Superheroes sometimes congregate in my house.
I realized this a few years ago when our grandsons would visit.
The 8-year-old would run around protecting us from danger in his Captain America costume, mask and shield. I would kiss the 5-year-old goodnight when he jumped into my arms wearing Batman pajamas.
The 2-year-old would ask for his “Piderman” shorts when his diapers were changed by his dad, my 40-year-old son-in-law with a Superman tattoo on his shoulder. Ka-Pow! Splat! Zap! Bam!
Mighty menaces to mischief, stalwart saviors of society, dedicated defenders of “truth, justice and the American way.” They’ve been on the frontline where I live.
These fictional characters haven’t just kept my family safe. They are heroes of millions of children, adolescents, young adults and nostalgic seniors around the world.
In their 2002 book, “The Myth of the American Superhero,” John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett suggest that, despite their diversity, one archetypal plot underlies all superhero stories.
Summarizing their findings about this myth, the authors conclude the superhero “is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task and extraordinary powers. … In the most dangerous trials, he remains utterly cool and thus divinely competent.”
These masked crime fighters may seem to be appropriate role models and objects of hero worship in these dark days when war, terrorism, random violence, hate speech, social division, natural disaster, pandemic and financial ruin have produced so much fatalism, anxiety and fear.
There is another kind of hero, however – one who does not have superhuman capabilities for accomplishing the mission. These daring figures are found across the globe, engaging in demanding and even dangerous work.
Their most muscular attribute is moral vision, while their singular superpower is the determination to create a better world through audacious choices and actions.
They are not recognized by flowing capes or stylized icons. Truthfully, many of them are relatively unknown, doing their quiet work unheralded.
When old age and death cause them to recede into obscurity, they should still be celebrated for their unselfish actions for others.
Sheltering in place at home, I decided to unmask some of my own heroes. Both women and men have influenced my life, but I have been most shaped by male role models, whom I have tried to emulate.
I highlight several men, now gone but never forgotten – not Avengers but Redeemers – whose impact at crucial crossroads of my life has been heroic.
- Preston Sellers. My father was a brilliant man who declined an appointment as a New Testament professor at Southwestern Seminary because of his calling to the local church. A thoughtful preacher, warm pastor and denominational statesman, his example first planted in my heart the desire to be a Christian minister.
- Bradley Pope. The “Pope” was my Baptist campus minister at Mississippi College during the years of “Mississippi Burning.” Bradley’s response to surrounding social trauma was to love his students, affirm their strengths and challenge them to make a difference in the world. Because he suggested I apply for summer missions in the Philippines in 1967, I began an adventure of missionary service and missions education that has lasted more than 50 years.
- Bill O’Brien. In a two-year assignment in Indonesia, I met a young music missionary with extraordinary gifts of language- and culture-acquisition. With his adaptation to local cultural norms, Bill led to Christian faith the most famous choreographer in the nation, whose three-hour Javanese ballet on the life of Christ was witnessed by thousands in Jakarta’s largest stadium. Together we co-wrote and published a 1971 missions musical, “The Namegivers,” based in part on indigenous folk songs. From Bill, I gained an appreciation of culture that shaped all of my subsequent ministries.
- Bill Corwin. As career missionaries in Indonesia (1975-1998), Janie and I served alongside dedicated colleagues, but none who touched my life more than Bill, a John Wayne-lookalike from Oklahoma whose humor, wisdom and compassion enabled him to connect with people of every social strata. Early on, I observed how much he loved teaching the Scriptures. Our involvement together in theological education projects pointed me toward graduate school and life as a teacher.
- Huston Smith. After our return from Java in 1997, I encountered this exemplar – the son of Methodist missionaries to China – who became my interreligious hero. I met him in Montreal in 2006, where he addressed the “World’s Religions after 9-11” conference. Elderly and somewhat feeble, he sat on stage, his softly delivered speech holding the vast international audience entranced. Rushing to the platform afterward, I knelt beside him. “Dr. Smith, you are my hero,” I offered. Smiling, he haltingly responded, “Well, I’m sure … that if I knew you … then you would be my hero too.” The leading world religionist of the 20th century, he had spoken around the world and written more than a dozen major books, was a friend of Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell and the Dalai Lama and held prestigious professorships at Syracuse University, MIT and Berkeley, yet affirmed me as someone who could have been his hero. Huston was the person who demonstrated that one could be both a committed Christian and a religious pluralist.
In his 2018 book, “Hope and Other Superpowers: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto,” John Pavlovitz writes that isolation can become toxic.
“Without fresh eyes to look beyond the disheartening situations in front of us, we can become emotionally myopic, only able to see the things that trouble and threaten and burden,” he observed.
During the past two months, I have realized it is not helpful simply to numb the disturbing news by streaming the fictional exploits of superheroes.
It has been healthier to shift from my worries to positive reflections about those who – with “pure motivations” and “extraordinary powers” – performed “the redemptive task” in my life.
It was uplifting to remember those who sensitized me to a call into ministry, turned my eyes toward missions, introduced me to the beauty of cultures, inspired me to pursue teaching as my primary work and birthed in me a passion for the interreligious movement.
I am enriched by having spent time with my ordinary, real heroes, those who didn’t wear capes.
Remembering the lessons each “superhero” has left us enables their influence to continue shaping our lives.
Expressing gratitude for their heroics better prepares us to leave our safe spaces, hopefully soon, to return to the world as a potential hero for those we know and love.
Robert P. Sellers, PhD, is Professor of Theology and Missions Emeritus from Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University, and the immediate past chair of the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.