The wizard stares into Billy Batson’s eyes. “Speak my name so my powers may flow through you.”
“But I don’t know your name, Sir,” the fourteen year old responds.
The wizard pauses for dramatic effect. “Shazam.”
Billy chokes down a laugh. “Are you for real?”
“SAY IT,” the wizard thunders.
“Ok!” Billy squeaks, attempting to placate the crazy old man. He takes hold of the wizard’s staff and hesitatingly says, “Shazam?”
And a new superhero is born as a six-fold magical power transforms Billy Batson into a champion.
Shazam, the newest superhero rebooted by DC Comics, comes into existence through the power of one name—a name so powerful that, if uttered by one who is pure of heart, will allow the speaker to transform into the ideal man displaying the paragon virtues of wisdom, strength, stamina, courage, and speed (and the ability to fly for good measure). For superhero junkies, it’s a classic origin story. Ordinary person + extraordinary encounter + humanity in need of saving = enough thematic drama, peril, and fun to make it two hours’ worth of time well spent at the movie theater.
While many superhero origin stories center on the hero finding himself or herself, Shazam’s origin starts with a call and ends with a name—a fitting parallel for our lives as Christians.
I know, I know. You may be thinking, Really? That’s a bit far-fetched. Next you’ll be writing about the spiritual undertones of infomercials. Call the superhero craze what you will—this generation’s new Pantheon, escapist fantasy, or childish play—but behind every modern myth lies an archetypical echo of what it means to be human. In Shazam’s case, we also catch a glimpse of what it means to be heroically human: the ideal man realized and ready to save humanity. Like any echo, the parallel is warped. It isn’t the entire story, but it provides a unique opportunity to examine our own origin story. Our lives as Christians also begin—and end—with a call and a name.
The ancient wizard-guardian of the powers of Shazam searched far and wide for a champion noble enough to bear the name and wield the power. The magic found Billy Batson, an average 14-year-old who did not seek out any sort of higher power. He is then tested to see if he can resist the seven deadly sins before he can take up the mantle of Shazam. But Billy isn’t an especially pure-of-heart sort of guy. And neither are we.
Unlike the seemingly unguided “seeking spell,” the Holy Spirit—the one who “calls, enlightens, and sanctifies,” as Martin Luther’s Small Catechism says—proctors no test we must pass before we are accepted into the presence of the King. While potential champions are brought to the wizard to see if they can withstand the temptation to sin, in Christ, we who were dead in our trespasses (Colossians 2:13) are declared righteous on the merits of the One who resisted every temptation perfectly. Fiction says Billy must resist the seven deadly sins before speaking the wizard’s name. Reality says that the Name we bear as Christians has already destroyed sin forever.
God revealed His Name to Moses in the burning bush, usually translated in our Bibles as “I AM WHO I AM”: Yahweh, the personal Name of God which refers to His covenantal love. God in His mercy revealed His name to His people. Hundreds of years later, Jesus would say that He is the “I AM”—a revelation that He Himself is true God (John 8:58). He is the Word made flesh, the One whose Name we bear. It was not that we called on His Name but that He spoke His Name to us, and He continues giving it to us tangibly in His Word and Sacraments.
Our call to faith does not mean that we are transformed into superhumans, but that we are united with the Perfect Man by grace alone. “Woe is me!” the prophet Isaiah cried in Isaiah 6:5, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” While in Shazam the unworthy are cast out of the wizard’s presence, being in the presence of I AM, for those who are impure of heart, means not only psychological after-shocks but certain death—and no one is righteous on his own merits before God (Romans 3:10). But the Name above every other Name did not destroy Isaiah. Instead, we read “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’ (Isaiah 6:6-10).
Billy comments to the wizard that he doubts anyone is able to resist the seven deadly sins. Even after he becomes Shazam, we see his own struggles against pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth, and more often than not we see him lose these battles. He isn’t enough on his own, the film quietly tells us, and this counter-cultural critique hits a nerve. For those of us who worship at the altar of independence and self-sufficiency, it’s a reminder that we are not strong enough, wise enough, or courageous enough. We do not flee the Tempter with Mercurial speed, nor are we titans able to bear the weight of our sins. We are not enough.
The temptations we could not resist and the sins we embraced whole-heartedly have been fully atoned for by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Word Incarnate bore in His body the name we bear—sinner—so that we can bear His Name. He is the One who opens our mouths to proclaim His Name (Psalm 51:15), who touches our lips with His very body and blood in Holy Communion to take away all our guilt (Matthew 26:26-29). In baptism, the Triune Name of God is spoken over us, and the Holy Spirit welcomes us into His Kingdom. As God was not content to expel Adam and Eve from His grace forever, so He was not content to leave us dead in our sins. Instead, He chose to send His one and only Son to be the champion over sin, death, and the devil.
Billy Batson received his powers by means of a call he did not choose and by invoking a name greater than his own. We receive salvation because of the life, death, and resurrection of the Name who chose us by His grace (Romans 11:5-6). Because He lives, we confidently take hold of the promises of Christ—the rod and staff of the Good Shepherd of the Sheep (Psalm 23:4)—and speak the Name of the Creator and Redeemer of the world: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6) who will one day call us home to His presence forever (Revelation 22:4).