Conversation with my son who was attempting to complete a book report about Benjamin Banneker:
Son: Dad, I don’t know how to answer this question.
Father: What is the question?
Son: Should this person be regarded as a hero?
Father: Can you tell me what a hero is?
Son: Someone who makes a big impact on the world.
Father: Hmm… I can think of people who made a big impact on the world, but shouldn’t be a hero because the impact was bad.
Son: Ok. So a hero is someone who does good things for the world.
Father: I would say so. Is there anything else that would make someone a hero?
Son: I can’t think of anything.
Father: Do you want to be like Benjamin Banneker in any way?
Son: He was really good at math and he worked to get his almanac published.
Father: What made that difficult?
Son: People didn’t think that it would be any good because of the color of his skin. But he kept working to get it published. He had grit.
Father: Yes, he did. And why was it wrong for them to reject his almanac?
Son: Because they should have judged it by if it was true or not instead of the color of his skin.
Father: So should you regard Benjamin Banneker as a hero?
Son: Yes. I should want to be like him because he had good character… like grit.
Father: Do you know what you are going to write about now?
Heroes are an expression of value. The kind of hero a culture honors tells us what is thought to be of great value in that society. Monuments are erected to commemorate those heroes so that the heritage of the culture can be passed on through the generations.
It is the same with individual heroes. Our heroes are a reflection of our values and what we long to imitate. Someone who values innovation and mathematics might regard Benjamin Banneker as a hero. If you appreciate architecture, you might hold Frank Lloyd Wright on a high pedestal. We also long to imitate our heroes. This is why a toddler will try to wear his daddy’s shoes or put on a cape and try to fly like Superman. If you’ve ever sang along with your favorite band at the top of your lungs and/or played along with your air guitar–you might be guilty of a little hero imitation.
The line between a hero and an idol is often blurry. When does a hero become your god? Are all heroes a form of idolatry? When we honor people with awards and ceremonies are we guilty of idol worship? Interestingly, one of the curses associated with idolatry is that you become like the thing you worship. (See Psalm 115:4-8, 135:16-18; Isaiah 44:9-20.)
While I admit that a hero can often easily be made into an idol, I think that having heroes is not only allowable for the Christian, but that it is absolutely necessary. It is necessary because of the tendency to become like what we behold. The curse of idolatry is the blessing of Biblical honor. Hebrews 11 is known in theology as the “Hall of Faith” chapter for it contains a long list of Old Testament characters: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Rahab, Gideon, Samson, David, etc.
So what is the thread that ties this long list of characters together? Hebrews 12:1 identifies the connection between them:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…"
The list of “heroes” in Hebrews 11 are the “cloud of witnesses” that are there for imitation in the faith. If you want to know how to be faithful, even in difficult circumstances, then look to these people for both inspiration and imitation. To see the thread more clearly, read through Chapter 11 and notice how the phrase “by faith” is used before each name.
The next verses in Hebrews 12:2-3 hint at an important distinction between a hero and an idol:
"…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted."
Heroes point to something beyond themselves as the goal, while an idol is an end unto itself. Abraham’s faithfulness is instructive to us because it points us to the perfection of faithfulness which is found in Jesus. Abraham is a hero because he both exemplifies the virtue of faithfulness (albeit imperfectly) and because Abraham is pointing us to something beyond Abraham – the character of God.
Heroes are not perfect. In fact, there are many actions in the lives of the “Hall of Faith” that it would be wise for us not to copy. (We ought to imitate David’s boldness and confidence in God, but not his adultery.) Heroes put a spotlight on virtue, despite the obvious fact that “even the best of men are men at best.”1
Since no human is morally perfect, it may be tempting to say that we should not esteem any person above another and look to God alone for virtue. This sentiment, however democratic it seems to our sensibilities, is not what is given to us in scripture. As Paul said to the believers in Corinth:
"Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:1)
Heroes are the necessary incarnation of principles and virtues. Without heroes, all of our "knowledge" of a virtue remains theoretical, untested, and unpracticed because we do not know how to apply it.
Having no heroes leaves one practically in the same position as one who says, “I am my own hero.” It is the ultimate self-referencing fallacy. (What virtue could you better practice to be more like yourself?) Aside from the pride lurking behind this claim, it leaves you no better off than before.
A virtue without a hero to model it is like a chef who only writes recipes and never actually makes the dish; or like a scientist who never verifies his theory through experimentation; or like a musician who composes a score that is never played by an orchestra. A person who has no heroes cannot be virtuous because he has nothing to imitate. The soldier on the battlefield whose courage is wavering will not find it by repeating the definition of courage, but will find it as he remembers the heroes whose courage he longs to imitate.
Good heroes should be “little incarnations” of God’s character to us. We learn the repulsiveness of vice and the attractiveness of virtue through villains and heroes (see 1 Corinthians 10:11-12). Parents, help order your kids’ “loves” to the right heroes, for that is how they will know the way they should go and will help them to walk straight (Proverbs 3:6). They will become what they behold.
1 - attributed to Alistair Begg