You get the best out of a boy by stimulating his desire for greatness and then telling him he has a long way to go: that he can perhaps achieve something marvelous but he must be humble and work hard for it.
--Roy F. Baumeister, Is There Anything GoodAbout Men?
I receive some occasional pushback on the connection between boys and heroes, and my emphasis on calling boys into heroic manhood. The pushback goes something like this:
Why does boy=hero? Girls can be heroes, too!
This kind of thinking is patriarchal.
You are stereotyping!
In Christ there is neither male nor female.
I absolutely agree that girls and women can be and are heroes. (My granddaughter, when she was younger, loved when Grandpa told her stories about Super Clover. My youngest granddaughter, Mattie, 2, loves to play with super heroes!) Girls can be and are super heroes!
But that’s not the point when it comes to reaching boys. Hero language is boy language. Heroism—saving the world—is an overarching boy/man theme, which we see again and again throughout history and literature. Heroism calls to a boy differently than it does a girl. It’s not that girls aren’t heroes. It’s that boys resonate deeply with that call and language. Heroism is embedded in their DNA. Testosterone—the primary boy hormone—is the energy of superheroes.
Saving Private Ryan is a prime example of that compelling theme for boys and men. As Private Ryan stands at the gravesite of Captain John Miller, he remembers back to how Captain Miller and his band of soldiers saved him. With his dying breath Captain Miller says to him, James, earn this…Earn it! James Ryan, now an old man, turns to his wife and asks, Have I been a good man?
Do you hear the heart call of every boy and man? Heroism. Being a good man. Saving the world. These are themes woven into the DNA of boys and men by their Creator.
Girls can be and are heroes.
But boys live their lives based on that theme.
A further challenge to hero language goes like this:
Jesus was the anti-hero. He lived a life of submission, not heroism.
Using hero language may pander to boys and men, but it is not Biblical, Christ-centered language.
I recognize that Jesus was not the Messiah the Jews expected—a conquering Hero-King-Warrior who would overthrow the Roman Empire and establish a new kingdom. He was, indeed, a Messiah who chose servanthood and death in order to save the world.
But many people today, in my opinion, misinterpret the kind of Savior Jesus came to be. They paint a picture of passivity. A picture of giving up. A picture that in their minds expresses everything that is antithetical to the hero.
I would suggest that Jesus is the ultimate hero, not the anti-hero; that Jesus defines heroism. Jesus was in control of every moment of his life. He chose to lay down his life. He intentionally served. This was no weak man standing passively before Pilate, or Herod, or the soldiers, or even hanging on the cross. This was a man fully in tune with his call to save the world—a man who demonstrated true heroism by the deliberate giving of his life. A man who shows that true heroes serve others sacrificially.
As Jesus battled demons and sickness, he was saying, This is what a hero does. When he washed the feet of his disciples he was saying, This is what a hero looks like. When he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, claiming to be the true Caesar in a country occupied by the Roman Empire—a provocative act of treason—he was saying, This is what a hero does. As he hung on the cross begging his father to forgive those who nailed him there, Jesus was saying, This is what a hero looks like. Jesus poured new meaning into heroism, fulfilling the deepest yearnings of the Image of God-male.
Boys and men aspire to that noble, sacrificial manhood. Jesus not only models it but empowers boys and men to live it.
The plethora of Superhero movies over the last few decades reflects the yearning of culture for heroes and the yearning of boys and men to be heroes. Yes, girls like Superhero movies, too. But why do you think the producers of these films are so concerned that their movies be well-received by “fanboys?” Because they know that heroism is the heart language of boys.
If you want to reach boys, call them into heroic manhood. It’s the language they speak. It’s the call they hear. It’s the call of their Creator to follow the true hero—Jesus—and save the world.
Adapted from Searching for Tom Sawyer: How Parents and Congregations Can Stop the Exodus of Boys from Church.