[being human: the presence]
In my last post, I talked about the dangerous way in which paranormal romances overemphasize the other-ness of characters who aren’t human. This time, we’re going to look at the flip side, focusing on the way that relatable super-human characters struggle to stay human.
Because the best stories with inhuman characters remind us what it truly means to be human.
The idea really struck me as I sat in front of the biggest movie theater screen of my life, watching the newest incarnation of Superman battle it out against General Zod. My thoughts about Man of Steel’s wasted potential are another story; I came out of it dwelling on a single thing – Clark Kent’s humanity. I’m fully aware that Superman is about the farthest you could possibly get from a human being; however, this movie really made me realize that, at the heart of it all, Superman was raised as a human. He might be an alien, but he grew up in Kansas. And it’s his humanity that saves him.
This movie, and so many modern renditions of superheroes, has focused not on the powers, but on the flaws. Modern-day superheroes can’t do everything. As comics have progressed from the Golden Age, they’ve gotten progressively darker, more brooding, and grittier. Our heroes become flawed.
Superman still has to save the day, but during the battle scenes, we flip back and forth between him and all of the normal human beings struggling to survive an apocalyptic scenario. His powers do not ensure his survival – Zod has what he has physically. The difference? Superman thinks – and feels – as a human being. Zod wants to be a god. Superman doesn’t, and because of this, he can become a bridge between two worlds.
The concept of a character that is at once man and another creature is not new. I have a confession: I have watched entirely too much Teen Wolf lately. Please shoot me a message if you need me to defend this show to you (I know it looks awful).
At its surface, Teen Wolf is a show about a high schooler who gets bitten by a werewolf and inherits all sorts of powers and problems. As it progresses, though, you realize that the main character, Scott, isn’t the only hero (and doesn’t even become one for at least a season). Everyone who supports him, protects him, and reminds him of his human-ness keeps the show going – especially his best friend, Stiles.
From the very start, I recognized Stiles as the true hero of the show, the way that the supportive Samwise Gamgee is the true hero of Lord of the Rings. In a show full of supernatural creatures, werewolves, and werewolf hunters, Stiles stands at the center, fully human. He can’t do any of the things that his friends can do – and that’s why the show needs him to keep everyone anchored. His weapons are his sarcastic wit, his loyalty, his kindness, and his bravery. Even though he is so much more fragile than the rest of the characters, he keeps up with his friends, reminding them of their humanity and risking his own life for their sakes. He is the one who consistently pulls Scott back from the brink of animalistic abandon, reminding him who he is and reminding him the reason to remember to be human. The toll it takes on him is severe as he struggles with panic attacks and massive stress. And that really makes him braver than everyone else, because he has so much more to fear.
Our new supernatural heroes might need someone to encourage them in their power; however, more than this, they need someone to pull them back and keep them human. We don’t want to look up to our heroes anymore; we want to relate to them. We want to see them struggle with the power that they have and see that, beneath it all, they are a human being given a mantle. We want to look at them and wonder, what would I do in this situation?
This is why something like Twilight has it backwards. The whole time, Bella idolizes Edward. She wants to love him, but more than that, she wants to be like him. And in the end, if I’m not mistaken, she gives up her very soul – the most human, eternal, God-given capacity we have – to turn into a different creature entirely. She sees nothing in human beings. But even though we’re fallen, broken, fragile things, there is still something ultimately beautiful in being human.
I wondered for a long time if I was wrong about this. I know that we have fallen into sin. We work evil and tend toward selfish actions. We’re traitors, living in darkness and choosing fear, pain, and death. On our own, we cannot do anything at all.
All of this is true. And yet, we have been created in the image of the eternal God. At the start of all things, God once called us very good. Wisdom says in Proverbs 8 that, at the creation of the world, she
“was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,
rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.”
And although we have fallen, each of us holds in our hearts the potential to be restored. And that’s a humanity that should be protected. Eric Metaxes explains it in his biography, Bonhoeffer:
“It was God’s call to be fully human, to live as human beings obedient to the one who had made us, which was the fulfillment of our destiny. It was not a cramped, compromised, circumspect life, but a life lived in a kind of wild, joyful, full-throated freedom – that was what it was to obey God… Earthly bliss and humanity belong to God, not in any cramped ‘religious’ sense, but in the fully human sense. Bonhoeffer was a champion of God’s idea of humanity, a humanity that He invented and, by participating in it through the incarnation, that He redeemed.”
Jesus didn’t become human just to try it out, or because of anything good that we’ve brought about. He came to redeem us and restore us, and the rest of his creation, to its former place. Superman was conceived of as a messianic; how much better is the way that our God has become human to save the world and bridge our way! Our very human-ness can become something lovely when tempered to God’s plan. We have the capacity to see beautiful things and understand that something meaningful hums beneath them. We were created with human bodies and human souls, and God delights in us when we serve Him (more). What a word delight is!
Being human means having to serve something. It means being weak and unable. To be human is to be vulnerable. Unlike Stiles, who tries to provide for his friends out of his own strength, it means relying on something else. I had a long talk with my dear friend after she got back from Togo, and she told me several stories that will stick with me. Her tour guide had told her that his grandfather, like many of the people there, was an animist, worshipping different gods who gave him the power to do terrible things, like force people into the ground. I’ve heard similar stories from people in Burma, whose relatives could see creatures or levitate objects. That’s the thing about Satan – he makes people feel powerful when really they become enslaved by him. and here’s the interesting part; when these people become Christians, they have to give up all that demonic power. In Christ, they don’t have supernatural powers. The things they do (healing, etc) are not done in their own power, but in the name of Jesus. In Jesus, they are called to be utterly human and vulnerable, having to rely on God for their strength.
In a way, being human means being shackled down by all of our flaws, confusion, and powers that turn out to be burdens. But it also means being given the ability to be free, the ability to search for truth and to desire real relationship and real beauty. It means having the chance to choose rightly, and having the chance to be utterly restored by a God who created us in His own image in the first place. We are weak; but our weakness is God’s strength.
Read this: Romans 8:9-11 (here)
Stories warning against playing God: Superman, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked with precise convulsions.
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green hazel its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Excuse me while I try to form my feelings and hazy ideas into something that makes sense.
So the week before Spring Break (two weeks ago, I suppose), we were talking about Seamus Heaney in my Irish class. I adore Heaney, and his poetry is beautiful and meaningful and very much a living thing. Among all of the things that he has to say about life and Ireland and all the rest, something that struck me the most was his talk of the role of the poet.
Now by poet, I don’t mean strictly someone who writes poetry. That sounds funny. Let me explain. I mean “the poet” in a broader, more ancient sense, one that encompasses more than rhyming or what you may normally associate with poetry. I mean the poet as a sort of epic hero, who brings truth to his people, sometimes painfully. This is the traditional Irish view of the poet, or senchaí: someone with great power that speaks the truth, even to the king, and that some fear. He has the power of sight, and can use his words in satires against his enemies.
Or like the Oracles of Ancient Greece: someone who is chosen to be a mouthpiece of the divine, someone who is spoken through. Which brings me to the most important parallel to the poet, the true calling of such a person: the prophet, someone who carries the truth from God to the people. Although this brings to mind the prophets of the Old Testament who spoke with God (how amazing!), you can still be a prophet today. Anyone that God uses to speak through is a prophet, and God most certainly still speaks to people.
And around this time in my class, as we’re talking about poetry being made up of partly scop, or craft (being a good writer), and partly vates, or prophesy or vision, speaking the truth, I start freaking out. Really freaking out, and zoning out of some of the discussion or being way too much into other parts of it. I can feel myself getting excited all over again as I type this. I’m looking at my paper right now, and I have little notes scrawled all over it, like:
my heartbeat shakes my whole body in trembling rhythm with the hand of God,
Or this overly-excited realization of the poet’s job:
poet as a go-between!
a translator of truth!
a prophet! an oracle!
a tool in the hands
of He who holds all Truth
a liminal, ferried between
granted another sight by the
poet as messenger
of the eternal, birthright
of an oracle
why am I almost twitching?
a mortal body and an
like all the amphibians of humankind.
and I am suddenly restless,
yearning, churning, swelling
with a feeling I don’t know
and a desire for something past
this mortal coil.
My heart is beating with desperate purpose.
So, I was freaking out. And still am. Because I couldn’t, and honestly can’t, imagine a greater purpose than being spoken through. The lump in my throat tells me that I desperately want that, to have a purpose, to have this purpose, but I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
We read another poem that day called “St. Kevin and the Blackbird” (click), where a bird makes a nest in St. Kevin’s hand and he is responsible for their lives and can’t move until they leave. I talked to my professor about the role of the poet and such things after class on my way to study for my calc exam (that was easy to focus on after all of this).
I wrote down all that I could remember of what he said. He looked at me and told me that the calling of the poet is not an easy one to accept. He asked me to remember St. Kevin. What did he do? He went out to the wilderness and hid away from everyone else. But God found him anyway.
You were made with a purpose, and you’re here for a reason. I watched the movie Hugo a few days ago (which I heartily recommend), and was nearly moved to tears by certain parts of it. There’s one part in there where Hugo and Isabelle are talking about purpose. Hugo looks at people like machines and wonders if they too become “broken” when they lose their purpose. It’s beautiful. And then he says this:
“I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.”
You are not an extra part. I really identify with Isabelle. I wonder what my purpose is, too. But I know that I have one, because God has given me one. We were each made for something. And I trust that He will help me find that something.
See this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcdEXHIuTxw Seriously, watch this movie.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like I need to do something important. Something of value. I jokingly referred back to it as my mid-life crisis… and then I realized that my life COULD be already half over. And what do I have to show for it? I keep waiting for opportunities to arise, but what if I miss them in the waiting? I feel like it’s time for me to stop waiting and do something. But what?
We never have as much time as we think we do. If I keep putting this off, what then?
I need to stop using my age as an excuse.