This past Sunday I taught a bible study lesson for a wonderful group of people via South Main Baptist Church. The title of the lesson was, Comic Books: An American Mythology. It started out exactly like you’d expect –
“Hi, My name is Seth, I write comic books and here is how they have affected us in the history of our society and also how they have affected me. ”
At first I was a bit nervous, mostly because I used to teach four bible studies a week in my early twenties, but I haven’t taught adults in over a decade. Doubt and self-criticism pick up the microphone in my head and they start orating Ad nauseam all the old rhetoric of a self-defeating man.
“You know you’re doing this for the spotlight. You aren’t doing it for them, you’re doing it for yourself.”
“Who are you to give a discussion on anything? Do you really think these people want to hear about comic books? You’re a loon.”
And yes, my inner critics use words like ‘loon’, probably while smoking pipes, lifting snifters of brandy, and pretentiously kicking their feet up in some metaphysical Victorian era gentleman’s social club. My intelligence may not be broad or deep, but it is very fancy.
Once I get past the introduction I can feel all the old enthusiasms start to wake back up. When this happens, it’s like an internal reformation- like my soul is stretching out of fetal position, the warmth of love putting marrow back into spiritual bones, and taking a strong but forgotten posture. The teacher in me is re-birthed. Born again. And like all resurrection moments in our lives, be they grand or wonderfully tiny, it came out of nowhere. And while I was teaching about Superman as a Messiah character, inside my head all I could think about was the scene from Pulp Fiction when Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) says –
“Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt God’s touch, God got involved.”
Then going forward it wasn’t like using old muscles I hadn’t stretched in a decade, rather as I moved on into Batman as a narrative of the ‘Suffering Servant’, it started to feel like there was a machinery in me, sputtering and chuffing to life at first, but then heat and steam and smoke and power and motion come whirling De Anima. I can see on their faces that I’m telling them a story, and they are with me on that journey. We’ve stopped being a group of adults sitting in a beautiful living room having a discussion. At that point we are travelers on a road, a company finding fellowship in the narrative birthed out of funny books people once designed to keep the minds of children suspended in wonder.
We get to Spider-Man.
That’s when the story starts weighing down harder.
I try my hardest to not get choked up by that page every time I see it.
“Why?” you ask. Peter Parker isn’t real. The weight crushing him down isn’t real. Power-imbuing radioactive spiders aren’t real.
Here’s why – Because the character being crushed by the machinery isn’t Spider-man, it’s me. It’s you. The machinery pressing down on his shoulders isn’t some large engine, it’s the weight of life. It’s the tremendous task of living, yoked over a man who in the face of oblivion doesn’t wilt to the pressure. He’s a man who says, “I can and I will.”
Peter Parker is a man who has lost, and lost, and lost and still chooses to care about the world that will ultimately destroy him. Because carrying the massive weight of life is worth the reward of the journey. To harbor great enthusiasm, to swing from metaphorical heights and smile in the face of absolute calamity and dare to win the day.
And not to yield.
And then just when I think I’m going to make it through this bible study, which is already a renaissance to my love for teaching, I come to the hero that I most identify with – Captain America. I identify with Steve Rogers on a primal level because I grew up a smaller kid. I was furiously picked on by the cowards they call bullies and I always wanted to be more than what my genetics afforded to me. I wanted to be fast; I am slow. I wanted to be strong; even at my strongest I’ll never come close to what nature has gifted to other men. I wanted to be brilliant; what I am is intellectually average. But more than anything I wanted to be capable.
I wanted my life to matter.
But mostly, what I wanted was to be this guy:
The problem is that I was this guy:
Yeah. The one holding the trashcan lid.
So, back to Sunday, I’m talking with these folks about Captain America and I say that we all have felt like Steve Rogers; intellectually frail, physically weak, or emotionally incapable, we’ve all known days where we were 97 pounds soaking wet. We’ve all felt weak. Steve Rogers, a man whose story teaches us about what an indomitable will to do good can accomplish, taught me about myself: no matter the bullies, or the doubts, or the weaknesses given to me at birth, I can take all the punches. I can keep thrusting myself in to the bloody fray. Though I may know defeat time and time again, I will take the blows life has to offer and with a resolute heart, unconquered I can look my oppressors in the eye and say-
“I can do this all day.”
And I can.
Not because Captain America is real, but because the anthem of perseverance in the character’s voice is true.
And I manage to make it through that without my voice breaking, without my eyes tearing up (just barely) and then I realized that in order to tie it all together all I had to do was show the single most Gospel comic book page in the history of sequential art.
That single page is about a deity interacting with a broken human being and choosing not to simply swoop down and remove her from harm, rather it’s about meeting both her physical and emotional needs at the same time. The point of Superman isn’t that he is powerful. Lots of people think he is because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. But Superman is about having the ability to dominate another person and choosing to serve them.
To say to the hopeless, “Dare to dream a man can fly.”
To say to the powerless, “Goodness is all the power you’ll ever need to change the world.”
And that’s what makes all of these characters heroes – not their super powers or costumes, not their ability to save their world from various monsters and madmen.
What makes a hero truly super is that he loves his fellow man higher than he loves himself. That he places himself in the arena of life and puts his hands to the work of making the world a better place.
That he strives valiantly.
That he dares to try, though it may cost him everything.
What makes our American comic book gods so very special, is that they do not reside on some high mountaintop and judge us from far away; they need no pantheon because they are in the streets with us. They are even on the rooftops with us when jumping into destruction seems easier than walking the road of life set before us.
What makes our superheroes special is that they look into the face of tyrannical forces, forces fully capable of destroying them, and with a mighty heart utter a phrase which encapsulates the spirit of human fortitude – “I can do this all day.”
And we can.