Some weeks ago, I was passing through Ħal Qormi and—surprisingly—I got stuck in traffic. In that annoying half an hour of extreme frustration, I happened to pass by a billboard advertising the performance by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra of “A Hero’s Life” (Ein Heldenleben), composed by Richard Strauss. The title immediately captured my interest, but I was unable to go because of pastoral commitments. So I had to content myself with listening the masterpiece on YouTube, while reading the libretto that my parents brought from the performance.
This orchestral piece is very interesting. As the title itself indicates, it ‘speaks’ of a hero’s life through six musical movements, each bearing a title so that the listener can get a good idea of what is going on. Although when asked, the composer denies that it is a self-portrait, claiming that he is no hero and was not made for battle, the composition is widely considered to be, at least partly, autobiographical, particularly because in it there are many quotes from previous works.
Another peculiarity of this work is that, although the titles of the sections outline the sequence of events of the hero’s life, at the end there is no funeral march. Rather, the final piece bears the title “The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion”. Maybe it is strange, but not so surprising, when considering that Strauss would not really like to compose his own obituary while still alive!
There are only common humans that do heroic deeds or live heroically by setting an example of extreme humanity
Whatever the case, I think this piece of music can tell us something about our idea of the hero, and perhaps also shedding light on our Christian perspective in this regard. I think this composition reveals the ideology behind superhero stories and the true craving of those who think of themselves as some sort of heroes.
In the real world, superheroes don’t exist. There are only common humans that do heroic deeds or live heroically by setting an example of extreme humanity. And even if superhero narratives do reveal to us something about our deepest longings, desires and temptations—and this is very important in understanding the Christian narrative as it has to be accepted and responded to by us, human beings—surely, they cannot be adopted as modern-day parables of the Christ-event. Myths shed light upon reality; they help us to make sense of reality. But they are not THE reality, and the true reality remains largely incomprehensible.
Although the Christian story does contain villains, there are no superheroes. Christ cannot be considered a superhero. Superheroes tend to suffer from Messiah complexes. On the contrary we believe in THE Messiah. Claiming the category of superhero for Christ is quite awkward. On the one hand, God cannot be a superhero: he is God. And even if we try to defend the thesis on the basis that Christ is human as well as divine, it still doesn’t befit to call him so. Christ did heroically assume our humanity and lived it to the full by being fully human. But he was no superhero, trying to build a personality cult. He was part of our species, not part of a superior species or evolutionary improvement. That would be too Zarathustrian.
And maybe that’s why he was refused: people wanted to narcotise themselves with the extraordinary
Furthermore, Christ’s victory was not on a villain, but on evil itself and death. He did not win by fighting a triumphant battle and thus becoming immortalised. Rather, his victory came at a very high price, winning by losing, through dying on the cross and then rising triumphantly—but then again, only after falling in the battle and licking the dust of the land of the dead. He saved us by living fully our humanity “unto death, even death on a cross” without running away (Phil 2:8). And maybe that’s why he was refused: people wanted to narcotise themselves with the extraordinary, but he refused to offer them “circus and bread” to MAKE them follow him.
People love superhero stories because they offer us the false Nietzschean hope that super-humanity is attainable; or make us feel dejected because we see it as an unattainable goal. And even those that we consider to be supermen or superwomen, are probably the most disillusioned and hollow within because they seek to be or feel pressured to be what they are not, while the ‘real heroes’ (for want of a better expression) are humans like us who live their humanity to the fullest. Only full humanity is possible, and this comes only at a very high cost by dying in many ways.
Ultimately, this is what Lent is about: it is not about living a hero’s life through self-centred practices, but to learn, through these same practices, to have both feet on the ground and accept the fact that we are no superheroes—we are only human—while, at the same time, learning to live our humanity to its fullness, without running away. This means learning to accept our limitations while embracing our potentials—potentials that can be reached only through dying daily. This is the only possible Christian heroism, if you want: the heroism of being simply human without seeking to be something else, conscious of the fact that it is this humanity that has been redeemed through the pure humanity of the Son of God.