Wonder Woman cracked $100 million at the box office this weekend while boasting a 93% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one of the strongest superhero films on a pleasantly crowded list. Four of the five highest grossing movies this decade come from the canons of Star Wars, Marvel, and DC. The Skywalker saga is the youngest of those, and it just turned 40. Someone who saw A New Hope in theaters as a teenager could be buying their grandchildren a Wookiee onesie.
Heroes transcend generations better than just about anything else. It’s never just kids today: when I was growing up in the 1980’s, four of the five highest grossing movies were Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Batman. We surveyed our congregation to ask about their heroes both as a child and now, and some of our members from older generations responded with The Lone Ranger, Tarzan, the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and Steve Austin (clarified, sadly, as the Six Million Dollar Man and not the WWE Champion). Heroes are profitable in any age.
Have this conversation long enough with children of any age and it’ll eventually turn to who’s the best, who’s the strongest?
When you’re young you go for the obvious answers like Hulk: he’s the biggest, he’s the strongest, he’ll smash. I think Wolverine also falls in this category: if Hulk can throw the best punches, Wolverine can take them.
Get a little older and we start learning strength is more than just how much you bench. Characters like Professor X and Jean Grey begin to enter the conversation, the former in a wheelchair yet considered one of the most powerful heroes simply because of what he can do with his mind. The latter once inadvertently blew up a planet, so she’s probably on the list.
Of course, there’s always Superman. Just because we get bored with an answer doesn’t make it cease to be true. But I’m intrigued by a dark horse in this race.
Not on the list of highest-grossing movies is Green Lantern. His 2011 film adaptation was such a bomb they didn’t even invite him to be part of the new Justice League franchise. But theoretically, he could be the strongest of all.
A Green Lantern’s power comes from his ring, considered by some to be the most powerful weapon in the universe. The ring creates a physical representation of whatever the bearer can imagine and will into being: imagine a hammer and the ring creates a big green hammer, etc. So while God would never create a rock so heavy God couldn’t lift it – because God is not an idiot – Green Lantern could, in theory, create a rock so heavy Superman couldn’t. And then, you know, throw it at him.
The villains in the Green Lantern universe use similar yellow rings, but believe it’s not willpower that is the greatest source of strength, but fear: that there is greater power in making people afraid than in believing in your own strength. Whether you believe Green Lantern is the strongest of all or not, this central conflict – willpower or fear – is one of the most relatable from the world of superheroes.
Think of the strongest people you know in real life. Chances are they are men and women who handle this dynamic well: a life of inner strength, where fear is the deciding factor in far fewer decisions.
Our theology tells us our own willpower will ultimately be insufficient, and on this point real life often provides hard evidence. We all have our own heavy objects to lift, and white-knuckled willpower only ever goes so far.
In this season of Pentecost then, it’s interesting to note the few words used to describe it. Jesus’ final words say the disciples will receive power – the Greek root of our English words like dynamic and dynamite – when the Holy Spirit comes, and in his farewell offers no other description for it. When the Spirit arrives in the next chapter, it comes not as a gentle breeze but a violent wind, with fire.
Our fights are not with Lex Luthor or a yellow ring; sin is certainly still a capable foe. But more than any one particular sin, it’s fear the scriptures tell us to resist most often. And so perhaps this is where we need the most powerful, dynamic, spiritual change in our lives: to be led by fear less, and by faith more.
I don’t know how many of us will openly admit that we made a decision primarily because we were afraid. Fear can cause us to settle for something far less than what faith has in mind. But wherever those choices play themselves out in our lives, we are given something more than just our own willpower to draw from.
The strongest people I know don’t spend any time telling me how strong they are. I know they’re strong because many of them faced some scary stuff, but faced it with not just their own strength but a grace they learned from a God they leaned into. Fear might have even gotten the first word, but it did not get the last. Real strength isn’t pretending you’re never afraid. It’s walking through that fear with faith.
If we believe what we are given is only a gentle breeze, we may find the fuse is a little wetter than we’d like in the moments when we need it to be dynamite in our lives. It is so easy to believe and then experience fear as the most powerful force in our stories, even if we would never admit it. The more we can be a people who take Jesus at his word when he says we are given power, the more dynamic a difference we can begin to see in our lives. Fear is indeed powerful. But thanks be to God, we don’t have to face it alone. The Pentecost promise is one powerful enough for us to believe our faith can be stronger than our fears.