Updated: May 30, 2021
James 1:25, “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, is what most writers might call a paragon hero. Paragon heroes are written to be shining examples of heroism, nobility and general goodness. Their virtues are many. Their flaws are few. Unfortunately, most people today consider paragon heroes an unrealistic ideal that generally makes for uninteresting protagonists. ‘They’re static and predictable,’ so the argument goes. But are they really? Because its people and characters like Captain America that says something entirely different to me. For there is a weight to nobility that paragons fully understand but so often goes unnoticed by most people.
Good old Cap’ has been referred to in two ways. He’s the ultimate All-American symbol and the ‘man out of time’, but if you reflect on that a while, it becomes sobering how accurately both terms describe him. Trapped under ice then resuscitated eighty years later, Steve fell unconscious in World War II only to awaken in our era - in an America he can’t recognize. Traditional values are no longer the norm. Complacency is commonplace. Worst still, it’s tough to read anyone’s full intentions anymore. Captain America no longer feels at home in America. He’s an emotionally lost and displaced man, and in such situations there’s really only two things one can do. You either adapt to the culture or you hang tight to your values. To Captain Rogers, though, the first avenue wasn’t an option.
As the Marvel films roll along, it’s easy to see how Steve’s nobility effects those around him. Much like Christianity itself, the people in his life are either drawn to it or repelled by it; mainly because nobility is a subtle challenge to others. People either want to imitate it or try to break it. What’s less easy to spot, though, is how Steve’s own nobility is also a challenge to himself. You see, his unwavering drive to do what’s right continually costs him. It costs him his freedom, his girl, some friendships, and invites this chronic sense of alienation he can never quite shake off. It’s no wonder then that he’s reluctant to leave the soldier’s life. In a world so hostile to his values, the choice to fight for justice is one of the last familiar things he has left. Any sensible person in his position might have loosened their grip on ‘higher morals’ just to skip the heartache, but he inexplicably doesn’t. It’s even to a point where Tony Stark assumes he has no darkside, but to that, Steve simply replies, ‘or maybe you haven’t seen it yet,’ hinting that he does have a darkside but doesn’t give it the time of day.
We Christians can relate to this ‘paragon paradox’ so well. As redeemed citizens of God’s kingdom, we desire to emulate God and His nobility, and yet, we have to keep constantly suffering for it. Few among us know this better than Joseph from Genesis. He was a God-fearing Hebrew who’m his own brothers sold into slavery. Thus, he was quite literally displaced in a pagan, polytheistic Egypt. Sound familiar? However, in a world so alien to his, Joseph kept his values. To his benefit, that steadfast nobility of his earned him his master’s respect, but then it also incurred the hatred of his master’s wife, who’s schemes landed him in jail for two years. It’s kinda funny how society raised us to believe the moral thing is the predictable thing, isn’t it? Because it’s not. It’s definitely not. It’s far less predictable to stick to your guns when it costs you your college degree, your house, your business, or your spouse. I haven’t seen magazines or articles today tell people to persist in things that cause them trouble. Have you? I certainly haven’t.
But what’s the point of being so ‘paragon’ then? Why bear all that weight? Well, I can’t cover every reason in so short a blog, but we can easily tell one thing. It’s certainly not for a pleasant life. True, Joseph eventually ruled Egypt under Pharaoh, but prosperity is not guaranteed to the noble hearted. On the contrary, it tends to invite harm more often than not, so the endgame here clearly isn’t material or tangible. So what is it? Well, perhaps it’s not found by looking within the paragon himself but rather outside of him - more specifically - to those around them.
Consider again the people that surrounded paragons like Captain America and Joseph. Most of them were changed (largely for the better) thanks to their very presence. Mostly because people find something very rare in paragons: dependability. Paragons aren’t wild cards. They mean what they say and say what they mean and can be trusted to do what’s right. Steve’s exploits past and present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe cultivated greater resolves in several generations of superheroes. As for Jospeh, his family and it seems even several of his Egyptian servants were drawn by his nobility to follow the Lord as he did. Both men saved countless lives, but it’s how their steadfast virtue transformed lives that left an even bigger impact.
This all reminds me of a scene from the 2006 Rocky Balboa movie. In a rousing speech to his discouraged son, Rocky says, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are. . . . You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life, but it ain’t about how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” Whenever I ponder those words, I ask myself if I truly believe that. Is a noble character worth getting knocked down over and over again? Is losing in this life worth winning others for the eternal life? And you know what? Yes. Yes, I do. But the follow-up question is always harder for me: ‘Can I take the punishment?’ I’d like to think I could. My inner realist, however, knows that I can’t, but hey, even Captain America needed a shield for the battles ahead of him. Thankfully, Joseph’s shield in his battles in Egypt is my shield too. I’m never alone. For the ultimate question isn’t, ‘Can I take the hits?’ It’s, ‘Do I trust my Lord and Savior enough to know that He’ll help absorb the blows meant for me?’ The weight of nobility is heavy, but to the redeemed and the brave, it’s more than worth the lives it’ll change.
“Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old fashioned?”
“Everything that’s happening? The things that are about to come to light? People just might need a little ‘old fashioned’.”
- Phil Coulson to Captain America (The Avengers, 2012)
Galatians 6:9-10, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”