Sunday, April 29, 2007

Heroes or Saints? Who are our Cultural Icons?

Believe it or not, the word hero never comes up in the NT. But the word saint occurs over 60 times. And here's the really interesting thing-- it always in the plural! Saints are not formed in a vacuum or by isolate action or spiritual effort. Saints are formed in a community, the community of faith.

Our world loves heroes, indeed idolizes them and puts them up on pedestals they are bound to fall off of. I was recently back in Washington D.C. and took a friend for a tour on the Mall. It struck me how much our country is founded on a belief in "great man" (or woman) syndrome. There was the Washington monument, there was the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, there were the names of the Vietnam soldiers who died, and so on. We assume that things that really matter are accomplished by great individuals, and of course there is some truth to that, but actually in almost any given case it took a team effort. Abraham Lincoln would have had no memorial if he hadn't finally found a few generals that could beat Robert E. Lee in a pitched battle.

In his wonderful book on Christian ethics called Improvisation, Sam Wells has some fantastic reflections on the difference between a hero and a saint, and why the NT extols the latter not the former. Here are a couple of excerpts---

"there is a significant difference between the kind of story that is told about heroes and the kind of story that is told about saints. The heroes always make a decisive intervention at a moment when things are looking like they could all go badly wrong [see the new Nicholas Cage movie]. The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right. In other words, the hero is always at the center of the story. By contrast, the saint is not necessarily a crucial character. The saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero's story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God. ...The hero's story is told to celebrate the virtues of the hero. The hero' strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing: such are the qualities on which the hero's decisive intervention rests. By contrast the saint may not be strong, brave, clever, or opportunistic. But the saint is faithful [consider the hall of faith in Hebrews 11]. The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith....

"The definitive heroic icon is the soldier, who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage. The story assumes that in a world of limited resources there is bound to be conflict at some stage so that good may prevail. But the saints assume a very different story. They do not need to learn how to fight over competing goods, because Christ has fought for and secured the true good, and the goods that matter now are not limited or in short supply. Love, joy peace, faithfulness, gentleness-- these do not rise or fall with the stock market. The saint's story does not presuppose scarcity [think oil for example]; it does not require the perpetuation of violence. Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The solder faces death in battle; the saint faces death by not going to battle. The soldier's heroism is its own reward: it makes sense in any language that respects nobility and aspires to greatness. The martyr's sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God: it has no place in any story except that of Christ's redeeming sacrifice and the martyr's heavenly crown... A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and know no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through the cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation."

"Finally, the hero stands alone against the world. The story of the hero shows how he or she stands out from the community by the excellence of his or her virtue, the decisiveness of his or her intervention, or their simple right to have his or her story told. The story of God tells how he expects a response from his disciples that they cannot give on their own: they depend not only on him, but on one another for resources that can sustain faithful lives, and they discover that their dependence on one another is not a handicap but is central to their witness....Saints are never alone. They assume, demand, require community-- a special kind of community, the communion of the saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves: saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith. The church is God's new language, and it speaks not of a country fit for heroes to live in but of a commonwealth of saints" (Improvisation, pp. 43-44).

My question to you is, after you reflect on this-- Why is our world so fixated on heroes, and so ignorant of or ignoring saints? And then I would ask--- who have been your heroes, and who have been your saints? Who helped you more to be a true Christian person? Who taught you more about what real Christian living and leadership should look like? Who, finally seemed more like Jesus, and less like Samson?


John Meunier said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting post.

The juxtaposition of Samson and Jesus raises a personal chord because I spent some time last fall wrestling with the Samson story. That is a guy who would make a good Hollywood movie.

Comparing his final prayer and Jesus' final prayer is perhaps a perfect summary of your post.

Ben Witherington said...

Excellent observation. The contrast could not be clearer than when one compares those two prayers.

And here is the most interesting point. Sampson is merely a tragic figure, someone who would fit within a Greek tragedy. Jesus is not, despite his being crucified. The Jesus story would have stood out like a sore thumb when compared to most of Greek tragedy. Among other things it had too happy an ending! It was as Tolkien later said-- a eucatastrophe, a fortunate death which made possible the resurrection.

wnpaul said...

One problem with canonized saints (or rather with the practice of canonizing saints, not with the saints themselves) is that it turns them into heroes, or tells their stories as if they were heroes. And of course, even tho we don't call it such, we Evangelicals have our own canonized saints. We may not pray to them but we view them as heroes: special people whose example we don't need to emulate because we're just ordinary folks and stand no chance by comparison.

Ben Witherington said...

How very right you are WNpaul, how very right you are. But that is something someone did to the saint. Not something the saint themselves did. Mother Teresa never wanted to be recognized or beatified.


mikeb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikeb said...

I've noticed for sometime now that
it seems a number of believers (in America at least) spend more time
reading Christian literature (books about the bible/Christian living) than the scriptures. I wonder if this hero/cultural icons issue is a contributing factor?

Ty said...

Heroes do what we all feel like doing: rescuing, fighting, winning etc.

What do saints do? Things that we don't want to do: deny themselves, fight their natural urges, and live in adversity rather than conquering it.

carl said...

Hello Mr. Witherington, I have been enjoying reading your blog for some time now.

After thinking about your latest post I am reminded of how sports stars are idolized. In sports there's supposed to be a sense of teamship but lately this does not seem to be the case as much. Athletes seem to come and go to which ever team will give them the most money. Other than Cal Ripken Jr. & Kirby Puckett (I'm into baseball obviously)I can't really think of too many athletes who have stayed with the same team for the duration of their career, or atleast just a couple teams.

I'd say the difference in virtue between the hero and the saint would have to be individualism vs. interdependance with full dependance on God.

Michael Gilley said...

Dr. Witherington:

I will have to get that book. The topic seems very interesting. This reminds me though of the Eldridge books (Captivating and Wild at Heart) which seem to convey the hero scenario of faith rather than the weak saint. I've read a lot of different independant sources and scholars who view these books as just about unbiblical as one could get. I wondered if you had read them?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Michael: I have not read those books, but if they advocate rampant individualism, you are right, they are not Biblical.

B-W said...

Interesting points. Question: If the Greek writers of the New Testament (or the Hebrew/Aramaic writers of the rest of Scripture) wanted to call someone a "hero," what word would they have used?

Jackson said...

I have not read the Eldridge books either but I did read a section in Wild at Heart where Eldridge actually argued that Jesus is more like William Wallace (Braveheart) than Mother Teresa. I am not sure how one can make such a claim about a crucified Messiah. While Braveheart may inspire us, he is not the Christ of the Gospels or of Isaiah 53 (per one of your former posts Dr. Witherington).

Conversely, it seems to me that Mother Teresa is the most Christlike person we may encounter in our lifetime.

Robbie said...

An acdemic mentor and friend of mine, Larry Cunningham (Notre Dame) published a book some time ago called __The Meaning of Saints__ and in it he made the point that saints are almost always formed in marginalized situations where their best gifts are dismissed, neglected or unrecognized. This causes the saint to do what the situation demands of them by faith and patience. This culminates in a manifestation "in the light" of what only God can do that emerges from the hidden places of that person's life where God has done his best work "in the dark". This is why real saints have no interest in becoming one; the death of our best self is too costly to will easily.
Robbie Castleman

Paul said...

I only wish the world were fixated on heroes. I see it as fixated on power, prestige, and celebrity.

A lot could be said about saints, heroes, and their relationship. This raises some interesting points but doesn't strike me as drawing a definitive distinction.

To keep this short and just toss out a figure who crosses lines: Martin Luther King Junior.

Ben Witherington said...

There were many ancient terms for hero-- to give one example, the OT calls them "mighty men of valor". It is however interesting that David is not allowed to build the Holy Place because he is a "man of blood". His son, the wise Solomon who is not a warrior, is allowed to do so.


Alicia said...

People are always looking for a hero - that certain someone that emulates everything they are not - to give them hope that there is greatness out there to rescue them from harms way.

The body of "saints" or community of Christians (take your pick of terminology) has been tainted by so many public wrongdoings. It has created a "vortex" of cynicism and disbelief, making it easier for one to want a hero than community.

Christ is not seen as a hero to the unbeliever because he didn't rise up and vanquish his Roman captives; allowing them to put him to death - saying "forgive them father for they know not what they do." For the Christian - he is the almight, the hero - for he conquered sin and death in his resurrection.

I guess it's just how you look at the terminology and application of "hero" and "saint" in this day and age.

The Vegas Art Guy said...

The reason why saints don't get a mention is that they don't call attention to themselves or what they are doing. In addition, because many people have a hard time with the concept of God, they have a hard time with the concept of doing something for Him and not for personal gain. So they marginalize what the saints are actually doing.

Let's not forget that for many it's not in their best interests to portray Christians in a positive light, so they ignore all the good things that Christians do and wait for us to trip up so they can pounce.

Deep Furrows said...

John 5:43 "I came in the name of my Father, but you do not accept me; yet if another comes in his own name, you will accept him."

Michael Gilley said...

You are quite right, Jackson. I was shocked to see that in the pages of Wild at Heart as well. Also, when his boy is bullied he tells him to get up and hit him as hard as he possibly can! He even brings up the "turn the other cheek" saying of Jesus but then goes on to say you can't "turn a cheek you do not have." (p.79) Captivating is just as bad. I read a couple of scholarly critiques that actually went as far to call the books heresy.

Steve Bekes said...

I would have to agree with Carl that the juxtaposition of heroes and saints is the difference between the individual and the community. I think that heroes are a product of the individualism propagated in Western civilization from the late Renaissance; if you look at earlier medieval art, you will see only saints.

In our modern Western world the emphasis is definitely on the person, not the community. Anywhere you look, you see the "you can make it if you try" attitude, instead of "have faith and things will be fine." In other words, humans are seen as masters of their destiny. And to me this seems to be the crucial factor that separates saints from heroes: who drives one's destiny? Who is in charge?

jay said...

After marinating on this heroes & saints thing overnight, I was struck this morning by the news that a certain "important terrorist leader" who's name I can't remember was killed, and the media wrongly seemed to be under the impression it would have an effect on terrorism.

It occurred to me that the radical islamic movement is more in the "saints" camp than we typically are (not that I would call radical islamic terrorist 'saints' by any stretch, but thinking of it more as a typology), and we foolishly seem to think that the death of a "hero" will somehow slow down that movement.

However they don't really have "heroes" as we think of them. They all just think they are doing the will of Allah, so individuals mean nothing. Even the death of Osama Bin Laden would do nothing to slow that movement.

To me that just goes to show how dangerous and pervasive this terrorism issue will remain to be throughout our lifetimes and our children's lifetimes.

Equally interesting, though, is the way that the fall of prominent christian pastors is also thought by the media to slow down the christian church. I have yet to really see that happen. Despite our best efforts to create celebrity preachers and fallable christian "heroes", so far the christian church has always managed to redirect its worship back to the Unshakable One when His human replacements (willing or unwilling) fail to live up to their hype.

Lets just pray that the persistent movement of Grace & Love from Jesus continues to overpower the persistent movement of death and destruction coming from radical Islam.

Singing Owl said...

Interesting disucssion. Thank you, as always, for a post that made me think. As for "Wild at Heart" and "Captivating" they are about the worse "Christian" tripe available, full of misquoted verses and the worst sort of pandering to the male ego. And how terribly sad and disturbing it is that they are runaway best-sellers in the genre. What does that say about our understanding of Jesus--and his saints? Well, that is another issue.

Michael Gilley said...

I would absolutely agree Singing Owl. It's only a portional view of the larger scale problem I think. I go to a Christian school and facebook lists the number one book for our network (besides the Bible) as "Captivating." One of our Freshman classes, Spiritual Form, is being taught this semster by a new teacher, our chaplin, and he is using both the books as the textbooks for the course! Not to draw attention to another subject, but I think it's just a picture of the individualistic "it's all about me" idea that has run rampant throughout Western Christianity today. When and how did the focus ever get taken off the Body as a whole and start being put on the individual. In the first century world of the NT a person who tried to make something of themselves was put in their place by the group and rightly so. They would be shunned and told to sit down and shut up. Instead, they were taught to give yourself for the sake of the group. To die for them, your friends. We on the other hand encourage this individualistic ideal of faith that really isn't in the Bible.

Ben Witherington said...

For those of you still marinating on all this--- try my friend Mark Galli's Jesus book--- Jesus mean and wild.