Todd Miles. Superheroes Can’t Save You: Epic Examples of Historic Heresies. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2018. $19.99.
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“There is but one rock, but one foundation. There is no mention in the Scripture of two rocks of the church. In what others invent to this purpose we are not concerned. And the rock and the foundation are the same; for the rock is that whereon the church is built, that is the foundation. But that the Lord Christ is this single rock and foundation of the church, we shall prove immediately.”
“One thing we don’t want to get wrong is Jesus.”
Jackie Hill Perry
Superhero media and memorabilia represent billions of dollars spent worldwide every year. Once relegated to the realm of pulp magazines, they became subjects of cartoon shows, live actions television, movies, and recently, a fiction podcast. The movies overshadow American pop culture for now with Marvel having released nearly twenty films in half as many years. Tom Holland only took on the role of Spider-Man in a film released in 2016, but viewers saw him play the role once a year since then. The movies and money do not lie: Americans have a huge interest in superheroes.
Jesus Christ continues to stand as the object of faith for Christians. If the church desires to worship, praise, and adore him, they must do so truly. To misunderstand Christ and think one knows him would commit the same kind of error as a man bringing his wife the favorite flowers and candy of an ex-girlfriend on Valentine’s Day! Sadly, the history of the church provides numerous examples of men misunderstanding Jesus.
What could superheroes and misunderstandings of Jesus possibly have in common? In his new book, Superheroes Can’t Save You, Todd Miles offers a great points of contact between these seemingly unrelated phenomena. He puts it plainly: Every bad idea about Jesus can be illustrated by a superhero, (5).
He’s not wrong.
In 200 pages, Miles provides quality explanations of six ancient heresies about Christ and one with a more modern origin. He connects each heresy with a well-known comic superhero, explaining how an essential part of the superhero’s power and/or identity illustrates wrong thinking about Jesus. For example, Superman illustrates the ancient heresy of docetism. Superman appears human, but he most certainly proves inhuman through his incredible strength and ability to fly. Contra Superman, Jesus does not appear human—Jesus stands true as a member of humanity.
In every entry, Miles provides helpful material: a succinct origin story for each false teaching, the current advocates of the heresy, biblical data refuting the heresy, and how the preceding information bears on the life of the Christian. Rather than a crusty textbook about long-gone men in togas who taught dead wrong ideas about Jesus, the book uses American cultural icons to illustrate distortions of Scripture. In so doing, Miles expresses orthodox Christian theology in a compelling and culturally appropriate way. In the vein of the late Thomas Oden, Miles contributes nothing new to the content of theology, rather, he explains essential biblical teaching on Christ in a fresh way. Each chapter concludes with questions for the individual, questions for group discussion, and a text of Scripture for further meditation.
I truly enjoyed reading the book, and I suspect others will also. Rarely does one find a hardback theology book for the cover price of $19.99. Still rarer proves the theological work which has appeal for the average church-goer. As a man tasked with teaching the Bible to teenagers, I sometimes find difficulty explaining some points of christology in a way teenagers can understand and why those points matter. Books which can double as doorstops have uses (I own many of them), but a book of less-intimidating length serves the interests of the non-theology nerd well.
At risk of sounding trite, I feel compelled to declare the book one thing above all: fun. Miles provides an enjoyable read. I never got the feeling of a chapter or section becoming sluggish or outlasting its interesting and useful content. Furthermore, Miles’s work bears a distinct simplicity. He writes salient prose which never becomes overwrought. His accounts from church history and the errors found therein provide the reader with accurate understanding without entire pages becoming devoted to footnotes.
The book avoids a tired formula so common in current evangelicalism. Every time a new pop culture phenomenon arises, various authors, bloggers, and other communicators find a need to justify their enjoyment of the media by finding gospel references or echoes. Rather than tell his reader about Batman’s indicators of Jesus, Miles recounts accurate theology through doing the opposite. He accomplishes his task without maligning heroes of comic lore; instead, he explains how they pale in comparison to the incomparable Christ.
With Spider-Man and the Hulk a few years past the age minimum to join AARP and Green Lantern and Batman pre-dating the United States’s entry into World War 2, the illustrative material of Superheroes Can’t Save You has a multi-generational appeal. Anyone seeking an accurate and authentic description of erroneous thinking can benefit from reading the book.
In terms of cultural capital, I think Miles has found a good touchstone. A follow-up concerning the practice of the Christian life using other comic book characters is possible, perhaps other ideas made easy-to-understand using today’s cultural currency exist as well.
John Owen, Christologia: Or, A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ, in vol. 1 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 33.