Famous sporting goods company Nike started with a coach, his student and a blue ribbon award. Leading search engine, Google, began with two university students, some pizza and a search algorithm called “BackRub”. International accommodation company, Airbnb, started with a whole lot of credit card debt, an air mattress and politician-themed cereal. Before these multinational corporations became household names, they all had simple, but fascinating stories for how they came to be.
We love a good underdog story; we love to hear how rags turned to riches and how humble beginnings became something truly awe-inspiring. Where we came from shapes who we become; understanding our history helps us better understand ourselves and others.
Not convinced? Just take a look at the film and television industry. In the past 10 years, Hollywood has exploded with a new genre of multi-million-dollar fiction that the film industry, television and streaming services have all tried to tap into: the origin stories of our favourite superheroes.
Avid superhero fan and clinical psychologist Dr Robin Rosenberg has written countless works on what we can learn from the psychology of superheroes. She suggests that “in one form or another the superhero origin story has been around for millennia”—the hero battles a supernatural or stronger opponent and returns home with the strength to protect and serve humanity. In Rosenberg’s analysis there are three types of life-altering experiences that superheroes undergo; three key elements that we relate to: trauma, destiny and sheer chance.
In real life situations, many people experience growth as a result of a trauma or crisis, using their negative life experiences as motivation for social activism, for example. For many, a sense of destiny or meaning that relates to a higher purpose is what motivates them to assume greater responsibility and make a positive impact in the world.
The all-too-human elements of these fictional characters are often what have us captivated as we learn their origin stories. In their ordinariness, they become role models for us; showing us how to cope with adversity, how to find meaning amid loss or trauma, and then how to use our new-found strengths for good. Yet in the real world, while trauma and loss are something common to all humanity, perhaps the idea of destiny and sheer chance is representative of something much deeper.
The human fascination with origins is not a contemporary phenomenon. Throughout history different religious and cultural groups have sought to make sense of the world by explaining its origin. For the ancient Greeks it was divinities like Mother Earth who came crawling out of the primordial chaos, giving birth to a bizarre menagerie of gods and monsters, one of which had 50 heads and 100 hands.
The ancient Egyptians had several creation myths that are far less violent, but just as confusing. They all begin with the swirling of waters out of which two divine siblings appear. They are tasked with creating order out of chaos, separating the water from the sky, and forming the earth.
In a similar way the Babylonian creation story also begins with two gods emerging from swirling waters who go on to spawn many generations of gods. However, violence quickly ensues as these generations disagree.
A cosmic egg is at the centre of Chinese mythology, from which, after eons of incubation, the god Pan-gu emerges. He stands on the earth, holding up the sky. At his death his body becomes the different elements. Legend suggests that the fleas from his body are what became humanity.
If we are to take these origin stories as truthful in any meaningful sense, then it’s violence, revenge and death that form the basic building blocks of the cosmos. Many people today, of course, accept the scientific consensus of evolution. But, unhappily, this view is similarly founded on the necessity of the extinction of less-deserving species in the scramble for survival. If we are the result of some interstellar conflict between gods and their offspring, or even just the product of blind, pitiless mutation, it has huge implications for how we view ourselves and the rest of humanity.
He declared it ‘good’
In contrast, the Bible has a vastly different origins story. The book of Genesis starts with a formless, empty abyss into which God speaks, bringing form to the unformed, order to the chaos and light into the darkness. (Read the full account for yourself in the first two chapters.)
Genesis tells us that the reason God created the world had nothing to do with conflict or retribution; it was to provide an idyllic paradise for the human race. The earth, as described in the Bible, doesn’t come about as a result of violence, jealousy, revenge or sexual misconduct, but rather is the creative work of an intelligent, supernatural Being who looks at His creation and declares it “good”.
In a sense the biblical creation account is quite simple: at God’s creative command the “heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11) came into existence. Within six days the earth, filled with every living thing, was created. Each day sees the addition of another essential element to God’s creation, each of which is “good”.
Then, on the seventh day, He does something that appears to be counter-intuitive for an omnipotent God: He rests. Nestled within the creation account is the sub-story of the origin of humankind, which gives insight into God’s desire to rest.
On the sixth day, as the crowning act of creation, God made humans “in his own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). But, in contrast to the previous days, this particular creation is declared to be not just “good”, but “very good” (1:31). Perhaps this stop to rest and pause was not the result of an imperfect creator who grew weary, but rather the desire of an all-loving God to spend time with and enjoy His creatures and rest in the completeness of His creation.
What’s your origin story?
If origin stories are indeed essential to our sense of purpose and place in the world, then what we believe about how humanity came about will have a profound influence on how we treat each other and our earth. Perhaps our fascination with superheroes is not just because we see so much of our human story in theirs, but also that we are longing for a greater story and purpose in our own lives.
With a Creator God as our origin and an understanding of the creation story’s place in the broader biblical narrative, we begin to realise that there is actually hope beyond the trauma in our lives; that, yes, we do have a destiny, but it goes beyond this earth and, finally, that our lives are not guided by mere chance but Providence.
The realisation that we are created beings, designed and hand-crafted in the image of a benevolent God who desires a relationship with us, can change the trajectory of our lives. No longer are we unsure or uncertain about our value and importance; no longer are we concerned about where we are going, but, rather, we find our true purpose and identity as children of God.
The origin story found in the Bible can do that for you. We all experience challenge and trauma, defining moments that change our life’s trajectory. But, unlike the superhero stories we love to watch, there is a God-breathed destiny and a divine providence to our existence that only makes sense with a benevolent Creator God.
Lyndelle Peterson is an Adventist pastor and church leader in Melbourne, Australia, where she lives with her young and growing family.