In the last year, a number of heroes have been exposed. Historical figures have had their faults revealed and, in the light of 2020, history seemingly has been redacted. There is a cancel culture abroad. We’ve seen protests against those who were once celebrated; even figures in church history have not been immune to this. How do we as Christians respond? How should we view our heroes? I want to argue that as Christians we need heroes, but we also need to have a sober view of history without idealizing heroic figures on the one hand or dismissing them on the other.
The Apostle Paul is a hero—he was a man who proclaimed Christ unashamedly. He took the gospel to the world, he wrote most of the New Testament, he stood for the truth, endured persecution, fought the fight, and finished the race in heroic fashion. He tells us to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). He‘s a model Christian, but was he perfect? Was he a man without flaws? We know he wasn’t; he describes himself as the chief of sinners, he writes of sin dwelling in his body, and he even goes as far as to describe himself as a wretched man. A hero, most definitely, but a flawed hero.
Think of Abraham—the friend of God and the father of the faithful, a man of faith, who left all to follow the call of God. But Abraham had character flaws, he repeatedly lied about his wife, and there was cowardice in his character. How about great King David? A man after God’s own heart who led God’s people gloriously, a giant slayer, the sweet psalmist of Israel, and yet we know he committed adultery and murder. The Bible is a wonderfully “real” book—it doesn’t hide the flaws of its characters.
Hebrews 11 gives us a glorious portrait of our heroes and heroines of the faith, and yet they are sinful men and women—Noah falling into drunken disgrace, Isaac and his poor parenting, Jacob and his continual scheming, Moses and anger, Rahab the prostitute, Samson and his pride. Our family heroes of faith from the Bible all had feet of clay. The heroes of our faith were but men and women like us.
As we move from the biblical testimony and look at the world around us, we see that heroes are essential in life. Every culture holds up certain people as those who are worthy of admiration and imitation. However, we need to understand that contemporary Western society has misunderstood heroes and heroism. As those who are in Christ, we must understand the difference between the world’s view and the biblical view of heroes. In our culture, we have elevated the unimportant and the trivial, and so we often make heroes of the wrong kinds of people. We mistake talents, success, or, even more tragically, celebrity for heroism. Our categories have become confused. Sporting success, wealth, fame, and image have taken on a weight that they cannot and should not carry. In our celebrity culture, the trivial has become important.
On the other hand, we live in a cynical age where any heroic act is analyzed and dissected and motives are impugned. There are second or third day’s reports of a news story in which the person behind the heroism is smeared and dirt is cast on what took place. Biographies are written exposing great men and women of the past, bringing little-known secrets out into the open and discrediting their accomplishments. Mark Twain said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” It is as if our world knows it needs and wants heroes, yet it cannot comfortably live with them.
In our society, there is still a deep hunger for heroes, for true human greatness. There remains a need in people to look to others, which we especially see in the sporting and political arenas. The heroes rarely last, and hopes are dashed. The whole process is repeated over and over, but people are still searching.