I grew up in a white-middleclass-fundamentalist-Protestant community. As a result I learned to think of God as my Father, and Jesus as my savior, similar to the fairytale prince in shinning armor or the ultimate boyfriend. As an undergraduate studying Religious Studies, I learned of other ways to relate to the Divine and discovered how to be a Feminist Christian. However, many women with backgrounds like mine do not have the opportunities that I did to discover different and liberating pictures of God. As a result they must choose between a religious life that enforces patriarchal norms, or life as a “secular” feminist. A recent song by a modern rock band, Daughtry, “Waiting for Superman,” reveals how the dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch.
Contrary to popular belief, religion and “secular” society do not have separate spheres where each is the dominant authority. Instead, the two inform each other. One way to see how they overlap is to look closely at popular culture. There are plenty of cases where religious ideals or sacred myths are used to communicate particular concepts, support stereotypical characters or plots, and to sell products. Two examples include Jamba Juice ads inspired by Buddhism, and the stereotypical use of Eve in the media, as explained by Katie B. Edwards in Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. Since there are no separate spheres for religion and “secular” society, religious ideals and sacred myths inform society, and society in turn participates in the interpretation of these religious ideals and sacred myths. And as a result, a look at how “secular” society communicates religious ideals and sacred myths exposes how society at large understands these ideals and myths.
Daughtry’s recent song, “Waiting for Superman,” tells the story of a woman who is waiting for her savior to remove her from her current situation,
To lift her up and take her anywhere,
Show her love and climbing through the air,
Save her now before it’s too late tonight,
Oh, like a speeding light.
And she smiles…
However, Superman has yet to come, and she makes up excuses to explain his absence and to pacify her seemingly urgent need. Her excuses result in smiles and at no point in the song does she decide Superman has taken too long or that she does not actually need him to save her.
She says… “Yeah, he’s still coming, just a little bit late
He got stuck at the Five and Dime saving the day”
She says… “If life was a movie, then it wouldn’t end like this
Left without a kiss”
Still, she smiles, the way she smiles, yeah…
Superman has long been seen as a salvific Christ or Messiah figure. Two Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first introduced the Superman iconography into American society during the Great Depression. This image of ‘Christ as Superman’ became the fantasy of Christian America: their present and active savior. Superman went through many different phases and was re-created many times over and now appears more Christ-like than ever before. Similar to the Jesus we read of in the gospel accounts, Clark Kent (as portrayed in the 2013 film, Man of Steel) was sent from another superior place for the purpose of giving humans hope. He discovers he is different in early adolescence, and learns of his true identity in his early 30s; Kal-El is his first given name, and Jor-El is his father’s (El means “God” or “god” in Biblical Hebrew). After discovering his true identity, he struggles with his calling – whether or not he can make the necessary sacrifices. He chooses to take on humanity’s problems, and functions as their savior many times over. Of course Lois Lane, his love interest, is often in need of his help, and he never fails to save her life.
Many women in more conservative Christian circles are encouraged to personify the character of Lois Lane. While Lois Lane is a strong and intelligent woman, her need for a male savior still remains. This need for a male savior among Christian women is subsequently translated into unequal power relations with men who function as superheroes despite their lack of superpowers. Therefore, since women need a male savior, they also need intimate relationships with men who can step in where the savior leaves off. For Lois Lane, in the 2006 film, Superman Returns, that meant getting engaged; for Christian women, this often translates into following exclusively male religious leaders – both in the church and the home. In the same way that the woman in “Waiting for Superman” is limited by her anticipation of a male savior, some Christian women are limited by the patriarchal nature of the church as they are supported by their male savior who will come soon to save them from evil, earthly forces.
While I have argued that patriarchal images of Christ reinforce patriarchy in the Church and in women’s lives, I also believe that every deconstruction requires a reconstruction. In writing this post, I hope not only to demonstrate how certain conceptions of Christ can lead to inequality, but also to encourage women who find value in Jesus as their savior to reimagine their Christology in a way that does not reinforce patriarchal structures. Instead, I hope women struggling with competing conceptions of Christ will affirm a Christology that supports personhood, strength and agency in all persons, independent of relationships with men. It is my hope that those currently experiencing confining relationships, religious ideals, and sacred myths participate in this reconstruction.
Melinda Bielas is currently a Masters of Arts student at Claremont School of Theology in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on Hebrew Bible and Feminist Theory. Of particular interest to her is how biblical interpretations affect gender roles and stereotypes. She graduated from La Sierra University with a BA in Religious Studies and Pre-Seminary as well as a Masters of Theological Studies. When she is not studying she enjoys painting, reading, and playing her harp.
16 thoughts on “Waiting for Jesus… I mean, Superman by Melinda Bielas”
Great post! I don’t think you need to be a fundamentalist to make the connection that women need a male savior. But I do think the male image of God and Christ play a role in women’s feelings that we need a man to save us or to make us feel OK in the world. Siggghhh.
And I wonder, if there is one savior and he is incarnated as Jesus, how liberating can a Christology be? Must it be a very “low Christology” in which there are a multiplicity of saving figures or perhaps just leaders for every time and place? And then is it a Christology at all?
Agreed! (One workaround for ancient christians in Asia Minor, and again in medieval Italy, was to await the Second Coming of the Paraclete, in female form. The women of the New Prophecy movement – maleformed as the “Montanists” prophesied this and by doing so, broke out of the male-savior grid.)
Carol, to your second paragraph, I am currently writing a final paper for Ruether’s North American Feminist Theologies class attempting to articulate possible Christologies that can be positive for women and men in male-normative and male-dominated communities/societies. I was dreading the paper, but am now enjoying it. I am considering writing a follow up post addressing your concern, because it has been mine all semester.
Yes! I totally agree with you Carol. The need for a male savior is communicated from many sources and supported by many different religious and non-religious communities.
I come from a similar background, Melinda, and I appreciate the way you’ve juxtaposed the idea of the deity as male savior with the night-in-shining-armor as male savior—as in heaven, so on earth. As Feuerbach pointed out so long ago, religion is a reflection of the society it arises from.
Thank you Tamis, I appreciate the Feuerbach reference. It is interesting that you use the phrase, “as in heaven, so on earth,” it reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” To some Christian communities, this prayer, and God’s (supposedly obvious) maleness is reason enough to perpetuate male dominated communities.
I love the Wiccan “Charge of the Goddess” – Starhawk’s version – which is my substitute for the Lord’s Prayer of Christianity:
Hear the words of the Star Goddess,
the dust of whose feet are the hosts of heaven,
whose body encircles the universe:
“I who am the beauty of the green earth
and the white moon among stars
and the mysteries of the waters,
I call upon your soul to arise
and come unto me.
For I am the soul of nature
that gives life to the universe.
From Me all things proceed
and unto Me they must return.
Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices,
all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.
Let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion,
honor and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.
And you who seek to know Me,
know that your seeking and yearning
will avail you not,
unless you know the Mystery:
for if that which you seek,
you find not within yourself,
you will never find it without.
I have been with you
from the beginning,
and I am that which is attained
at the end of desire.”
I appreciate your post and also see this movie, “Man of Steel,” with a different perspective. It may have been perceived as a movie displaying a woman’s need for a male savior, but also Superman’s need for a female savior. Remember, his mother and Lois played important roles in the movie, and Superman’s identity with humanity is seen through the eyes of the women in his life. If you recall in the movie, Jor-el gave Lois the information to save the world. Much like the angle appearing to Mary revealing to her God’s plan for salvation through her son, this revelation was now passed on to Lois Lane for the sake of saving earth, once again.
You wrote that, “‘secular’ society communicates religious ideals and sacred myths exposes how society at large understands these ideals and myths.” While I agree this to be true, I believe that this movie is not only informing us of how women need men as saviors, but that men need women as saviors too. I think the writers of this movie were informing both sides of society, attempting to reshape our way of thinking about justice and equality. Thanks for the post. (By the way, I totally agree with you).
I really appreciate your alternative view and understanding of “The Man of Steel.” However, I would push you to reflect on the power relationship between Superman and these strong women. While they do play important roles, and he obviously cares deeply for them, their lives are ultimately in his hands. I think this latest portrayal of Superman does give more power to the women in his life, but they are still portrayed as dependent on him, and that is my point. In a society where women are encouraged to be dependent on men and men are discouraged from being dependent on anyone, let alone women, the message that Lois Lane and Superman’s mother are dependent on him reinforce this society while the message that Superman needed Lois Lane or his mother do little to dissolve society’s messages (of male dominance). Also, Superman is much stronger than either of these women, physically, and this affects the audience’s perception of how much help he really needed, and enforces the societal concept of female dependency, because it only makes sense for the “weaker” ones (women) to depend on the “strong” ones (Superman and other men who take on superhero roles). While I think you have some good points, I disagree with you when you say that the film communicates men’s need for female saviors. Thank you for your comment!
This need for male saviors is not unique within hetero-patriarchy to christian fundamentalist women. It seems to be a worldwide epidemic of male worship. I’ll always like Superman, and really have fond memories of superheros when i was a kid. I love Wonderwoman, and was lucky to have a mother who told me about wonderwoman comics in the 40s and 50s.
It is a sick system of male heroism, because men can be the heros, they love to rescue women in wars men wage, for example. Men love to rescue the damsel in distress, and we think we can negotiate with men to make them just protectors. I look at straight women who have married really really big men — over six feet tall, 250 pounds or more, big booming voices, and they are little women, literally. I wondered at this, because big men are dangerous in my book. If I have to fight my way out of a situation, and it has come to this, dozens of times, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be married to someone who was so big and strong he could kill you.
But many women believe men will protect them, and they want a piece of that patriarchal protection racket. Men depend on this, and right wing christianity is full of male as superman, male as the big guy, male as the lord and savior, male as the head of household. All of this male superman worship seems really weird to lesbian me.
But it is the cornerstone in keeping women from discovering our full power on our own without male heros. When guys were beating me up in high school, I learned quickly that I had to defend myself and that my life depended on it. I was determined to carve a zone of safety for myself. So I took martial arts and I becamse my own superwoman.
One of my friends who had married a big “good man” got bashed by him, she is in the middle of a terrifying divorce. She put me in danger with him, and I keep telling hetero women to keep these guys away from us.
Thank you for your comments Turtle Woman, I think it is really important to see how this superman complex is not limited to Christian communities. I especially appreciate your reflection of small women in relationships with big men and this male superman worship (or concept of male = protector) being the cornerstone of keeping women from discovering our full power. I am curious what our domestic abuse rates would be if we encouraged heterosexual women to be their own person outside of a relationship with their man (spouse, boyfriend, lover, etc.)? While I doubt it would remove aspects like battered women syndrome, I bet it would discourage situations where the power dynamic is so unequal and perhaps, therefore, prevent some abuse… just a hunch.
The imagery present in this blog post is wonderful. No only does Christ “come back” or as I would say “swoop back” to save those in the world but also this is the same action as Superman (or Batman for that matter).
Does this imagery and type of “male savior’ complex always lead back to Christ? I don’t know but your post brings up MANY great questions. Wonderful job!
Thank you for your question, John. I do not think this superhero imagery must always lead back to Christ for everyone, however I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t for people in Christian contexts, especially for people in denominations where Jesus’ sacrifice and salvific importance is emphasized.
Very thought provoking post Mindy. I wonder if we are so obsessed with earthly gender roles that we are bent on reinterpreting and even re writing the way the Bible describes God. Christ is a savior of all men not just “helpless women”. Its important to avoid extremes in all situations. One extreme is to use the Bible to abuse a gender and to render them voiceless and powerless. The other extreme is to eliminate our need and dependence of a savior who just so happened to be incarnated as a male as a way to justify our own self-righteous need for “independence”. Historically the Hebrews tried to deify a made up wife for God named Asherah and Catholic tradition gradually deified the importance Mary the Mother of Jesus. I think this trend in human history shows that humans have wanted a separate feminine deity. This is probably due to the misconception that God is a completely male entity. Biblically this is not a accurate picture as God has very feminine and very male aspects. God is a complete image of man and woman. His character is mirrored in both men and women. If we understood this concept better and if sin hadn’t corrupted the relations between the genders we wouldn’t have feminists chaffing at the idea of recognizing Jesus as their savior or understanding when submission is appropriate. Men and women are called to submit to Christ but I’m afraid that in our freedom obsessed culture the spiritual discipline of submission has acquired a hideous reputation and become a dirty word in both feminist, post-modern, and secular circles. Focusing on the feminine qualities of God may be the reconstruction we need in order to avoid demonizing, diminishing or deconstructing the maleness of Christ. As for the social context we should focus on creating women and men who are whole in Christ and less dependent on romantic relationships to save them from their lot, unhappiness or loneliness.
First of all I would be careful when you say someone has made something religious up, especially on an interfaith blog like this. I think many people do and have wanted a feminine deity (or do have a feminie deity, or many). I also do not think all Christians think it is a misconception that God is exclusively male. While I agree that for many Christians, God has both male and female aspects and characteristics, many of these Christians still refer to God in exclusively male terms (i.e. the SDA church). Perhaps if men were asked to submit to a God who was refered to in female terms as often as women were asked to submit to a God refered to in male terms (or if women were asked to submit to a God refered to in female terms), feminists would not “chafe” at the concept of submitting to God. I do not think “our freedom obsessed culture” is as relevant to this discussion as is the inequality between gendered persons. Feminist, like myself, do not find problems with the maleness of Jesus because we are obsessed with freedom. We find problems with the maleness of Jesus because of the uneqaul power relationships it can create and support (as explained in my post). As attested to in my post, I think a deconstruction of current Christology is acceptable and important. Focusing on feminine aspects of God can be helpful, but the reconstruction needs to be more indept than that, incorporate a deconstruction and reconstruction of Christology, and should be done by women (and male allies) who experience said inequality and are interested in reclaiming a Christ they can follow and love. Hope you find my reply helpful and relevant to what you were trying to say.
Fabulous post. Thank you for so articulately revealing one of the major issues I have with Christianity. The conversation has only just started.