Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Super Symbol of Hope

The legendary comic book character known as Superman has been captivating readers and audiences for 75 years. Over the years, the character has appeared in countless comic books, cartoons, radio programs, TV shows and movies, as he fights his never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way. But what that means and what that looks like has evolved many times over the years, as various artists, writers, actors and others have put their spin on the world's ultimate superhero.

Of course, the basics of Superman's appearance haven't changed too much since the beginning. Show a picture of anyone in a "super suit", and kids and grown-ups alike will recognize him instantly. But that doesn't mean the suit hasn't been modified a few hundred times over the years! Designers have played with various shades of blue and red, and the new movie, Man of Steel, is the first depiction I'm aware of where the Big Blue Boy Scout doesn't wear his red underwear on the outside of his outfit!

Perhaps the one piece of Supes' costume that has gone through the most changes is the "S" shield/logo he wears on his chest. The colors, shapes and sizes of the logo have been reworked and revisited, and are often the subject of scrutiny and criticism from fans whenever a new version is revealed. Besides the appearance of the emblem, the significance has also evolved with time.

In the original comics, the "S" simply stood for "Superman", but it has since been given other meanings. In the 1978 movie with Christopher Reeves, Superman's logo is first worn by his Kryptonian father, Jor-El, so it is passed down as a sort of "coat of arms" for the family. In the 2001 TV series, Smallville, the symbol is shown to be the Kryptonian symbol for "air", but readers of the "Superman: Birthright" comic series in 2003 were given a different and better meaning - one adopted in the new movie, Man of Steel - which can be seen at the end of this trailer.

Lois: "What's the 'S' stand for?"
Superman: "It's not an 'S'. On my world, it means 'Hope'."
Lois: "Well here, it's...an 'S'."

A sampling of some of Superman's shields
This scene really stood out in my mind from the first time I saw it. In a sense, Superman has always stood for hope. He represents the hope that someone can rescue you when you're in danger. He represents the hope that justice will catch up with lawbreakers, and that good people will again be treated fairly. He represents the hope that there is someone out there who is more powerful and more good than we are, and that (as the trailer also says) as we aspire to be like him, it will make us a better people. All of this and more is part of the character of Superman, and so it makes sense that it should be associated with the emblem that is so easily recognizable to millions around the globe!

Symbols often have a way of both shaping the way we feel about things and giving voice to our emotions. A national flag can elicit feelings of patriotism and pride. A souring eagle may be used to represent freedom and power. Many thoughts and feelings about a product can be brought to mind simply by seeing the company logo. There is truth in the old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

With the Superman logo, they have taken something that already had one meaning, and they've given it a new and better meaning. That's not always an easy thing to do, but in this case, I'd say it's a good thing!

It reminds me of another symbol whose meaning has been changed. In the time before Jesus, the cross was a symbol for death. The Romans cultivated this meaning by using crosses to put to death what they considered to be the worst of the worst of their criminals - rebels, murderers, traitors, etc. It was, as the old hymn declares, "the emblem of suffering and shame." Those who were sentenced to crucifixion were looked down upon by society, and they were meant to endure the most agonizing kind of death humanity could think up.

But when Jesus went to the cross, he changed its meaning. He was the innocent Son of God, yet he humbled himself and went willingly to his death in order to save us from our sins. He bore our punishment in order to give us something better than what we truly deserve. And three days later, he rose from the grave, showing he had truly conquered sin and death for good!

He took a symbol that meant pain, guilt, shame and death, and he changed the meaning. Now, the cross symbolizes our forgiveness - how we have been rescued from the eternal penalty of our sins. It reminds us that God's justice has already been satisfied for those who put their trust in Christ, and now he promises us a better future. It shows us just how great our Lord truly is, and it encourages us to follow in his footsteps until he fulfills the promise to transform us into his likeness. All of this and so much more is a part of our understanding of who Jesus is and what he came to do, and now all these things easily come to mind when we see the symbol of the cross. Now, that emblem of suffering and shame has been transformed into our greatest symbol of hope in Christ Jesus!

Throughout the Scriptures, God uses other things as symbols, too - a rainbow (Genesis 9:8-17), a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). Water is used many times (from the flood in Genesis 6 to the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14 or its use in baptism in the New Testament) to symbolize deliverance and new birth.

Can you think of other examples?

What symbols does God use to speak to you today?

How has God taken something that used to be bad news and redeemed it to be good news in your life?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments area below.

For more about ways Superman points to Jesus, check out these articles I wrote last year:
* Jesus Christ, Superman - Part 1 - looks at some general similarities between the two figures
* Jesus Christ, Superman - Part 2 - looks at the religious overtones of a specific episode of Smallville

I also highly recommend this book:
"The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero" by Stephen Skelton

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Please comment on this post. Do you agree with me? Do you disagree? Is there something I left out or should have covered? Was something confusing? I want to know what you think!