In 1977, Don Wildmon launched a campaign against television networks that he felt were intent on polluting the minds of American children. This grassroots campaign took hold and grew into what is now known as the American Family Association. What motivated him to take a stand against the entertainment industry? He understood something fundamental: children imitate what they see. The concerning television content of the 1970s was shaping the minds and values of the next generation.
As parents, we want our children to grow up with strong values and character. We try our best to model integrity, kindness, selflessness, and other virtues for them. However, our influence only goes so far. Our kids are bombarded from a young age by messages from entertainment, social media, news, and culture about what constitutes a "hero." Many of these supposed heroes fall desperately short when measured against biblical standards.
This is deeply concerning because heroes shape a child's identity, priorities, and beliefs during their formative years. Children naturally look to heroes as role models and goals to strive for. The rise of questionable heroes in the media raises an alarm for Christian parents. It also presents us with an opportunity – the chance to intentionally present our kids with heroic figures that reflect the love, grace, and noble character of Jesus.
The Troubling Rise of the "Anti-Hero"
There has been a cultural shift towards celebrating the "anti-hero" in recent decades. These protagonists are decidedly on the wrong side morally, but are depicted as doing the "wrong thing for the right reason." The ends are used to justify corrupt means. These characters embody the attitude that it's more important to be tough and effective than righteous.
This trope has become dominant across entertainment. Television shows seek to please audiences with edgy stories that glorify anti-heroes. Recent movies center on classic villains, but portray them in an oddly sympathetic light. Even children's entertainment features cynical, bitter, and selfish lead characters.For example, the 2018 film Venom depicts comic book anti-hero Eddie Brock, who becomes the host to an alien parasite that imbues him with superhuman abilities. He uses ruthless, grisly methods to fight the bad guy without regard for the ethical codes of conduct normally expected of heroes. The film attempts to make this disturbing behavior seem more acceptable by having the protagonist lose his job and fiancé beforehand.
The danger here is that anti-heroes teach the next generation to celebrate pragmatism over principles. They subtly communicate that ethical compromises are necessary to achieve success and victory. This flies directly against the conduct modeled by Christ, who rejected the Tempter in the desert, turning down a shortcut to victory because it was more important to please God than to “get results.”
Scrolling Past Self-Centered "Heroes"
Apart from fiction, social media has given rise to "heroes" who lack anything resembling Jesus' selflessness and humility. Success is measured by likes, follows, clicks, and wealth. Their heroism ultimately centers around self-promotion rather than self-sacrifice.
When narcissists seeking validation are put on a pedestal, it skews a child's understanding of what true heroes look like. They come to believe that their worth is dependent on the approval of others. These “heroes” flaunt flashy cars, designer clothes, and luxurious lifestyles as the pinnacle of success. The underlying message is that lavish wealth represents victory in life.
This feeds an attitude in developing minds that your value and happiness depend on what you own or how extravagantly you can live. It judges less fortunate people as failures or “losers.” Not only does this neglect the blessings of simplicity and generosity, but it also directly contradicts the attitudes modeled by Christ. He had no earthly wealth or possessions but found His identity in His relationship with the Father. Jesus' followers were commended not for their prosperity, but for faithful obedience and following the self-sacrificing footsteps of their Savior. The social media obsession with self-worship and materialism points our kids toward flimsy priorities that can never truly satisfy them.
The Hollow "Heroes" of Self-Sufficiency
Beyond social media, our wider culture promotes "heroes" that diminish the essential Christian truth that we are insufficient in ourselves. Celebrities who preach about "being true to yourself" and "loving yourself" make little room for recognizing our desperate need for God's grace to transform us. Their mantra seems to be "You're enough on your own", whereas Scripture says we will only find our sufficiency in Christ.
The individualism of American culture tempts us to make ourselves the center of our universe. Yet the call of Jesus is one of radical reorientation towards God and others. The heroes in the pages of the Bible were those who mourned over their sins, showed mercy, made peace, and were persecuted for His sake. The humble heroes of the faith stand as vivid reminders that we can't be conformed to the world but must be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Finding Heroes that Reflect Christ
Of course, perfect role models are impossible to find, whether in fiction or real life. We live in a fallen world and all fall short of God's standards. Certainly, we can find admirable traits even in flawed heroes. However, Christian parents have a responsibility to be discerning about the prevailing messages embedded in the heroes their kids embrace. They must weed out those that conflict with the values and priorities of Jesus.
We also need to be intentional about highlighting heroes from history and Scripture that better align with godly virtue. Missionaries, Christian public figures, and biblical characters all provide stories of courage, leadership, devotion to truth, and selfless love. They reorient us from deadly individualism towards the eternal. Their flaws also remind us that only Christ is the perfect standard of moral excellence that we should ultimately model our lives after.
At the end of the day, good heroes can and will point towards Jesus as the ultimate Hero. Every true heroic attribute finds its origin in Him, the perfect Archetype. He is both humble and noble, meek and mighty, merciful and judicial. Everything He did on Earth, and everything He does before God’s Throne is for His people. By God’s grace, His pattern can be found in earthly examples, but it is up to Christian parents to direct their children to imitate Him.