A Modern Mythology: The Need and the Vehicle
Joseph Campbell, arguably the twentieth century’s foremost authority on comparative mythology, asserts in his book The Power of Myth that we no longer have a mythology in our modern culture:
Greek and Latin literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these were dropped, a whole tradition of mythological information was lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in your mind, then you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It gives you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that [emphasis mine], we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don’t want to give it up (Campbell 3).
As Campbell says, we have the mythologies of the cultures that formed the foundations for western civilization, such as the Greeks and the Romans, and can still draw some degree of inspiration and guidance from them. Yet, he claims in the passage above that we have “lost” what those traditions had to offer us due to their stories not being universally taught, and we have no modern equivalent to replace them. We can still access these ancient stories should we wish, and find something in them to apply to our modern lives (with some creative metaphorical thinking). However, we must work at it: work to find them, work to interpret them, and work to build personal connections with them. Thorough study of Greek and Latin mythologies is not for the most part offered in our schools (they are touched on, but not explored to the degree they deserve), or delivered in other contexts in our culture with any degree of consistency or depth so that their moral lessons, at least the ones still relevant to us, are inculcated into all of our citizens. I myself teach a high school level course focusing on comparative mythology, and I work to draw connections between our lives and these ancient stories to the best of my ability. I work to make ancient literatures and myths relevant to the few young lives I am able to touch, while using them as vehicles for literary analysis as well. At the same time, the stories of the Greeks and Romans aren’t ours. They don’t resonate as well with modern minds living in a radically different culture as a mythology written for our own time might do, hence the difficulty of forging the necessary connections and finding relevant and meaningful guidance.
We have the stories of the Bible, which I would argue constitute a mythology of their own; many people today read the Bible, form communities to revere and discuss its words, and use parts of it as moral compasses to guide their behaviors. Again, those stories, though many of their messages have merit, are not our own. They were written centuries ago in a different part of the globe, and their writers could never have anticipated the world we live in or the challenges we face today. This is not to wholly discount the timeless lessons found in the texts from ancient traditions, but we live in a different world, and need something more.
We need a mythology that can speak to modern society, taking into account our cultural and ethnic diversity and the issues that are facing us as a people in the twenty-first century, as well as all the scientific and technological advancements we have made. We need that mythology to inspire us and to help guide us through the challenges of our lives, with characters embodying our greatest virtues setting examples for us. I believe that such a mythology, or at least its foundation and the means of its delivery, already exists, and only needs to be embraced for what it is and the potential it has for motivating us and bringing us together into like-minded, supportive communities. I am speaking of a mythology based on a uniquely modern and American creation: the superhero.
Our Need for Story
Humans are storytellers and story-lovers. Stories, in pictorial, oral, and written form have existed in every culture of the world from the dawn of recorded time. These stories have been used for a variety of purposes, from entertainment to the chronicling of history in a narrative context. One of the oldest verse stories in western civilization, the tale told in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, serves as a timeless metaphor for the journey through life. Those mythological stories inspired in their listeners a sense of awe before universal forces they could not fully comprehend. They provided a structural framework for the universe that was reconcilable with the observable facts to some degree, but they also explained those things happening in the world that people at the time were unable to explain, such as thunder and lighting, the rotation of the seasons, and the movement of the sun across the sky. Mythological stories provided an explanation, in narrative form, for a given society’s moral code and social structure, and also provided a sort of “handbook” for individual members of that society to help guide them through the transitional phases of life. Joseph Campbell’s essay “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art” calls these four primary functions of mythology the metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical functions, respectively. Without the stories to serve these functions, a society’s population would be on their own to explain the mysteries of the universe, and would need to stumble blindly through their lives without any guidance as to how to face and overcome the challenges that life presents along the way. No one can make it alone, and without some sort of “life map.” Though our modern societies have, through scientific advancement, determined the causes behind many of nature’s processes that would have inspired awe in the ancient mind, we are no less in need of moral guidance as societies or personal guidance as individuals, for we face the same (as well as many other) challenges and thresholds that our ancient counterparts faced: we are born, we come of age, we reach a mid-life threshold where we question our purposes, we accept and face the inevitability of death, and ultimately, we die. Without stories that demonstrate how such challenges can be met, we are on our own, a situation which could have very negative results when it comes to societal advancement and individual growth. We cannot simply figure out how to handle these challenges by ourselves, for some, without the proper guidance, would never learn how to cope with them, or learn too late. We need something to bind us together as a people—a set of stories and pantheon of characters to which we can turn throughout our lives for examples and inspiration.
In our society today, mainstream religions, often based on ancient worldviews that are hard to identify with, are beginning to lose their grip on the modern imagination. The number of people who identify their religious affiliation as “none” is on the rise. I do not believe that organized religion is in any way necessary for a fulfilling and rewarding life. At the same time, I would argue that we do need a coherent and comprehensive mythological foundation to draw on in order to give our virtues and morals a context, as well as means of expression and transmission. Without such a mythological tradition, we lack the framework to help guide us through the transitional periods of our lives and must stumble about in the dark as individuals, some of us never finding our way. Consider that we do not have specific, society-wide rituals for, say, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, or “coming of age” ceremonies. When I ask young people what we have, their answers are always the same: high school graduation, getting a driver’s license, being able to vote, and being able to drink. That’s it? These are supposed to serve as the transitional ceremonies for such a major life milestone? It’s no wonder we have citizens that are forty years old in body, but sixteen years old in mind. When were they really told, those without specific guidance, that it was time to grow up—and what that really means? Earlier cultures had very distinctive rituals for weathering this crucial life phase and entering into the world of the adult. Joseph Campbell touches on this point in his classic work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces:
It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back. In fact, it may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood (7).
Without the symbols provided by a mythological tradition, and the guidance its stories offer, many of us may never transition from childhood to adulthood at all, at least not in a mental, emotional, or spiritual sense. Our bodies grow, but our spirits remain behind. Certain obstacles are never overcome or rites of passage never performed. We stumble about trying to figure out everything on our own, often without any guidance as to how the challenges of life should be weathered. This can even lead, as Campbell suggests, to mental illness.
The Superhero Story as Modern Mythology
Enter the superhero story. Superheroes today are more popular than ever before; we see them in films, television shows, graphic novels, and any other medium you can name. A stunning number of superhero films have recently been released, and many, many more are currently under development. Superhero-based television programs, such as “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Arrow,” “Agent Carter,” “Gotham,” and “The Flash” have hit the airwaves and proven themselves exceptionally popular among general audiences. We see superheroes celebrated at gatherings and conventions such as San Diego Comic Con, which can draw over 130,000 people, selling out tickets within 90 minutes of their becoming available. The framework of a new mythology based on the superhero is already in place, and could help to provide the guidance Campbell believes we lack. Grant Morrison, comic book writer and author of Supergods, a survey of the history of the superhero, touches on the need for superhero stories in our modern world:
“We live in the stories we tell ourselves. In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They’re not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark. They’re about as far from social realism as you can get, but the best superhero stories deal directly with mythic elements of human experience that we can all relate to, in ways that are imaginative, profound, funny, and provocative. They exist to solve problems of all kinds and can always be counted on to find a way to save the day. At their best, they help us confront and resolve even the deepest existential crises. We should listen to what they have to tell us” (xvii).
So we should. The superheroes of today serve as mythic archetypes, representing our societal values and individual journeys. Deepak Chopra, in his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, touches here on the archetypal nature of the superhero:
The great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung made us aware of the collective unconscious and its archetypal symbols. Myths exist in this ‘akashic field,’ or a non-local plane of existence where information and in this case the collective imagination, is stored and from which it gets re-created generation after generation. Myths are the closest we can come to conceptualizing the nonconceptual – the infinite. They are the highest expression of the finite – of striving to articulate the infinite. These tales are primordial; they capture the transcendent and then cloak it with beginnings, middles, and ends. Often the stories are similar, but take on modern masks and costumes. They have a simple plot and compelling characters and often depict the eternal struggle between good and evil, the sacred and profane, the divine and diabolical” (2).
Though I lack sufficient background to form an opinion on the existence of an “akashic field” at this time, and don’t often agree with Chopra’s other views regarding the nature of spirituality, I do agree with the majority of his statement with regard to the archetype and its resonant nature, and feel that superheroes are exceptional modern embodiments of these timeless archetypes. As these characters come from our own era, their stories can reflect our more modern understanding of the universe and delve even more deeply into its mysteries than any ancient text could manage for us. Modern scientific discoveries could be celebrated and explored through cutting edge storytelling that could make math and science even more “cool” than they are. The “powers” of the superheroes that lack scientific explanations would symbolically stand for the mysteries of the universe which science has yet to explain. Modern superheroes are ethnically diverse, representative of both genders, and appeal to all age levels due to the versatility of the characters and mediums available to deliver their stories. We have in the superhero story a superbly positioned foundation for a new and inspirational “mythology” that could appeal to and guide every citizen of our society, imparting new knowledge, conveying morality, and setting standards of behavior. I want to be clear that this is not a call for a new “religion” revolving around the modern superhero. The characters in these stories (despite the title of Morrison’s book) should not be worshipped as supernatural gods or believed in as such, but instead held up as motivational symbols of the values we hold, serving also as spiritual focal points. Their rallying cry might be: Superheroes for Secular Spirituality!
One mindset that would need to be overcome as an obstacle to this vision is the belief that superheroes are just featured in “comic books” and therefore are the province of childhood alone. I mean, haven’t we outgrown all those kid fantasies about people with extraordinary abilities that no one in the real world has? (Apparently not; plenty of adults are still inspired by the miracles seen in the Bible and claim that Jesus is “their superhero.”) Of course these stories are for children… they need to be. But that is only the beginning. Any mythology must appeal to all age ranges of the population it serves. You cannot wait until someone is an adult before you begin to introduce him or her to the ways of the culture to which he or she belongs. Little children can read or be told age-appropriate stories featuring superhero characters, with the stories and the issues they explore later becoming more complex as their followers age and mature. Today, comic books and animated superhero stories can capture the imagination of the younger generation where adults can view and read more complicated stories, featuring the same characters but dealing with more mature themes in cinematic, graphic novel, or conventional novel form. “The Dark Knight” was not made for children, and brings up important issues that need to be discussed—but not with little kids. A character such as Batman can be introduced to them through the media of comic books or animated films targeting specific age groups. Once enthusiasm and love for the character is established, it can be nurtured through an ever-evolving canon of stories that mature as the follower does. Parental guidance would be essential here, serving to contextualize and discuss the exploits of the subject hero, making sure that certain stories are experienced at the appropriate times in a younger person’s journey. An active, living mythology must appeal to all members of the society from which it springs, not just its youngest or oldest. It falls to the artists and storytellers who create and maintain these heroes to craft the adventures that pass on the virtues of the society and inspire the population. The heroes are but the vehicle—it is the storytellers that must convey the narratives to teach those virtues. I am not sure (though I hope I am wrong here) that all of those currently in position to create the stories featuring these heroes fully realize the importance of what they are crafting and are out for more than profiting from them.
As things now stand, the potential of the superhero mythology as a truly potent and transformational spiritual movement lies largely untapped. These characters are popular, yes, but are they taken seriously as the role models and spirit guides they could become? Not yet, at least not by large numbers of people. Superhero enthusiasts need to advocate for this genre and work to give it the respect it deserves. We need the greatest storytellers of our time to elevate these mythic heroes to new levels of relevancy and admiration. These storytellers must address that charge with the utmost care and respect, for the stories of the superhero are our modern mythology, and if one is to contribute to the canon of stories that has the ability to shape the hearts, minds, and souls of a generation, they must take that task very seriously. Ancient texts do not have a monopoly on inspiration and relevancy! If anything, they are erratic at the former and considerably lacking in the latter. Zack Snyder, Director of “Man of Steel,” the cinema’s most recent re-imagining of Superman, discusses the superhero as modern myth in a 2014 interview in Forbes Magazine:
I really believe this — and I think it’s obvious [emphasis mine] — I believe superheroes, they’re our modern myths. They’re our mythology in the modern world, and myth is designed to tell us about ourselves. In the ancient world, a volcano would go off or the stars would fall from the sky and they would make a myth up around it to help ancient man to sleep at night or understand it, or at least to have a way of dealing with these things that were outside of their control. So, they’d make a story about a god on a mountain or whatever it is. And I think that’s kind of what our superheroes can do for us, they can help us explain our world a little bit (qtd. In Hughes).
Snyder understands. Though there are those who have questioned Snyder’s visions and interpretations of the characters he has worked to capture in cinematic form, he nonetheless appreciates the importance of the storytelling in which he is engaged, and recognizes its potential. Hopefully, all those involved in the business of moving the superhero genre forward share his love of and dedication to the characters and the mythology they represent, and treat their privileged position as a sacred trust. They are the scribes of the Superhero “gospel.”
As mentioned earlier, myths are meant to help contextualize the thresholds and obstacles of our lives, and help us to weather them and make the transitions between our life phases. These phases, in a mythological sense, are best articulated by Joseph Campbell once again in The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell postulates that there is one overarching myth that permeates all cultural traditions of the world, which he calls the “monomyth.” Here, Campbell explains the universality of the myth:
Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth (1).
Characters in these stories may wear different “faces” or exist in different settings, but as they are all human, they all face a common set of experiences and challenges. The plotline followed by these characters is called “The Hero’s Journey,” which, under close examination, is a metaphor for our own journey through life. Ancient works such as The Odyssey show us characters who are on this journey, and we can see our own life experiences symbolically represented in the exploits of Odysseus as he strives to return home. Most superhero stories reflect the stages of the hero’s journey as Campbell describes them (even though not all superheroes have earthly or “human” origins in their stories, their “humanity” is unmistakable). A thorough analysis of the monomyth phases is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is worth examining how one modern hero follows this path, and how that hero’s archetypal example can be used for personal transformation.
Superman: Man of Steel, Man of Myth
Of all the superheroes that exist today, few can claim to resonate as powerfully with the mythic imagination as the progenitor of all of them: Superman himself. Deepak Chopra explains here the mythological influence this character has had on a global scale:
Superman is the definitive superhero. He’s not just an American pop-cultural icon; he’s a global icon. Since his comic conception in June 1938, Superman has appeared in radio serials, television programs, numerous feature films, newspaper comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, serialized novels, and video games. He is the forefather of the modern superhero and a symbol of power across almost all cultures. He stands for achieving the impossible, not just because he is endowed with otherworldly superpowers but also because in his being he represents a strength of supremacy that often transcend those of other superheroes and in fact define the ethos (55).
When we examine the stages of Campbell’s monomyth cycle, and then look at the origin story of Superman, we see many parallels. The hero often begins his story in the “Ordinary World” prior to his journey beginning; it is where he feels safe. We see him engaging in the activities of his ordinary life, and we learn to identify and later empathize with him. Though he was born on the planet Krypton, he is sent to Earth as an infant, and grows up on a farm in Kansas, raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, the human couple who find him. They name him “Clark.” He is oblivious of his actual origins, but well aware he is unlike anyone else—he is special. His journey begins with a “Call to Adventure,” when the comfort of his daily life is disrupted and he is called upon to undertake a great challenge or quest. This stage, the beginning of Clark Kent’s transformation into Superman, has received many different treatments. In Superman: The Movie, a crystal that was sent with him to Earth from Krypton “calls” to him when he reaches adulthood, directing him north, where his Fortress of Solitude will be constructed, and where he will learn of his origins. His father Jor-El, or rather his father’s spirit or consciousness, communes with him in this fortress and tells him of his destiny to become Earth’s greatest hero, and mankind’s greatest inspiration. Jor-El’s appearance in the story would also fall under the “Meeting the Mentor” phase of the journey, where the mentor figure provides something the hero needs, be it training, advice, or in this case, his “Superman Suit.” He has reached the next phase of the cycle, “Crossing the Threshold,” where he is ready to act on his Call to Adventure. Clark Kent becomes Superman, and accepts his new role and destiny as Earth’s greatest protector. Inevitably, the hero must be challenged. In the phase known as “Tests, Allies, and Enemies,” he faces ever more difficult series of challenges that push his abilities to his limits. The Superman myth has more than its share of characters that serve to provide these challenges, including Lex Luthor, General Zod, Brainiac, Bizarro, Doomsday, and many others. The hero faces a final great ordeal that can lead him to the brink of death, and he ultimately returns with a boon to bestow upon humanity. In the end, Superman emerges triumphant, and mankind is saved by the virtues he possesses—reflections of what is best in our own character. We can see that Superman’s virtues are our virtues. He is virtue personified, and we walk away from his stories inspired to bring his virtues into our daily lives, with our own actions serving as the vehicle to do so. The monomyth has emerged once again, inspiring a new generation.
The Superhero as a Guide for Spiritual Transformation
So, how specifically can the myth of Superman, or of any superhero that resonates with your imagination, bring about personal transformation? One way is through the development of personal ritual involving the creation of a space dedicated to the purpose, and time set aside to devote to the task. B.T. Newberg, the Education Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, tells us in his article “Working Ritual with the Center,” that: “The ultimate goal of ritual is to reaffirm or change patterns of perception and behavior. Creating a sense of special time and space is useful to that end” (149). Newberg goes on to describe what he calls the “Center,” or a “real and symbolic focus of ritual activity” (151). When I read this article for the first time (and I strongly recommend it to those wishing to create original, naturalistic rituals surrounding their chosen “centers” as I describe below), I immediately began to conceive of a Superman-inspired ritual that could be built around an appropriate “center,” which in this case is the iconic “S” on Superman’s chest.
According to Zack Snyder, director of “Man of Steel,” the “S” shield is the second most widely recognized symbol in the world, second only to the Christian cross. Its meanings have evolved over the decades. Zack Snyder’s film explained that it is Kal-El’s family crest, and also the Kryptonian symbol for “hope.” I remember spending hours trying to draw the symbol perfectly as a child, a testament to the power of the symbol and its hold over a child’s imagination. Where some people have crucifixes or portraits of Jesus on their walls, and still others display small jade sculptures of the Buddha, I have the “S,” prominently displayed on the back wall of a shelf in my closet — a superhero “altar” of sorts. Standing on that shelf is also a figure of Superman, inspired by the ancient Roman concept of the “lararium,” a special place in ancient Roman homes where offerings were made to their household gods. Small, terra cotta figurines or statuettes, known as “lares,” (“lar” is the singular form) were kept there and placed at tables during meals as symbolic representations of those gods. The Superman figure is a “lar,” the symbolic personification of the archetype and virtues the character represents (once again, I don’t view him as a god, or worship him—I draw inspiration from the archetype he symbolizes). With these centers chosen, I referred to Newberg’s article once again: “…choose an appropriate focal point, mark it as the Center, and mindfully circumambulate it three times. This may be supported with appropriate gestures, phrases, and or hymns” (151). Newberg explains that to “circumambulate” is to move about the center, mindfully, three times, and, “At the end of the ritual, circumambulate once in the opposite direction to signal your mind to return to normal time and space” (153). Enacting my ritual, I place the lar of Superman on a base, and set it on an object such as a chair or table around which it is possible to circumambulate, reciting a line from the novelization of “Man of Steel” as a mantra while I move: “You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders” (Cox 125-26). I have always felt that line to be particularly appropriate to the work of an educator. I like to feel that I am helping the “people” accomplish wonders in my classroom, but it takes time. The ritual gives me hope, the concept for which the “S” symbol stands, that each day I am going forth to make a positive difference in the world by impacting the lives of young citizens. It is a simple little ritual, but it focuses me, and gives me the motivation to meet the day’s challenges. Following the mantra, I close the ritual with ten minutes of mindfulness meditation, and then go forth to start the day. Here timeless methods of focusing consciousness and ancient symbol systems are combined in a modern context, with a great superhero as a catalyst for change.
Drawing on Newberg’s article and other resources available through the Spiritual Naturalist Society, one can design rituals of personal significance and meaning that help enrich one’s spiritual journey. I find that any superhero and his/her symbols could become “centers” for ritualistic exploration, and enhance anyone’s individual practice depending on which hero best resonates with an individual’s personality and goals. There is a hero for, and within, everyone.
Incorporation of superheroes into a coherent system of spiritual fulfillment should not be limited to individual practice. These characters have the potential to serve as the foundation for local networks of service-oriented spiritual communities. I can see how small groups of people who are fascinated and motivated by specific superheroes could come together, using the heroes as inspirational focal points, and make positive differences in the world. This idea would resonate with many people who fail to find spiritual resonance among mainstream religions and who gravitate toward events such as Comic Con. They are out there, in large numbers, and only need to be called together. Here is how this vision might be realized. Imagine a small group of individuals who wish to form a group, a “league” we’ll call it, with Superman or another character as the focus hero. They would already be partial to and knowledgeable about the character’s history. They could then advertise an initial meeting of their league through flyers, social media, or whatever other method they deem appropriate to gauge interest levels in their area. Their first meeting might be at one of the founding members’ homes, or, if more space is needed, alternative locations could be arranged. The meeting could begin with a ritual similar to the one described above, or with 10 minutes of guided or independent meditation, perhaps with theme music associated with the hero, by John Williams or Hans Zimmer in Superman’s case, playing softly in the background. Members might then share a specific story, or portion of one, from the character’s canon to instigate discussion centering around a moral or philosophical issue raised by it. They might even compose such stories as “fan fiction,” featuring the focus hero, to share among themselves. The Blackwell Philosophy and Popular Culture series offers titles such as Superman and Philosophy, Batman and Philosophy, Spiderman and Philosophy and The Avengers and Philosophy from which league members could draw essays exploring the philosophical and moral issues surrounding the respective characters. The essays, often written by professors with PhDs in their fields, would offer the leagues excellent starting points for their discussions. Finally, and most importantly, the group could brainstorm activities to help address specific needs in their community. All communities have citizens in need of help and compassion. D.T. Strain, Executive Director of the Spiritual Naturalist Society, says in The Top 10 Signs of Good Spirituality that:
Most importantly, a good spirituality will have compassion at its core…Good spirituality will help expand one’s sense of empathy and compassion, ultimately toward all beings. It will teach forgiveness and reject retributive approaches toward dealing with human conflict…Ultimately, the practitioner of a good spiritual path will come toward greater perception that virtue (including compassion) and wisdom are synonymous (37).
Compassion for others is what Superman, and the superhero in general, is all about. This excerpt from the novelization of “Man of Steel” by Greg Cox demonstrates this:
‘He saved us,’ Jenny said.
Superman heard what the girl said. He smiled at her, pleased to get such a warm reception. He scanned her discreetly, making certain that her injuries didn’t require immediate attention. To his relief, she appeared to have come through the attack with only a few minor sprains and abrasions.
More survivors emerged from hiding. They milled about, gazing in amazement at the colorful hero and taking pictures with their cell phones. After keeping a low profile for his entire life, his first instinct was to flee all the attention, but instead he lingered among the people like a man with nothing to hide anymore. He smiled warmly at the bystanders, seeking to put them at ease. It felt odd, but great, as well. Maybe he didn’t have to lurk in the shadows from now on.
Maybe the world was finally ready for Superman (289).
Selflessness. Compassion. Checking to see that everyone is alright. The opportunities for such a group to make a difference in the local community would be limited only by the league’s imagination. They could wear the “S” when they volunteer at local food banks, visit children in hospitals, or help out in any number of other ways. All communities need, and are ready for, their super-men and women. Grant Morrison would agree:
Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all must become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project? (Morrison xvii).
We don’t need imaginary gods, but we do need role models, and what better role models could we seek than superheroes? Our politicians frequently let us down. Our athletes, actors, and musicians often have very troubled lives, and let us down as well. The superhero transcends these problems, and gives us a symbol of what we can be. Morrison again:
It occurred to me that these characters, representing as they do specific human personality defaults, could function in a wider therapeutic context…Together there was no challenge, no matter how monumental or frightening, how unutterably nihilistic or ridiculous, that they could not overcome. In the realm of symbol, these, our imagined superselves, were indestructible…so many ideas fall apart under scrutiny, but the superhero meme refuses to die. Few flesh and blood heroes can stand up to the corroding effects of public scrutiny or simple age, but superheroes were conceived, designed, and unleashed to be unstoppable warriors on behalf of the best that the human spirit has to offer (Morrison 292-3).
Imagine leagues dedicated to other heroes and the kinds of service projects they might enact based on that hero’s nature or focus. Leagues dedicated to Wonder Woman could focus on women’s rights issues; those dedicated to Aquaman, likely located near the sea, could focus their energies on cleaning and protecting the local marine ecosystem, and advocating for the health of the oceans. Leagues could also rotate the heroes serving as their focus, perhaps on a weekly or monthly basis to provide variety and to appeal to the different interests of the members.
In time, such groups could expand into larger organizations. Consider “Losing Your Religion? Try the Church of Superheroes,” an article from Lisa Marcus for Neatorama:
Corby Brandes is a man from Lincoln City, Oregon who is doing his best to make superheroes the basis of a new religion. Evidently, he’s not joking. According to his Facebook page, Brandes wants “to teach life’s moral lessons through the stories of the superheroes in modern comics.” He extols the virtues of the X-Men as a means to educate parishioners against discrimination, and on his Facebook page, Brandes makes suggestions for patron saints. He writes,
“Now that we have so many followers I would like to go over… superheroes as our patron saints. The ones that have already been suggested are as follows: Spiderman/Saint of determination, Tony Stark/Saint of technology, Deadpool/Saint of fried Mexican foods. Who has some more?”
While Brandes says he’s “always been a Marvel fan personally,” he has plans to “branch out,” as far as church services are concerned. The Church of Superheroes Facebook page has nearly 550 likes from users, some of whom appear to be taking the notion seriously. Many posts like the one above get a number of replies. Brandes’ recent request for donations of services to create a website, logo and other means of operations for the church received offers from a voiceover talent, a web designer and a silkscreen t-shirt maker prepared to provide their services gratis. Brandes did a Los Angeles radio interview with Kevin and Bean, in which he said,
“I’ve always wanted to find a church that I was comfortable at, but I’ve never been able to take that leap of faith. I didn’t want to have to do that just to surround myself by people who were like-minded. I decided that it would be a great idea to do this through the superheroes.”
Currently, Brandes is trying to raise the $2000 necessary to file for tax-exempt status, before which he has to go through a number of legal hoops, such as writing by-laws and obtaining status as 501(3)(c). He eventually hopes to have a brick-and-mortar superhero church. As well as the Facebook page (to which Brandes refers as the “virtual church”), interested worshippers may also connect with the church on Twitter. Get your religious fix there.
This is a testament to the power superheroes have to inspire and speak to people who find meaning in their mythology. The heroes need not be “worshipped,” as the article suggests; just studied, honored, and used as vehicles for inspiration, motivation, and community service, not to mention as foundations for a rich spirituality. Mr. Brandes is acting on his vision, and we may be hearing more from him and those inspired by his work. His efforts could be just what is needed to signal the dawn of a new movement, a genuine effort to elevate the superhero story beyond its perceived place as mere escapist entertainment to the truly transformational mythology is has the potential to become. With the right storytellers and strategies for service, community building, and outreach, superhero spirituality could prove a meaningful and fulfilling path for many modern seekers. As Superman’s father Jor-El told his son: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you…”
May we, with the help of the superhero, grow to be the great people we wish to be.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
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