Christian themes identified in comic book heroes
When Caleb Shaw was a boy, he spent hours flipping through the pages of his prized Marvel Comics.
The exciting adventures of Spider-Man, Wolverine, X-Men and the greatest of all superheroes, DC Comic’s Superman, provided hours of entertainment and motivation to become a strong adult.
As a boy, Shaw felt connected to Superman. He remembers donning the blue and red cape as many Superman child fans do. He imagined Superman’s famed chest “S” was also a mighty display of his own last name, “Shaw,” a secret message from Superman himself that he, too, may be destined for superpower.
Shaw, now 34, no longer dons the cape. His comics are tucked away somewhere and he directs his boyhood affinity for super heroes to the big screen these days. He was the first in line when Zach Snyder’s summer blockbuster, “Man of Steel” debuted nationwide.
But he will forever credit his superhero friends for modeling morality and justice, fighting for the good of humanity and sacrificing self to save the world.
And as a Christian, he enjoys finding parallels in the movies and comics with the basic themes of his faith.
“The thing I liked about Superman was that he had overwhelming power, but he chose to do good,” said Shaw, a Victoria realtor. “He was a protector of the innocent. His truth, justice and American way resonated with me and the way I was raised.”
Shaw isn’t the first to identify similarities with religion and comics.
Academics and theologians nationwide have philosophized and asserted for many years that religious undertones and mythos in modern-day comic heroes may be intentionally or unintentionally aligned with Biblical themes.
Dr. Reg Grant, director of media arts and worship at Dallas Theological Seminary, said Christian themes are splashed across the pages of most comic books and superhero movies.
Superman’s journey, for example, closely resembles that of Jesus’, a man with superhuman knowledge and power sent to Earth by his father to save the world from destruction and evil.
Like Jesus, Superman struggles with his earthly mission of doing what is right, when, at times, others are against him. In his early days, Superman is loved and hated for his abilities to perform miracles, and ultimately he gives his life to save the world and later resurrected with restored powers.
Grant says these themes are likely a reflection of humanity’s innate desire for a powerful, selfless, evil-fighting savior.
“There’s a felt need on the part of people in general, on the lost and the saved, that they’re looking for a hero,” Grant said, explaining that heroes of ancient civilizations share similar themes of strength, self-sacrifice and some kind of magic elixir or tool. “Of course, the great hero is Jesus and his magic elixir would be his blood.”
Grant explained that some superheroes emulate other characters in Holy Scripture, including Paul, Moses and the church as a whole. And he said he enjoys identifying theological similarities amid superhero stories because they can be used to introduce nonbelievers, who may not be interested in Christian culture or church, to moral themes that closely relate to biblical heroes.
“Jesus himself used stories about people to demonstrate morality, like he did with the prodigal son, to show the love of his earthly father is like his heavenly father,” Grant said. “We’re not elevating comic book heroes to divine status, but we can redeem truths we find in comics and celebrate them.”
The Revs. Skip Mozisek and Bard Letsinger, of Renegade Church, also agree that superheroes are an excellent method of removing the wall between secular and sacred culture.
In their current Sunday series, “Heroes,” which kicked off June 2, the pastors review religious themes in Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk and the Green Lantern, and apply them every day Christianity.
“Church and regular life used to be one in the same. It was part of your life Monday through Friday, but it’s not like that anymore,” Letsinger said. “We’re always motivated to tie in pop culture, so when people leave here and they’re out living their regular lives Monday through Friday, they may hear something or see something that triggers a message they heard at church.”
Letsinger said his sermon on Batman discussed a mortal man’s ability to be a hero using his gifts and financial resources for the common good.
His discussion on the Hulk will include a message about anger control and the devastation and guilt that comes from allowing anger to overtake someone. He will draw lines between Wonder Woman and the Christian desire to lasso truth and have justice be done.
Letsinger recently delivered a sermon on the parallels of the Green Lantern and the role of a hand-selected, gifted Christian.
He said the formula of the Green Lantern, in his opinion, aligns most accurately with Christian life.
“It’s us. We are the Green Lanterns,” he said. “They’re part of a larger group of diverse beings that were selected to be part of an intergalactic police force to do good – that’s what the church is supposed to be.”
Mozisek added that just like Christians may find their recharge through prayer and scripture reading, the Green Lanterns are restored and recharged when they touch their lanterns.
Letsinger, Mozisek and Grant agree that messages of morality in secular films and comics can be useful and encouraging to a growing number of people who may be stepping away from the church.
In recent years, about one-quarter or 28 percent of American adults have left behind their Christian faith for another religion or gave up religion altogether, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Studies have shown that those same people, especially young people, find religious themes in comic book heroes less threatening than religion itself.
As a lover of the arts, Grant said Christians shouldn’t fear the fusion.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of the truth we find in the world; we should embrace those truths and use them as a bridge to direct people to the Gospel,” he said.