Look, up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a . . . Christ-like figure?

All you have to do is look up at the silver screen at your local movie theater this summer to see the Man of Steel in "Superman Returns" portrayed in plenty of Christian terms.

There are enough Christian images in the new movie "for a cathedral full of stained-glass windows," as Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News so eloquently wrote last week.

Indeed, this fifth Superman movie in 28 years is as heavy-handed with religious imagery as the original "Superman the Movie" was back in 1978.

The 1978 movie and "Superman Returns" both contain this same basic dialogue from the Jor-El, father of Kal-El (Superman's Kryptonian name):

"Even though you've been raised as a human being you're not one of them. They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you . . . my only son."

These comments are reminiscent of portions of the Book of John, so much so that CNN referred to "Superman Returns" as a fifth gospel in one of their reviews of the movie.

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son . . . For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:16-17).

Is it blasphemy, or inappropriate, to present a comic book hero as a Christ-like figure?

"I picked up on that," said the Rev. Mike Gray of Salt Lake City's Southeast Baptist Church. "That bothered me some."

However, he said through all of Superman's history there have always been Christ-like references, so seeing them again was not unexpected.

"It's a movie, but it's not an ungodly movie," the Rev. Gray said.

He was more uncomfortable with the fact that the movie shows Lois Lane living with a man outside marriage — especially when many young people will see the film.

"We've lost sight of tradition," the Rev. Gray said, noting that "the American way" reference was also absent in "Superman Returns."

He was intrigued by the theme in the movie that "the world doesn't need a savior" and plans to incorporate that into a future sermon.

Terry Long, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel of Salt Lake, said the images of Superman as a messiah did not offend him.

"It was there. You could see it," he said. "It's still one of the better movies out there."

The Rev. Long even noticed a scene where Superman was falling in a position similar to Christ's as he hung on the cross.

However, he was very upset at Superman's declining moral character.

"He's a messiah, but he has a lack of integrity. . . . I want Superman to have a little integrity, as a role model for children."

Fathering a child out of marriage and Lois Lane living with a man were the biggest moral issues for the Rev. Long.

Superman fares far better morally in the comic books. For example, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are married there.

The worst thing Superman has done in the comics was to act as judge, jury and executioner for three Kryptonian criminals in a parallel universe after the three killed all 5 billion residents of the Earth there. That act of desperation gave him a split personality and caused him to temporarily abandon Earth to find peace.

It is certainly a stretch to believe that Superman's creators in the 1930s — Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — intended their hero to be a Christ figure. The two men were Jewish.

They did have plenty of other images to draw on. For example, there's the "golem" myth among Jews of an animated but physically powerful being. They could also have been influenced by the story of Moses.

It was the dozens of later writers who gave Superman a more Christian slant.

Richard Donner, who directed the 1978 Superman film, admitted to its Christ-like subtext some years later.

However, Bryan Singer, who directed "Superman Returns," has said he sees both Christian and Jewish roots in the story of the Man of Steel.

In fact, you can find no less than an 80-page analysis of "The religious affiliation of comic book character Clark Kent/Kal-El Superman" online at www.adherents.com/lit/comics/Superman.html.

Another online source, "Journal of Religion and Film — Superman as Christ-figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah," by Anton Karl Kozlovic, is found at www.unomaha.edu/jrf/superman.htm. It has 17 pages of research on the subject.

Superman makes a pretty good role model in today's world of turmoil. He fights for "truth and justice." He also cares more about others than himself.

But Superman is not without sin. Though he says he never lies as Superman, that's not strictly true as Clark Kent — where he tells all kinds of white lies to protect his identity. Also, Superman doesn't kill, but he has apparently fathered a child out of wedlock.

Superman didn't come to Earth to call people to repentance. He's always saving people from physical harm and, according to his Kryptonian father, hoping to inspire humans.

And to some, Superman's powerful physical features put him more in the class of the Greek gods, such as Hercules, than in Christianity.

You can't ignore the "scriptural echoes," as Drew Dyck, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Portland, Ore., wrote online at http://boundless.org/2005/articles/a0001298.cfm.

However, Dyck hopes that moviegoers will leave the theater pondering their own need for a savior. And it is the responsibility of Christians to make sure they know it is Jesus Christ, he says.

• What religion is Superman?

The June 19, 2006, issue of Newsweek contained a list of the "suspected" religions of superheroes. It theorized that Superman is a Methodist, based on his Midwestern upbringing.

(Brandon Routh, who portrays Superman in "Superman Returns," may be an actual Methodist, since his parents are said to attend the Norwalk United Methodist Church in Norwalk, Iowa.)

The Rev. Steve Goodier of Salt Lake City's Christ United Methodist Church said he isn't surprised Newsweek pegged Superman as a Methodist.

"Methodist is such an American faith," he said. "And very predominant in the Midwest."

At one time, he said, a survey showed more Methodist churches in the United States than post offices.

Newsweek also listed Spider-Man as a Protestant, The Thing as Jewish, The Hulk as a lapsed Catholic, Daredevil as a Catholic, Batman as a lapsed Catholic or disaffected Episcopalian and Captain America as a Protestant.

The lone superhero believed to be Mormon was the late Cypher of the New Mutants, who was a master translator of any language.

The Newsweek article is online at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13249146/site/newsweek/.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com