True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

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Mutants, Mystics and Memory

MutantsMysticsParadigms. These patterns of thought are self-reinforcing and very useful. As anyone who’s studied foreign languages knows, paradigms are an effective way to keep all those impossible verb tenses in mind. Until you encounter an irregular verb. Once you discover irregular verbs, you start to find there are more of them than you wish. As with language, so with life. Like most boys, I grew up reading comic books. We didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t as fluent in super-heroese as some kids were, but I felt that irresistible draw to garish colors inking exaggerated muscle-tone under a costume that held a body capable of extraordinary things. Everything seemed possible. Then adult responsibility hit. Who had time for comic books and heroes?

That’s why I was delighted to discover Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. The three sub-topics just about summed up my childhood. But, like Paul declared to Corinthians, the first time around, “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Turns out, maybe my desire to be grown up was premature. I commented on Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible earlier this year. In his work I’d finally discovered that academics can sometimes get away with asking unorthodox questions. Perhaps it was my exposure to biblical studies, a discipline which goes one of two ways—overly facile attempts to maintain a literal reading, or a staid, solid approach tied to serious linguistics and archaeological records—that forced me into a reductionist paradigm. Well, everybody else was doing it! Academic thought had little room for the unusual, the bizarre, the irregular verb. The same applies to our no-nonsense, money driven society. Just shut up and do your job.

Mutants and Mystics, however, shows that our repressed unusual experiences, like a freudian phobia, will find ways into daily reality. It is a mind-stretching book. As for Authors of the Impossible, Kripal is to be congratulated on allowing himself to consider walking down paths that most academics assiduously bypass. Coming to his work as a fellow student of religious studies, I see that he has arrived at similar conclusions to mine, although clearly more advanced. I’d just assumed that since I never had the serious backing of a serious university my way was the low-way. The way of the kid who just couldn’t bring himself to grow up. There is a reason we spent our formative years reading about heroes for whom the impossible was daily reality. Perhaps we were in training after all, and comic books prove the point of old Isaiah that a child may indeed hold knowledge adults often just can’t see.

Bart’s Gospel

One of the near constants of the entertainment world is the social commentary on The Simpsons. The morality issues that get frequent play had led to a book entitled The Gospel According to the Simpsons some years back. And since Americans like their morality straight from the popular media, The Simpsons is not a bad place to look. The episode “My-Pods and Boomsticks,” although a few years old now, raises issues that are still current in our culture. I watched it with my daughter recently and she commented, “It’s just like Zeitoun.” My family read Zeitoun this summer (some high school reading programs have a way of involving more than just the student) and the revelation of just how deeply suspicious the nation is of Muslims disturbed us all. This particular Simpsons episode involves a Muslim family from Jordan moving into Springfield. Although Bart befriends their son, Homer just can’t get over the assumption that Muslim equals terrorist. In the end, however, it is Homer who ends up dynamiting a bridge rather than believing Muslims can be good citizens.

Apart from being the longest running primetime animated feature in history, The Simpsons bucks the convention of veering away from religious topics. Indeed, many episodes foreground religion and feature Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism as well as Christianity and now Islam. The religions may be gently chided, but they are not mocked, and we are given a glimpse into our own religious biases. Islam, as a religion, is not evil or bent on destruction. Like Christianity, it has many varieties and believers range from the sacred to the profane. It is not the religion that is a problem, but the society that gives the lie to true equality. Believe what you will; harm no one.

At work the other day I received an office memo about lunchtime Yoga. Whenever I see such notices I consider how this religious practice, in American minds, has become completely secular. The same may be said of some of the martial arts which, in original contexts, have a deep base in eastern spiritualities. These things do not bother us because we do not bother to learn about them as religious activities. Even Kung Fu Panda has a spiritual undertone. Religions display a wide variety of expressions throughout the world. Going to church one day a week and condemning those who believe differently all seven, many people do not stop to think of the contributions that other religions have made to our society as it exists today. American culture, while predominantly evolving from a Christian base, has strong elements of most of the major religions that go unrecognized or packaged as secular self-helps. We could still stand to learn a thing or two from Springfield.

Life After Mirth

Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? In this era of fast-paced technological change, I’m probably displaying my terrible penchant for the passé when I confess to having watched Spongebob Squarepants with my daughter. I even went to the theater, back in Wisconsin, to watch the much hyped Spongebob Squarepants Movie. We eagerly awaited its release on DVD. Well, maybe not eagerly. In any case, after repeatedly watching it for several months, it was shelved and forgotten. Until recently. Playing archaeologist in our apartment, I sometimes unearth artifacts that have been hidden since our hurried and harried move from Wisconsin to New Jersey. We have never really fully unpacked since leaving Nashotah House, and opening a dusty box in a corner can feel like Christmas sometimes. Or, maybe you just discover the Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

It was a rare three-day weekend. School was about to start, and the commute to work would begin to take longer now that the leisured class had to admit to summer’s end. A little silliness seemed just the prescription I needed to face the work week. A little softness before hard reality.

I have noticed for several years now that American movies (and this may be true of movies from elsewhere, but I can’t say for sure) frequently make use of the death and resurrection theme. I suspect that a country that identifies itself so closely with Christian ideals finds this reiteration reassuring. Sure, the scenario is cathartic on a very basic level, and yet, it lies at the very heart of a central Christian belief—death is not the final word. So as Spongebob and Patrick are laid out on the drying table in Shell City and the water vapor rises from them like their departing souls, the viewer is left with a desiccated porifera and echinoderm and a profound sense of loss.

Of course, resurrection is right around the corner. The fire alarm goes off, showering down life-giving water from above, and our stars pop back to life. Resurrection in nature is limited, by appearances, to plants. With the annual cycles of death and rebirth, an individual plant may attain that for which animals only hope. This is a most robust religious symbol and movie viewers would be bereft without it. Even if the next time you see a sponge is when using it to clean the toilet, remember that resurrection crops up in the unlikeliest of places.

Avengers and Gods

The Marvel Comics Universe is a complex blend of juvenile and adult themes. At the suggestion of one of my readers (thanks, Erika!) and the urging of my family, we went to see The Avengers this weekend. Having grown up in my own complex circumstances (first of all, fundamentalist—therefore not prone to too much secular material, and secondly, of humble means—therefore not prone to too much material material), I was aware of only some of the group. I’d read Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor comics, and I knew who Captain America was, but I never realized they’d teamed up, along with Black Widow and Hawkeye, to form the Avengers. I guess I just missed that part. The amazing integration of gods, performance-enhanced humans, and technocrats, makes for a fascinating consideration of the boundaries of good and evil.

This became clear when Captain America first encounters Thor in the film and is told he is a god. His response, straight from Tea Party rhetoric, is “There’s only one God, ma’am, and he doesn’t dress like that.” Clearly a man from the early twentieth century would have expectations of Yahweh’s dress code. It would be a white robe, no doubt, but as the gods Thor and Loki duke it out, Yahweh is nowhere to be seen. The movie also toys with the concept of immortality. Dr. Banner, under the guise of the Hulk, is unkillable. In a poignant moment he admits having attempted suicide, but his alter-ego proved indestructible. The cheer of the audience was palpable when Loki tells the green guy, “I’m a god and I won’t be bullied by—” only to be divinely thrashed by the Hulk who responds with the word, “Demigod.”

Over the past several years I’ve noticed that hero movies have begun to declare Gotterdammerung, the twilight of the gods. No longer are supernatural beings the ones who rule humanity. Heroes are now in charge of their own destinies. And yet, that old time religion is still present. As Tony Stark is about to attack one of the wickedly cool flying leviathans he asks Jarvis “Are you familiar with the story of Jonah?” I wondered just how many in the theater got the reference—how many, like Captain America at the comment of flying monkeys, got the joke? When the movie was over, and I was convinced I wouldn’t have to go to work on Monday (I was sure my building was one of those destroyed in the mayhem), I pondered the resolution. The gods took their dispute to Asgard, out of the realm of humans. This was, after all, a dispute between deities. And humans, as so often happens in such scenarios, were simply caught in the middle.

If God Could Blog

My wife pointed me to the current Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker online; this issue’s is “God’s Blog” by Paul Simms. It is witty, as usual, and the comments outshine the divine post. I had a good smirk and soon forgot about it. I found my thoughts turning to recent events and the idea of God blogging returned to me with a greater intensity. What if God could blog? The responses of online experts might be notoriously predictable.

Most politicians and Tea Partiers would fail to recognize the author, I’m sure. The conservative life-style and outlook have their own particular structures that may have had roots in Christianity at one time, but have now taken on an agenda of their own. God, admittedly a long-haired liberal in his last incarnation, certainly doesn’t advocate the way his dad’s name is taken in vain by such political bluster. I suspect he’d be denied more than three times before the stock market bell sounds.

The theological liberals would probably find such an anthropomorphic activity distasteful for a being as abstract as the divine. After all, by stooping to our level and showing himself active in the world he would be raising the ugly question of theodicy again. If the Big Guy can afford the time to type out a blog post from his android in the sky couldn’t he at least solve one of the more pressing human problems such as starvation or war?

Bibliobloggers would surely rate his posts pretty low. Erudition is born of online prestige and although God is a big draw, his book is still a bestseller and literary types are much more comfortable deconstructing the written word. Besides, since he doesn’t belong to any denomination (or monotheistic religion, for that matter) his authoritative comments would certainly be disconcerting.

I suspect the atheist camp would suggest it was all a hoax. With sufficient skill the source of the posts could be pinned to a physical machine and the words themselves would be traced to a physical brain that is no more than an organic computer. The God Blog could safely be ignored.

We live in an age that has outlived the need for a live feed from the divine. Real-time responses from on high would make everyone uncomfortable. Since we construct God in our own image, those who blog already know what the divine would write if s/he could blog.

And I Feel Fine

“Is something supposed to have happened?”—Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. The world was supposed to have ended yesterday, but I haven’t yet looked out my windows to make sure. I suspect that everything is pretty much the way it was on Friday. Nevertheless, I have to admit to a tiny bit of relief. I do not believe in a mythic end of the world, and yet there is always that taunting doubt that maybe somebody knows more than me. To calm my jitters, I watched Chicken Little last night. This particular Disney movie has never been one of my favorites, but yesterday it struck me as a parable for our times. Even better, the original folktale is a parable for our times. No one knows when the story originated; it is an example of a folktale that belittles paranoia and the mass hysteria that tends to accompany it. A common ending has a fox eating all the concerned animals as they make their way to the authorities.

Our culture is rife with end-days beliefs. Since this is an idea clearly traceable to non-biblical origins, one might suppose that Fundamentalists would eschew it, but as we have seen the last few days, quite the opposite is true. Those who like Chicken Licken or Cocky Lockey go around declaring the end of all things clearly believe they will be rewarded for their special efforts. Instead, history will class them along with Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey—those who are easily led. Perhaps the oddest result of this recent scare is that many people will not abandon the belief, but will simply push it off. We have another scheduled apocalypse for the end of 2012. Is it because we are now so closely connected by the umbilical Internet that our natural fears have become international?

The claims seem to be arriving thick and fast. I remember the end of the world scare of 1979 when I was in high school. There seemed to be a hiatus until 1999, and since then the dates have begun to bottleneck. What we are seeing is the role-playing of a Christian mythology, and herein is the real danger. A true believer can try to initiate the end times. We only need recall 9/11 to test that. Like most religions, Christianity has developed its own unique mythology that freely borrows elements from both other religions and popular culture. The apocalypse has a history, you know. Overall the false scare of the end of all things has been good for this blog. It was not without irony that I noticed my post for May 21 was number 666. But like the clock that is still ticking, this post will clear that hurdle, and the world will be around for a long time yet to come. Now I need to go and pull back the curtains, just to make sure, and keep an eye out for Foxy Loxy.

Origins of Evil

The Bible might have benefited from a good editor. The final product is a world classic, of course, but contemporary people with their busy lives prefer straight and simple answers. These, often, the Bible refuses to yield. During a discussion of prophecy in class the other night the question of the origin of evil arose. I incidentally made reference to Isaiah 45.7 where God casually drops the line, “Forming light and creating darkness, making peace and creating evil, I am Yahweh making all this.” Many English translations attempt to mask the bald use of ra‘ “evil,” in this passage with nicer words such as “woe” or “calamity.” As I explained to my students, however, in a truly monotheistic system all fingers must point the same way for the ultimate responsibility. In this passage of Isaiah, Yahweh is presented as causing evil.

Now the editing of the Bible was never undertaken with the intention of creating uniformity, despite the railing of Fundamentalists. There are plentiful internal inconsistencies and disagreements. We should expect no less of a book written over a period of about a thousand years by several different writers grappling with life’s big questions. Inevitably students ask about the Garden of Eden. Genesis 2.17 has Yahweh state that newly created people must not eat of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil (ra‘).” Here the evil grows on a tree. Who planted that tree? It’s like blatantly laying the keys before your teenager and saying, “now don’t take the car.” Who is the source of that tree? (And, less frequently noted, the eating of the fruit in Genesis 3 is never called “sin.”)

The quintessential problem with a compilation is lack of uniformity. This did not bother ancient people as much as it does modern Fundamentalists. One reason is that many people equate the Bible’s value with it being a book that has all the answers from a single viewpoint. This the Bible lacks. According to the Bible there are various sources of evil. According to a strict monotheism (late in the Hebrew Bible) there can only be one. Enter the devil. To save the goodness of God a Zoroastrian anti-God had to be introduced. But the devil must stand in line to make his patent claim on evil.

Son of Stone Flies

One of my favorite comic books growing up was Turok, Son of Stone. We couldn’t afford as many comics as our friends, but among brothers we’d share our resources and get a fair variety of reading material. Turok belonged to my older brother. It felt so ancient and sophisticated, tinged with primal urgency as Turok and Andar attempted to make their way from the Lost Valley where dinosaurs daily threatened their existence. The comics had a gravitas that even The Valley of Gwangi lacked. In one installment, a scroll-keeper joined Turok and Andar and claimed his sacred scrolls would show them the way free of this accursed valley. Turok doubted this and was rebuffed with “Fools scoff at what they don’t understand!” as their erstwhile companion decisively re-rolled his scrolls for storage in a handy leather pouch.

One pilgrim's progress

That image comes back to me when I think of how ancient writers sometimes used ridicule to castigate competing religions. It even happens in the Bible. A friend recently inquired into the figure of Baalzebub, the famous “Lord of the flies.” The Bible attributes worship of such a deity to the Philistines, the popular pagan foil of the children of Israel. The Philistines, as we know today, were a sophisticated group of Indo-European settlers on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean who showed up about the same time as the early Israelites were emerging from their “Canaanite” milieu. Since they didn’t practice circumcision and didn’t worship Yahweh, the Philistines were shackled with the worship of ineffectual fish-and-insect deities. (Dagon would never regain his proper significance until he was rediscovered by H. P. Lovecraft many centuries later.)

A different pilgrim's progress

With the discovery of the Ugaritic tablets, the common usage of the term zbl (let’s say zebul, so it can be pronounced) was clarified. Zebul commonly designed “prince.” One of the recipients of this honored title was the deity formerly known as Baal. Baal-Zebul, “Prince-Lord,” the great thunderer Hadad. From the sketchy evidence of Philistine religious practice, it seems the new-comers did adopt some of the gods of their new land, and perhaps among them the lordly Baal. In order to disparage the cafeteria choice of their neighbors’ gods, a biblical writer renamed Baal-Zebul, Baal-Zebub, Lord of the Flies. There have been other explanations for the title, but the lessons learned from our youngest days often furnish our adult interpretative lenses. This explanation makes sense to me, and it reminds me of a bit of wisdom from Turok, Son of Stone.

What Would Noah Do?

Unfortunately, religion and politics do mix. A story on POLITICO.com announced on Wednesday that the House Energy and Commerce Committee chair hopeful, Rep. John Shimkus has declared Genesis on the side of conservatives. Stating that the Noah myth (not his exact words) promises God won’t flood the earth again, Shimkus claims we have nothing to fear from global warming. In a twist that makes some of his fellow conservatives squirm, Shimkus admits global warming is a reality but suggests that we really don’t need to worry about it because “the Bible tells me so.” Time for Shimkus to go back to Sunday School.

Part of the problem lies in the concept of Bible itself. The Hebrew Bible isn’t too much of a self-referential work, claiming to be pure words of divine gold. Paul, on the other hand, found the Hebrew Bible useful to cite against enemies, and his admirer who wrote letters to Timothy in his name took the idea even further. For all that, the Bible wasn’t finally settled on for a couple more centuries. Once the concept took hold, however, the world could never be the same. A book written by humans had become direct revelation from the word of God himself. The Bible makes few such lofty boasts about itself, but its less conscientious followers are not nearly so shy. As I demonstrate repeatedly in my classes, the Bible has become a magic book.

Politicians now feel comfortable claiming God as their ally because “he said so.” Without having ever critically engaged Scripture, or even having read it in its original languages, those in positions of public trust know enough to flaunt it. And it always scores points with Americans. Liberals fear the ramifications of using the Bible while Neo-Cons charge bravely ahead to places Noah himself would fear to go. Maybe it’s time to put the Bible back in the schools. Only this time it should be taught by people who realize that the Enlightenment has taken place and that we can’t rely on magic to save us from dangerous situations we ourselves have created.

The lesson from the Cretaceous Period