Imagine that the world is governed by an International Confederation of Nations, otherwise known as ICON. Then imagine an odd collection of cults and other religious organizations that operate at the margins of civilization, trying to stay just beyond the reach of the all-controlling power of ICON. Imagine a special agent who is assigned to infiltrate one of these religious groups, which eventually turns out to be a terrorist organization. Imagine a twisting, turning series of events driven by religious fanatics, crooked politicians, secret double agents, murders, betrayals, and assassinations. If you can imagine all this, you can imagine the world created in a new rock opera called !Hero and a series novels and comic books based on the same plot [for more information contact www.herouniverse.com].
Then image this. Imagine a black vagabond prophet named Washer John, who eats honeyed grasshoppers, tells people to repent, and performs ritual cleansings at a river somewhere out in the Catskills. Imagine that Washer John gets beheaded by the agents of a ruthless politician. Then imagine that John’s cousin Joshua Jones—a wandering miracle-worker from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—attracts a huge following in New York City. People come from all over to hear Joshua preach and watch him perform miracles.
Is the story starting to sound familiar? Perhaps by now you can guess that Washer John is supposed to be John the Baptist (see Matt. 3:1-6; 14:10), and that Joshua—which is the Jewish name for Jesus—is meant to be the Son of God incarnate. And perhaps you will recognize some of the other characters from the story. There is a prostitute name Maggie whose life turns around when she starts hanging out with Joshua Jones. That’s Mary Magdalene. There’s a brash young weightlifter named Petrov, or Peter, and a somewhat sinister disciple named Jude. And maybe you can anticipate the true identity of New York’s governor: a fellow with the last name of Pilate.
The opera and the books take the people and events from the biblical gospel and put them in the postmodern world, imagined to be under the power of a new world empire. They do not portray the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but his original advent. In the words of Eddie DeGarmo, who first had the vision for !Hero, “I wanted to do a modern depiction of Christ that incorporated the culture of today. I asked myself, ‘What could I do to re-create the story of Jesus for the MTV Generation?’ ” [quoted by Russ Breimeier in “A Different Kind of Hero,” Books and Culture (September/October, 2003), Vol. 9, No. 5, p. 20].
No doubt some Christians will accuse both the opera and the books of blasphemy. It is a dubious enterprise to portray the Son of God either in print or in person. Nothing can compare with the vitality of Jesus in the gospels, and inevitably a retelling of his life story ends up trivializing him—especially when it tries to put words into his mouth. In the book Joshua says things like “You want to know about the kingdom? Don’t be so quick to ask. Just knowing about it carries a cost. It could be more than you care to pay;” or “If you follow me, I’ll lead you to places you’ve never dreamed it was possible to go. Life will make sense, everything will be beautiful—even pain and suffering” [Stephen R. Lawhead and Ross Lawhead, City of Dreams (Colorado Springs, CO, 2003), 213, 220]. Such dialogue echoes some recognizable themes from the gospels (see, for example, Matt. 13:44-46; Luke 14:25-33), but no one is likely to confuse the words of Joshua Jones with the living, life-changing words of Jesus.
However, the people who wrote !Hero are not trying to present an alternative gospel. They are evangelical Christians who are trying to communicate a serious message in a faithful way. They want to tell a new generation that Jesus is real—as real as the streets of New York City. This is perhaps most forcefully presented in the opera’s climactic scene, in which Joshua Jones is nailed to a street sign and left to die. The scene is ugly and violent. It is almost an obscenity, which of course is exactly the point (see Gal. 5:11). In our culture the cross has lost some of its power to offend. But if you take a public hero and crucify him on a street sign, people have to take notice.
And perhaps then they will be led to consider that such a thing has indeed happened in our world. Of course, by itself the rock opera cannot do the work of evangelism. For this we still need the preaching of the biblical gospel (see Rom. 10:13-17), for which there is and never will be any substitute. But !Hero may confront people with some of the gritty realities of the gospel in a way that will help them to think about the claims of Christ.
The way that !Hero does this is by relocating the coming of Christ in our context. The biblical world is so distant from our own that we sometimes forget that the things that happened in the Bible really happened in our world. God the Son really did become a man. He really was born in a town called Bethlehem. He really did perform miracles. And crowds of people really did come to hear him preach in the big city.
The word that the new rock opera uses to describe the man who did these things is one that we may not use very often when we tell people the gospel. The word is hero. But people are looking for heroes, and Jesus is the perfect hero for our times. In a world that has forgotten the truth, Jesus has the answers, and in a world that is lonely, he is a true faithful friend. Unlike Joshua Jones, Jesus was not born in Pennsylvania. But he was born somewhere just as real, right here in our world. He also suffered and died here, and when he did, it was for the salvation of everyone who follows him. That’s why Jesus is my Hero. Is he your Hero too?
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org