Theologizing superheroes (or, revealing my inner geek)

Original post: December 5, 2008; repost: March 20, 2010.

Last night I satisfied for a brief moment my inner comic book fanboy and watched Superman: Doomsday, the cartoon adaptation of The Death and Return of Superman series. [Some of you may be saying, “Superman died?!” Others will be rolling your eyes that I even need to explain that, and there will undoubtedly be a few who don’t really care.] I’ve always loved superheroes. Maybe I’m mindlessly buying into what Robert Jewett in Mission and Menace calls “the American monomyth paradigm” (236-238); maybe I’m just indulging in childish flights of fancy. Regardless, since I was a kid, I’ve loved Batman’s fun gadgets, Wolverine’s ridiculously cool adamantium claws, and Spider-Man’s webbing (and humor). But Superman has always been my favorite superhero.

Every hero has angst. It’s part of the comic book code: everyone struggles with something, whether it’s Spider-Man trying to figure out how to balance school and girls and fighting crime, or Wolverine wrestling with his shadowy past and trying to control his feral nature. Superman’s angst is his otherness, his difference, his rootlessness; his struggle is to find his place in a world that is simultaneously his home and yet not.

Here then is the first parallel, one of the reasons I like Superman: because I identify with him. Both for myself as a Third Culture Kid, and for myself as a Christian, whose citizenship is not in this world but in heaven (Phil. 3:20), this search and longing for home—to find people who really understand me and welcome me for who I am—is one of the struggles I face. Where do I fit in this world?

But the second parallel is what struck me (again, but with more clarity) last night, when I watched Superman: Doomsday. What makes Superman who he is? It isn’t just his super-strength, or his laser sight, or his super-speed, or his ability to fly, or his invincibility. It’s his values. It’s the fact that, even though he’s got the capacity to have the world fall at his feet, even though he’s got the power to subjugate all people and do whatever he wants, he chooses to be a servant, even to the point of laying down his life to defeat evil. Uh … obvious analogy, anyone?

Of course, the Superman mythology can be interpreted another way, as feeding into some of the American myths that Richard T. Hughes looks at in Myths America Lives By: of invulnerability, of always trying to do good, of American innocence. But I think even this way of understanding the Superman/Christ/America association belies the way that we as Americans (and we as Christians) can sometimes tend to (consciously or unconsciously) claim for ourselves a messianic mantle. (New discussion … go!)

Anyway … just wanted to bare my comic book-loving soul for y’all.

[Disclaimer: The movie isn’t all that amazing; but it is 75 minutes of fun.]

Justin

Hong Kong | London | California | Washington, DC Christian | Theologian | Musician | Activist | Sojourner

3 thoughts on “Theologizing superheroes (or, revealing my inner geek)

  • 24 March, 2010 at 12:33 pm
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    Hi Justin,
    I came across your blog from the Sojourners website. I was actually at Urbana in the Advocacy track, so I did see you.
    Very interesting perspectives and writing. Keep up the good work in social justice.
    Reading your blog encourages me to start blogging again. My last blog was almost 2 years ago and recently I finally put a conclusion on it and sealed it. http://jensafari.blogspot.com/ So hopefully I’ll be starting a new one soon because there’s so much I want to write about.
    May He bless you with His grace
    Jen

  • 24 March, 2010 at 4:30 pm
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    @Jen
    Great to have you along for the ride, Jen. Look forward to reading your thoughts!

  • 27 March, 2010 at 10:39 am
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    @Justin
    Oh hey! I was wondering if you still have the spiritual lament ppt. Could you send it to me? I’d like to use it once for prayer meeting.
    Thanks!

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