Superheroes and spirituality: The religion of the comic book

From 1978’s summer blockbuster, Superman, to 2013’s The Man of Steel and beyond, comic book heroes have consistently brought their pseudo-religious characters to the cinema. Religion experts and observers of pop culture say these superheroes reflect — some more overtly than others — traditional religious archetypes and values in nontraditional settings.

They are teaching moral lessons as well as providing great entertainment, say scholars of religion and pop culture. And the popularity of these heroic figures endures, no matter what media they inhabit.

Background

Superman turns 75 this year, and in this year’s cinematic retelling of his story, Man of Steel, Clark Kent is looking as youthful as ever. In fact, the 2013 Superman movie is one of a number of modern superhero and sci-fi epics that demonstrate again our appetite for action flicks – and religious themes.

The Avengers brought a range of talents and divine gifts – see Thor, for example – to the big screen, and there was The Amazing Spider-Man, both of which dominated the summer of 2012 releases.

The summer blockbuster season of 2013 included Iron Man 3, which came out on May 3; Man of Steel, released June 14; Lone Ranger on July 3; and The Wolverine, released July 26.

The superhero theme also closely tracks with the science fiction, space adventure genre in its exploration of heroism and moral and philosophical complexity, and an exemplar of that style is the Star Trek franchise, the newest of which came out May 15, 2013. At the same time, fans of the Star Wars movies – with a devotion that rises to the level of religion for some – are thrilled over the announcement that the series will recommence with films starting in 2015.

There is also a dark side to the superhero movies, however: The gunman who opened fire in July 2012 at a Colorado cinema premiering The Dark Knight Rises movie told police he was inspired by the Joker, a Batman villain; and reviews of the latest Iron Man movie have pointed out the juxtaposition of so much screen violence with the real violence that took place at the Boston Marathon bombing.

Why it matters

Anyone tracking the religious currents streaming through American life cannot limit that search to institutional faith. Experts largely agree that many Americans — especially young people — who shun traditional expressions of faith are attracted to religious messages and symbols, most often in popular culture. Those symbols and messages are perhaps most overt in the superhero figures who are migrating from comic books to movies and television. Some experts see in many of the explicitly American superheroes a mixture of the patriotic and religious symbols that reveal the persistence of a “civil religion” in the United States.

Articles and blog posts

Books

Films & TV

  • “Heroes”

    The NBC drama Heroes ran from 2006 to 2010. The program recounts the stories of regular people around the world who discover that they have superpowers and how this affects their lives and the lives of those around them.

  • “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?”

    The Sci Fi Channel’s reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? ran from 2006-2007. The show featured average folks who bring their own costume and character and compete to win a prize as a true superhero. As the promotional materials said, “No one will be asked to perform feats of impossible strength; our superheroes will be tested for courage, integrity, self-sacrifice, compassion, and resourcefulness – all traits that every true superhero must possess.”

  • “Man of Steel”

    Man of Steel is a 2013 motion picture starring Henry Cavill as Superman. This reboot of the Superman series coincided with the Superman comic’s 75th anniversary.

  • “The Avengers”

    2012’s The Avengers featured a broad range of talents and divine gifts — see Thor, for example. After its release, it became the fastest movie to gross $1 billion and the third highest-grossing film of all-time, at $1.51 billion.

  • “The Dark Knight Rises”

    The Dark Knight Rises is the final entry in the latest Batman series. A gunman opened fire in July 2012 at a Colorado cinema premiering The Dark Knight Rises movie.

National sources

  • George Aichele

    George Aichele, professor of philosophy and religion at Adrian College in Adrian, Mich., has written about connections between scripture and film, and about culture, entertainment and the Bible. He’s not so much interested in “Bible movies” that focus on overtly religious or theological themes. He’s interested in the points where biblical text, images, languages and themes appear in popular movies that are otherwise quite “secular,” such as Pleasantville and Minority Report.

  • Ben Avery

    Ben Avery is a comic book author in Mishawaka, Ind., and former editor of Community Comics, a four-person Christian studio in operation until 2009 dedicated to creating “quality Christian comics.” Avery can comment on the interplay between the secular and sacred in comics and the media.

  • H. Michael Brewer

    H. Michael Brewer is a pastoral theologian and author of many books on popular culture and faith, including Who Needs a Superhero? Finding Virtue, Vice and What’s Holy in the Comics.

  • Harry Brod

    Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and religion at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He wrote a paper titled “The People of the Comic Book: Jewish Men and the Creation of Comic Book Superheroes.”

  • Nate Butler

    Nate Butler is president of Comix35, based in Albuquerque, N.M. Founded in 1996, Comix35 is a Christian ministry devoted to “training individuals and ministries around the world in the production and effective use of comics-style literature” for evangelization. Butler has an adjunct organization, Christian Comics International.

  • Danny Fingeroth

    Danny Fingeroth is a former editor and writer at Marvel Comics and author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society and The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels. Fingeroth has taught comics writing in New York and Italy.

  • Greg Garrett

    Greg Garrett is a professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He is the author of Holy Superheroes: Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books and The Gospel According to Hollywood and is co-author, with Chris Seay, of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix.

  • Preston Hunter

    Preston Hunter, founder of ComicBookReligion.com, has analyzed dozens of comic book characters and lists their religious affiliations there as well as on Adherents.com, which he also founded. He says Batman may be a lapsed Roman Catholic or disaffected Episcopalian. The Thing from The Fantastic Four is Jewish, a rare instance of a character’s faith being discussed openly in the story. Hunter says the X-Men’s Rogue is Southern Baptist, Cypher from New Mutants is a Mormon and Elektra from Daredevil is Greek Orthodox. Captain America is a churchgoer, and Spider-Man sometimes addresses God in spontaneous prayer. Hunter has also posted a popular image bank that groups comic book characters by religious affiliation.

  • Thomas V. Morris

    Thomas V. Morris is a former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and author, with his son Matt Morris, of Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice and the Socratic Way. Thomas Morris founded the Wilmington, N.C.-based Morris Institute, which seeks to apply ancient wisdom to the modern world.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

  • Robin Rosenberg

    Robin Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist in Stanford, Calif., who writes frequently about superheroes and the psychological phenomena they reveal. Her books include (as author) Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care and (as editor) Our Superheroes, Ourselves.

  • Christopher Sharrett

    Christopher Sharrett is a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University, a Catholic school in South Orange, N.J. Sharrett has written widely about comic book literature and religion. He traces the modern exploration of religion in this venue to the 1980s.

  • John W. Vest

    John W. Vest is the associate pastor for youth ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and a Ph.D student in Biblical Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Vest wrote “When a Hero Dies,” a June 2007 essay from Sightings, the online journal maintained by The Martin Marty Center at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. In the essay, Vest discusses the death of the Marvel Comics hero Captain America and the role of superheroes in America’s civil religion.

  • David A. Zimmerman

    David A. Zimmerman is an associate editor at InterVarsity Press, a Christian publishing house in Downers Grove, Ill., and the author of Comic Book Character: Unleashing the Hero in Us All.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Richard A. Blake

    The Rev. Richard A. Blake, a professor of film studies at Boston College, is a film historian and author of Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers. He reviews films for America magazine.

  • Chris Knowles

    Chris Knowles is a writer and editor in New Jersey. His books include Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes.

  • Matthew P. McAllister

    Matthew P. McAllister is a professor in the department of film/video and media studies at Penn State University in University Park, Pa. He co-edited (with Edward H. Sewell Jr. and Ian Gordon) the book Comics & Ideology, a collection of 11 essays.

  • James McDermott

    The Rev. James McDermott is a Catholic priest and former associate editor of America, a national Jesuit weekly. McDermott writes frequently about spiritual themes in popular culture and takes a keen interest in the comic book culture.

  • Stephen Prothero

    Stephen Prothero is professor in the religion department at Boston University. He is author of Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which looks at popular images of Jesus in film, television and print. He has also written about American Hindus.

  • Mark D. White

    Mark D. White is professor and chair of the department of political science, economics and philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY. He co-edited Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul.

In the South

  • Art Ayris

    Art Ayris is CEO of Kingstone Media, a Florida-based company whose goal is “to become the ‘Marvel’ of the faith market, the leading publisher of Christian comic books and Biblical worldview graphic novels worldwide.”

  • Russell W. Dalton

    Russell W. Dalton is professor of religious education at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, where he teaches a course on faith and film. Dalton is the author of Marvelous Myths: Marvel Superheroes and Everyday Faith and Faith Journey Through Fantasy Lands: A Christian Dialogue with Harry Potter, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He also has an essay, “Aslan Is on the Move: Images of Providence in Narnia,” in the book Revisiting Narnia.

  • Reg Grant

    Reg Grant is a professor of pastoral ministries and director of the Media Arts and Worship Program at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has an interest in media as a writer, producer and actor and frequently comments on spirituality. He can speak about the connection between comic book heroes and religion, the Star Wars film series’ Buddhist-style philosophy in the context of traditional Christian doctrine, and more.

  • Jeremy Lott

    Jeremy Lott is an author and a contributing editor to Books & Culture. He wrote a July 10, 2006, article in Books & Culture about the movie Superman Returns. He lives in Fairfax, Va.

  • Daniel Malloy

    Daniel Malloy teaches philosophy at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. His research focuses on ethics, and he writes frequently about the intersection of pop culture and philosophy. He wrote a chapter on the morality of Spider-Man’s jokes for the book Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry.

  • John R. May

    John R. May, professor of English and religious studies at Louisiana State University, has written about Hollywood and religion, contemporary theories on the interpretation of religious film and religious visions in American classics. He is editor of the books New Image of Religious Film and Image & Likeness: Religious Visions in American Film Classics.

     

  • Ron Novy

    Ron Novy is a lecturer in philosophy and the humanities at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He contributed a chapter to the book Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry.

  • Chris Seay

    Chris Seay is pastor of the Houston church Ecclesia, a congregation that is part of the emerging church movement. Seay frequently writes about faith and pop culture and is co-author, with Greg Garrett, of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix.

  • Edward H. Sewell Jr.

    Edward H. Sewell Jr. is associate professor emeritus in the department of communication studies at Virginia Tech. He co-edited (with Matthew P. McAllister and Ian Gordon) the volume Comics & Ideology, a collection of 11 essays.

  • Stephen Skelton

    Stephen Skelton is based in Nashville, Tenn., and is the founder of The Entertainment Ministry, which is dedicated to “finding God’s purpose in popular entertainment.” He is the author of The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero and other books. Read Superman’s Second Coming, an article adapted from the book. It’s posted at Beliefnet.com.

In the Midwest

  • Bruce David Forbes

    Bruce David Forbes is a professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, specializing in religion in America and religion and popular culture. He is co-editor of Rapture, Revelation and the End Times: Exploring the ‘Left Behind’ Series. Forbes also co-edited the book Religion and Popular Culture in America.

  • Leonard J. Greenspoon

    Leonard J. Greenspoon is a professor of Jewish civilization and classical and Near Eastern studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. A specialist in biblical translation, he wrote “The KJV and the Jews,” an essay at the website of the Society of Biblical Literature, and a 1993 article in Bible Review titled “The New Testament in the Comics.”

  • Fedwa Malti-Douglas

    Fedwa Malti-Douglas is a professor of gender studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. She specializes in the study of Arab and Islamic culture and co-authored the book Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture.

  • Jonathan Sanford

    Jonathan Sanford is dean of the Constantin College of Liberal Arts and professor of philosophy. He edited Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry.

In the West

  • Paul Asay

    Paul Asay is a writer and editor in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is the author of God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach Us About God and Ourselves.

  • John Heeren

    John Heeren is professor emeritus of sociology at California State University in San Bernardino. Hereen has written several articles about the presence of religion in the comics.

  • James McDermott

    The Rev. James McDermott is a Catholic priest and former associate editor of America, a national Jesuit weekly. McDermott writes frequently about spiritual themes in popular culture and takes a keen interest in the comic book culture.

  • B.J. Oropeza

    B.J. Oropeza is a professor of biblical studies at the Azusa Pacific University School of Theology in Asuza, Calif., and an expert in religion and popular culture. Oropeza is the author of The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture.

  • Ben Saunders

    Ben Saunders is associate professor of English at the University of Oregon. His areas of expertise include the history of British and American comics and cartoons, and he is the author of Do the Gods Wear Capes?: Spirituality, Fantasy and Superheroes.

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