Caricatures of Heroes and Villains

Who do you look up to?

What 3 people, from any era, would you have dinner with if you could?

I remember being asked questions like these during ice-breakers and other moments growing up (or small group meetings!). There definitely have been people who I looked up to at various points in my life for one reason or another. Sometimes they are people close to me - friends & family who are loving, faithful, or honest. Other times they are historical figures from the past, whether religious, military history, or discoverers.

Looking up to John Muir, one man I
would love to have dinner with
But I could never come up with just one person. I also can remember back, even to high school, realizing people were often more of a mix of things I like and didn't like. They were people, not caricatures. When it is family or people we live close with, we understand this. I respect my parents, grandparents, brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I also very much respected certain friends and their families, like Nathan Helms and his mom Marsha, or Adam Zoll and his parents Scott and Lana. In knowing these people, it was about being able to acknowledge the good and virtuous running throughout their lives even in the face of difficulty, struggle, and persecution. Never did I have to try to make them perfect, because they were friends, which was better than perfect.

When it comes to heroes, public figures, or athletes this doesn't seem to be the case. Actually, it often isn't the case with our bible story characters as well, is it? People are turned into almost one-dimensional caricatures of a certain vice or virtue, saint or sinner.

Think about what thoughts come to mind when you hear the following names:

George Washington

Abraham Lincoln

Martin Luther King, Jr.

David, King of Israel

Confuscius

Adolf Hitler

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Napoleon

Attilla the Hun

Joan of Arc

Ansel Adams

Einstein

Leonardo da Vinci

Abraham

Hercules

Jack Bauer

Was your impression of the character one-dimensional?

Did you think something like "Hitler = evil" or "Lincoln = freedom of slaves?"

Perhaps David was "Goliath-slayer" or even "a man after God's own heart?"

Did you catch that the last two are fictional characters but you might have even had a more rounded, complex view of them than the actual historical persons?

Do we understand that they were people as complex as our family and friends are?

Storytellers understand the art of character development. There are characters in an novel, movie, play, or opera that are portrayed as protagonists and antagonists. Some stories thrive on good triumphing over evil and can utilize effectively more one-dimensional characters - heroes and villains. Other stories bring out the complexity, like many a Shakespeare play or the most recent Batman movies. There is a hero but it is a hero that struggles.

Tragedy is mixed with triumph or pain accompanying joy. The redemption of a villain, like Luke Skywalker insisting that there is good in Darth Vader, still moves us because there is a part of us that understands, or wants to understand, the tension in us all.

Recently, Amanda and I read a book that worked through Genesis, and Amanda was struck by how messed up, how human, many of the people are. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, often held up as the fathers of faithfulness still committed acts which were far from noble, faithful, or virtuous. Abraham lied about his wife being his sister to foreign kings he was afraid of...multiple times. He was more willing to let a foreign king take his wife than face those fears. Jacob was a deceiver who somehow took the blessing from Isaac due Esau and God blessed, or at least tolerated, this deception. It honestly causes us to pause and look at what really is happening, and what really we place our faith and trust in. There is so much more to these characters than mere virtue of faith - they struggled and fought through the joys and pains of life.

David was an adulterer, murderer (and least conspirator to murder), and was far from being any type of model as a father.

What other figures do we look at this way, today? Public figures often are cast and judged on perception....caricatures of who they really are. Politicians, athletes, authors, movie stars, and religious leaders are expected to be noble, pure, and blameless at the same time the average man and woman is free to engage in whatever vice they choose - alcohol, sex, gossip, anger, greed, or gluttony. It is scandal when we hear of another clergyman caught up in a sex ring, while it is largely accepted that affairs are no longer rare in common life. Do these hang ups define someone?

Are people simply one thing or another?

Are they good or bad?

Are they simply a hero or a villain?

Or perhaps there is something more in the midst of the story, something that comes along and lets us know that people are people. Our heroes and our villains are often separated by small decisions, a trajectory that forms from the posture of one's actions and intentions.

Can a hero fall, or a villain be redeemed?

Are people either right or wrong, in or out, with no hope of ever changing?

Our stories, and those we know intimately, tell us differently if we listen and get to know them. Let us realize faith, and what we believe, is not in caricatures of moral ideals of purely noble women and men who had no faults. Rather, they were just like us. In the midst of this, God continues to love, call, and work to redeem us all. He wants to know us, and us to know him.

We are to work to know others way before we ever start to try to caricature them into simple categories of hero or villain.

We need to strive to know the people in a story before we cry out for or against them.

This makes my decision of which three people I would want to have dinner with be a lot different...as it would be people who perhaps strove to really understand those around them...now  I need to go think about that.