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Vol. 2 No. 1 - Pascha 2007

Nietzsche's Iconography
The Superhero Generation(s)

"And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, and the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth." - 1 Samuel 17:49

"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... Thou shalt not bow down thyself, nor serve them, for I the Lord am a jealous God," - Exodus 20:4-5

A venerable priest I once knew, who suffered under the Communists, once shared his dismay that children in Canada had lost any familiarity with the icons of the saints. "I go to bless their houses," he remarked, "And what do I see? Saint George? No! Saint Catherine? No! Teddy bears! Power Rangers! That is who they worship!".

Father has now gone to his repose, but it is ever clearer how right he was, only today, the icons we hang in the rooms of Canadian kids are far beyond Teddy Bears and Power Rangers. Super Heroes have taken on an increasingly violent - even malevolent - tone. The sexualization of celebrities, including Anime cartoons, has pushed back the boundaries of that which is considered pornographic to younger and younger age groups - yet these images still cover the walls of bedrooms and the doors of school lockers across the country.

Back in my high school teaching days, I remember passing by the locker of one young gentleman of sorts whose decorative tastes included a naked woman on his locker door. There in front of him, I tore off the image, and tossed it into a nearby trash can. He demanded that I give it back to him - i.e. that I pick out the pornography from amid the banana peels and soda cans and return it to his possession. Instead, I offered to mail it to his mother. The conversation promptly ended.

This little encounter underscored how far we have come in the images we allow our kids not just to watch, perhaps in passing, on television, but to purposely display, each day, every day, in their "private" spaces. Of course, these images (or more accurately, these false images, since they depict the images of false gods prohibited by the Second Commandment) reflect the things we admire and worship.

It is no coincidence that the perennial childhood superhero in red tights and cape who has graced the walls of generations of young men springs not from the pages of scripture, but from the writings of the prophet of our nihilistic age, Nietzsche's Superman. A Christian conscience must ask, why would we give our children icons which arose out of nihilism? Orthodox heroes are the saints: not for some puritanical reason, but for the very practical reason that they reflect the qualities we hope to cultivate in our children, and in ourselves. The strength of the saints - particularly the strength of the martyrs - is the very thing that allowed them to be merciful, to forgive, to face death without blinking, and to trust wholly in the Living God. These are the heroes we must give our kids.

If you asked your children, who is your favourite saint, what would they say? What would YOU say? It is regrettable that we reduce saints to watercolour pictures, reducing the images of mightly angels to pretty girls with wings, give shelter to saccharine Precious Moments icons, and sentimental Arian images of "baby Jesus" (Orthodox do this too, in the form of watery sentimentalism, or the desire to sing sweet Bible-camp songs in Orthodox Sunday schools, or other practices completely foreign to the heart and mind of the Church. Is it any wonder so many male youth have essentially abandoned this feminized - and false - offering that passes for Orthodoxy?)

This is not the inheritance of the saints. Saint George, a twenty-three year old soldier, was tortured in twelve different ways over many days, refusing to deny Christ. Saints Theodore, Menas, and so many other remind us that most of the saints of the first few centuries were, in fact, soldiers. Women martyrs and confessors like Saints Catherine, Nina of Georgia, and Tamara (called "King Tamara" in Georgian language) - these are strong figures, showing more courage and interior (as well as exterior) strength than any of the cartoon superheroes. As the old axiom goes, reality is more unbelievable than fiction!

The absence or destruction of real icons, not just the images but the images in the hearts of the faithful, especially children, has created a void, easily filled by false iconography and false heroes. These heroes give young people no enduring strength, no strength of character beyond their own, no access to God's grace and the mighty prayers of the saints. The account of the Slavic monastery built around the miraculous image of the footprint of the Mother of God is a case in point. Years after the monastery was delivered from a Turkish army by the prayers of the Mother of God, one of its monks met a Turkish soldier at a roadside stop. As the two talked together, they were surprised to learn that they had both been present on the remarkable day that a mighty storm rolled in, just as the Turks prepared to besiege the helpless monastery. The Turk asked the monk "So, do you still worship your goddess?". The monk replied that as Christians, they worshipped God the Holy Trinity, not a goddess. "Yes," the Turk replied, "You worship a goddess. We all saw her that day on the battlefield, wearing a blue robe and red cloak, with stars around her, as she threw down lightning at us. She is the reason we fled. She is the reason you are sitting here today." The monk recognized this description: it was obviously the Mother of God.

We worry about violence on the playground, not because violence is evil, but because it is directed in any direction the perpetrator chooses - the "will to power", as Nietzsche called it. This marks a sharp contrast with the likes of King Arthur (an Orthodox Christian, albeit a marginal one), who adopted the motto, "might for right" over "might makes right". He understood that strength, especially male strength, was not inherently evil: it is simply a tool, which can be used for great good, but only when it is measured within the Mind of Christ.

The saints are the authentic role models for boys, who inherently yearn for a constructive way to use their natural instincts for good: to fight for and to protect those who are weak. These are the posters which should grace their walls, the adventure tales which should enrapture their curiosity and yearning for a battle against evil. Fantasy adventure writers often capture this spirit; what is usually missing is the defined image of the Christian as a true hero - a model every boy and girl needs.

Instead of consigning young men to a fantasy world where violence can be toyed with in "safe" isolation (such as video and role playing games) while breeding violent monsters planning monsterous crimes, Orthodox Christians must invest efforts to build them into the true image of men: the icons of the saints whose images must supplant the posters of Superman, on their walls and in their hearts.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Pascha, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.