Pop Culture and the "son of god"
Modern pop-culture contains plenty of narratives that are anti-God, not in the sense of being atheistic (within the story itself), but rather in the sense that they portray god/God as an antagonist. The literary example par excellence is, perhaps, the immensely popular His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (the "anti-Lewis," if you will!), though other examples abound.
There is, however, a different motif I'd like to examine. Within pop culture, both modern and ancient, some narratives give us a "son of god" protagonist. Significantly, however, this "son of god" works independently of his father, frequently antagonistic towards him. Way back in Greek mythology we have various references to sons of the gods with Perseus, the son of Zeus, being one of the more significant. In the modern retelling of Perseus' adventures in Clash of the Titans (Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures, 2010) and Wrath of the Titans (Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures, 2012), the hero distances himself from the gods, refusing the offer to join them. At the beginning of Wrath of the Titans, it is revealed that Perseus refused to pray to Zeus or any other god even when his wife dies (and the gods lose their power when mortals cease to pray!) Zeus approaches an unsympathetic Perseus for help in a cosmic conflict, telling him, "You believe your human half makes you unworthy to join us. You will learn someday that being half-human makes you stronger than a god, not weaker." Perseus responds dismissively, "I think you should go."
In the extremely popular (and gratuitously violent) God of War games for the PS2 and 3 (Sony/SCE Santa Monica), protagonist Kratos learns that he is, in fact, the son of Zeus. Rather than a heart-felt reconciliation à la "Return of the Jedi," Kratos embarks upon a path of vengeance resulting in him killing his own father.
Other examples exist, but these are some of the more popular. My point is simply that pop culture's conception of a "son of god" frequently seems to consist of an independent will, often in opposition to its father (or at least one that works independently of the father).
Hebrews and the Son of God
Similar to how John 1:14 turns popular conceptions of the "Logos" (both Greek and Jewish) on its head, so also Hebrews 5:8 presents a radically different picture of who the "Son of God" is and what he does. To being with, we do not have here a "half-human," as if the human side and the divine side could be measured independently from each other. Rather, we have here the "God-human in his divine-human unity" (McCormack, 66). Christ, though 100% human, is so linked to the Father that to oppose the Father would be to oppose his own essence, a logical absurdity.
More significantly for our purposes, however, we have the incredible statement in Heb 5:8 that the Son "learned obedience from what he suffered." "Learned obedience?" How does the Son "learn obedience," and why?
In Clash of the Titans, we see Perseus starting from humble origins yet earning a place with the gods through heroic deeds (a place which he refuses). Here in Hebrews, however, we see Christ starting out with the highest position (the "express image" [kjv] of the Father, Gr. apaugasma, in 1:3; there is a parallel here in Wisdom of Solomon), yet voluntarily lowered to the experience of suffering and anguish in 5:7. Rather than the father coming to the son for help, here the Son cries out to the Father and is heard in his anguish. Suffering, then, is the path to exaltation. As Guthrie writes, "The dynamics ofthe situation are not what you would expect. Unlike an ancient prince, on whom positions were bestowed by lineage, this divine Son was called to walk a path of obedience through suffering" (190-191). Throughout all this the Son is not acting as a hero on his own, slaying monsters while the father or other gods sit by wringing their hands and hoping for a good outcome. Rather, the Son becomes the hero by submitting in "godly fear [Gr. eulabeia] expressed in the recognition of God's sovereignty and submission to the divine will" (Lane, 120).
The author of Hebrews is fully aware of the sense of irony pervading this theme. Up until now Hebrews has, after all, spent a lot of time portraying the Son as superior to everything and inherently worthy of honor and glory. The Son needs do nothing at all to earn his place at the Father's right hand. It is his by right! Nevertheless, as B. F. Westcott states,, "Though son and therefore endowed with right of access for Himself to the Father, being of one essence with the Father, for man's sake as man he won the right of access for humanity" (128). Yet all this is done not in opposition to the Father, as if the Son somehow had humanity's best interests while the Father did not! Rather, mankind's salvation is won only in submission to the Father.
Yet how, then, does the Son "learn" obedience? Surely he was no stranger to that aspect of his relationship with the Father. Westcott points out this oddity by aptly noting that "the nature of Christ's Sonship at first sight seems to exclude the thought that He should learn obedience through suffering" (128; see also Lane, 121). Yet we must not think of "learning" here in a strictly intellectual sense, i.e., the gaining of new knowledge. Instead, "learning" here is experiential; the Son "graduates" from "the school of suffering" and accomplishes the divine goal (Guthrie, 191). Indeed, he "entered into a new dimension in the experience of sonship by virtue of his incarnation and sacrificial death" (Lane, 121).
Clearly the Son was always "on board" with the Father's will. Yet something new happens at the cross--in Heb 5:9 the Son experiences perfection/completion (remember, the Greek here can mean either) of the Father's will through submission to the divine plan. The concept of "perfection" (or "completion") in 5:9 does not mean that the Son was not already perfect (either morally or otherwise), but rather that he now experiences completion of the Father's purpose through his suffering.
It is only through submission, then, that the story has a happy ending. An antagonistic or independent son cannot save humanity. Rather, Christ's new position as a priest "after the order of Melchizedek" comes from having submitted himself to the Father's will. Suffering, rejection (even by the Father!), and death ensues. Yet in the end, it is the Father Himself who refuses to leave his obedient Son's body to suffer corruption; he hears the Son's cries and exalts him. Glorious freedom for all humanity is thus not gained through opposition to the Creator, but paradoxically through submission to the Creator.
What, then, does this have to do with us? The fact is, we too often follow the model of Perseus rather than Christ. Despite paying lip service to our status as children of God, in daily practice we coldly tell him to leave us alone, that we're quite okay on our own. When trials arise, we often fail to embrace them as part of the divine plan and prefer to either attempt to weather them through our own strength or lash out at the One who brought them. With W. Henley in "Invictus," we declare, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." Unconsciously spurred on by humanistic views (helped, perhaps, by an obsession with political liberty and so-called "rights"), we delude ourselves into thinking that "freedom" stems from the personal liberty to pursue our own dreams, to chose our own paths. In doing so, like Perseus, we give God the cold shoulder.
Jesus offers us a better way. Demoted from his exalted status, which was his by right, he marries his will completely to that of the Father. All throughout the Gospels it was the Father's will, over his own, that was of paramount concern (e.g., Luke 22:42). In his greatest hour of suffering, he demonstrates obedience to the most extreme degree possible and consequently emerges victorious.
How, then, can we fail to follow Christ's example? Experiencing obedience in the manner of Christ marks us out as children of God. True happiness ultimately stems from allowing the Creator's desires to shape our own, even in the midst of grief; true freedom emerges from our service to the King and to others. Our own desires, our own habits, our own plans for the future, all these must be allowed to become subservient to the Father's will. There is no room in the Christian life for two masters.
Modern pop culture tends to promote a concept of humanistic Independence, the idea that I have the right to choose my own path and "follow my own heart." Humanity throws off its "bonds" and rises against the "tyranny" of divine rule (Psalm 2). In contrast, Christ submits to the Father and purchases freedom for an enslaved world. Let's choose to follow the example of our Redeemer and submit to the Father's will; to him be glory both now and forever, amen!
1. Guthrie, George H. Hebrews. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids,
Mich. Zondervan, 1998.
2. Lane, William L. Hebrews 1-8. Word Biblical Commentary 47A. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1991.
3. McCormack, Bruce L. "'With Loud Cries and Tears': The Humanity of the Son in the Epistle to the Hebrews." Pages 37-68 in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. Eds. Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, Trevor A. Hart, and Nathan MacDonald. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.
4. Westcott, Brooke Foss. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1951.