The problem with heroes


Periods of anxiety are times for dreaming of heroes. James Bond and Han Solo dominate the movies. At airports we can take our pick of fictional heroes who save the world. And at the same time we contemplate our own pedestrian lives and our pedestrian politicians, and long for someone who can lead us out of the wilderness into the promised land, while of course sharing all our views. Heroes are our alter egos who can do all the things that we would like to see done but lack the taste or strength for.

Heroes of the Faith edited by Roland AshbyYet heroes are Janus faced. From one perspective they invite us to dismount from our couches, breathe the open air and take on the world as they do. But they also persuade us that they are a different breed, urging us to keep within our divinely given limitations and leave the business of change to those sown as lions' teeth.

These reflections, I confess, arose out of my own summer reading, and particularly out of a recent collection of articles entitled Heroes of the Faith. The genre is an old one. Once the Catholic version would have included Catholics martyred by the Protestants, and the Protestant version vice versa. But this genial collection is genuinely catholic in its breadth, and discloses as much about the writers as about their subjects. Still, it left me asking whether heroes of the faith are a good thing, and indeed whether any heroes are.

When I think of heroes I call to mind the people I worshipped when I was young — in my case, young men skilled with cricket bats or footballs of different shapes. I adjusted my cap the way they did when taking strike, took a little skip before I kicked for goal, as they did. (And generally missed ball and goal, as they didn't.)

Heroes were people who could do no wrong. My heroes were paragons of virtue, as indeed were all the players in the teams I supported.

Of course, the age of heroes usually ends in disillusionment, aka wisdom. But even as adults we may continue to have heroes whose faults we overlook indulgently and whose virtues we contemplate with satisfaction. They are the people we would secretly like to be, even though we know we never shall. They can encourage us to lift our game.

The making of heroes can have a downside. It can distract us from the ordinary quality of the lives of ordinary people, and so from the real lives of our leaders. When we inflate our heroes' lives so they fill the large box of our ideals they become transfigured into examples of heroic virtue.

Certainly that was the effect of the lives of the saints written for an earlier generation. The holy men and women were pretty interchangeable because each was conspicuously remarkable in every virtue.

One of my favourite stories concerned a monk who was told by his abbot to go into the desert and bring back a lion, and promptly did so. In some versions the lion then quite justifiably ate the exacting abbot. 

In this, as in all such stories of saints' lives, the details of life were reduced to an exemplary virtue. Of the details of their lives and struggles, their failures, their play, what they ate and drank, what excited and bored them, there was nothing. They were heroes, but their path to heroism was shrouded in fog.

This view of heroes misses the mysterious ways in which any of us grows to responsibility: all the messy activities, encounters, perplexities and failings that make up our lives. It misses the effect of the blackbird's liquid call when we lie awake at 4am, the unlikely conversation at the pub, the sudden hint of promise in failure.

It also misses the moments of heroism in the lives of a homeless alcoholic, a philanderer and an extortioner who wrestle with their demons even when being overthrown by them. In Christian terms it misses the shaping of grace in ordinary clay.

The great merit of Heroes of the Faith is that it catches all these things, sometimes in the experience of the subjects chosen, sometimes in the writers' response to them. And in so doing it recalls us to reflect on our own lives, to look with compassionate fellow feeling on our unheroic leaders, and to take the weight of our responsibility for our own lives and world.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Roland Ashby, Heroes of the Faith



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My heroes were the stars in romantic movies. I admired their looks, of course, but especially liked those who showed talent or skills, e.g. Esther Williams and her swimming, Fred Astaire and his dancing, others whose names I cannot immediately recall, with their singing. I used to return home from watching them, and dreamily tried to imitate them. Andrew, of course is right, the people we adulate when young are those thrust on the public stage. Later, wisdom or experience shows us that our heroes have feet of clay. What I especially like about Andrew's article is that he illustrates how people we don't associate heroism with, such as homeless people, usually cast as "no hopers" can indeed be heroes in their battle with their overwhelming demons. All of us have our failings and demons we need to battle. I think Andrew has offered us a glimpse of what God may consider heroism. Thank you, Andrew.

Anna | 16 February 2016  

I've just finished Geraldine Brooks's 'The Secret Chord', a novel based on the biblical King David. It explores exactly the themes Andrew writes about here.

David B | 16 February 2016  

Most great Christian heroes do not see themselves in a 'heroic' light but as the worst of sinners, that is not because they were particularly wicked or evil, though some of them may once have led rather colourful lives, but because they know we are all flawed and incomplete. When a great contemporary Orthodox Christian theologian, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, was asked whether Christians could say they were 'saved', he replied that this was not an instantaneous event, but that the process of being saved took up one's whole lifetime. Jesus never despised the disadvantaged or marginalised. His ministry of healing and preaching was especially among them. He was criticised and derided by the religious elite of his day for so doing. I think we make a terrible mistake when we attempt to make contemporary Christianity into a middle class 'Happy Club'. The Medieval Western Mystics, who lived in a far poorer world than we do, had a much deeper and clearer vision of what Christianity is than most of us in the contemporary West seem to, although there are still people who see the way clearly and attempt to light it up for us. They are the true 'heroes'.

Edward Fido | 16 February 2016  

Thanks for the reality check, Andy!

Peter Johnstone | 16 February 2016  

A co-incidence - I don't think of heroes all that often, but last week I saw that a hero of mine for the last 40 years has a new book out. So I thought - "Maybe she's on Youtube" - and I had a look and she is. She may be the least scintillating speaker the Ted Talks have ever had (I saw her in person 40 years ago and she was a fantastic speaker, but still, a hero.

Russell | 16 February 2016  

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