Who are Our Heroes?

I have been immersed recently in an extensive study of Islam in preparation for my participation in the annual gathering of my small group of pastors which is part of a small and not-very-well-known institution called the Foundation for Reformed Theology. Each year we are required to read through an extensive list of books and articles and then we each make presentations on what we have read. We are a little puzzled about why the study of Islam is listed as one of the options, but after 15 years we have studied almost all of the other options on the foundation’s bibliography.

In the midst of this time of study a small group of Islamic terrorists murdered 12 journalists and then several other people in a Jewish market in Paris, France. Around the same time, though receiving less news attention, the Islamic militant group known popularly as Boko Haram overran a Nigerian army outpost and proceeded to slaughter perhaps 150 or more men, women, and children and burned approximately 3,700 structures in the towns of Baga and Doron Baga, Nigeria. “Boko Haram” is the nickname of the group and roughly translated means “western education is forbidden.” It is quite disconcerting that so much media coverage has been given to the killing of under 20 people in Paris while hardly any coverage has been given to the killing of 150 in Nigeria — but such is the warped nature of world opinion and media bias.

One of the helpful things about studying the global Islamic movement is that it helps me to look at American culture with a different perspective. We often wonder why the Islamists seem to hate our culture and our way of life so much when most of us like our culture and our way of life so much. While I can’t give you a complete answer in this short article, let me share one clue.

I recently saw an advertisement that a new television program about a crime-fighting detective called Backstrom publicized with the introductory words “Brilliant detective…. Total jerk.” Here is a description of the show from a blog by Merrill Barr:

Created by Bones showrunner Hart Hanson, Backstrom stars Rainn Wilson as Everett Backstrom, a jaded, highly cynical detective with the Portland Police. Through his adventures, we watch as Backstrom participates in various activities destructive to not only himself and his health, but potentially those around him. However, none of it matters because, in the end, the man’s a brilliant detective that can get inside the minds of the people he’s hunting – essentially becoming them for brief moments in time in order to understand them on levels his colleagues have yet to fully comprehend.

This new series reminds me of the series from several years ago known as House which was about a man who is a brilliant doctor and …. a total jerk.

When I was young, it seemed to me that our heroes were more moral, more ethical, and in general they were better men or better women than they are today.

In 1938 the world was introduced to the comic book hero, Superman. We were told that Superman was in a never-ending battle for “truth, justice, and the American way.” What made Superman a great hero for us was not just his strength or that he could fly. What made superman a great hero for us is that there was a goodness and decency to him. He was an alien who came to us from another planet, but he was also a home-grown all-American boy who stood for values of hard work, sacrifice, love for family, love for country, and …. Well…. truth, justice, and the American way. He cared for us. He radiated integrity not just power. He was strong but he was also Clark Kent. His powers didn’t make him great, his character made him great. His parents adopted him into their family and the wholesome upbringing they gave him helped make him a gentle being filled with kindness, honesty, and innocence.

Heroes historically often have an “Achilles heel” – an area of weakness or a fault which makes them interesting to us and to the story line (Superman’s weakness was kryptonite). In contrast to the heroes of old, our media today seem to thrive on giving us the ‘anti-hero’ – like the new detective show Backstrom — who is a “brilliant detective” and a “total jerk.”

One of the many reasons that some groups of Islamists hate America is that they see the way we have separated power and goodness. We have all of the superpowers of Superman but we have lost the moral character traits that made our nation heroic. America has fallen into the error of thinking that freedom and democracy are all we need to be a great nation. We are seeing that the world sees it differently. Many people in the world – not just the Islamists — see our immoral behavior, our fragmented families, our secular media, our greed, our secular education programs, our shallow religion — and they want no part of it. As Jesus said “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul?” Jesus knew that being a person of love for God and love for others is what made for a good life. Our nation today has become morally and spiritually lost, even though we have freedom, democracy, money, and military power.

Long ago we sang a song in our churches (and our public schools!) that few people know any more. It was called America the Beautiful by Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel Ward. It spoke of our heroes of previous generations of Americans:

O beautiful for heroes proved; In liberating strife. Who more than self their country loved; And mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine; Till all success be nobleness; And every gain divine!

This prayer was not so much that our nation would grow more wealthy or more powerful or have more freedom – but that our nation would use its freedom to be noble and to become more divine – which is to be more like God himself – that our national character would resemble God’s divine character.

The Islamists look at America today and see a nation of “brilliant jerks” of “rich jerks” of “freedom-loving jerks” and “powerful jerks.” What they don’t see is a nation that has a good, godly, noble soul. Sadly, freedom for religion has become freedom from religion in

America, in most of Europe, and in the countries that have sought to emulate our way of life. The world is not interested in freedom or prosperity if all trace of godliness has been eliminated through secularizing education, secularizing media, secularizing laws, and secularizing corporations.

I do hope as we study the Bible in our little congregation we will see that so much more is at stake in our world than just our personal salvation. We are to be salt and light in a culture that has lost its way. We are to be lovers of God in a culture that loves money, success, power, and mindless entertainment. We are to point to true heroes who can never be ‘total jerks’ because godliness and goodness are infinitely more important than brilliance in the grand scheme of things.

I’m not sure if many of you will watch this new show. I’m not sure how much it matters. My main concern is that America will one day wake up to see that what the world needs is moral and spiritual leadership more than economic and military power. The value system of secularism will never be able to resist the strength of the global Islamic movement. It will take something much more powerful than “brilliant jerks” with intelligence, wealth, and military might for western civilization to thrive in the future.

I pray for a spiritual and moral revival in our nation with the hope that we would turn from our love of lesser things to love for the greatest good – which has been made known to us through the One Lord Jesus Christ – who combined goodness, power, grace, humility, and love in a perfect heroic life – a life he offers to you, to me, and to the world.


Favorite Books

Many years ago a good friend of mine said that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the friends he chooses and the books he reads. Over the years I have found this to be true. Our friends and our books influence us in all kinds of different ways. Over time I have found that my books have become my ‘friends’ in a way. It is in that spirit that I submit a list of books that have been important to me. This is a rough list since I have the nagging feeling that a lot of books I’ve read over the years have become so distant in memory that I no longer recall their authors and titles.

I will start with a list of books from the world of fiction and then look at other categories of books such as history, political & economic analysis, cultural analysis, biography, and Christian devotion. One list that I will include is “books every thinking Christian should read.” I am hoping that some of you will submit YOUR lists of favorite books and why you liked them.

  • Fiction that I enjoyed and that helped to enlarge my understanding of life:
    • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
      • I read this book so long ago I need to re-read it. All I know was that when I got to the end I knew it had left a deep and profound mark on my soul. Steinbeck is a contender for my favorite writer, right up there with C.S. Lewis.
    • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
      • In vivid story form the book explores the failure of utilitarian ethical systems in giving worth and dignity to human life. Human beings need God for life to truly flourish.
    • Peace like a River by Leif Enger
      • A wonderfully told story of a father’s love where the supernatural breaks into the natural world in surprising ways.
    • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
      • A beautiful story of endurance and human dignity. This is a definite fanfare for the common man.
    • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
      • The value of building good character and quality relationships vs. pursuit of wealth.
    • The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
      • It is hard for me to explain why I liked these books so well – but I did. They are not suitable reading for younger children however.
    • Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
      • A parable that explores the nature of love and how we often fall into false forms of love due to our spiritual blindness.
    • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
      • I read this book in 10th grade and was so depressed afterward it set me on a quest to find out if there was a larger purpose to give meaning to one’s life. God used this experience to bring me into a profound encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ.