Teaching always involves a curve ball.
This past fall I taught “Introduction to Moral Theology and Ethics” at The Catholic University of America. For the first class session, I had my students read a casual but thoughtful blogpost titled “The Ethics of Superheroes.”
The blogpost draws on the idea of vocation as calling to argue that all human beings are called to be heroes, not in the same way that Spiderman is Spiderman or Batman is Batman, but in unique ways. I should be HeroSiobhan in my special HeroSiobhan way, not in the Spiderman way—Spiderman has that covered.
I intended the lesson to be lighthearted and engaging, I would draw a connection between the superheroes of fiction and the saints of real life, wrapping up with a conversation about virtue ethics and the role of virtue in the (Christian) moral life.
My lesson plan nearly dissolved when, in the first five minutes of class, my one and only freshman student raised his hand and asserted that we should not look to superheroes as exemplars of anything, including heroism. If we want to know what courage (for instance) looks like, we ought to read biographies of real people. Fiction is not worth our admiration or respect.
After his pronouncement, I took a deep breath and channeled my inner Fr. Jim (the kindest teacher I ever had), affirming that the student had brought an important idea to the table while completely disagreeing with him.
When faced with the real world, fiction can seem very trite.
A few days ago, my husband and I watched Catching Fire, one of the movies in the Hunger Games series. In the film, the people of Panem (a dystopic future semi-America) are waging a revolution against the oppressive Capitol. One scene features hundreds of unarmed revolutionaries storming a hydroelectric plant guarded by gun-wielding “peacekeepers.” The revolutionaries, singing a battle hymn, are mowed down by the peacekeepers but continue their attack, eventually overcoming their adversaries.
The scene is moving. My husband (recalling reading the same scene in the book) commented “I don’t think I realized how brave they had to be. Really seeing that, how they had no weapons, that’s really brave.” Of course, both book and movie are fiction.
I was a bit disturbed by my husband’s comment because earlier in the day I read a National Catholic Register report about the 21 Egyptian Copts executed by ISIS in February. Awaiting their horrible, filmed, murders, these real-life people prayed “Jesus, help me.”
As my student advocated, if I want to know what bravery looks like, I should look to the real Egyptian Copts, praying before their martyrdom; not to the fictional Panem revolutionaries, singing as they fight for freedom.
But as true as the bravery and the sacrifice and the virtue of those real human beings are, there is still something true to be found in fiction.
Here in the U.S. our experience of Lent is so often a matter of abstaining from meat once a week (when meat is a luxury in many world households), or giving up some frivolous (though tempting) indulgence like gossip or television or make-up, or decorating our homes with purple prayer-chains. In the Middle East, Christians are experiencing the reality of the Lenten desert with an intensity that would frighten many of us right out of Christianity. As a liturgical season, Lent is (partially) about the experience of the absence of God, the absence of goodness and light (if you have the opportunity to attend a Tenebrae service this year, I highly advise it). Yet, safe in our Western democracy where violation of religious freedom refers to insurance money rather than beheadings, our experience of the absence of God is a very different thing.
When I think of hunger, starvation, and injustice, it is much easier for me to enter into the world described by Catching Fire than the real world I have seen on the news. My heart is moved to long for bravery and eschew cowardice by the Panem revolutionaries who, knowing they were sacrificing their lives, stormed the hydroelectric plant anyway. Like them, I want to stand for truth and justice and full bellies and freedom.
When I think about the Egyptian Copts, I know that they stand for Jesus, and I want to stand for Jesus, too. But I don’t understand.
Fiction helps us understand human virtue and vice because fiction provides us with the back story. It tells us how and why characters and events are the way they are. Fiction stylizes good and evil, right and wrong, into words or pictures or actions that we can understand.
ISIS I do not understand. These newly heaven-born martyrs I do not understand. How and why are these people and events happening the way they are? I firmly believe in the divine authorship of the world, but in this case I do not understand the plot.
The one small truth fiction can give us that is so often missing or hidden in reality is the why.
My student is right: the best examples of real human heroism are real human beings, especially the saints.
That, however, does not mean that fiction is without truth. We would not think of superheroes as heroes if we did not recognize something good and true and beautiful about their stories. We would not be moved by powerful scenes in movies and books if there was nothing true and noble about the story.
In the great and ever expanding story of salvation history, it is often hard to understand the truth being taught to us small characters. Fiction teaches us that there is a why and that it will be revealed in good time.