My kids are obsessed with Spider-man stuff. We have Spider-man clothes, place mats, toys, and my kids would even tell you we have a Spider-man car seat. They actually bought a Spider-man video game for me for Father’s Day. That video game goes alongside the 7 Spider-man movies I own, my Spider-man watch, and a Spider-man onesie I have as a Halloween costume. As you can tell I am more than a little to blame for the Spider-man obsession under my roof. Spider-man isn’t just my favorite comic character as an adult, this fictional superhero was an important part of my childhood. As an awkward kid trying to pretend I wasn’t as dorky as I was, Peter Parker was an inspiration to me. The cartoon and comic adventures of the wall crawling superhero made me feel less alone in my awkwardness and reinforced in me the value of doing the right thing even when the cards are stacked against me. As a Christian now I recognize even the Amazing Spider-man represented an imperfect worldview and we shouldn’t overstate the impact of these kinds of stories largely created to make a buck. That said, Spider-man was and is important to me; so much so that frankly if they cast Adam Sandler as the new Peter Parker I would see that movie opening night even while knowing it would ruin my week and I would hate every minute of it.
Last week my unhealthy Spider-man obsession came to some benefit. My senior pastor and I were discussing various Spider-man movies and Spider-man’s adolescence came up. I explained that originally in the earliest comics Spider-man was always a fairly young teenager. Pastor Paul then asked me the very logical question of why he’s not Spider-boy. That question is a fascinating one as even a youth of ours a few years older than OG Peter Parker called himself a boy rather than a man in a conversation I had with him. Most people would certainly call a 15-year-old a boy or at most a young man but 15 year old Peter Parker was Spider-man. In the comics there were tons of reasons for this over the years from Peter Parker finding it better hides his identity to suggestions it is more intimidating to the villainous scum. The real main reason boils down to an important word in the Spider-man lore: responsibility.
Whether you love Spider-man in a way that adults clearly should have grown out of like me or just saw him in an Avengers trailer there’s a decent chance that you know the iconic phrase Spider-man lived by “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter Parker’s uncle Ben taught him this phrase to show him what it meant to be a man even when people expected far less of him. In Peter’s case the great powers were superpowers but the phrase was intended to be more broad. This slogan was an encouragement for Peter as he prepared to take on the world that manhood means taking care of others (especially those more vulnerable). Many societies throughout history have accepted teens as men when they use their physical prowess to get what they want for themselves. The writer Stan Lee made Spider-man into a teen who would take on manhood through using whatever gifts, abilities, or opportunities he finds for the good of others. Peter Parker took on the role of being Spider-man rather than Spider-boy by seeing his gifts both God given and spider given as obligations to help others.
The Spider-man comics demonstrate unusual high expectations for both teen boys and teen girls. Peter Parker is not the only Spider person that swings beyond age expectations. The young Miles Morales version of Spider-man shows unparalleled bravery at times and the Spider-woman known as Gwen Stacy makes sacrifices greater than even adult superheroes at times. I fear this stands so at odds to the low expectations we have of young people in our broader society and even within the church. When I was more actively focused on children’s ministry, I knew several next generation ministry pastors and church leaders that highly preferred working with young children because they felt the seven years olds were far more mature than the seventeen year olds. When a teen guy does something stupid, we chock it up to the old phrase “boys will be boys.” Some youth ministry specialists enforce the assumption that teens are capable of about as much responsibility as a goldfish. The Christian songwriter Andy Gullahorn wrote a comical song called “Teenagers” in which he asserts we “might think they’re (teenagers) being selfish, that’s cause they are.” Often Andy Gullahorn is right but we can expect more.
None of our teens or preteens can web up The Hobgoblin but they can do significant things as young men and women. One of the greatest kings of Israel began great reforms before his voice dropped. Charles Spurgeon took a pastorate at the age some teens graduate high school. Alexander the Great started building an empire at sixteen; not that he’s a great example for teenagers. Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat because of the color of her skin when she was too young to get a driver’s license. The teens we minister the gospel to, love, or even parent probably will do none of these things but they can take great responsibility.
We shouldn’t be shocked by teens being dopey if we treat the teenage years as a time to be dopey. We should expect more; after all our Savior asked much of His strange group of disciples that certainly included at least one teenager. We should expect them to boldly step into being men and women rather than irresponsible children. Christians should see teenagers the way Uncle Ben saw Peter Parker. If we regularly and repeatedly stop making excuses for our young people and provide them opportunities for maturity once in a while they will cease it. Once in a while they will be more than what their peers expect of them and those moments will wow you.
Peter Parker wasn’t accidentally called Spider-man. No writer slipped up in having a fifteen-year-old go toe to toe with the most heinous mob boss and a thug in a rhino suit. These comics depicted manhood less as a stage of life and more as a commitment to doing the hard task that needs to be done. I don’t write this to convince anyone to join me watching the upcoming Spider-man movie that I’m far too excited about. I write this so the Christian community can commit to doing the work of Uncle Ben and our Savior and my youth pastor years ago; showing young people they can be something far better than immaturity. Let’s help the young Peters and Gwens to be superhuman by embracing everyday maturity.