I have always been fascinated by origin stories. An alien baby crashes to the earth and is adopted by a human couple. Due to the different atmospheric conditions on earth, he is gifted with super strength, flight, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Nerdy high school student Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider and suddenly is imbued with the ability to climb buildings, leap great distances, and shoot super strong spider webs from his wrists. A wealthy child watches his parents die, and after being raised by the affable butler, funnels his fortune and his PTSD into crimefighting gadgets that allow him to take on what appear to be superpowers. Each of these familiar origin stories is accompanied by the idea that – as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben taught him – with great power comes great responsibility.
These origin stories are the single most powerful tool we have in understanding these characters. Knowing how they got their powers and what (often tragic) events led them to their lives of heroism gives us great insight into who they are and why they battle their particular enemies. Many of the most iconic and enduring superheroes of all time are still best defined by the original story that made them who they are.
In The Superhero Reader, the editors write, “Almost all superheroes have an origin story: a bedrock account of the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity…. To read stories about destroyed worlds, murdered parents, genetic mutations, and mysterious power-giving wizards is to realize the degree to which the superhero genre is about transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense of human nature.”
Our biblical tradition gives us an origin story for all of humanity…or actually two. Genesis 1 and 2 offer two similar, but slightly different views of the origin of creation and of human beings. In Genesis 1, God creates the earth and all that is in it before creating humanity. Humanity is created as a whole – male and female in one fell swoop – in the image of God. God blesses them and gives them dominion over all the animals. God gives the seeded plants to the humans for food and the green plants to the animals. God gives directions for appropriate division of and care for natural resources. And it was good. It was very, very good.
In Genesis 2, God creates the man first. All of creation is made to try to make the man happy. God planted Eden in order that the man might have somewhere nice to live. God created the animals and charged the man with naming them so that he might find a companion among them. Finally, God created the woman out of the flesh and bone of the man himself, and only in her – and her reflection of himself – did the man find a worthy companion. In this story, man is created by God– but not explicitly in the image of God, and it is only in the creature created in the image of man himself that man finds a worthy companion. And, it is in this story that it all falls apart – the serpent, the fruit, the fall.
These origin stories are significant in thinking about who we are called to be. In the first story, humanity is created in the image of God – the God who is described throughout old and new testament scriptures as the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd carefully tends the flock, guides them on safe paths, brings them to good water and grazing, and protects them from harm. The sheep are wholly dependent upon and wholly trusting in the shepherd, and the shepherd recognizes the responsibility that comes with that power. The shepherd cares for that with which he is charged – even at the risk of his own life. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. This is the image in which we, as humanity, are created.
In the second creation story, things are different. Man is created first, and all of creation comes out of a desire to satisfy him. Sadly, he only seems satisfied by an outcropping of himself. And even that satisfaction is short lived. It doesn’t take long before the man and the woman seek to exploit the resources at hand. They eat from the tree they were told to leave alone, and they cast blame on the serpent. In an insatiable need to satisfy the desire of the moment, they take without consideration for the future of the creation with which they were entrusted.
Origin stories. Which of these origin stories speaks to you about who humanity has come to be? Which speaks to you about who we were created to be? How are we defined by these stories? And what do they tell us about human stories of “transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense of human nature?”