There’s the Justice League, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and so forth. Teams of super heroes, all assembled to fight evil. Or at least to fight antagonists, depending on who tells the story. These names are known to the majority children and a good number of adults. They reinforce hope in people’s hearts that justice will prevail, that evil will be punished, and that freedom and peace will be restored. This is the myth of the super hero.
Let’s remember myth does not always embody falsehood or the novel. A myth is also a structure. A myth conveys and clarifies an idea. Think of a myth as something like a parable wrapped around a personality. Sometimes there is exaggeration but often there is simply the amplification of the moral value to be conveyed. Myth, a certain type of myth, has great value.
In church history there have been the heroes. One might think of the “saints” as the church’s version of the super hero. (Or rather that the super heroes are the secular version of saints.) Wrapped around these people and their respective histories are stories of bravery, sacrifice, generosity, and so forth. Many were not part of the ecclesiastical system. They exist to commend to the people that the highest virtues fo the church can be lived out by anyone in any time and in any place.
When you read the accounts of the death of Polycarp you will notice a myth — an exaggeration of what happened — accompanied by the facts of the situation. Our society is concerned about the minutiae. We’re told to seek the empirical and avoid the myth, except where the politically expedient takes precedence.
We protestants on the other hand don’t have this working for us. We lack that formal “super saint.” We instead create another sort of myth around certain personalities. Great preachers, teachers, and missionaries have become virtual icons and icons of virtue. Their celebrity status gives them the mythical quality of super-spirituality. We of course do not place images or statues of them in our churches. But we do increase our reading of their books and writings and even establish high-level educational programs on their lives. Names like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Moody, and Lewis come to mind first. But after that we have John Newton, William Wilberforce, and a host of others.
We need our icons and we require the best type of myth. Perhaps we protestants need to do some rethinking regarding the place of icons in the faith. Not to recreate the errors of the past but to reinvent them in a proper framework.