On Beowulf, heroes and redemption

I haven’t seen Beowulf, and if the past is any indication of the future, I’ll eventually see it when it comes out on DVD. However, it’s apparently 3D, so may make a theater viewing a bit more interesting. Ben Witherington, who I have linked to in the past on a number of topics, tends to write some pretty decent movie reviews; today’s review (The Film that Cried ‘Beowulf’) of Beowulf is not a disappointment. What I found especially interesting were his comments about Beowulf and the need for heroes; Witherington writes:

But what is interesting in this film is the distinction made between a hero, like Beowulf and ‘the God Jesus Christ’. At one juncture in the film the Danish king is asked, after a raid by Grendel, if they should pray to and invoke ‘the new Roman god Christ’. No, says the king, we don’t need a savior god, we need a hero.

He continues:

Heroes with strength and courage, but also feet of clay are much preferred to a sinless savior who dies so that we might live differently than we do. We don’t want to live differently. We want to party down, and then have a hero rescue us when we go too far.

It’s true, of course. Even Christians have a hard time with the notion of a suffering, dying servant as savior; we’d often rather have a Terminator God who comes down and kicks some butt. This possibly explains much of the religious right (if anything can explain the religious right).

A couple of years ago I wrote an article exploring this notion, partially inspired by Spiderman 2 and the Bering Strait song I Could Use a Hero (great tune, by the way). As I wrote then,

Fear of reality might really be the issue. For whatever reason, living in reality often seems rather humdrum for some of us, and downright frightening or painful for others. There are many reasons to opt out of reality from time to time, but we all do it. Sometimes working with fantasy is healthy; myth allows us to work out many issues in a safe environment – similar to a child’s play or running computer simulations. You get to see how things might turn out if we make various choices, in essence, looking before we leap.

However, actually believing the hero-myth – failing to bring things back to reality – always has downsides. For example, consider the tendency to make heroes out of sports figures. It is okay to be inspired by various individuals, but there is also the tendency to live vicariously through our heroes – and no good comes of that. I’ve seen people whose emotional state varies depending upon the success of their favorite sports figure or team. No matter how well the hero does, there is no potential that the hero can provide what the person actually needs. There is only the potential for failure.

I still believe what I proposed in that article, that our need for heroes is an inadequate substitute for what we really need: a savior. The problem is, to accept the savior we have is to also release our own imperfect dreams of greatness, of success, victory and righteousness. It really is righteousness, after all, that we are looking for. The problem is, we tend to want our own instead of God’s righteousness.

Martin Luther defined the notion of Original Sin as looking for “better words” than the words God has already given us. That was the issue in the Garden of Eden, and I think from my own experience that Luther hit the nail on the head. Redemption is simply too easy on one hand, and too difficult on the other. To accept forgiveness, we also have to forgive … and that means no breaking heads or kicking butts. To quote myself again:

The whole concept of hero worship (it is worship, after all, as heroes always take the place of a savior) is based on a belief that performance matters. We believe that we have to perform in order to succeed, but we’re not good enough. Then, when we see someone else performing to the standards we have set, they become our heroes, and that is truly idolatry. Performance is important; however, Jesus’ performance is absolutely the only performance that matters.

One thought on “On Beowulf, heroes and redemption”

  1. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Or, we might add, that would make him a hero of Theollywood.

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