Beliefnet
The Bible and Culture

Believe it or not, the word hero never comes up in the NT. But the word saint occurs over 60 times. And here’s the really interesting thing– it always in the plural! Saints are not formed in a vacuum or by isolate action or spiritual effort. Saints are formed in a community, the community of faith.

Our world loves heroes, indeed idolizes them and puts them up on pedestals they are bound to fall off of. I was recently back in Washington D.C. and took a friend for a tour on the Mall. It struck me how much our country is founded on a belief in “great man” (or woman) syndrome. There was the Washington monument, there was the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, there were the names of the Vietnam soldiers who died, and so on. We assume that things that really matter are accomplished by great individuals, and of course there is some truth to that, but actually in almost any given case it took a team effort. Abraham Lincoln would have had no memorial if he hadn’t finally found a few generals that could beat Robert E. Lee in a pitched battle.

In his wonderful book on Christian ethics called Improvisation, Sam Wells has some fantastic reflections on the difference between a hero and a saint, and why the NT extols the latter not the former. Here are a couple of excerpts—

“there is a significant difference between the kind of story that is told about heroes and the kind of story that is told about saints. The heroes always make a decisive intervention at a moment when things are looking like they could all go badly wrong [see the new Nicholas Cage movie]. The hero steps up and makes everything turn out right. In other words, the hero is always at the center of the story. By contrast, the saint is not necessarily a crucial character. The saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero’s story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God. …The hero’s story is told to celebrate the virtues of the hero. The hero’ strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing: such are the qualities on which the hero’s decisive intervention rests. By contrast the saint may not be strong, brave, clever, or opportunistic. But the saint is faithful [consider the hall of faith in Hebrews 11]. The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith….

“The definitive heroic icon is the soldier, who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage. The story assumes that in a world of limited resources there is bound to be conflict at some stage so that good may prevail. But the saints assume a very different story. They do not need to learn how to fight over competing goods, because Christ has fought for and secured the true good, and the goods that matter now are not limited or in short supply. Love, joy peace, faithfulness, gentleness– these do not rise or fall with the stock market. The saint’s story does not presuppose scarcity [think oil for example]; it does not require the perpetuation of violence. Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The solder faces death in battle; the saint faces death by not going to battle. The soldier’s heroism is its own reward: it makes sense in any language that respects nobility and aspires to greatness. The martyr’s sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God: it has no place in any story except that of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice and the martyr’s heavenly crown… A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and know no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through the cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.”

“Finally, the hero stands alone against the world. The story of the hero shows how he or she stands out from the community by the excellence of his or her virtue, the decisiveness of his or her intervention, or their simple right to have his or her story told. The story of God tells how he expects a response from his disciples that they cannot give on their own: they depend not only on him, but on one another for resources that can sustain faithful lives, and they discover that their dependence on one another is not a handicap but is central to their witness….Saints are never alone. They assume, demand, require community– a special kind of community, the communion of the saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves: saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith. The church is God’s new language, and it speaks not of a country fit for heroes to live in but of a commonwealth of saints” (Improvisation, pp. 43-44).

My question to you is, after you reflect on this– Why is our world so fixated on heroes, and so ignorant of or ignoring saints? And then I would ask— who have been your heroes, and who have been your saints? Who helped you more to be a true Christian person? Who taught you more about what real Christian living and leadership should look like? Who, finally seemed more like Jesus, and less like Samson?

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus