being human

[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.

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Read this:  Romans 8:9-11 (here)

Stories warning against playing God: Superman, Jurassic Park, Frankenstein

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teen fiction vs. real love

[being human: the absence]

As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here.  It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection.  When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.

Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie.  I wonder if it’s any good, I thought.  What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud.  I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.

However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion.  When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.

If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book.  The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward.  All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point).  He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason.  There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers.  Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.

Am I generalizing? Sure.  There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love.  However, they are few and far between.  As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.

What are these books teaching?  It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that.  It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.

The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy.  In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection.  The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together.  In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”.  It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret.  If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality.  These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.

Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed.  These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”.  Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm.  Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce.  When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?

As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters.  And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures.  The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship.  As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people.  When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need.  They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down.  We are human.

I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness).  Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives.  Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.

If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us.  When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection.  For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.

Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving.  It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace.  Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13.  Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet.  But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it.  That is, after all, what our God does for us.

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Read this:  Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste).  Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites.  Ask me about it!
John Donne.  Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.

*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.