I remember once trying to explain to my husband the appeal of Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight series. He had watched the first movie (very much against his will) and came out quite unimpressed with ol’ Bella. I, too, was (and am) somewhat mystified by her success as a relatable character, but there was one part of her personality that stood out to me. In the book, I explained to Greg, the vampire hero, Edward, can read people’s minds…but he cannot read Bella’s. That makes Bella very mysterious and attractive to him and hints that there is something special about her, even though Bella outwardly does not seem unique in any way. My theory then was that the phenomenon of what I call “unmerited special-ness” really appeals to girls. I think that we hope that there is something very special about us that one day, someone will be able to see…even when nothing outwardly shows that we are special. Thus, Edward’s inexplicable fascination with Bella is deeply appealing to us.
Now that I’m reading Harry Potter for the first time (don’t judge me), I’m starting to think that this longing is not just limited to girls. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects about the first Harry Potter book is that the reader gets to vicariously experience Harry’s unmerited special-ness. See, Harry is famous–a legend, even!–for an event that he doesn’t even remember or understand. Somehow, as a baby, he survived a deadly attack and seemed to simultaneously vanquish a powerfully evil man. Because of that, Harry is famous and admired, and a heavy sense of destiny surrounds him. Apart from that central event, however, Harry is just as normal as can be. He displays all the emotions–the longings, the pettiness, the love and hatred–of an ordinary human being. As book 1 continues, we see more explicitly that Harry’s power derives not from his own merit, but from the love of his mother. In other words, his lineage is what makes him special, not his inherent goodness of character.
Thinking about Harry’s inherited power makes me think of Superman. Even though I have never really followed the Superman character through comic books or movies, I know the rudiments of his story line (plus, the trailer for the upcoming movie was a good refresher). As with Harry Potter, Superman’s power–his special-ness–does not come from some inner merit, but instead is in his bloodline. Put simply, he is an alien of a superior race, and because of this physical heritage, he is powerful and special.
What’s interesting to me is how well that archetype of this special-by-birth hero plays in America. I can see why it would resonate in Europe, for example, since their histories echo with concepts like inherited nobility and divine right of kings. But America, with our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, Protestant-work-ethic-inspired “American dream”? You would think our superheroes would all look more like Batman, who changes the world through determination, rebellion, and full use of the earthly resources available to him. You would think that the image of an inherently special hero, blessed through no merit of his own, would not be so appealing.
And yet it is. I wonder why that is so.
I have a theory. My theory is, simply, that people want to think that they are special. They want to think that they are destined for greatness somehow. And yet, they also know themselves. They know that they are, in general, ordinary people with the ordinary amount of strengths and weaknesses, and that, on the surface of it, there is not much about them that seems uniquely special or predestined. And yet…they still hope. We still hope.
What’s cool is that, as Christians, I think we have a story that speaks to that hope. The story of the gospel is that we are that archetype of unmerited special-ness. We were created as children of an all-powerful God, who has a destiny in mind for each of us. And that destiny is nothing more or less than a chance to have a relationship with Him and partner with Him to further His Kingdom on this earth. As Christians, we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). God’s workmanship? Is that not unmerited special-ness? Good works prepared in advance by God? Is that not destiny?
So often, the people I talk to–even Christians–lack this incredible vision for themselves. We love Harry Potter and Superman, not because we relate to them, but because we long for what they have. Instead, I think we should read about Harry Potter and Superman and think, “Hey, that’s me, too!” I think that having that vision is so important. Without it, we become stagnant and hopeless. My goal a witness for Christ is to share that vision with the people with whom I come into contact. I find that people these days don’t simply want to “be saved.” They don’t want to just stay in line and follow the rules. They want a purpose, a reason to be here. I believe wholeheartedly that the Bible supplies that purpose. Our challenge is to communicate that purpose in a way that gives them hope and excites them.
Like the Harry Potter series and Superman comics, the Bible has good story to tell. Unlike those first two, though, the Bible’s story invites real participation. I think that as a church, we need to give that vision to the world.