A Genesis for Generation Y

I’ve said from time to time that I think we would be better off if we could just stop using the word “Millennials” to describe my generation. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that word written down where it wasn’t meant disparagingly, and it often comes with very little other information to describe what it means.

So, for a bit of background, let’s learn about Generation Y (which is a boring term, but so far doesn’t carry the weight that “Millennial” does) in America.

We are the generation born from around 1980 to around 2000. We were all children when 9/11 happened, and the “post-9/11” global politic has been the one that has shaped us most into adulthood. We are the first generation to have “grown up” with the internet, and we respond quickly to technological advances. We are, generally speaking, more politically liberal than our parents. We are less religious than previous generations, and we are often anti-religion. We have (or had) great expectations of educational and economic success, and have been characteristically disappointed by the world we found ourselves in after school. We also had great expectations of our impact on the world, and have met with frustration over perceived inability to affect change.

I’m sure you can quickly find out more about us, but this paints a broad-stroke picture of the generation of people I believe the graphic short-story Genesis (created by Nathan Edmonson, Alison Sampson, and Jason Wordie) was written for.

The comic is bookended with the simple phrase, “They said I’d change the world for better or worse.” This is an idea that has been offered to the members of Generation Y since the beginning of our education. We were told the stories of Martin Luther King Jr., of John F. Kennedy, of Mother Theresa, even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We were told all of these stories and then we were told that we could do so much more!

These were the kind of expectations with which we approached adulthood.

In the comic, the main character becomes a priest, determining that religion was how he would make a difference, but he quickly discovers that — despite the fact that he is speaking to people, and they seem to be listening — nothing is changing.

I can identify with this sentiment, partially as a preacher and partially as a member of this generation. I value words, partially because I was taught that what we write and what we say matter, but also because most of my work as a preacher is centered around words. Words spoken in worship, words in lessons, words in sermons. But at the end of the day, saying something is not the same as doing something, and speaking about change is not the same as seeing change happen.

In the comic, by means of some mystical encounter, the main character gains the ability to change the world just by imagining something. He can create with mere thoughts.

Suddenly his perceived impotence to change the world is gone, and he sets about “fixing” the world. He makes food grow where people are hungry, he provides shelter for victims of a hurricane. He provides for the world in the best way he can imagine, and the world loves him for it.

Then, in an act of selfishness, he changes his wife’s body and it results in her death.

From that point on, his imaginations are dark and twisted, and he is afraid of his own mind. He curses the being that gave him his powers over reality. In the process of trying to undo the damage that he’s done, he learns how his abilities are limited. He can manifest things from his imagination, things that already exist somehow, but he can’t create from nothing.

Eventually, through effort and wrestling with himself he comes to realize the following: He has the power to destroy, the power to change the world, and the power to hurt people – all powers he already had before the mystical encounter.

Without spoiling the rest of the comic, I believe this is the crux of what we are meant to read in this book. It’s the message that Generation Y has to hear, so that it doesn’t get bogged down in the places where it feels like the world is out of its hands. Generation Y needs more than words to take advantage of its power, but the power is still out there.

And like another comic we all know and love told us, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

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Hellhound on my Trail

Geek culture, perhaps more than any other American subculture except fundamentalist Christianity, is fascinated with Hell.

From Hellboy, Hellblazer, and Spawn to Devil May Cry, Doom, and the Diablo series, geeks are going to hell on a startlingly regular basis. Maybe it’s not too hard to understand. Even as far back as Dante, Inferno shows us that the hell is ripe with vivid imagery that captures our imaginations.

Hell is also useful to comic creators and game designers because it acts as an effective stand-in for all things evil. In earlier eras of comic books and video games, Nazis filled this role. This worked in the golden age of comics because WWII was still fresh (or still going on, in some cases) and many of the industry’s progenitors were Jewish immigrants. It worked in a more recent era of video games because the first-person shooter genre experienced explosive (no pun intended) growth and killing Nazis effectively dodged any questions of morality from outsiders that the industry wasn’t ready for (but now faces anyway).

WWII games don’t sell well anymore. The games industry dried up that well. And, with the exception of the “Captain America” film, telling a story with a Nazi as the villain is falling out of vogue. That leaves us with demons to fill the void.

With a convenient, practically faceless enemy, we’re allowed to tell horror stories on an otherworldly scale. There’s nothing to lose when Jamie Delano tells a story about John Constantine foiling the machinations of (literally) baby-eating demons.

But a convenient, faceless enemy also lets us tell stories about real-world evil. Horror stories change when the thing we’re afraid of becomes real and present. Hell becomes an easily painted landscape for our own vices — greed and violence in particular.

That’s all fine and easy, but what does it say when the protagonist — the most likable character, the character most easily identified with — is a demon himself? That’s what we get with Hellboy.

Hellboy’s first day on Earth. From Mignola’s comic.

Looking at either the Hellboy movie or comic, we have a demon, summoned from hell by a power-hungry wizard, Rasputin. When he’s brought to earth, Hellboy is rescued from Rasputin by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm. Of course, Bruttenholm “raises” Hellboy and gives him a strong moral compass and by the time we see anything of an adult Hellboy he’s a hero; part of the “Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense” with his enigmatic ally Abe Sapien and the volatile Liz Sherman.

But if you’ve seen the movie or read the first couple of volumes of the comic book, you know that Hellboy’s origins are always right behind him. The hero is plagued by his hell-born nature and Rasputin (and others like him) are often hunting him down trying to coax him into embracing his birthright: bringer of destruction and downfall.

So the hero, the sympathetic character, the character with whom we identify the most, spends some time each day with a belt sander, keeping his horns from growing too large.

Theologically speaking, this type of writing gets into some funny territory. If Hellboy is meant to be our presence in the story, then we’re also meant to feel like that demonic pull is ever-present in our actions. Not only that, but we have to actively fight our so-called “true” nature to keep a fast hold on our moral compass.

There’s a big difference between saying that everyone is a demon just under the surface and telling a story about a demon who is a lot more like us than we might care to notice. I don’t actually think Mignola does the former. He certainly does the latter. It’s when we are watching our sympathetic hero being tempted and fighting back against his evil heritage that these stories pick at our own insecurities. While none of us are demons, history has shown all too well the “demonic” potential of humanity.

But then what’s just as important is what Hellboy does at the end of the film (also in the comics). Even when given all the power associated with his birthright, he breaks off his horns and tosses them away. He rejects the easy power and ensures that greed and violence don’t win the day.

Hell, in almost every story, is something to be beaten. Whether it’s something to be obliterated with guns (as in the case of Devil May Cry and Doom), or something to be overcome (like in Hellboy, and also Devil May Cry to some extent), it’s almost always a stand-in for some other hurdle. Very few of us could relate to these hellscapes if they were only about large-scale cosmic battle for good. But when they get to us for what they represent — our own evil — they draw us in.

By my estimation, all of our trips to hell mean something other than the occasional vivid or frightening image. They are a reflection of ourselves. And, in turn, that makes characters like Hellboy, who overcome the hellishness that tries to corrupt them, all the more important.

In the Name of a Man Who Never Would

Here are two irreconcilable truths about Western society: 1. It has a violent history, and 2. it’s heavily influenced by a man who would never commit an act of violence.

Whether we are Christians or not (and most of us aren’t), in the Western world Christianity  informs everything from our languages to our art to our calendar. Christianity is based on Jesus, who pretty famously said things like, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

And yet countless wars have been waged by Christians — even more bizarrely, countless wars have been waged in the name of Christ.

Which makes me wonder what happened to the people of Messaline.  

Martha, Donna, and the Doctor arrive on Messaline

In Season 4 of Doctor Who, the Doctor, Martha, and Donna find themselves on the war torn planet of Messaline. Two species are stuck in an intractable conflict, and each side sees the elimination of the other species as the only way out. Naturally, the Doctor has a problem with this.  

Doctor: A second ago it was peace and harmony in our time; now you’re talking about genocide!

Commander: For us, that means the same thing.  

Doctor: Then you need to get yourself a better dictionary. When you do, look up genocide. You’ll see a little picture of me there, and the caption will read, “over my dead body.”

After a series of run-ins between the two sides, the Doctor and his companions discover that the two species initially came to Messaline as allies to colonize the planet together. The two peoples realize that they must cooperate in order to make the planet habitable, but in the midst of this revelation, Jenny, a newly-cloned human soldier, is killed by the human commander. The Doctor, who has formed a bond with Jenny, is furious, and points a gun to the commander’s head.

Just when we think he is going to avenge Jenny’s death, the Doctor casts the weapon aside and says:

I never would. Have you got that? I never would! When you start this new world, remember that! Make the foundation of this society a man who never would.  

It is a powerful moment; a moving example of radical nonviolence. The audience gets the idea that the peoples of Messaline are going to do just that: build a society around a man who never would.

Martha befriends a Hath soldier

But back in the real world, we know how that experiment went: Crusades, witch-burnings, pogroms, bombings, lynchings. All in the name of a man who never would.  

It’s clear that the name of Christ has meant different things at different times. The Prince of Peace evolved to become a man of war.

It happened to the Doctor, too.

The 11th Doctor finds himself conflicted in the midst of war

Turn to Season 6 of Doctor Who, an episode called “A Good Man Goes to War.” Here the Doctor has in many ways become the commander that he berated in Season 4. As River Song says, The Doctor has become

…the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name. Doctor. The word for healer and wise man throughout the universe. We get that word from you, you know. But if you carry on the way you are, what might that word come to mean? To the people of the Gamma Forest, the word “Doctor” means mighty warrior.

Similarly, the meaning of the name Jesus Christ has been utterly transformed over the past couple millennia. Take this recent quote from celebrity pastor Mark Driscoll:

Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning. Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow.

This is certainly not the Jesus we find in the gospels.  There he is the ultimate pacifist, the ultimate “man who never would.” He goes to his death without a word of resistance, much less an action movie display of macho violence. What has the word Jesus come to mean?

In the world of Doctor Who, the Doctor is responsible for the damage he causes to his own name by straying from the path of pacifism. But Jesus hasn’t been around for a while. Any damage that has been done to his name has been done by his followers. And we’ve failed massively in making the foundation of this society “a man who never would.”

So are the people of Messaline set up for the same kind of failure?

Perhaps the fact that the people of that planet were born into war means that they learned a lesson we too often miss. To quote another great man who never would, Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.

Dr. King observed the terrifying existence of nuclear weapons and realized that ending global war was the only way to ensure the survival of humanity. In a nuclear society, pacifism is practical.

There’s hope in this idea for the planet Messaline, and hopefully for us, too. We’ve made countless, terrible mistakes in the course of human history. But in the face of our own destruction — whether by nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, or violence against the environment — maybe we will turn back to the rare men and women throughout our history who “never would”, and will finally, belatedly, take a turn in the right direction.

Doctor Her?

The Doctor isn’t God, but he might be the closest we’ve got.

Other potential deities in the nerd pantheon are either too distant – like big-headed Uatu the Watcher, “forbidden to interfere;” or they’re too human — “little-g” gods like Thor who are limited in power and knowledge and bound up in our petty human dramas.

The Doctor, on the other hand, comes pretty close to my idea of God — wise beyond human conception, unrestrained by human limitations like space and time, and yet deeply in love with the created universe, especially the brief and beautiful lives of human beings.

As a student of theology, this may be part of why I am so troubled by the Doctor Who fans who scoff at the idea of a female Doctor.

For the uninitiated (get ye to Netflix), when the Doctor “dies” he regenerates a new body, retaining his essential personality and memories but taking on a new physical form.  Eleven actors (all men) have portrayed the character thus far in different regenerations.

We now know that the next iteration of the Doctor will again be a man, but when the new Doctor’s identity was still up in the air, I participated in the wild speculation around who would be the next to pilot the TARDIS.

“Why not a woman?” I wondered along with other enthused fans.

In a great episode written by Neil Gaiman, “The Doctor’s Wife,” the Doctor mentions a Time Lord called The Corsair whose regeneration shifted from male to female. Clearly changing genders, just like changing hair, height, skin color, etc., is possible for Time Lords.

The eleventh Doctor wonders if his new regeneration is a girl when he feels his new hair

Yet some fans have a visceral, negative reaction to the idea of a female regeneration of the Doctor. Here’s a sampling of opinions culled from fan forums:

“Making the Doctor into a woman…would make nonsense of a character that has a long history. It would purely be pandering to the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone. They should simply accept it – some characters are male and some are female and that’s just the way it is. Making the doctor female would be a sure fire way of making the show jump the shark.”

“You’re right, it would be stupid. I mean, River Song and the Doctor would turn into a gay couple. How would we explain that? It would just be weird. I would prefer the show be canceled than the show continue with a woman. By the way, I am NOT sexist.”

“Regenerating the Doctor into a female Doctor would absolutely ruin the show. I wouldn’t watch it, nobody I know would watch it. It’s just a terrible idea and would be the downfall of Doctor Who. As much as I like boobs as a guy, just keep the females as the non-doctor characters.”

To counter these incredibly convincing (“lolz, bewbs!”) points, I would argue that the character would not lose anything that makes the Doctor “the Doctor” if she regenerated as a woman.

As with every new individual who takes on the role, a woman would bring fresh nuances to how the Doctor is played, but in the hands of a capable actor, the core of the character we love would remain the same.

To state otherwise implies that a woman could not be what the Doctor is; that a woman could not be brilliant and arrogant and courageous and charismatic and compassionate and broken and vulnerable and powerful and awe-inspiring. That’s sexist nonsense — we have seen all these characteristics in the women on the show, and, more to the point, in the women in our own lives.

River Song and Amy Pond are just two of the great number of diverse and well-rounded women on Doctor Who

Turning back to the metaphor of the Doctor as God, we can gain insight into what’s behind this reservoir of fanboy freak-out from Elizabeth Johnson’s seminal theological work, She Who Is. In her book, Johnson critiques the historical use of exclusively male pronouns for God and constructs a feminist theology that images the Divine as She.

While the idea of a female Doctor may seem “stupid” to some Whovians, the idea of a female God seems outright heretical to many Christians. But the knee-jerk revulsion for the feminine comes from the same source: the androcentrism of patriarchy.

God is depicted as exclusively male in many of the most influential images produced by Western culture

As Johnson writes, “Feminist theology exposes the ruling-male-centered partiality of what has been taken as universal and the interests served by what has seemed disinterested.”

In patriarchal cultures,  male is seen as “neutral,” while female is seen as “other.”  So while God as male is normalized, God as female is seen as an example of “the politically correct lobby whose sole aim seems to be to ruin everything for everyone.”  Within a patriarchal framework, God as female is seen as transgressive because women’s experiences are not seen as normative human (read: male) experiences.

Which make sense of the fact that, within the Christian tradition, the aspect of God that has been most frequently associated with the feminine is the Holy Spirit, which is not personified as a human, but most commonly depicted as a dove. Similarly, the TARDIS, a genderless object, is also associated with the feminine. In the (arguably sexist) nautical tradition, the Doctor refers to the TARDIS with feminine pronouns, and in the aforementioned episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” the TARDIS appears as a woman when it takes human form. Women cosplaying as the TARDIS is a pretty common sight at conventions.

The TARDIS in human form

I’m not saying that these costumes aren’t super cool, but it is problematic that we see hundreds of women TARDIS costumes for every one worn by a man – it’s taken for granted that women are more suited to portraying an object. This is an admittedly minor, but obvious example of the way in which the feminine is marginalized through our use of language.

As Elizabeth Johnson points out, the language, symbols, and imagery that we use in daily life have the power to shape our reality. Speaking of God exclusively as He “serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.”

The exclusion of women from ordination is one glaring example of how this subordination has functioned in many Christian communities. More violent examples include medieval “witch burning,” as well as the minimization and denial of domestic abuse and sexual violence within modern churches. The list, unfortunately, goes on.

Illustration from a later edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, a medieval witch hunting handbook

While the message board users quoted above, along with religious fundamentalists, may disclaim that they are “not sexist” when they cling to symbols that are exclusively masculine, their insistence that women are unfit to be reflected in the face of a beloved figure perpetuates the sexist ideal that women are inherently less-than and intrinsically other. By clinging to “tradition,” they create communities that exclude and devalue women, both implicitly and explicitly.

Defining our most important cultural symbols as exclusively male is a crucial pillar of patriarchy. Geek culture has done a lot better than the Christian Church in this regard — Superman is not threatened by the existence of Wonder Woman; there is enough room for both Aang and Korra; Buffy kills a vampire as effectively as Blade. Nevertheless, like Christianity, the geek community has sacred cows of androcentrism that reveal the ways in which women are still marginalized within our subculture.

It’s long past time to move forward. If Doctor Who teaches us anything, it’s that thinking inside the limited confines of black and white boxes holds us back from experiencing a universe that is infinitely variable and endlessly surprising, full of mystery and joy and new discoveries. Letting the Doctor try on a pair of XX chromosomes would not be the end of the world. It would be different, and unpredictable, and exciting — which sounds a lot  like the Doctor we know today. So what are we waiting for?  Allons-y!

X-Folk are Everyfolk, or, “Why God Needs the X-Men”

One of the magnificent things about comics is that they’re free to explore and challenge our preconceptions in unexpected ways. Often we don’t even know we’re being challenged.

Since their creation in 1963, the mutant super group “the X-Men,” have represented nearly every marginalized group in society. Racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation are all seen in the gutters of X-Men books.

The last X-Men movie, “X-Men First Class,” did an exceptional job of drawing parallels between the growing mutant community and the victims of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. In this context, we learn a lot about Magneto’s past and his motivation for becoming the “villain” we know in the other X-films.

Magneto in God Loves, Man Kills

Several of his memorable lines point toward the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews.

As Charles Xavier is thinking of using the Cerebro device to find other mutants, Erik (the future Magneto) asks,

Can we [help them]? Identification, that’s how it starts. And ends with being rounded up, experimented on and eliminated.

As Erik suspends a barrage of missiles pointed at the the ships that had fired them at the mutants on shore, it’s Charles who speaks up:

Charles: Erik, you said yourself we’re the better men. This is the time to prove it. There are thousands of men on those ships. Good, honest, innocent men! They’re just following orders.

Erik: I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.

This is one of the most explicit allegories to real life prejudice that we find in X-stories. It’s worth noting that Katherine “Kitty” Pryde (aka Shadowcat), “The most Jewish superhero that has ever lived …” (according to a current writer of the X-Men) is the de facto leader of the primary X-Men team. For a bit more about Kitty’s Jewish identity, check this out.

Just about every marginalized group can sympathize with the X-folk and their struggles, but recently the adventures of the X-Men have been most akin to those in the modern LGBT community.

LGBT youth (and adults) are subjected to a gamut of social challenges that hetero-normative youth are not. They are much more likely to face bullying, physical and emotional violence, and suicide attempts than are their straight peers.

They are forced to the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

The mutants of the X-Men face physical violence quite often. “Sentinel” (giant, mutant-hunting robots) attacks are a commonplace reality for mutantkind, and there are often efforts to “cure” mutants to normalize and integrate them into human society.

They exist on the margins of a society that doesn’t understand them, hates them, or fears them.

On a fairly regular basis, the X-Folk fight against a suspicious government that fears their difference, but one story in particular highlights another source of prejudicial fear: Religion.

A 1982 Marvel Graphic Novel, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, tells the story of the mutants’ encounter with Rev. William Stryker and his “Stryker Crusade” against mutants. Stryker himself primarily uses rhetoric and sermons to literally demonize mutants. He insists that they are spawns of the devil.

The Stryker Crusade, on the other hand, has much more direct methods. The comic actually opens with two crusaders murdering two mutant children and leaving their bodies hanging from a playground swing-set, adorned with a plaque that reads “MUTIES” (a slur for mutants). Much of the comic centers on the X-Men team trying to outmaneuver the crusaders who are hunting them while Charles Xavier tries to change the public opinion of mutants.

It’s grim enough to see this kind of violence in the fictional realms of comic books, but let’s not forget that there are real people that suffer violence just as horrific as that in God Loves, Man Kills. Russia’s recent anti-gay law has effectively sanctioned violence against LGBT people in Russia, but let’s not believe that America is exactly immune to homophobic violence. On the religious front, some of the rhetoric that Stryker uses is literally identical to some that is used in some real churches today to stir up hate for LGBT people.

For me, as 21st century justice-minded Christian, I’m deeply offended when religious texts and rhetoric are used to diminish the humanity of others. For this reason, and others, I believe we need the X-Men.  It may not look like much, but what the X-Men do is offer an entertaining way to invest in justice.

When we see the clearly good people of Xavier’s team hunted down because of some basic part of their identity over which they had no control, we need only turn our heads before we see clearly good people in real life harassed and battered over an aspect of themselves over which they had no control and with which there is nothing wrong.

Even if you’re not particularly religious, some part of this should ring true to you. All of us who participate in the primary Western culture have seen it. Whether motivated by religious duty or some other pull toward justice, we all must do what we can to ensure that people whether alike us or not, are not marginalized based on an “accident of birth.”

I’ll leave you with this impassioned speech by Kitty Pryde:

Check out X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills to see what happens next!

Zod With Us: Superman, Jesus, and the Redeeming Power of the Human Experience

It’s not cool to like Superman anymore.

This is a relatively new development in geek culture, and I’m going to have to pin part of the blame on one of my favorite people, genius auteur and world-famous foot fetishist Quentin Tarantino.

Fanboys latched onto the Superman monologue in Kill Bill like crazy.  The eponymous Bill says:

“When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent…Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

I argue that this understanding of Superman is completely flawed.

Bill, like many Superman detractors, does not understand what makes Superman super.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Superman as a Christ figure is old news. The much maligned Superman Returns and the by turns awesomely campy and unbearably awful Smallville did everything but literally crucify their Superman to drive that point home.

superman copy

It’s an obvious metaphor (though I wonder if young Jewish-Americans Siegel and Shuster didn’t have Moses in mind when they sent Kal-El down the galactic Nile in a Kryptonian basket of bull rushes). Superman came from the heavens to live as one of us in a lowly, unimportant town, and grew up to be the savior of all humanity.

The part of that simple story that Superman detractors fail to appreciate is the incarnational aspect – the significance of the omnipotent becoming human. Much like Christ, it is through Kal-El’s incarnation as human that he is able to become a savior.

Clark Kent (or alternately, Jesus of Nazareth) is not a misanthropic performance; he is an omnipotent being’s only connection to humanity.

Consider this: there is no reason for Superman to have an alter ego; he could be Superman all the time if he wanted to.

He lives among humans—and as a human—out of deep affection and admiration for the human race.

And this is what makes him superhuman – because of his love for humanity, he lives up to the highest standards of human morality, unwaveringly, despite the greatest temptation any human could ever face: the availability of absolute power.

By setting this example, Superman elevates all of humanity; for there is nothing that makes him “super” that we can’t accomplish ourselves. We don’t need his superhuman, fantastical levels of power; we only need the willingness to use what power we do have in service of those who are not as powerful as we are.

supermoon

Superman #156, “The Last Days of Superman”

Any time that Superman spends as Clark Kent – catching a movie with Lois or eating Christmas dinner at the Kent farm – is a time when someone somewhere is dying in an accident that Superman has the power to prevent.

And yet I do not believe this constitutes moral negligence.

If Superman stopped being Clark Kent; if he stopped taking the time to connect with individual human beings; if he had no personal relationships with anyone and therefore forgot what it is to love another human; he would soon cease to be Superman.

We’ve seen what rogue Kryptonians usually do when they end up on Earth: they conclude that they are superior to humans and attempt to subjugate us. But because he has lived among humans and as a human, Superman is no Zod.

His morality is intrinsically linked to his sense of humanity. As Superman’s connection to humanity, Clark Kent is as key to his superheroic identity as his ability to squeeze coal into diamonds.

all star

All Star Superman #10, “Neverending”

This modern American myth serves as a carnival-mirror reflection of the story of Jesus. In fact, it is perhaps more serviceable than the story of Jesus, which over the past 2,000 years has been robbed of much of its subversive power.

As Christian revolutionary Clarence Jordan said:

“Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man…By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”

This deification of Jesus makes the Man of Steel feel more human than the Son of Man. But the Gospels paint a much different picture. Jesus, like Superman, is redeemed and made able to redeem by his humanity.

Take the famous story of Lazarus.

Usually this story’s big special-effects moment gets the most attention. Jesus calls into the tomb: “Lazarus, come forth!” and the four-days dead man rises to life. But in my opinion, the real emotional peak of the story comes earlier, when Jesus finds out that his friend Lazarus has died.

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Jesus began to weep. Because of the death of one man. In the infinite span of time and space, this man’s lifespan is less significant than a single grain of sand on the beach.

And yet Jesus – who, according to the book of John where this story is found, existed from the beginning of time, with God and as God, the nexus of all creation – weeps at the death of one man.

And so the point of the story is not that God raised someone from the dead.

Of course God can raise someone from the dead.  God can stop the rotation of the Earth.  God can simultaneously occupy the past, present, and future.

God can apparate inside Hogwarts grounds.

The point is that God was moved to raise someone from the dead because God loved him. Lazarus was so much more to Jesus than an insignificant grain of sand. In dwelling in the dirt and messiness and beauty of the human experience, Jesus discovered a deep love for humanity as we are – flawed and weak and constrained by brief lives.

God became more fully God than God ever was before. The miracle isn’t the point.

It’s love.  

And so the point of Superman’s story is not that Superman is faster than a speeding bullet.

The point is that Superman is moved to throw himself in the path of those bullets because he loves humanity.

The stories of the Last Son of Krypton and the only son of God teach us the same thing: power is not what makes a hero. It’s love.

The Coyote Gospel

First of all, welcome to The Promethean Playground. I really hope our thoughts are interesting and entertaining, and I thank you for reading our inaugural post.

When I was considering what to write about for our first post, my thoughts went immediately to Batman. Whenever I’m asked who is my favorite comic book character or super hero I say, “Batman.”

That’s not a lie, exactly, I do love Batman – I think he’s a rich character with a really impressive rogues gallery. But Batman is not my favorite character, or even my favorite hero.

That honor actually goes to Animal Man, but there’s very little Animal Man merchandise available to show my love, and so few people have even heard of him, so I continue to say “Batman,” whenever asked.

Animal Man shouldn’t be a cool hero.

First of all, his name is Animal Man – his name is so pathetically lame to modern ears, but he was created in an era when comic books were still a major entertainment business, and publishers were trying anything (read: scraping the bottom of the barrel) to create new heroes that might increase readership.

Secondly, his costume is pretty consistently weird-looking.

Finally, he’s a celebrity and a family man (both things that an interesting comic book hero shouldn’t be).

But in the hands of a skilled creative team, Animal Man is far-and-away one of the most interesting characters in western comics.

Fortunately for us, Baker has received all-star treatment at least twice in his heroic career. I’m thinking particularly of the current, New 52-run on Animal Man, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh, and the run beginning in 1988, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chas Troug.

Amid Morrison’s 1988 run (now collected in trade paperback) we witness one of the most unsettling, grotesque, and beautiful stories ever written: “The Coyote Gospel.”

Cover of "The Coyote Gospel." (Animal Man #5)

Cover of “The Coyote Gospel.” (Animal Man #5)

It’s partially a macabre parody of the coyote of Looney Tunes pedigree, and Animal Man is a relatively minor character in this particular chapter. It’s a great injustice to the comic, but I’ll provide a synopsis.

A truck driver hits an anthropomorphic coyote on a desert road, nearly splitting it in half. As he speeds off, the coyote’s body begins to regenerate in stomach-turning detail. The creature’s pain is excruciating. A year later, the same truck driver, convinced that the coyote is some kind of immortal “devil,” hunts it out in the desert. The terrified animal is shot, pushed off of a cliff, crushed with rocks, and blown up in an explosion which also wounds the truck driver.

The coyote's first death.

The coyote’s first death and resurrection.

With each new “death,” the coyote regenerates. Animal Man arrives to investigate the explosion and the coyote, ignoring the hunter who has made so many dedicated attempts to destroy it, hands Animal Man a slip of paper containing “The Gospel According to Crafty.”

In the gospel we learn that Crafty was a cartoon resident of another reality where intensely brutal violence and immediate regeneration was the accepted standard of life. Objecting to it, the coyote goes to speak with God (depicted only from a first-person perspective as an artist). For his dissidence, God sentences Crafty to suffer “in the hell above,” but agrees to stop the violence of the cartoon world. The “hell above,” we discover, is the world of Animal Man and the truck driver.

Crafty feels justified in his suffering because he knows it is not without purpose, “with each terrible death and resurrection, Crafty knew that by his torment, the world was redeemed. … and while he lived, there still remained the hope that one day he might return. And overthrow the tyrant God. And build a better world.”

After all of this is revealed in Crafty’s internal monologue, Animal Man confesses he cannot read the gospel, written in the coyote’s illegible hieroglyphs. Before the coyote forms a response, he’s shot by the truck driver with a silver bullet. The shooter dies, believing he has saved the world, and the coyote falls, dying, in a crucifix-like position in the middle of a crossroads while Animal Man watches, powerless to change his fate.

As the comic closes, it pans away revealing, again from the first-person perspective, God’s paintbrush filling in the blood that pools around the coyote’s body.

Words alone can’t do justice to this story, but that’s the best I can do.

The story contains several elements worth considering, but only one that I’ll focus on today: the grim assessment of God.

I’ve noticed that anti-religiosity is rather popular in the comics industry.

This is probably more true of the smaller, independent books than it is the major publishing houses who are very concerned with losing readership, but it’s something I’ve noticed anyway. It’s quite popular to portray religions or religious people as ignorant, predatory, or silly.

It’s not something I inherently have a problem with (of course, horrific things have been done – and are still being done – in the name of religion, and religions have done an impeccable job of ostracizing and condemning people who are “different” from their normative standard).

I think the comics industry should be a place where tough issues are brought out and challenged. Religious ideals shouldn’t be immune to that.

However, Morrison took a unique approach to his criticism.

By only showing us God from God’s own perspective, the art encourages us into an assumed identity.

But by then showing how God is rather more cruel than God would have us believe, the writing disturbs that identity, making us question what kind of God we might believe in – if we believe in God.

“What kind of God do we believe in?” is not a new question. It’s actually very old, and it’s one of the central questions of theology as a discipline. It became a very important question during and after the Holocaust, however.

Many theologians see the Holocaust as the beginning of a theological practice called “theodicy.”

Theodicy is the study of the origin of evil as it relates to God. The Holocaust left theologians with an unanswerable question: “If God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does something so unspeakably evil happen?”

By most logical assessments, one must either relent that God is good or that God is omnipotent, since there is no reasonable relenting on the truth of the evil present in the Holocaust.

The Coyote Gospel, while on a decidedly different scale than the Holocaust, answers the same question.

Its answer, both by the first-person nature of Gods portrayal, and by the questionable acts we witness at the hands of God, is that God is a creator with little regard for the creation. Omnipotent, perhaps, but disinterested or worse – wholeheartedly cruel.

As a writer, Morrison went on to use the Animal Man title as a space for him to consider the relative cruelty that creative teams exhibit over their heroic creations.

Without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t yet had an opportunity to read them, Morrison reflects on how characters are pawns in greater games that they don’t understand.

With that in mind, depicting God as a creator – an artist – is quite significant.

Somewhere around the artistic guilt, which tries to walk the line between love of these characters and the need to create interesting stories, and the ridiculousness of satirizing old children’s cartoons, Morrison serves up a powerful theological challenge, one that leads many people into atheism.

If God is the sovereign of history, then God must have sanctioned suffering.

So we’re left with the disturbing question: do we believe in a God who loves us but can’t stop awful things from happening? Or do we believe in a God who can do whatever God wants, but whose love of creation is doubtful? Or do we believe in God at all?

Crafty's final demise.

Crafty’s final demise.