The 16th-century Reformed theologian Peter Martyr Vermigli wrote that “nothing may be found in the world so abject or lowly that it gives no witness to God.” This was such a standard doctrine in the Christian tradition that 200 years later Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, could write of something as mundane as the life and death cycle of insects as attesting to the “wisdom of the Creator.”
These days it has become commonplace for Christians to make far more specific claims that worldly things display the reality, power, and wisdom of God. Indeed, a distinctively Christ-oriented interpretation is a regular occurrence. For example, mega-church leader Mark Driscoll wrote recently about Jack Bauer, the lead character from the hit TV series 24, as a “type” of Christ.
This typological language is derived from a long-accepted tradition of interpreting the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, specifically that the Old Testament foreshadowed the things of the New in signs and figures. In this way, one might say that King David was a type of Christ, because he was the head of God’s people, or that Moses, as God’s prophet and lawgiver, was a type of Christ.
The latest example of this application of typological interpretation to contemporary figures comes with the recent spate of articles ahead of the release of this summer’s anticipated blockbuster Superman Returns. Religion educators in the UK are using Superman “as a modern-day example of Jesus Christ” to “give children an insight into morality and religious thinking.” Dr. Greg Garrett, professor of English at Baylor University, says that Superman “is just about as near as popular culture can come to showing us what a savior might look and act like.” Steve Skelton, author of The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero as well as the video-based Super Man Bible Study, says that the similarities between Christ and Superman are so close that he has to wonder, “Who else could it be referring to?”
These kinds of observations stem from a laudable impulse to responsibly engage the culture and bring religious convictions to bear in the public square. But Christians risk undermining our own influence when we simply latch on to the pop icon of the moment in undiscerning and uncritical ways. We simultaneously risk becoming unwitting tools of clever marketers, who wish to tap the financial and moral resources of evangelical Christianity.