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Mysticism of Heroism: A Cultural Obsession

Mysticism of Heroism: A Cultural Obsession

I’m sure everyone at one time in their childhood likely dreamt of being a superhero. I always loved Batman and fantasized about taking a ride in that awesome Batmobile. I also believed Wonder Woman was one to emulate. The television show starring Lynda Carter had her fighting off evil criminals with her lasso of truth and using her shield to dodge bullets and other objects. The new Wonder Woman movie offers a refreshingly new perspective in DC Comics’s Extended Universe (DCEU). It is one of the very few that have a woman as the central hero to the story. Directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, this story focuses on truth and love in the face of humanity’s darkness. Even in the midst of the hatred of war, which seems to be the way humanity will destroy itself, Diana sees that there is still an element of light and love within people. Diana kills Ares, the Greek god of war, but that didn’t end the war. It is only when she sees the goodness in humanity that her hope is rekindled. Ultimately, humanity’s goodness wins the day.


Ironically, the central theme of this story reminds me of St. Paul’s reflection about the apostle. “Take up God’s armor…. Gird your loins with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness! ...take up the shield of faith, with which you’ll be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the Evil One” (Eph. 6:13-17). When I was a kid, I didn’t connect the Wonder Woman show to this Scripture passage, but now, I think it says something about how to view this film through the eyes of faith.


Hollywood seems obsessed, to put it mildly, with the superhero genre. Perhaps it’s because they fill the industry’s coffers. Perhaps it’s because these stories are somehow integral to secular popular culture precisely because of something deeper that they reflect and communicate to the audience. I believe it is a mix of both reasons. Let’s reflect a bit more on the questions and desires these films stir in the viewer. What are the deep-seated and unspoken longings of the human psyche that the film reflects?


The monk, Thomas Merton, wrote about humanity’s desire to rise above itself through its own powers as a type of mysticism the world upholds. Wanting to be heroic is actually a good thing. However, believing that it is through our own abilities that we can conquer the world and save humanity, is quite another. Christ already did that! He does not need us to do it again. Merton calls this a mysticism of heroism. It’s a longing in human beings to transcend ourselves through our own powers and abilities. It is a spiritual perfection of and for ourselves and a defiance in the face of despair. It focuses on death instead of life, since it cannot see outside this world into a future of hope beyond the grave.


Looking at the popular culture we see humanity struggling to fill an emptiness inside, to desperately fill that bottomless hunger for something more than what this world offers. It is seeing our very perfection and salvation in something other than God Himself and, Merton would say, is a mysticism that is implicitly only natural. It is not a seeking of God’s glory but, rather, of one’s own perfection here and now. It is an individualistic mysticism that focuses only on the self. This is ultimately, Merton says, an escape from reality.


A mysticism of heroism also makes us anxiously preoccupied since it is about transcending oneself through one’s own powers so that it’s up to me individually to make things happen or to turn them around. This is the root of the superhero craze. We all want to imagine that we are something that is beyond this world alone, but it is a desire to control things, not to give selflessly of oneself in love. 


The Wonder Woman film plays into this desire for a mysticism of heroism, yet I believe there is something deeper that the film tries to communicate. Perhaps it is not as self-centered as other superhero movies can tend to be. Her motto is really that love conquers all. That sounds like St. Paul to me, who in speaking to the Corinthians tells them, “Love bears with everything. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:7). Christian mysticism is fulfilled in the giving of oneself in a surrendering love. It is about being interiorly connected, not agitated or anxious, but listening calmly and so acting serenely and fruitfully. Theologian Bernard McGinn says Christian mysticism is, “a direct and transformative presence of God in Christ.” This is what will truly set us free from the forces of evil. Love of God and others is the formula for authentic heroism, to which we are all called simply because we are all children of God. 




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