Vessels of Myth

Superhero mythology is the direct product of a Judeo-Christian worldview and as such complements Jewish and Christian worldviews in important ways. The "S" shield has ever been an ally of the cross.

January 14th, 2013
The Magician's Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism and Societyedited by John West. Discovery Institute Press, 2012. 350pp. Also "Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human" by Grant Morrison. Spiegel & Grau, 2012. 480pp.


Most, if not all, worldviews contain beliefs that are situated in myth—where myth is a grand, usually supernatural and often heroic narrative that may be either true or false. Some myths we ought to grow out of; others, we ought to see symbolizing something other; still others ought to be believed in their naked literalness. Two recent books—John West's edited collection The Magician's Twin and Grant Morrison's quasi-autobiography Supergods—explore modern myths and the ways they function, both positively and negatively, in shaping our worldviews.

The Magician's Twin is an edited volume consisting of essays discussing C. S. Lewis's view of science, scientism, and society. This volume does a decent job of unpacking Lewis's distinction between science (the empirical work done by scientists) and scientism, the belief system that interprets scientific findings based on metaphysical naturalist or materialist assumptions. But perhaps more importantly, this book contains a number of quality essays discussing Lewis's construal of the myths that scientism tells. Lewis's own position was that the proponent of scientism is the "twin" of the (evil) magician, both being concerned primarily with using things—especially nature—to achieve power, which stands (or should stand) in contrast with the Christian prophet and the scientist, who are primarily concerned with truth.

John West, the editor, is also the best contributor to the volume (he wrote three of the thirteen chapters). In one of his chapters, he explores Lewis's youthful, pre-conversion interest in scientism's Grand Evolutionary Myth, namely that unguided evolution is the cause and explanation of all. West does us a real service by showing, from both published and unpublished material, how Lewis construed the central myth behind naturalism, and, more importantly, why it is so attractive: it is an ancient tale of an infant hero, who, against all obstacles, survives from weak, insignificant ameba to become man, the master of creation (the naturalist's myth fits Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" perfectly). Yet as much as Lewis the tale-weaver enjoyed this hearty though amoral story, Lewis the philosopher couldn't accept it. Unguided evolution may be enjoyable myth, but it is poor philosophy and doesn't do much for the soul.

At places The Magician's Twin does feel a bit odd, particularly when theistic evolutionists and old earth intelligent design creationists begin pulling on the garment of Lewis, imagining that if only they can show that Lewis belonged to their camp, that somehow their perspective must be the right one. Lewis, of course, was a philosopher and so his opinions on some of this stuff matters, but he did not know much about the actual science of his day, and certainly not that of today, and so it is strange to think that Lewis's opinion of this in-house debate between Christians would be particularly important. Interesting, it may be; important, no. And, of course, Lewis would be the first one to tell us—read any introduction to his theological works and see proof of this—that he is writing as a layman and his opinions should be taken only as such. Some of the contributors to this volume would have benefitted from paying closer attention to Lewis's self-disclosure.

Grant Morrison's part autobiography, part comic book history Supergods is, as an autobiography, not really worth your time. Many pages are spent with Grant, a self-professed "chaos magician," talking about his time spent doing voodoo, taking drugs, and cross-dressing. Few Christians would be interested in learning about Morrison himself, even if he is a great comic book writer. Thus, the value of Supergods lies in Morrison's surprising brilliance at discussing the history of comic books and their value as vessels of myth.

North American superheroes, especially the ones created by DC and Marvel, are mythic figures and the worlds and stories these heroes embody are myths. Zeus disguised himself and walked among men; so does Superman. Hercules accomplished twelve labours; so does Superman. Jesus lived a righteous life, died, and rose again; so does Superman. What makes Grant's discussion of the superhero qua mythical figure interesting is how he ties this to our deepest human longings. Tolkien long ago said that we are sub-creators made in the image of the Creator; but Grant, without being so explicit or clear, adds another dimension to this: perhaps if God is the Great Story Teller or Myth-Maker, we are designed to be listeners, and, indeed, enjoyers of story and myth.

Grant argues, and I agree, that superhero myths are important, not because they embody literal, real-life problems and deal with them in believable ways (we don't need an explanation for how Peter Parker, a teenager, could create the technology for his web-shooters); but rather, superhero myths are important because they inspire numinous, sehnsucht, spiritual desire. Superman, Batman, and Captain America are larger-than-life figures who do the right thing, even when it is hard; they are powerful, but, more importantly, good, and they make us want to be good. Superhero mythology is the direct product of a Judeo-Christian worldview and as such complement Jewish and Christian worldviews in important ways. The "S" shield has ever been an ally of the cross.

Nevertheless, many might ask whether interest in superheroes and mythology is a bit childish—whether these stories are something to be enjoyed at five but not at twenty-five or sixty-five. Here C. S. Lewis can help us. If we imagine that myths are only for children (and in this sense are "childish"), then adults would have to give up the Gospel as well. Lewis, for instance, happily called the Gospel a myth, though for him, it was the True Myth. Alternatively, if we think all non-true myths are unworthy of adult enjoyment and discussion, then we would have to throw out Lewis's own Narnia, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Homer's Odyssey, and Dante's Divine Comedy . . . and only a philistine, I suggest, would want to do this. Finally, if we were to imagine that superhero mythology is especially childish, then we would have to actually know something about superheroes—we would need evidence to show that these are myths best left behind and removed from places of influence in our adult worldview. And this is where Grant is excellent. In page after page, he shows us that though often simplistic and always unapologetically fantastical, superhero myths are valuable for children and adults alike. Yes, not all stories of all superheroes are equally as valuable as myth; and yes, some elements added to superhero mythology could, and probably should, be eliminated (do we really need a gay Green Lantern?); nevertheless, the general spirit of superhero mythology—in contrast with the mythology of scientism—is health to the soul.

Topics: Arts Vocation Elites
 

Adam Barkman (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life (Zossima, 2009), Through Common Things: Essays on Global Popular Culture (Winged Lion, 2010) and Above All Things: Essays on Christian Ethics and Popular Culture (Winged Lion, 2012). He is also the co-editor of Manga and Philosophy (Open Court, 2010), The Philosophy of Ang Lee (UPK, 2013), and The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott (Lexington, 2013). Failing as a superhero (no powers, no muscles, and no cash), Barkman fights truth decay at Redeemer instead (though he secretly hopes that one day his three kids will don capes).

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