(This was originally posted on Feminism and Religion blog feminismandreligion.com)
I grew up in a white-middleclass-fundamentalist-Protestant community. As a result I learned to think of God as my Father, and Jesus as my savior, similar to the fairytale prince in shining armor or the ultimate boyfriend. As an undergraduate studying Religious Studies, I learned of other ways to relate to the Divine and discovered how to be a Feminist Christian. However, many women with backgrounds like mine do not have the opportunities that I did to discover different and liberating pictures of God. As a result they must choose between a religious life that enforces patriarchal norms, or life as a “secular” feminist. A recent song by a modern rock band, Daughtry, “Waiting for Superman,” reveals how the dependence on a male savior prevents Christian women from claiming their own personhood, independent of a patriarch.
Contrary to popular belief, religion and “secular” society do not have separate spheres where each is the dominant authority. Instead, the two inform each other. One way to see how they overlap is to look closely at popular culture. There are plenty of cases where religious ideals or sacred myths are used to communicate particular concepts, support stereotypical characters or plots, and to sell products. Two examples include Jamba Juice ads inspired by Buddhism, and the stereotypical use of Eve in the media, as explained by Katie B. Edwards in Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. Since there are no separate spheres for religion and “secular” society, religious ideals and sacred myths inform society, and society in turn participates in the interpretation of these religious ideals and sacred myths. And as a result, a look at how “secular” society communicates religious ideals and sacred myths exposes how society at large understands these ideals and myths.
Daughtry’s recent song, “Waiting for Superman,” tells the story of a woman who is waiting for her savior to remove her from her current situation,
To lift her up and take her anywhere,
Show her love and climbing through the air,
Save her now before it’s too late tonight,
Oh, like a speeding light.
And she smiles…
However, Superman has yet to come, and she makes up excuses to explain his absence and to pacify her seemingly urgent need. Her excuses result in smiles and at no point in the song does she decide Superman has taken too long or that she does not actually need him to save her.
She says… “Yeah, he’s still coming, just a little bit late
He got stuck at the Five and Dime saving the day”
She says… “If life was a movie, then it wouldn’t end like this
Left without a kiss”
Still, she smiles, the way she smiles, yeah…
Superman has long been seen as a salvific Christ or Messiah figure. Two Jewish men, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, first introduced the Superman iconography into American society during the Great Depression. This image of ‘Christ as Superman’ became the fantasy of Christian America: their present and active savior. Superman went through many different phases and was re-created many times over and now appears more Christ-like than ever before. Similar to the Jesus we read of in the gospel accounts, Clark Kent (as portrayed in the 2013 film, Man of Steel) was sent from another superior place for the purpose of giving humans hope. He discovers he is different in early adolescence, and learns of his true identity in his early 30s; Kal-El is his first given name, and Jor-El is his father’s (El means “God” or “god” in Biblical Hebrew). After discovering his true identity, he struggles with his calling – whether or not he can make the necessary sacrifices. He chooses to take on humanity’s problems, and functions as their savior many times over. Of course Lois Lane, his love interest, is often in need of his help, and he never fails to save her life.
Many women in more conservative Christian circles are encouraged to personify the character of Lois Lane. While Lois Lane is a strong and intelligent woman, her need for a male savior still remains. This need for a male savior among Christian women is subsequently translated into unequal power relations with men who function as superheroes despite their lack of superpowers. Therefore, since women need a male savior, they also need intimate relationships with men who can step in where the savior leaves off. For Lois Lane, in the 2006 film, Superman Returns, that meant getting engaged; for Christian women, this often translates into following exclusively male religious leaders – both in the church and the home. In the same way that the woman in “Waiting for Superman” is limited by her anticipation of a male savior, some Christian women are limited by the patriarchal nature of the church as they are supported by their male savior who will come soon to save them from evil, earthly forces.
While I have argued that patriarchal images of Christ reinforce patriarchy in the Church and in women’s lives, I also believe that every deconstruction requires a reconstruction. In writing this post, I hope not only to demonstrate how certain conceptions of Christ can lead to inequality, but also to encourage women who find value in Jesus as their savior to reimagine their Christology in a way that does not reinforce patriarchal structures. Instead, I hope women struggling with competing conceptions of Christ will affirm a Christology that supports personhood, strength and agency in all persons, independent of relationships with men. It is my hope that those currently experiencing confining relationships, religious ideals, and sacred myths participate in this reconstruction.