of myth and history.”
Through classic myths and even through popular stories such as Superman, we can find our thoughts are drawn upward. We can feel the motivation to become better people and even the inspiration to become more Christ-like. Through stories of service and self-sacrifice, we can be reminded of Christ’s life of service and of His atoning sacrifice. These stories are retold throughout history because they are powerful. The power comes not through that which is imaginary, but through that which is true. The fact that we can see the story of Christ being retold in cultures all over the world, and even in myths that pre-date the birth of Christ, does not need to be seen as evidence that the story of Christ itself is a fantastical tale concocted merely to make sense of an otherwise meaningless and absurd existence. Rather, the fact that we can find the story of Christ being told again and again, throughout history, can be seen as evidence that the story of Christ is true, and that other stories serve to point us toward Christ. As the Savior himself, proclaimed, “all things bear record of me” (Moses 6:63).