That Superman debate: Moses or the Messiah?

Without a doubt, it's one of the most famous and magical incantations in American pop culture. "Look, up in the sky!"

"It's a bird!"

"It's a plane!"

The last line in this mass-media chant is, of course: "It's Superman!"

However, whenever a major product is released in the Superman canon -- such as "Man of Steel," which grossed $113 million on its first weekend -- many fan boys and scribes will immediately begin arguing about two other potential identities, symbolically speaking, for their favorite superhero.

Visit almost any online Superman forum and "someone is going to be saying, 'It's Jesus!' and someone else will immediately respond, 'It's Moses!' and then back and forth it'll go, 'Jesus,' 'Moses,' 'Jesus,' 'Moses' on and on," said the Rev. Gary D. Robinson, pastor of North Side Christian Church in Xenia, Ohio.

The 58-year-old Robinson freely admits he is a passionate participant in these kinds of debates, both as the author of the book "Superman on Earth: Reflections of a Fan" and the owner of a inch-plus scar on his left arm created by his attempt -- at age 6 -- to fly like Superman through a large glass window.

Like many theologically wired fans, he can quote the key Superman facts, chapter and verse. He thinks the parallels are fun, but shouldn't be taken too seriously.

"I see the Superman myth as a shadow thrown by the Light itself," he said, referring biblical accounts of the life of Jesus. "In it's own way, it's a crude substitute ... but there is no question that there is some kind of allegory in there."

First of all, the future Superman was born on the doomed planet Krypton into the "House of El" and, in Hebrew, "El" -- from a root word that means strength and might -- is one word for God. His father gave him the name Kal-El, or in Superman lore "Son of El," a kind of science-fiction parallel to names such as Dani-el or Samu-el.

Then again, his mother and father saved their baby from persecution by casting him into the river of time and space, hoping he would be a source of hope and protection for others. They used a rocket, not a wicker basket, but it's hard to miss the Moses connection. It also helps to know that writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster -- both were sons of Jewish refugees from Europe -- created Superman in the tense 1930s, inspired in part by anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

Experts in both camps can offer litanies of similar details. Meanwhile, "Man of Steel" director Zack Synder has packed his film with iconic images and symbolic facts. The film stresses that Clark Kent soars into his Superman role at age 33, the same tradition says Jesus began his public ministry. Told by the techno-ghost of his father, "You can save them. You can save all of them," Superman pauses in space -- arms extended and legs together, as if on a cross -- before racing back to fight a demonic figure who is attacking in the earth.

In one audacious scene, Superman visits his local church in Kansas while wrestling with the question of whether he should willingly surrender his own life so that humanity can be saved. Over his head is a stained-class window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, before his crucifixion.

The question, of course, is how seriously to take this often dark and humorless video-game era salute to "The Matrix," "Avatar," "The Dark Knight" and hosts of other recent blockbusters, with a few undeniable 9/11 images in the mix as well. "Popcorn and a (World)view" columnist Drew Zahn argued: "Though I won't claim it was written by an author the caliber of C.S. Lewis, nonetheless, the metaphors and messages make 'Man of Steel' a sort of 'Chronicles of Narnia' for an 'Avengers' generation."

Robinson is convinced Superman and other pop-culture myths are fine hooks for conversations about deeper issues and truths. But, in the end, how can ordinary women and men, struggling with the pitfalls of daily life, form a healing bond with Superman?

"Superman is a poor substitute for the Gospel," he said. "Superman offers himself to save our lives. Jesus wants to save us forever, for all of eternity. ... In the end, there's only one real story and we keep trying to create new variations on it."

Hallelujah, saith the masses

As millions of YouTube viewers know, the "Hallelujah Chorus" is even hotter than usual this year. The wave started with a flash-mob performance by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and hundreds of local choristers. Dressed as shoppers, they sang the best-known anthem from George F. Handel's "Messiah" oratorio at noon in the downtown Philadelphia Macy's, which was already decked out for the holidays on Oct. 30th.

Then came the Nov. 13th performance that sent this viral-video trend into overdrive, when 100 vocalists -- led by a young woman singing the opening hallelujahs into her cellphone -- shocked a food-court crowd in a Welland, Ontario, shopping mall.

There are online reports and rumors about similar "Hallelujah Chorus" sneak attacks in the marketplace. The key is that many onlookers know this classic by heart and can sing along without missing many beats.

These are strange scenes, but they would not surprise anyone who has studied the history of Handel's masterwork and its stunning popularity, especially among American believers, said Calvin R. Stapert, a retired music professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He is the author of the new book, "Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People."

The Macy's performance was spectacular and the food-court performance was just as fascinating in its own way, he said.

"One part of me says, 'Wonderful!' It's thrilling. ... Then I look at the comments that people keep writing" at as they respond to the videos, said Stapert. "Some of them are so deeply moved that this anthem to their Savior is being sung in such a secular environment. Then there are others who make it clear that, for them, this is nothing more than ... a novel way of saluting a cornerstone of Western musical culture."

No one knows why "Messiah" has become so popular, noted Stapert, in his book. The work's omnipresence -- with performances in churches, civic centers and elite concert halls -- is probably the result of "musical, textual, social, religious and psychological factors that will never be completely unraveled." There is no precedent in music history for this phenomenon.

For starters, Handel is an unlikely hero for today's musical masses. He was a "reluctant eighteenth-century German Lutheran composer who would have preferred to continue writing Italian operas in Protestant England, a country that had no oratorio tradition until he 'invented' it. The rest, as they say, is history," wrote Stapert.

This musical form -- the oratorio -- was also a unique and at times controversial kind of art. Handel composed "Messiah" and many of his greatest works in a cultural no man's land between the music common in sacred sanctuaries and the lively, entertaining, operatic works that were popular in theaters and concert halls. Nevertheless, most oratorios were based on the lives of biblical heroes and early Christian saints.

Then there was "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio," which was composed in 24 days and performed for the first time in Dublin in 1742 and a year later in London. The libretto covered the drama of the full Christian liturgical year, yet the work was never intended for church performances. Handel originally composed the work for approximately 24 skilled singers and 24 instrumentalists.

Today, "Messiah" is often performed with choruses consisting of 100 singers or more and orchestras of every imaginable size and composition. In many performances, amateur performers are forced to cut the tempos of Handel's mercurial, dancing choruses until they resemble lumbering musical stampedes.

To state the matter bluntly, noted Stapert, no complex work of classical music "has survived, let alone thrived, on so many performances, good, bad, and indifferent, by and for so many people year after year for such a long time."

Now, the most famous anthem from this Christian masterpiece has reached the true public square of our age, in the same mix as "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"You have to ask," noted Stapert, "if many people are really listening to the words. After all, who is this 'King of Kinds and Lord of Lords'? ... You have to think that the cultural police would be out in a matter of minutes to shut this down if people were paying attention to this profoundly Christian work that is being sung right out in the open, in a mall. Has the 'Hallelujah Chorus' become so familiar that people cannot hear what it's saying?"