“Comics are the new Bible,” film critic Anne Billson recently declared, “and devotees never tire of seeing their idols save the world.” Her elevation of comic books to canonical status is certainly overstated, but she may be quite correct in suggesting that part of the current appeal of comics is their openness to the supernatural. In an increasingly secularized culture, comic books splash unabashed glimpses of supernatural sacrifice and world-saving wonder across silver screens and wood-pulp panels. Superman and Thor descend from the heavens with superhuman powers, while heroes such as Captain America and Iron Man gain their strengths through feats of science and technology that stand beyond humanity’s current capacities. What’s more, the lives of these superheroes are entwined within multilayered metanarratives that thread together conflicts from dozens of storylines and that typically turn out to be as vast as the cosmos itself.
Throughout the past century, comic books and their cinematic counterparts have produced a stream of supernatural metanarratives with heroes that are continually called upon to save the world — and, right now, people are buying these tales by the millions. Last year, an estimated 98 million comic books were purchased in North America alone. Despite less-than-stellar reviews from critics, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice enjoyed the fourth-largest worldwide cinematic opening of all time, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have attracted nearly $8 billion of revenue with no signs of slowing down.
REMNANTS AND RESIDUE
But how should Christians engage with comic books and superhero films? For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts, hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages, all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance. This is not cultural engagement, however; in most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.
In Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer distinguished between four types of artists, and his typology is helpful for guiding our engagement with comic books and superhero films. The first type of artist that Schaeffer described was the Christian who creates art from a Christian worldview, the second was a non-Christian who creates from a non-Christian worldview, and the third was a non-Christian who creates from the remnants and residue of a Christian worldview. Schaeffer’s fourth type was the Christian who does not grasp the comprehensive coherence of the Christian worldview and, as a result, creates art within a conflicted and contradictory worldview.
When it comes to engaging with comic books and superhero films, most of what we see comes from Schaeffer’s third type of artist, the non-Christian whose creations are populated with the remnants and residue of a biblical worldview. This may be, in part, because the creators of Superman and many other early superheroes were Jewish, and Old Testament themes were woven into the earliest stages of comic-book narratives. Whatever the reason, nearly every comic-book hero is part of an overarching metanarrative that requires supernatural sacrifice to save the world.
Whatever works in these superpowered metanarratives works precisely because the artist has borrowed remnants from the comprehensive coherence of a biblical worldview. The unbeliever sees these world-saving wonders and may experience a passing sense of awe or appreciation. And yet, any goodness or truth that the unbeliever glimpses becomes, in the words of John Calvin, like “a flash of lightning that enables a bewildered traveler to see far and wide for an instant, but then the light vanishes … before the traveler can take a single step in the right direction.”
The believer, however, is able to draw out the remnants and residue of the Christian worldview beneath the surface of these stories. Humanity’s finest artistic moments always turn out to be reworkings of God’s greater metanarrative. They are signposts that have been borrowed and reshaped from our Creator’s storyline to elicit within us a longing for a narrative that’s greater than ourselves. This is no less true of comic books than it is of other expressions of narrative or art.”We have come from God,” J.R.R. Tolkien once pointed out, “so inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.”
If we fail to see that these myths are meant to point us to something greater, they will always — in the words of C.S. Lewis — “betray us. … For they are not the thing itself; they are the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have never heard.” The narratives we see in the best of comic books and superhero films are passing hints that ought to point the believer’s attention to God’s more marvelous metanarrative.