The Desperate Need for Heroes


Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogyThe annual Christian Booksellers Association convention (now with the utterly ghastly new name “International Christian Retail Show”—boy, that’s a blog entry in itself!) is running this week and it’s started off with a bang due to a speech given by Andy Crouch (who?) that called Christian fiction writers to abandon writing escapist novels and start addressing “reality.” His assertion comes from watching airline travelers; he observes that they have traded their books for playing solitaire on a notebook computer or cell phone. From this he posits that too many of us have traded gritty life for virtual reality:

It’s worth pausing and asking ourselves whether what we are looking for when we read, what our readers are looking for, is not escape and seclusion. This is a constant Christian temptation. We are prone to create our Christian virtual reality. I’m sure that right here at the International Christian Retail Show you’ll be able to meet good-hearted folks creating Christian video games. Isn’t that appealing? A world, suitably tweaked and put at your disposal for your entertainment, where Christianity actually works! Just obey the Christian rules and you win the game. A world where prayers are always answered! A world where sin doesn’t weave itself so tightly around even our best efforts! It is so tempting to strategically simplify, to create a fictional reality in which things just seem to work better than they do in this world.

But to do that is to deny the Incarnation, to deny that God became real in this world, in this very world where God does not seem real to many people much of the time. To create Christian virtual reality is to choose escape and seclusion and thus become entirely irrelevant to the heart of the gospel, which is God entering into this very world in order to liberate it from its captivity to itself.

So I plead with you, as a reader, as a fellow follower of the Incarnate One, as someone who daily wonders how this gospel to which I am giving my life can possibly be true, I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead, tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

Like so many Christian commentators today, Crouch understands a problem exists. However, I believe his analysis and solution are profoundly wrong. It is not that people have abandoned books and movies (box office numbers continue their free-fall, too) because they are escapist, but because they aren’t escapist enough!

I’ve given up on most mainstream fiction because I can no longer stomach anti-heroes. Every character in every novel I have read lately is an amalgam of relativistic “ideals” that amounts to nothing more than a shell inhabited by moralistic flotsam and jetsam. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys because the bad guy has his subversively “noble” cause, while the “good guy” has more moral failings than the denizens of Sodom.

Now we might live in a postmodern age that attempts to call black “white” or even “chartreuse,” but I can tell you straight up that people are bored stiff with fictional characters that have few admirable traits, no transcendence over the rest of skulking humanity, no divine fire in their bellies that compels them to rise up and let the world know that they are different.

I’m shifting to film here because it provides a more concentrated and widely-known pool of examples to choose from, but why do people love the Star Wars movies and flock to them even when Episodes 1-3 were acknowledged by everyone as having awful dialog, wooden acting, and ham-handed direction? After watching a great musical like Singing in the Rain or The Sound of Music, why do so many people let their first comment be, “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?” Why did the first Matrix movie inspire devotion, the second ambivalence, and the last one contempt?

It’s all about heroes. People are dying for heroes. People long for happy endings in which the clearly drawn hero with a heart of gold vanquishes the bad guy—a bad guy so bad he’d even eat his own mother for breakfast. The average guy in the average house in the average suburban tract has had his fill of anti-heroes. He doesn’t want someone who looks like him, struggles like him, and in the end is no better for any of his trials. He wants to see someone grow and learn and kick the bad guy’s ass in the last scene. If Yoda had a penchant for picking up little green call girls and knocking back the Tatooine hooch whenever he had the chance, no one would be cheering, and no one would be standing in line to see another Star Wars film. The Wachowski brothers forgot that the reason people liked The Matrix was more than just the cunning special effects, it was the fact that the good guys were good and believed in something greater than themselves. When in The Matrix Reloaded Morpheus’ altruism was demeaned as being little more than religious fanaticism, you could feel the collective audience sigh of “Well, there goes the series!”

What some label as mere escapism, the majority of people consider to be their one chance to see the good triumph over evil. When our TV news programs depict one hopeless scene of brutality, disease, and loathsomeness after another, why would we want to subject ourselves to reading the same in our fiction or watching it on our screens? People don’t want to see any conflict in a character like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings other than Do I kill that orc with my broadsword or with my dagger? We don’t want all his moral failings paraded before us; we want him to grow into his kingship. Because if he can, maybe we can, too.

Has anyone asked the solitaire player on Crouch’s flight why he plays solitaire instead of reading the latest novel? Could it be that the solitaire player prefers an electronic card game because it contains the promise that the game could be won? Virtual reality at least allows the one immersed in it to possibly come out on top, to vanquish some imagined foe, to live out the heroism that is so lacking in our daily lives.

This is no endorsement for John Eldredge’s fatally flawed Wild at Heart, but the reason that book resonated with so many disaffected men is that it put out a call to heroism, a call lacking in much of our culture because we have for too long ceded our imaginations to anti-heroes and protagonists of questionable morality. Our culture screams, “There are no heroes!” We are told by the media elite that happy endings are for simpletons. Yet, who reading this today would want to come to the end of his/her life and NOT want it to end happily?

I find Crouch’s appeal to Christian writers to write more fiction that is rooted in the funk of this world and to avoid obvious happy endings to be a capitulation to the spirit of the age. It is to take our injunction to think on what is noble, pure, and right and turn it into just another dark day in the gutter. You can claim that it’s all about mystery and grace, but if that amazing grace doesn’t lead us to a heavenly home where we’ll be for a lot longer than ten thousand years, then Christian writers will be offering their readers the same bankrupt worldview that the world is offering. Our identity as Christians will be lost amid the many secular and religious voices that take a look at the vagaries of our existence and can only shrug and say, “Man, life is tough, isn’t it?”

The incarnation that Crouch uses as his proof text does not end with the dead Christ hanging on His cross. Paul himself said that if that is the whole of it, we are people to be most pitied. No! That dead Christ—our very archetypal hero—overcame Death itself! The stone is rolled away from the tomb! Jesus was the victor then and will be the victor to come when He and His righteous legions destroy all the powers of Darkness!

If our creative writing doesn’t regularly reflect this final triumph of good over evil, then all we have handed our readers is another maudlin dose of despair. I for one am not willing to write books that fail to offer this triumph; I know that you are not wanting to read them, either.

{Image: Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from New Line Cinema}

24 thoughts on “The Desperate Need for Heroes

  1. Reloaded

    There is a long term problem with celebrating heroes. In a church I used to attend, Aragorn was widely touted as an example for men to follow. We all read Wild At Heart. Egalitarian and Complementarian men tried their best to rescue their beauties (wives) from whatever ailed them.

    William Wallace was set forth as a hero, as a role model.

    Col Hal Moore (We Were Soldiers) was set forth for us to emulate.

    And, for a time, yes it resonated, yes it charged our souls, but in the end, most of us collapsed under the weight of the icons that had been placed before us.

    Marriages that were already badly wounded were actually pushed closer to the edge.

    Neither extreme, the anti-hero or the hero is healthy because neither is realistic. Neither is a role model.

    We can’t all be Vasily Zaitsev.

    Give me more characters like Neo or Constantine in Christian works. People with doubts that try anyway. People on a journey, not people that have already arrived. People with flaws, but not absurdly so.

  2. Reloaded,

    We Christians need to choose our heroes wisely and portray them accurately when they are real, rather than fictional. I think the failure your church experienced may have been due to a poor understanding of how these heroes fit in to the wider scope of Christian thought. As I noted, while I think that Wild at Heart does a good job of showing us the problem, the solution offered is profoundly flawed. I do not doubt that it proved unworkable in your church setting.

    As for heroes and anti-heroes not being realistic, I disagree. I know of many real Christian people who were heroes and who did not suffer from the gratuitous feet of clay we see in so many of today’s supposed “heroes.” I’m not so naive as to think that these heroes I’m thinking of never sinned, but they certainly are head and shoulders above what I see offered to people anymore.

    You brought up Neo, but The Matrix trilogy crashed and burned for the very reason that the machines were no longer the bad guys by the series end and that a curious Zen-like balance was achieved by Neo’s death. The Wachowskis utterly failed then to keep their cause clear, instead opting for a muddled conclusion in which everything that went on before proved completely throw-away. The villain was never Agent Smith, and to make him the focus of the antagonism destroyed the greater message of the series. Viewers (and readers) do not want to see good and evil compromise. Nor do they want the journey solely for the journey’s sake. If we never arrive at the end (and all books and movies end) we have no greater understanding of purpose and reason, two things that all books (and films) should address. Archetypes exist for a reason and we tread on thin ice when we spurn them.

  3. Reloaded

    Books and movies are finite, this is true, and perhaps that is how the archetypes they present fail us most. When we worship the fully formed archetype, when I see the hero right the wrongs and make the world a better place over the course of 2 hours of film, or 300 pages of a novel, and then I struggle for months and years trying to raise a family and make a marriage and friendships work, I get discouraged.

    At our old church, the pressure to simply “become William Wallace” was simply overwhelming. It’s like the pressure in churches to disavow all doubts once you’ve accepted Christ. My heart doesn’t work that way.

    It also seems to me that most of the archetypes we see these days are single or widowed or the spouse is out-of-the-picture. It is the rare book or movie that shows a married person and their spouse and even a family in heroic proportions. (The Incredibles is an awesome but rare counter-example.) I think we do a great disservice to married men and women, when we fail to present role models for them “in the family way.”

    But I digress… you want to know what the most inspirational book I have read in a long time was? The book that has helped me the most, most recently, with my faith? It was the autobiography of Johnny Cash. It’s about his journey. It’s about his family. It’s about his struggles, his addiction. It’s about his friends. It’s about his evolving understanding of God. And that is why, I hold Johnny Cash a role model, supplanting William Wallace and the others. Reading his life story strengthened my faith like nothing else has in a long time.

    Thanks for a great post. It really got me thinking and helped me focus some thoughts.

  4. Becky

    Great post, Dan, and a great exchange between you and Reloaded.

    I think I understand what he’s talking about—a number of years ago there was a backlash against the Proverbs 31 woman for the very reason that putting all her virtues into our lives seemed unrealistic and impossible.

    The thing is, those heroes, real or fictitious, can either become idols or they can push us into a works kind of life, if we don’t link the hero to God as the source of their strength. That linking is the thing that I think is most absent in the “new” Christian fiction.

    Why is it that Christian and non-Christian alike embrace Frodo and Aragorn and Samwise and Gandolf? Because each infuses whatever he wants into the the meaning of “hero” and the gulf between the two remains.

    I envision Christian fiction that engages Christian and non-Christian alike because it rings true and because it unequivocally points to God as the hero. At least that’s what I’m aiming for.

  5. Becky

    And then I forgot why I even came to comment. Dan, Crouch has a column in Christianity Today on Books and Culture. Whatever else he has written or does, I couldn’t tell you.

  6. Brian Colmery

    Dan, great post. Got my juices flowing for sure…and the commentary has also been really enlightening.

    Once again, thanks for making my day more thoughtful.

  7. Gaddabout

    Fun topic, Dan. A couple of bullets:

    – The Matrix fell on its face because the Wachowskis, I believe, couldn’t decide if their story was a Christ parallel or if their story was a vehicle to post-modernize Kierkegaard.

    – I think anti-heroes are great when there is a value of redemption, not a value of justification for their glaring weaknesses. Die Hard would play just as well today as it did in the 80s. Dirty Harry would not. Perhaps we are not really talking about anti-heroes. Maybe we are really talking about unwilling heroes. The Last Samurai comes to mind.

    – Today’s man of action often embraces nihilism to an extent I don’t think connects with the average American. It can be funny because it’s absurd, but in the end, nihilistic heroes lack the palate for honor, which we all crave. Americans have always demanded to be inspired by their heroes in some way. Cathartic justice is not enough. It’s too empty. Leave that stuff for the French.

    – The first book I ever read was a Louis L’Amour novel. L’Amour wrote unapologetic good guys who lived by a code of honor that exceeds the standards of any day. Yet, I recall marveling and admiring these characters for their earnest and implicit value for the sanctity of human life. I did not spend much time dwelling on the fact I’d never met real people who were so good, I think because they were not wealthy, not neccesarily good looking, and spent a lot of time wrestling with evil in the dirt. They worked hard and did not despise their lack of riches. There is a rich example of the kind of characters that could be created in the Christian realm of fiction by an author that was not known for his theological work.

  8. sally apokedak

    Interesting Dan. I had the same thoughts on the hero and the resurrection as you had. I posted them on FIF this morning. I don’t disagree with Crouch the way you do—I actually think I’ve not completely understood him. But I do agree with your take on heroes and happy endings.

    Reloaded, I agree with Becky, the hero is Christ. And we are all heroes in Christ. We have an inheritance incorruptible. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people—God has chosen us and we are on the winning team. Do we have to try hard to be heroes? I don’t really think so. But we like to read hero fiction because it reminds us that there will be justice, there will be an end to violence, the wicked will cease to harass and the righteous will win the day. Praise God, right will succeed. That’s why I like hero books. And I am not hero. I am down-trodden, I am weak, I am sinful, I err constantly. But praise God he will save even the weak and the weary.


  9. J. Mark Bertrand

    By the way, here’s Andy Crouch’s bio from his site at

    “Andy’s mission is to help North American Christians discover the meaning of the gospel in our cultural and global context. He is editorial director for the Christian Vision Project and a columnist at Christianity Today, a member of the editorial board of Books & Culture, and a senior fellow of the International Justice Mission’s IJM Institute. More important, he seeks to befriend, learn from, and connect followers of Christ who are forging innovative paths of discipleship and cultural influence. Most important, he is a son, brother, husband, and father of two children. He lives with his family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

    “From 1998 to 2003, Andy was the editor-in-chief of re:generation quarterly, a magazine for an emerging generation of culturally creative Christians. For ten years he was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University. He studied classics at Cornell University and received an M.Div. summa cum laude from Boston University School of Theology. A classically trained musician who draws on pop, folk, rock, jazz, and gospel, he has led musical worship for congregations of 5 to 20,000.”

  10. Me

    You all seem to be missing an important point…..
    (from the first post)
    “People don’t want to see any conflict in a character like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings other than Do I kill that orc with my broadsword or with my dagger? We don’t want all his moral failings paraded before us; we want him to grow into his kingship. Because if he can, maybe we can, too.”

    Sure Aragorn kicks ass, but the real hero (s) of LOTR are Frodo and Sam. And they are no superheros! These 2 came from humble beginings, face extreme challanges (both physical and emotional) and became the heros!
    (I wont even go into the moral failings that Aragorn seems to face through out the Trilogy)
    These 2 UNLIKELY heros are appealing because they could be us, right now. Not after a few pounds lost or a fail chemical experiment. They were real.
    The reason LOTR worked so well is that you had the right balance: Pure Good, pure evil, and a dash of realism.
    Most peolpe still want to read about some one closer to them selves (life wise) overcome moral, physical, and emotional obsticals. I love a good super-good-hero book or movie every so often. It reminds me that in the end (the REAL end) a real hero will return and vanquish evil, once and for all. Until then, show me some one I can relate with.
    Oh, and BTW, this past year was the 3rd highest grossing year in hollywoods history. Slump? Not so much. 😉
    Oh, one more thing….. Wild at heart is a lot like the Iraq war, and the Bush Regiem…… At first, we are sucked in by the way it plays on our emotions (fear/insecurity) but after awhile, it becomes obvious it isn’t the right course!

  11. Julana

    I read Bertrand’s comments on Crouch, but couldn’t figure out how to comment. I haven’t read Crouch’s speech, but sounds like he is looking for Flannery O’Connor, if Bertrand’s right.

  12. J. Mark,

    Thanks for the clairification on Crouch. I truly have not heard of him. But then again, that may go back to the fact that just last week I went to about five bookstores looking for any that carried Christianity Today. I’m shocked at how invisible that magazine has become.

  13. Gaddabout mentioned L’Amour and that brings me to what I consider to be the antithesis of his vision, the anti-Western that swept the Academy Awards not too long ago, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Not only is this my least favorite Western, it’s one of the worst films I’ve ever seen for the very fact that it is anti-everything. In fact, it perfectly represents the kind of book/film that I’m talking about as the bad example in my post. Every character is fatally flawed and pretty much everyone dies in the end, leaving you to wonder just how many minutes of your life you just sacrificed to watch this.

    Now I am not saying—again—that you can’t write tragedy or even nihilistic postmodern commentary. I thought Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled was a brilliant and daring work, it’s odd ending perfectly summing up the disconnectedness of modern man from his own life. But that’s the whole point of the book and everything in the book supported it. On the other hand, a book like Paul Oster’s Oracle Night includes the same disconnections but without any point. A book like that is life-draining and leaves the reader with a big hole where the thoughtfulness should be.

  14. Dan: I went to about five bookstores looking for any that carried Christianity Today. I’m shocked at how invisible that magazine has become.

    Yeah, I find it amazing also. When I go to Border’s Books, down the street from me, I notice there will be several magazines on the rack dedicated to extolling the homosexual lifestyle. On the other hand, no CT, nor any other xtian magazine that I can find, other than one Catholic one as I recall. I guess they don’t carry CT because there’s no market for it.

  15. By the way, Dan, I recommend the book Shows About Nothing by Thomas S. Hibbs. It provides some insight into the overall nihilism that’s pervasive in movies, television, and in the wider culture.

  16. Scott

    I know the following is off-topic to some degree, but, Dan, I just finished watching Babette’s Feast and found it delightful. I hadn’t heard of it until you mentioned it in a conversation with Gaddabout. Thanks for the tip!

    IMHO, Frodo and Sam’s heroism lies in their humility and service – a trait inherent in Aragorn and Gandalf as well, but fleshed out in these two halflings in particular. Frodo and Sam are reluctant heroes who dream only of gardens and home (perhaps a rememberance of the other’s deeds in a song or two) – how many of us are so noble in humility? Wouldn’t we rather be kings or wizards or high elves? Perhaps the heroic that we see in LOTR is the willingness to embrace simplicity and humility and to discard power and the evils implicit within that power. I don’t know about you, but that runs against my very nature. Frodo and Sam are not greater heroes than Aragorn and Gandalf because they’re more like us (though in many ways they are), but because they’re less like us in their humility and their simplicity. They long for quiet, peaceful lives while we long for glory and recognition. They receive both; we receive neither. I don’t believe it was unintentional that Tolkien had a human take up the One Ring, and a halfling (with a little help from Gollum) throw it away.

    We need heroes. Not because they upbraid us for our failings, but because they inspire us to greater deeds than would be possible without them.

  17. Julana

    I have to thank you for all the work you put in to this blog. You address the right questions, and have time to think and write about them with some depth.

  18. Scott.
    Babette’s Feast is one of the top five explicitly Christian movies ever made as far as I see it. Glad you enjoyed it. I hope everyone who comes to this blog spends the time to watch it some day.

    Thanks for coming by. Always appreciate new readers!

    Now if I could just learn to turn my brain off! I’m accused of always ruminating on things and it’s true. Still, between managing my freelance writing business, trying to write novels, homeschooling, running a small farm, managing our home life, being a husband and father (and a stay-at-home dad), it’s a wonder I can remember my name when people ask me!

  19. Dan,

    I’ve been tinkering with a book for a while now. The main character, a Texas Ranger, basically holds strongly to justice and the intigrity associated with it.

    I will, however, show his attitide toward his faith in God shift and shape during the course of the book. However, I feel that these hardcore goodguys are the best, as you describe.

    By the way, what’s the deal with Wild at Heart? I had that book recommended to me? I guess I’ll read and find out.

    Good Post, Dan.

  20. rev-ed

    A very interesting post/exchange, Dan. All in all, it’s related to the idea of transparency in the life of a Christian, especially a pastor. How flawed should people know that we are? Are people more comfortable not dealing with our imperfections?

    Good stuff.

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