Faith & The Superhero: Two Sides of a Gilded Coin

Fatth & The Superhero

Across history, humans have always looked to an external source, someone stronger, wiser, and infinitely more powerful who could not only address their sorrowful lot in life but give them hope for something better. Scholars debate endlessly as to which deity came first, with contemporary people of faith each claiming their own deity to be the original. Superheros, however, are a little more easy for us to track. Detective Comics (DC) introduced us to Superman in 1939 and that same year Marvel gave us Namor the Sub-mariner. Both deity and superheros have filled contemporary literature and influenced lifestyles from the moment we first learned of them.

At first glance, it may not seem as though there’s a lot of comparison between the deities of faith and the superheros of comic books. When we consider the current popularity of the two, however, perhaps we do well to give the matter more consideration. Marvel Studios has a list of superhero films mapped out more than 25 years into the future. At the same time, more young people are questioning the deities of faith their parents worshiped. While no one is claiming one is a causation for the other, the parallels point to ways in which one might easily replace the other.

What We Expect From Immortals

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There have been thousands of deities across the history of humanity and almost as many superheroes if one chooses to look at ancient literature in that way. Granted, Herakles had to rely on Apollodorus and others to tell his story rather than a comic book series but to contemporary Greeks (and later, Romans who knew him as Hercules), the demigod was a real superhero. One might claim that the biblical Moses was a form of superhero, or possibly King David (that whole slaying the giant thing), but their ultimate mortality makes them outliers.

Some have claimed that superheroes are the great American mythology, that even should the United States eventually fall into the ash heap of history, as all empires eventually do, these stories will live on. While some of the ancient beliefs still persist as what we call religions, what we expect from both superhero and deity are strikingly similar. Consider the following qualifications:

  • The most powerful immortals originate somewhere other than earth. The deity of the Abrahamic religions claims to have always been, which is an interesting twist, but Superman was born on the now-extinct planet of Krypton and the many incarnations of Green Lantern have come from all over the comic universe. Our assumption is that, since they’re not of this earth, both the deities and the superheroes can be more objective.
  • Superheroes and deities provide us with morality lessons. Not that we don’t know how to behave on our own, but we seem to need constant reminders to not steal or kill people or lay waste to entire planets. One can debate whether the tales are metaphors or reality but they all serve the same purposes in reminding us that behaving inappropriately is a bad thing and negative consequences are sure to follow.
  • Deities and superheroes protect our freedoms. Okay, so superheroes may have an edge here because deities sometimes get a little fussy when it comes to the whole freedom-to-believe-whatever-you-want thing. Certain deities don’t exactly have the best record on slavery and international relations, either. Superheroes have us well covered, though, and will fight raging robots from another solar system and/or the entire Nazi army single-handedly if necessary to make sure we are all free to pursue our own happiness.
  • Both superheroes and deities support friendships and family. Deities are a little closed minded as to exactly what constitutes a family, it turns out, but they’re very serious about keeping them strong and making sure they stay together. Superheroes are a bit more openminded on the subject and know that sometimes the best families are those not created by blood ties. Superheroes also tend to be more accepting of non-traditional lifestyles. Deities can be a bit slow about modernizing.
  • Civic participation is strongly encouraged by both groups. Deities tell their followers to do things like feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and we frequently see superheroes setting a good example by doing those very same things. Superheroes also encourage participation in democratic governments, but deities tend to shy away from that since it creates a conflict of interests.

Story lines that help us relate

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Matters of Faith and the mythologies of superheroes are both inherently dependent on their story lines. Without a good story, we would neither believe in deities nor find comfort in the messages of superheroes. Sure, we treat holy books with infinite respect, but then,  many people feel the same way about a superhero’s original canon. Both Marvel and DC have received no small amount of backlash for daring to re-write origin stories and suggesting alternative canons for well-loved superheroes. Just ask Marvel about a female Captain Marvel, or Captain America being black. There were plenty of bigots who were just as offended by those changes as Christians are when someone suggests that Jesus might have been gay. People get attached to those stories.

The late Joseph Campbell wrote a book, Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which he finds the best superheroes have a similar and somewhat specific story arch. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t take a lot of faith to adopt that storyline to major religions, either. Here’s a very brief outline based on Campbell’s writings.

Ordinary World

In Campbell’s terms, this is wherever a hero exists before they become a hero. Maybe it’s Krypton. Maybe they’re on Mars. Maybe it’s Egypt. Everyone has a starting point and that starting point ultimately plays a critical role in the story.

Imagine what it would be like if, for example, Superman was from New Jersey. That would totally change how he responds to the challenges he faces. He could still be strong and rescue people, but he might need a super suit made of kevlar to pull off the bullet-proof thing.

Now, imagine if the prophet Muhammea had been born in Beijing rather than Mecca. Talk about a serious change to the story! Good luck tying that one back into the lineage of Abraham. Where gods and heroes start is a rather important piece of information.

Call To Adventure

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Just because a superhero has powers doesn’t mean they instantly start fighting off evil wherever it may be found. There’s always a pivotal moment early in the story where the hero has to decide to use their powers for good. Otherwise, Clark Kent might have stayed on the farm and done all the plowing in record time. He could have made his adopted parents rich with the advantages his presence would have given them. But no, Clark had a greater sense of duty. The country was at war. There were bad people everywhere. The world needed Superman.

Faith has its similar moments. Moses and the burning bush that talked comes to mind. Had it not been for that moment, an entire race of people might have been lost forever. For that matter, what if Abraham had not responded to the command to sacrifice his son, Issac? That was the old man’s Call to Adventure. Three of the world’s largest religions are dependent on this critical point in their shared story.

Refusal of the Call

Just because someone is called doesn’t mean they feel all that confident responding. Peter Parker’s malaise following the death of his Uncle Ben threatened to end his story before it ever began. Teenaged angst and insecurity presents problems for others such as Aquaman. The Flash hides his persistent insecurity behind a litany of sarcasm and wise cracks.

Resistance is a necessary part of the story if we are to relate to our heroes and gods on any level. There’s something off-putting about those who are too eager to take on challenges. Those are the people who try taming a lion, forgetting both whip and chair. Reasonable people don’t rush into danger like that and we need both deities and heroes to be reasonable.

Moses, again, was reluctant, claiming that  he had a speech impediment. Jesus had his 40 days in the wilderness that presents itself as a crisis of resolve. The fact that neither deity nor hero takes their place without reservation lets us trust their other decisions more readily.

Meeting The Mentor

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Superman has the messages from his parents available in his Fortress of Solitude. Batman has Alfred. The X-Men have Professor Xavier. Superheroes know, or quickly discover, that they are not infallible. They need someone from whom they can learn, someone they can trust. We find this portion of their stories very relatable and necessary because we experience the same thing. We have teachers and mentors who guide us along both formal and informal paths in life. We understand the value of having a strong mentor who helps us avoid making some of the more obvious mistakes on our path to success.

Deities get a little wishy-washing on the whole mentor thing. The gods of Olympus had Zeus, sort of, though he could be fussy about when and how he might offer advice. Greek gods had Apollo, who had some similar personality disorders. Other deities, though, often go it alone and when they do we find our faith tested a bit as their stories force us into a level of confidence that makes us uncomfortable.

Christianity gets around the whole mentor thing by giving its deity three personalities, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This allows Jesus the frequent opportunity to talk with his “father,” especially when looking at a certain and painful execution. While that’s not quite the same as Alfred carefully chiding a careless Bruce Wayne, it serves the purpose of enforcing the need for guidance.

Crossing The Threshold

This is where our deities and superheroes start getting down to business. Hercules slew the Nemean Lion then killed the Hydra before capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis, which isn’t nearly as kinky a story as it sounds. Those first feats of superpowers are exciting, thrilling, and help the hero make a name for themselves.

Of course, when talking in terms of faith, one generally refers to those feats as “miracles,” which in terms of the ancients that is easy to understand. Jesus turned water into wine. Muhammad split the moon. Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, dispensed with the multi-headed demon Ravana. Each act was, in its own way, a coming out party letting the world know they were open for business.

These starting points are where we tend to start paying attention to both superheroes and deities. Regardless of their origin stories or how they got here, it is their awesome powers on display that makes us anxious to follow and see what happens next.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

If the stories of superheroes and deities were nothing more than a litany of fantastic feats and miracles, we likely would become bored rather quickly. After all, even awesomeness becomes ordinary when it isn’t challenged every once in a while. To flesh out the stories a bit, our heroes and deities have tests, establish allies, and inevitably create enemies.

While the tests are pretty obvious within the framework of each story, allies and enemies are not always as clear. Within the superhero universe, sidekicks are a common character, someone who can either be the reason the hero saves the world, or that extra bit of help in a time of need. People of faith tend to refer to the allies of their deity as disciples, with the concept being they are followers more than plot movers. Yet, even there, we frequently see those disciples yielding to temptation or creating difficult situations which the deity then addresses with a miracle.

No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and that maxim is especially true with superheroes and deities. Superheroes always have an arch villain whom they can never quite completely vanquish. Deities have it even more challenging, though, as they must deal with powers of supreme and pure evil. The powers of darkness loom large in stories so that the faithful are encouraged to not stray.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

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Campbell’s choice of verbiage here is a bit confusing. As we look at the complete arch of any story, this would be the part where matters start getting seriously tense. Bad actors have all been identified (for the most part) and their misdeeds are pointing toward one large, final misdeed with the hero/deity has to stop.  In the best stories, both religious and comic, this is where some setbacks are encountered, perhaps not everything goes quite as well as expected. 

This step is important because it not only begins setting the stage for the final showdown to come later, it also provides are hero/deity a chance to comment on the human condition. If there’s going to be an sub plot or morality tale, it likely occurs here. 

There are a number of plot mechanisms to be put into place here, but among the more common are a lengthy discourse to the sidekick/disciples, a prayer/monologue while alone, or a tense encounter with the enemy. Whatever plot tool is used, the end result is to assure the reader that, a: they are not alone in the challenges they face, and b: everything’s going to turn out okay. Our hero/deity exits this part of the story with confidence and determination.

Ordeal

The battle is on. Evil, in whatever incarnation it might appear, charges head-first at our hero/deity with the ultimate goal of unseating them and taking control of the world. Notice, it’s always taking control of the world. No one ever wants to just take control over Yonkers or a nunnery in the Alps. The stakes have to be as big as possible and while there’s always the universe at stake in some space stories, it is the fate of the world that concerns each of us more directly. We live on the earth. Few of us are anxious to be ruled by evil.

Expect a lot of buildings to fall during this battle, both in real terms and metaphorically. Stereotypes are shredded and traditional expectations are burned. At times, the two sides momentarily appear equal in power. The hero/deity thrusts, the enemy parries. While other challenges might have been met with relative ease, this one takes everything the hero/deity has.

This isn’t the final battle just yet, but it sets up the story for why the final battle is absolutely necessary. We see how dangerous the enemy is. The need for the superhero/deity to win becomes more apparent than ever.

Reward

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Tada! The hero/deity wins in one fashion or another. Evil is put in its place, though one likely notices that it is never completely destroyed; it must continue to exist because we continue to encounter it in our own lives. Still, for now, the bad folks are out of the way and everyone can celebrate. Sort of. Over the centuries, “winning” has taken on different definitions to fit the morality of the society at the time. If the hero/deity becomes a martyr, that still counts as a win.

We also do well to note that saving humanity, either physically or spiritually, is always the reward. Heroes and deities are defined in large part by their willingness to sacrifice themselves so that everyone else may live.  Okay, so a few buildings get knocked down here and there and the end result of any Superman adventure is billions of dollars in infrastructure repairs. What’s a few dollars compared to the lives of the entire planet?

In fact, for both heroes and deities, financial gain is something they tend to avoid. Okay, so Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are both insanely rich when they start. That part of their lives is largely separate from their superhero personas. Everyone else takes whatever is given and is thankful. Reward is succeeding in the quest, whatever that may be.

The Road Back

One might think that once the hero/deity has won the prize that the story would be over. Not hardly. There are still some loose ends to tie up, people to thank, repairs to be made. This is a mirror of real struggles, especially war. Wars are seldom won at home. When the peace treaties are signed, troops return to the place from which they came. Often, life is different than it was before they left.

Superman, for example, frequently returns back to the farm to check on his adopted parents after a particularly difficult battle. His return is grounding, reassuring, and confirms for him the reason he fights. Spiderman removes the costume so Peter Parker can return to Aunt May, his source of emotional support and teacher of morality. 

For stories of faith, this is often a final set of instructions and even saying some goodbyes. Where martyrdom is certain, there is a need to make sure the disciples know how to continue on in the deity’s physical absence. Jesus is even seen praying for an alternative ending, which doesn’t happen. This is the point where tears start to flow. We see what the hero/deity is giving up to save humanity.

Resurrection

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Critical at this point is that the hero/deity must face their greatest challenge of all, one that puts them face to face with death. Why? Because death is and always has been the biggest and most frightening challenge for all humans. Our faith requires that our deity and heroes have the power to overcome death, or at the very least, mitigate its finality. If our hero/deity can’t conquer death, what hope do the rest of us have?

The plot element here is on that has endured through even the earliest of ancient stories. The superhero/deity appears to die, in some legends does die, and then makes a triumphant return kicking evil and death to the curb in a final (for now) victory. Humanity is saved and hope is restored.

Holy books are pretty clear on this point and telegraph the ending long before it arrives. Only the other characters in the story are worried about the deity. Those reading the story today likely knew the ending before they ever picked up the book. Comics are a bit more troublesome, though. Superman has died more than once. Same for Batman and several others. The upside is, they keep coming back and winning.

Return With The Elixer

Campbell’s choice of terminology here refers to what was a common plot point in ancient stories where the superhero, often a wizard or wise medicine man, needed to secure a specific formula that would cure a disease plaguing the populace. These stories were born of real-world problems in an age where disease could easily wipe out entire tribes.

Contemporary superheroes/deities rarely return with a life-saving antidote any more as that particular plot mechanism has played itself out. Modern medicine takes care of most potential plagues so all it good on that front. Rather, our worshiped entities emerge from the final conflict having saved our souls and our very lives. They have secured our form of government, blessed our lifestyle choices, and left us waving giant flags of allegiance to whatever it was they were saving in the first place.

Here, the stories end, fade to black more or less, with the promise that both the deities and the superheroes are likely to return. When I was a kid, comic books managed to get through all 12 steps in roughly 30 or so pages. The formats have gotten longer over time as readers desired more detail. Religious stories tend to take longer, giving the deity plenty of room to speak at length because they are all so infinitely quotable. Still, the sun sets and there’s a feeling of happiness as one closes the book.

Where Two Paths Diverge

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The similarities and parallels between the hundreds of deities and thousands of superheroes are many. Whole, giant books have dissected many of those topics for the academic credit of having done so but the average person is likely content with even less than what I’ve already written on this page. Deities and superheroes are an awful lot alike. We get that. Most reasonable people don’t have a problem with it. Warner Brothers even provided pastors with sermon hints and outlines that compare Jesus to Superman. I wish I was kidding.

Not everything is quite the same, though. Without getting into the failings of any particular deity, the two groups diverge along some fairly important paths. Let’s consider some of those for just a moment.

  • Deities are out to save your soul while superheroes rush to save your life. There’s not really any crossover between the two regardless of what the faithful might claim. One never sees Odin or Allah sweeping down at the last moment to keep one from being hit by a speeding bus. Deities will let you die in this realm to welcome you to their version of paradise.
  • Deities tend to be jealous and rarely work together, even if they have identical backstories. Superheroes form alliances all the time in order to defeat a shared enemy, even if that enemy is other superheroes (see Marvel’s Civil War series). The lack of cooperation among deities results in some pretty brutal animosities between their followers. Remember the Crusades? Yeah, that whole nonsense could have been avoided had the deities played together a bit better.
  • Superheroes rarely shy away from the spotlight even when it might be to their advantage to do so, Iron Man. Deities tend to stay invisible, preferring to let oracles, preachers, imams, rabbis, and other “chosen” representatives deliver their message. This allows deities to perpetuate the concept of being everywhere all at once.
  • Deities take individual, personal requests for their services but don’t have the best track record for responding in a timely manner. Superheroes, on the other hand, don’t so much as list a Twitter handle but still manage to show up when danger comes a-knockin’. This discrepancy creates some trust issues among those who would be faithful.
  • Deities provide answers to critical questions such as, “Where did all this come from?” and “What happens when I die?” Those are extremely important questions that have plagued humanity from the moment we started using more than two percent of our brains. Superheroes, by contrast, don’t really care how you got here and are committed to not letting you die. From the superheroes perspective, if you die, they failed. That’s some serious performance motivation.

I could probably create a longer list but I think that’s enough to make the point. Superheroes and deities are not the same despite all the similarities in their stories. Each exists for a different purpose, which opens us to the possibility that perhaps we (as a society) need them both.

Do We Need All That Help?

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The flip side to considering whether we need both deities and superheroes in our society is whether we need either of them at all. One can reasonably make the argument, and several people already have, that both deities and superheroes are emotional and intellectual crutches that keep us from accepting reality and looking for solutions ourselves. If a deity created the universe then do we still need to explore its depths? If we believe superheroes are going to save us, do we need to develop the ability to save ourselves? These are some pretty serious matters we need to consider before leaving the conversation. Let’s look at a handful of hot topics.

  • You can save yourself. Waiting for someone else, whether deity or superhero, to come along and scoop your ass up and deliver you to a better place is pretty much a guarantee you’re going to continue sitting right where you are now. Even faith requires some effort on your part. One has to be an active participant in their own life and living in a fantasy world of superheroes and opposing deities prevents one from doing that.
  • Good and evil are under your control. No one needs an external source to define good and evil for them. The seven “deadly sins” of lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, sloth, envy, and pride are largely universal and exist by various names in every society. How we respond to those, which ones we embrace and which we fight, is all a matter of personal choice, and one can always change their mind.
  • Strength is not always physical. I have always found it interesting the degree to which we form our images of deity to match our images of superheroes. Much more important than the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” is the ability to determine the circumference of a circle, determine how much weight a bridge can hold, and how to successfully move your life forward. Best of all, there is no kryptonite to kill your brain unless you create it.
  • Being female is not a handicap. While there are exceptions among both, the list of deities and superheroes is largely dominated by patriarchal characters throwing their weight around. Women are too often relegated to support roles. Comics have done a better job of addressing this issue in recent years, and the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman is inspirational. Bottom line: women are every bit as powerful as men and only an evil character would get in their way.
  • One need not choose career over family. One just doesn’t find many moms within the deific or superhero realms.  Within the comic book realm, one is pretty much limited to Sue Storm (Fantastic Four) or Wonder Woman’s mom, Queen Hippolyta, who is pretty badass by her own right. Among the various religions, one pretty much has to go back into antiquity where the goddesses were respected and slept with both gods and demigods, which created no small amount of trouble. Both need to get with the plan and realize that anti-family attitudes are a detriment to society.

Again, the list could be a lot longer, but I think this is sufficient to make my point. We don’t need a caped crusader or a silent creator in order for our lives to be full and complete. Society fails when it cedes any level of control, spiritual, physical, or emotional, to a character whose only argument for existence lies in a story someone told a long time ago. 

Hence, faith and superheroes are two sides of a gilded coin; they can be manipulated to look good but at their core, they have no real value. Both make for good entertainment and perhaps even provide decent morality stories in some instances (though certainly not all). Building our lives around either, however, prevents us from realizing our own potential.

If the world ever needs saving it is up to us to save it. No one is going to come swooping down from the sky to rescue our pathetic asses. If we don’t do the saving, the saving won’t be done.

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Note #1:  This article was created using the new WordPress editor, Gutenberg. Hence, not everything laid out quite the way we wanted, especially with images. However, it is a lot easier to use than anyone around here anticipated and is likely to become more powerful as new options become available.

Note #2: The Old Man wishes to thank Rachel Notestine and Holly Hacker for playing the part of our superheroes in the images for this article. Both are parents with teenagers in their houses, making them real superheroes to their families.

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