“The Cross and the Antihero”

One of my favorite movies of all time is the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with John Wayne and James Stewart. It provides an engaging contrast between the two classic ideas of the hero and the antihero. Jimmy Stewart’s character is a young, idealistic lawyer, the epitome of truth, justice, and the American way. John Wayne is a practical, rough-around-the-edges cowboy who can fight, shoot, is tough enough to survive the frontier, but he lacks his counterpart’s idealistic ambitions. At the story’s climax, the anti-hero has what it takes to kill the bad guy, while the hero gets all the credit. (Sorry if I spoiled the plot, but it came out in 1962. You’ve had plenty of time to see it.) The anti-hero archetype is becoming ever more preferred in popular culture. Is it simply that we relate to a flawed character acting heroically, rather than the polished perfection of the classic hero? Perhaps, but I think it reflects something deeper in our hearts, a desire to be good, but not too good. We want to be moral enough to live with ourselves, but we still want to enjoy a vice here and there. In short, we want to be moral, but not holy.

The difference between holiness and morality is subtle. Christians often conflate the two ideas, because for us, they are related. However, that is not always the case in the broader world of ideas. Thus, we should start by observing that while morality is system based, holiness is Scripture based. Getting back to our example of the anti-hero for a second, we can see that we might be right to describe him as moral. He has as code of honor that guides his life, and while it permits violence and drunkenness, it still drives him to save the life of an innocent man and to act unselfishly at times. Under his personal code, to observers, he exist as a good and moral man, especially in contrast to the villain. By itself, a moral code is simply a way to reason about right and wrong from a particular set of governing principles, and that leaves plenty of ambiguity about the particulars. For instance, consider situation ethics which claims that any moral command of Scripture can be violated if done out of love. (Through a misapplication of Matt. 22:36-40) When love as an abstract idea takes priority over the specific moral commands of God, our standard of right and wrong extends from our own rationalizations rather than objective truth. However Scripture gives us a moral law, not merely moral guidelines. They may be traceable to the principle of love for God and others, but they are still laws the Christian must follow. Questions about why God gives a moral standard, are secondary to the simple fact that He gave it and we must obey. As Christians working through tough ethical questions, we may use observations from some different ethical systems, but only in the context of applying God-given moral law. Absent a Lawgiver, any ethical system falls prey to the biases of cultural pressure, and the corruption of sin. Always, those ethical systems degrade into reflecting man’s current condition rather than transcending it.

Of course, the Christian life is about so much more that simply following an ethical system. Christians are called to holiness, which is not merely an ethical system, but the process of becoming like Christ. The pursuit of Holiness is life-long and comprehensive. It starts the moment we are Saved, and continues to the gates of Heaven. (2 Cor. 3:18) Holiness by design does not permit us to hold back any part of ourselves. It is an all-or-nothing deal. Everything we do and every decision we make traces back to the pursuit of becoming like Christ. Holiness creates a personal threshold for living that no moral system can (or intends) to achieve. To be moral, in contrast, is a more easily attainable label that comes without the lifelong “daily cross.” (Luke 9:23) Like the anti-hero, a moral person gets to be the good guy, while remaining “true to himself.” Being moral may not always be sunshine and pink unicorns, but it’s much more comfortable and easily achievable than forsaking everything to follow Christ.

It should come as no surprise that while popular culture often accepts a version of morality, it scorns holiness. Man wants to believe of himself that he is a good person, but he wants to write the rules under which that belief is validated. Christianity subverts that goal. In addition to the rise of the antihero, those attitudes are evident in popular culture’s depiction of dedicated Christians. The go-to characterization is to simply label them all hypocrites, but a more subtle subversion comes through the portrayal of Christian morality as too wooden, too literal, and simply ill-equipped to handle the complexities the real world, just as Jimmy Stewart’s idealism wasn’t enough to win a gunfight. While some of this bad publicity may well be earned, it is not simply the case, as claimed by the fake Gandhi quote, that the secular world has a problem with Christians merely because they aren’t enough like Christ. The sinful heart recoils from the idea that we must sacrifice ourselves to become the people God intends for us to be, and attacks it with ridicule and scorn.

When a believer adopts these attitudes, we don’t have to look far to see the devastating results. Aiming at morality rather than holiness allows a person to love, but not sacrificially, do good, but not only good, be counted a Christ-follower, but still fit comfortably in society. It means that some sins are okay because they are a part of the authentic me. Even if it turns out that I need reworked here and there, I never have the discomfort of being transformed. Ultimately, we become our own anti-heroes. We still get to credit ourselves for being the good guy, and for being heroic, while embracing the ways in which we willingly fall short of God’s intended plan.

Holiness results in morality, but being moral does not make one holy. Only the Holy Spirit working in our lives can do that. The question is what path will we choose? Will we be made into heroes or anti-heroes?

–Thomas Hersman