The Church Culture of Hero Worship

People love superheroes. So much so that they spend millions of dollars to go to a movie theater and watch them take out the bad guys. Here are some worldwide box office numbers for recent superhero movies:

  • The Avengers (2012) – $1.518 billion
  • Iron Man 3 (2013) – $1.2 billion
  • The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – $1.084 billion
  • The Dark Knight (2008) – $1.004 billion
  • Spider Man 3 (2007) – $890.8 million

All those films are in the top 50 of all-time in worldwide gross box office. The money speaks for itself: there’s somewhat of an obsession with the superheroes on the big screen.

Why? That’s a really good question. A couple reasons come to mind for me. First, they’re fun to watch. No matter the depth of the plot or character development, these movies usually have numerous explosions and fight scenes and a fair number of one-liners that screenwriters hope you’ll quote for years to come. Second, they allow us to see good triumph over evil, something most of us inherently long for (whether we realize or not) and we love seeing on the big screen. Virtue and justice beats evil and injustice. It’s a refreshing thing to see. We just want the good guys to win!

Superheroes usually appear as characters with little to no moral flaws. There will be guys like Tony Stark who may have questionable facets or morals, but they usually redeem themselves in some way by overcoming the very thing that is their weakness. They’re straightforward and honest about their weaknesses and do good in spite of them.

I find that, in Christian culture, we have a similar approach to our theological heroes, particularly in my generation, depending on how nerdy you get. Guys like John Piper, David Platt, R.C. Sproul, Wayne Grudem, Matt Chandler, rappers like Lecrae and Trip Lee, they all get mad props from tons of Christians because they’re heroes of the faith nowadays, modern day Charles Spurgeons, Adoniram Judsons, C.S. Lewises and Billy Grahams.

But am I alone in thinking that this is possibly a bad thing? Should we really be praising these men the amount we do?

This thought process was kicked off in my head yesterday. The Facebook page for Desiring God, Piper’s ministry, posted this status with a quote from Piper:

“The closer I get to death and meeting Jesus face to face and giving an account for my life, the more sure I am of my resolve never intentionally to look at a television show or a movie or a website or a magazine where I know I will see nudity. Never. That is my resolve. And the closer I get to death, the more committed I become. And frankly I want to invite all Christians to join me in this pursuit of greater purity of heart and mind. In our day when entertainment media is virtually the lingua franca of the world, this is an invitation to be an alien.”

I applaud his resolve and his drive to fight against lust in his life. It’s a resolve that I desire to have.

But here’s where I struggle. And perhaps I’m alone in this. But I read things like this and I feel like I’m failing at following Jesus. If this great “hero of the faith” is so committed this way and I’m admittedly not as much as I should be, what does that say about me? I want to be as committed as he, but I admit that I am not. I’m sinful. I struggle. I fall.

Perhaps this is me failing to see the grace of God in my life. Perhaps this is me not being “resolved enough.” Perhaps I’m just not as holy as John Piper is. But I read things like this and, when I find I don’t measure up (which is about 95% of the time, maybe even 100%), I feel guilty. I feel condemned. I feel like I’m not being “the way I should be.” I understand the point about being an example and leading people by showing them what it looks like to follow Jesus. But shouldn’t there be a sense where we should lead people by showing them what it looks like when we fail at following Jesus and how we respond to it?

John-Piper-8-706838Some of the greatest impacts people have had on my life is when they share ways they’ve fallen and failed and how they responded. A friend of mine had a child outside of marriage, and was open about it on social media and in public. I’ve taken great encouragement and challenge from his openness with his sin, and then been super encouraged and challenged by how he’s raised his daughter and how much he seeks to serve Jesus through it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of honest doesn’t really occur because these leaders are afraid of what will happen when their sins are discovered. Look what happened to Mark Driscoll. His sin was exposed and he lost his job and much of his ministry. But if you go back and listen to his sermons, he was straightforward with the fact that he struggled with pride. I love that about his preaching in that he wasn’t ashamed to talk about ways he struggled and how the grace of God worked powerfully through that. Other preachers and authors I’ve listened to and read such as Perry Noble, Tullian Tchividjian and Brennan Manning take a similar approach in being honest with their sin.

But things like Mark Driscoll’s “fall” happen because we place these heroes on a pedestal, lift them up as “what it looks like to follow Jesus,” and then get disappointed and upset and angry when they fall. When did they become more important to follow than Jesus? Jesus is the only one to whom we should listen to every word that comes out of his mouth. His perfection is the only perfection that has ever existed on the earth apart from the early days in Eden. Yet the church often looks to leaders like Piper and Lewis as bastions of faith so much so that if we find out something bad about them our very lives are shaken.

I found this out during my senior year of college. I was in a class called Jewish-Christian Dialogue and we began a section on the Holocaust examining the persecution of Jews and how it was egged on by Christians in Germany. I was appalled to find that writings of Martin Luther were used as propaganda against Jews. The end of a particular writing of his, titled “On the Jews and Their Lies,” reads this way:

My essay, I hope, will furnish a Christian (who in any case has no desire to become a Jew) with enough material not only to defend himself against the blind, venomous Jews, but also to become the foe of the Jews’ malice, lying, and cursing, and to understand not only that their belief is false but that they are surely possessed by all devils.

He also encouraged burning of synagogues, razing of houses and confiscation of religious texts from the Jews. These writings were used as a tool by the Nazis to help push anti-Semitic thought in Germany. This is the guy who we in the church hold up as this great man of faith. Piper wrote a short book on Luther and not once mentioned this anti-Semitism. The most dangerous symptom of hero worship is the ignorance, either intentional or accidental, of a man’s flaws and weaknesses and the power of Jesus to work grace through them.

This perfection can work one of the three ways. It can be perpetrated by the hero himself, by those that follow the hero or by both the hero and those who follow him. All of them are crippling to the church because it exalts a man above the perfect work and life of Jesus Christ. It’s my belief that Christ is made much of not in our obedience but in our sinfulness. Jesus told Paul that in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

When we can be honest about the fact that we fail and we fall and we don’t do things the way we ought, Jesus and His perfection and His life and His grace are much more glorified and much more honored and much more important than any attempts at righteousness we have.

So here’s my takeaway: I need to stop looking to earthly people as the people I should model my life after and see Jesus as the ultimate example. I can take facets of men that I admire, like my friend’s honesty, my father’s diligence, my mother’s love for others, and seek to emulate those. But never should I look at a man as the perfect example for what I should be and be discouraged when I don’t measure up. I should look at Jesus, see I don’t measure up, and praise Him for that very fact because it’s what allows me to be forgiven!

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2 thoughts on “The Church Culture of Hero Worship

  1. At least in the superheroes category there’s one woman featured on the poster – the Black Widow, no less. Of the heroes of the faith you mentioned – the ones I recognize are all guys. Guys that drive home the message that a woman’s place is definitely not as a heroine of the faith. I guess the glory is supposed to go to God alone. Cult of personality is a dangerous thing – when it’s limited to just cults we get small circles of follower surrounding some prophet or teacher that forgets God. When it’s a massive crowd of followers chasing after a speaker, collecting their books, downloading all their sermons, they might hear about God, but they seem to have their hearts set more on the personality than the person of God. It’s understandable, Aaron was a stand-in for God, as were the other priests, but they were supposed to redirect attention from themselves toward God. One site I saw was just discussing how Mark Driscoll withdrew support for an orphanage ministry because he disliked the administrators – in essence denying his responsibility to look after orphans and widows in their distress.

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