Christians Don’t Need Heroes

Where have all the heroes gone? It’s a relevant question if you’ve been following Western Christianity over the past decade along with the rise and fall of its spiritual darlings. Men and women alike are catapulted to great heights, named heroes of the faith, only then to suffer a “fall from grace.” One begins to wonder, Why do we never seem to learn from our mistakes, celebrating overnight success over and against quiet faithfulness? Why do Christians seem to make such terrible heroes?

But is a hero even a category congruent with the Christian faith?

By definition, a hero is one “admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” We get this definition from its etymology. The Greek word hērōs literally translates to demi-god or one born of the gods, usually men, and lauded for their physical strength and uncommon bravery. It was these innate qualities that made one a hero; they were defined by their feats, their renown commiserate with their accomplishments. When using this term for spiritual leaders we usually are doing so in order to celebrate their feats and to admire their gifts and abilities. Whether it’s their charisma, their success, or theological acumen, we slowly build for them a pedestal, elevating them because we see in them what we wish to see in ourselves. In turn, they become ideals, which is why when they inevitably fail we are shocked and discouraged. Heroes aren’t supposed to falter.

It seems that Christians make terrible heroes. If Christopher Nolan’s Harvey Dent is correct, then “you either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The longer men and women sit perched atop the pedestals we create, the more we laud and celebrate their acumen and accomplishments, the greater the tragedy when their humanity rears its ugly head. It begs the question should Christians have heroes at all?
If we look at the witness of the Biblical narrative, the greco-roman heroic ideal seems to be a category foreign to the Biblical story. While men and women do have their heroic moments, the story goes out of the way to identify and name the crippling reality of the human condition. If there is one common theme that runs throughout the narrative arc of scripture it is that there are no heroes and while humans can act heroically these moments are often fleeting and dogged by selfishness, vainglory, and compromise.

Yet despite this we long for heroes. People to look up to, who help us make sense of the world in which we live by showing us how we are to live. Of course, the Sunday school answer one would give here is Jesus, he would be the perennial hero of the Biblical story but that answer, while correct, does little to fill that void. Here’s what I mean, we can indeed relate to Jesus. That is the sum point of the incarnation, God fully identifying with the human condition and yet on this side of the Christ event we often find ourselves overwhelmed by the gap between us and Christ. It’s easy to imagine the sinlessness of Christ, harder to imagine how we might live out the same level of dedication to the father. Christ is our chief example but certainly we should be able to turn to fellow believers and their stories to find encouragement and inspiration?

Luckily for us, the Christian tradition has a great number of these people we can look to, and while they aren’t called heroes they serve as representations of the Christ and the Christian life for those of us looking for examples to follow.

Saints are an integral piece of the Christian tradition, one often dismissed by Protestants as a relic of Rome, and those doctrinal divides that separate one branch of Christendom from another. Yet, it’s my opinion that Christians need saints and not heroes. Saints are special not because of their innate talent or courage but because they represent those utterly dependent on the divine life of God. Their virtue is not the result of anything internal or intrinsic to them but are instead distinguished as those who live their lives from the depths of God’s love and care and for whom God is all.

Saints, like Maximillian Koble, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Assissi, and Joan of Arc are reminders that the Christian story isn’t meant for heroes but for ordinary people in relationship with an extraordinary God. Because their virtue is bound up in God so too are their failures, their weakness can be acknowledged and celebrated because in it Christ’s “strength is made perfect.” While heroes represent the triumph of the human spirit over and against overwhelming odds, saints represent the triumph of the holy spirit in and through the life of ordinary individuals.These “heroes of the faith” are only heroic because they know the limits of their humanity and rather than seek to surpass those limits turn those limits over to the care of God, who through their limitations works out his purposes. These are the “heroes” we need. As Bren Saunders notes:

Saint Paul confidently offers himself and the other apostles as models, though only because they themselves are offered by someone else: “. . . [I]n me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern (tupos) to them which should hereafter believe. . . .” (I Tim. 1:16). What is imitated when one imitates Saint Paul is Christ; all Christians are little children in this paideia: “Be ye therefore imitators (mimetikoi) of God, as dear children” (Gal. 5:1).

If heroism centers the self, sainthood centers Christ. It’s these christ-centered models we are called to look at as examples. Heroes can’t fail, saints can, in fact their failure, their inadequacy, is a prerequisite for their sainthood.

It is the weak Christ makes strong, not the heroic. Our Christian heroes fail us because their status is wrapped up in their ability, their charisma, their articulation. But the saint is often nothing to look at. He or she is often overlooked in life and celebrated after death because a life lived utterly dependent on God is not flashy and often underappreciated, and overlooked. If a hero is a flash in the pan then a saint is a roaring fire. A hero will eventually burn up or fizzle out but a saint lives forever.

It’s high time we put aside our heroes and start celebrating our saints. For if our example is indeed Christ, then those we look to should be almost translucent, a thin shell of self permeated with glory.

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