I was asked recently why I thought so many people were into comic books and took part in the growing cultural phenomenon surrounding them. Ironically, this question came as I was traveling to a mid-sized comic book convention held in Cincinnati to promote a comic book I had just spent over a year producing with hopes of meeting my favorite artists and connecting with hundreds of other comic book fans. To those on the outside of comic book culture, investing billions of dollars to read, watch, and role-play fantastical stories about super-powered people in garish clothing seems bizarre. But to those on the inside — who collect comic books by the boxload, see every comic book-related movie, dress up as their favorite superheroes, and attend the thousands of local and national comic book conventions held each year — they understand why comic book culture is so compelling.
My answer to the question is simple: people are drawn to comic book culture because it offers a unique way to take a break or “escape” from the pressures of normal life. Unfortunately, this aspect of entertainment has a bad reputation, associated often with immaturity and negligence. But this assumption is superficial. Instead, we need to be careful to distinguish between a desire to escape and escapism. The latter is destructive and symptomatic of deeper issues, and should be avoided. The former, however, leads to spiritual vitality, emotional health, and is apologetically invaluable. Casual treatment of escape results in missing important gospel opportunities.
Escape vs. Escapism
All of us enjoy taking a break from our responsibilities in life by engaging in hobbies, listening to music, watching television, cooking meals, learning a new skill, reading, or any number of other activities. But is this all that is going on? Trying to “escape” or take a break from our daily lives hints at something profound. All of us go through seasons in which our jobs, marriages, or singleness make us unhappy or we find ourselves in a painful season of life. The motives do not need to spring from a singular source or even be pure, but a common denominator unites every experience of escape: this world is not as it should be. Therefore, trying to escape for a few minutes from our responsibilities can be an expression of hope, a longing for a better world, a grasping for eternal realities. In other words, when we take a break from life by escaping into another imaginary world, we are saying, “This is how I wish the real world would be.”
On the other hand, escapism can be detrimental. Like anything else, escape has the potential to become idolatrous when it becomes a self-help strategy to avoid the basic responsibilities and interpersonal relationships expected of adulthood. Escapism is an abuse of escape that becomes inward-focused, antisocial, and self-serving. But it’s these characteristics critics often assume define all expressions of escape. Gospel mission, however, requires us to distinguish between healthy, redemptive forms of escape and unhealthy, self-absorbed counterfeits.
The problem in our Christian subculture is we have created a hierarchy of acceptable forms of escape that ignores the distinction described above. Instead, this hierarchy has been chosen somewhat randomly or by majority consensus. We learn about this hierarchy and where we fit in it subtly, usually through repetitive comments and illustrations made in sermons or mentioned in conversations between Christians. For example, when a group of pastors plays golf or goes fishing it’s called fellowship, but when a single 40-year-old man plays video games or joins a role-playing group it’s called extended adolescence. The problem here is a simplistic, mistaken view of escape that confuses it with escapism. What we miss is that the golf-playing pastors and the 40-year-old gamer are doing exactly the same thing. The golf-playing pastors may be enjoying the beauty of the manicured lawns, the wind-swept clouds and blue sky, and the serene moments away from the stresses of pastoral ministry in the same way the 40-year-old gamer may be enjoying the complexity of a virtual quest, real-time puzzles, and the satisfaction of interacting with players all over the world while taking a break from the intensity of his medical career. The question remains if it’s the redemptive or detrimental kind, not whether it’s acceptable in our Christian subculture.
ESCAPE AND REDEMPTION
The longing for escape is rooted deeply in our humanity. As soon as Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden at the end of Genesis 3, two inescapable realities entered the human experience: suffering and longing. These realities can be traced throughout the biblical narrative right into our personal lives. The thorns, thistles, sweat, and dust announced at the curse of man in Genesis 3:14-19 carries forward to Job’s suffering, the enslavement of the Hebrew nation in Exodus, the exile of Israel throughout the book of Kings, the suffering of Jesus in the Gospels, the persecution and martyrdom of early Christians and into history, and the continuing human experience of disease, frustration, and death. Ever since the angelic guards were placed at the entrance of the Garden in Genesis 3:22-24, humans have been longing for what was lost in Eden.
This longing appears again when the people of Israel anticipate entering the promised land at the end of Deuteronomy, celebrate at the construction of the Temple in the books of Kings and Chronicles, look forward to Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the Branch of David, wait with Abraham in Hebrews 11:10 for the city built by God, and when we continually cry out for the return of Jesus with the Thessalonian believers. Escape is our attempt to find relief and satisfaction from suffering and longing. This attempt, however, is only a fleeting, momentary experience.
The true rest we are looking for is not found until the eschaton. Because our attempts to escape only offer temporary relief, it can lead to disappointment and the notion that longer engagement with it can finally provide the relief we are looking for, like some kind of emotional narcotic. On the other hand, this dissatisfaction can awaken us to our metaphysical and spiritual needs that extend beyond this life.
The former experience leads to the destructive introversion known as escapism, whereas the latter can provoke us to philosophical and spiritual inquiry. The gospel is the necessary answer because the person sinking into deeper isolation and the person interested in metaphysical questions come up short in finding sufficient answers on their own. People have a common need to find relief from suffering and longing that only the life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ can address.
Few people would say that when they buy a comic book or put on a superhero costume they are expressing a developed worldview or philosophical system. Instead, most people buy comic books or invest in cosplay because it’s entertaining and admittedly serves as an enjoyable way to take a temporary break from real life. This is where the apologetic opportunity presents itself. How we engage with entertainment reveals the reasons we think the world falls short and what the solution is to this problem. The easy way out simply is to say the person posting Captain America pictures on their Facebook newsfeed is immature, simplistic, and socially awkward; or the girl dressing up like Wonder Woman at a comic book convention has a skewed feminist agenda; or the Batman fanatic with an encyclopedic memory of the entire comic book canon has too much time on their hands. Instead, we must realize what these stories represent for so many people: securing justice, offering redemption, defending truth, ushering in a better world — the very things Christians hope for in the person and work of Jesus.
Certainly no one is desperate for Superman to save the world in the same way Christians cry out “Come, Lord Jesus” when they face personal and historical atrocities, but the Superman story originates from the same inherent awareness of injustice and longing for redemption every person experiences despite differing spiritual or philosophical commitments. Unfortunately, superheroes cannot bear the weight of our real life suffering and longing; only a divine Savior can. Comic book escape reminds us Jesus is not only the true and better Adam, Noah, Moses, and David; he also is the true and better Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Thor.
Chad Nuss is a Ph.D. candidate in the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Ministry and the creator of The Silence comics. More information about his work is available at thesilencecomics.com.