Holding out for a hero
This is an article I wrote at Christmas for the Guardian, and realised I hadn’t published the whole piece here. With the current political climate, I thought it might be worth asking the question again…
Jesus is probably the biggest celebrity in the messiah club. He gets a big celebration every year, with prickly trees, shiny baubles and fat chap in a floppy red hat. The nativity story goes that he was born in a manger, made a significant contribution to world theology, shook the Roman Empire and then made the final sacrifice for his people. It is a classic messiah tale – lowly origins, signs at his birth to portend his greatness, epic impact and change on an unimaginable scale, and heroic dedication till the very end. The messiah was the hope of the people, the one popular culture longed for. Think Gladiator, think Moses.
History is full of stories of such epic figures that saved people from injustice and oppression. Jesus is the best known, and the one we seem to hold onto as a timeless symbol in the western world. But symbol is all he seems to be in the early 21st century. A placeholder in an end-of-year Hollywood B-movie, a story of heroism without the hero. And let’s not beat around the bush, yesterday’s messiah, is today’s hero.
The theories of the early 20th century that pronounced us to be “superman”, told us about “ego” and gave us materialism, allowed us to put ourselves on a pedestal, and declare that the individual was a god. No longer would we suffer oppression or injustice – we had invented nuclear weapons in order to destroy those who threatened us. We had propelled ourselves into the impenetrable realm of the gods of yore as we sailed effortlessly to the moon and into the stars. We even had washing machines and vacuum cleaners to save us scrubbing and sweeping. We had all the answers and we could do anything we wanted. “They say that a hero can save us, I’m not gonna stand here and wait,” sang Nickelback in the theme tune of the film of Spiderman. Why should we bother waiting for a hero when we could be our own saviours?
We’re still very interested in heroes, as the latest TV hit series from the US proves to us: its title Heroes is the big giveaway. But we’re less sure about heroism these days, and so are our heroes. The glamorous edge was taken off James Bond who was deliberately rewritten to be a less-than-glamorous gritty hero with serious emotional baggage in his latest film. And the epic hero Beowulf, brought back to life in this year’s movie epic, is no longer the entirely noble character that he was defined as in the original writings.
In the early Old English story written about a legendary figure from around the turn of the sixth century, Beowulf was a more classic hero, a man to look up to and hail as a saviour. “I will kill your monster,” he declares to the people who can no longer bear the beast’s terror.
He does rid the people of the monster that is out there, but the monster within him, the child of his shame, continues to eat him alive from the inside and destroy him. We reduce our hero to the level of our own mundane and pathetic carnal trappings. The hero saves us in a burst of glory, but finds his own undoing in what he thought would save and elevate him. The hero and saviour that we once yearned for becomes a tragic figure. Is this a reflection of the hopelessness of our time? Does this mean we need a hero more than ever? This time does our hero need to save us from our own inner torment?
We thought we had all the answers, but now we discover that we are not as heroic as we once thought. Darfur, Abu Ghraib, rising poverty, the Iraq war and of course our own epic monster called climate change, to name a few have, shown us that we are still flawed, still yearning for the world to be a better place.
Are we too late? Will climate change spell irreversible doom? As with all messianic stories, we find ourselves battling against time. An independent film being made by a group of British Muslims to explore the idea of the modern day hero asks, “What if our generation is the last?” Like Beowulf, it turns the idea of the hero on its head, “Are we ready for a hero?” it challenges. The hero is no longer a stand-alone figure; he needs us. The film, 313 The Movie, is based on the concept that the Mahdi – the rough and ready Islamic name for messiah – will come to restore peace and justice to the world when there are 313 good people ready and willing to support him.
The student-protagonist of the film stamps his feet with our modern day defiance and pride: “You all need to wake up and stop dreaming, there ain’t nobody comin’ to save us.” But his words also give voice to our present-day angst and despair: what if in reality nobody can save us, not even ourselves. Should we hope for a hero as our last resort?