Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Nun-Jas and the Heart of Christian Evangelization


Netflix saw me coming when it advertised it’s new summer series “Warrior Nun.”  A modern fantasy show about demon-hunting nuns? Superhero aesthetics mixed with Catholicism? Yup, there was no way I was not going to check this out.  I’ve watched the whole first season (10 episodes) twice and I thought I’d share some reflections on it.

First, the basic premise of the show: A 19-year old paralyzed orphan is brought back to life by a divine artifact that is supposed to make her God’s champion against the forces of darkness and also the field leader of an order of combat-trained religious sisters (pedantic alert: not actually nuns).  The conflict? She doesn’t want the job.  A Hero’s Journey ensues.

Second, is it any good? If you are looking for an action show that faithfully presents the Church, her teaching, and her spiritual traditions amidst fantasy circumstances…well, you’ll be disappointed.  But if you want an urban fantasy show that is heavily washed in a Catholic aesthetic, with well-drawn and interesting characters, and, best of all, that actually portrays some faithful, heroic Catholics – along with some truly terrible ones – it could be worth 7 hours of your time.

That’s about all I can say without entering serious spoiler territory.  If you continue reading, you either already know what happens or don’t care that you know!

While it takes most of the season to reveal everything, there are actually several factions in play, which makes it harder to clearly say who “the good guys” and “the bad guys” are.  While some moral complexity makes for good storytelling, as viewers, we fundamentally need to know who to root for.  I’d suggest that in Season 1 – at least until the final episode – the core conflict is between the Order and ArqTech.  It was a refreshing change to see the big tech company motivated by hubris while the Church cautions prudence in technological advancement.  There are even conversations between characters that express that faith and science don’t have to be in conflict, and in fact actually work better together.  The revelation that this new technology has a seemingly transcendent origin is a nice touch.

Not all the Catholic characters are heroic and I suppose the more suspect ones do get more screen time.  If this sounds bad, I’d also offer that pretty much none of the non-Catholic characters could be described as “heroic.”  Some of these non-Catholic characters (including our protagonist) take verbal potshots at the faith.  However, this never comes across as a blatant ideological decision on the showrunners’ part (even if it may well be).  It generally makes sense why these characters would think and speak the way they do in the 21st century west.  I would have preferred it if there had been more dialogue that defended the faith, but that was far less common. But I get the sense that the show lacks a Catholic consultant (if anyone from the show happens to read this, this Catholic theologian would be happy to fill that role).  This would also explain the curious absence of the Mass and the Eucharist at any point during the show; this detail stood out to me the most in trying to understand these characters as “Catholic.”

The Catholic characters portray realistic character flaws.  I suspect the intention was to show, “See? These holy people are not so holy after all,” but really, it came across as very, well, human.  Cardinal Duretti is guilty of clericalism and makes bad choices to avoid scandal.  Fr. Vincent has a criminal past.  Mother Superion is prone to judgmentalism.  Mary is not sure she is called to take vows, Camilla is over-enthusiastic and naïve, Lilith (an unfortunate name choice, to be sure) is over-ambitious, and Beatrice has same-sex attraction.  This last reveal is supposed to come across as especially revelatory, but if she’s taken a vow of celibacy and is faithful to the Church (and Beatrice affirms her faith several times), does it matter? However, since they took one or two opportunities to suggest that Beatrice may be attracted to Ava, I fear for the development of this plot point in season 2.  The showrunner himself has been pretty cagey about it, which leads this optimist to hope that it won’t go down a stupid road.

Turning to the good stuff, there are some genuinely excellent conversations about love and self-sacrifice.  While not explicit, these are some of the most wonderful Catholic moments in the whole series, and almost all of them come from the character of Mary.  She is the one who ends up as the best “evangelist” to Ava: she empathizes with Ava (albeit with some snarky tough love), but also invites her to a more selfless way of looking at her second chance at life, and she does this not with words, but with actions.  Later, her loving intervention with Lilith provides one of the best scenes of the whole season.  This is the greatest strength of the show: the central Christian teaching of self-emptying love for the good of others is demonstrated, and important characters experience a metanoia as a result, all without ever being preachy.

One last specific point needs special mention.  The critical face turn – which occurs in the last 5 minutes of the whole season – was sad (and infuriated my wife).  It’s not that it came out of nowhere – there are very subtle clues I noticed on my 2nd viewing – but it’s the loss of the only faithful male Catholic character in the whole 1st season (excepting the poor nameless monk who gets murdered halfway through the 1st episode).  This may be deliberate in order to emphasize the power and agency of the female characters, but the dichotomy weakens that very message.  Every male in the show ends up being evil, weak, or a victim.  It’s not presented bluntly, but it’s there just the same.  I hope this will change in the 2nd season.

The show ends on a cliffhanger, which might be awesome if we didn’t have to wait more than a year to see what happens next.  But I do want to know what happens next, and there is great potential here to show the heart of Christianity lived out and the Catholic Church in a more heroic light than it generally gets shown, especially in the 21st century, and especially in genre fiction such as this.

As a final note, the author of the comic book on which this show is based (loosely – the original comic was actually more pro-Catholic, but at the ironic expense of cheesecake art) came up with the idea of the “warrior nun” when he read about a convent of religious sisters in Harlem who trained in the martial arts.  Here’s another story of different warrior nuns: ones who go dangerously undercover to save women from human trafficking.  Praise God for such bad-ass sisters in Christ!





He’s Gotta Have It

Hough-Jules-Brooks-LaichSome people who have been in my classes have heard me advance the thesis that most of history’s problems have a root in a misunderstanding of the place of sexuality in the Divine Image.  I know I’m not alone in this line of thought; thinkers have advanced it since the earliest days of Christianity.  I also realize that this cannot be understood too simply, as if to say, “sex” is the root of all human error.  I think anyone who knows me knows that I am hardly so puritanical!

Yet if there is anything at all to my thesis (and I really think there is), I could ask for no better demonstration of this thesis than the ludicrous statement made this week by NHL player Brooks Laich.

One of my goals this year is to really explore like, learning about sexuality…People think that sexuality is just the act of sex, of just having sex and there’s so much more to it. Here’s a question. This is an honest question for everybody in this room, and every single person listening: Are you fully 100 percent fully expressed in your true sexuality? With your partner?   With everything? You could not imagine having a better sex life? Are you truly there?…I’m not either. So that’s what one of my goals this year is to really dive into. So then we’re all essentially, that’s a state of suffering.

Laich is married to Julianne Hough.  If you care about such things, there are rumors that their marriage is struggling.  Seriously: is there any reasonable person who needs to ask why?

Laich’s statement specifically says that when we are not 100% fully satisfied with our sexual experience (I’m not sure how one is supposed to know when they’ve unlocked that particular achievement), we are in a state of suffering.  And, of course, modern humanity must avoid suffering at all costs.

Instead, just imagine how many souls Laich could save from purgatory if he merely endured his evidently mediocre sexual experience! (I’m kidding.)

Laich is not just trying to end his suffering, but he’s also advocating an approach to life that prioritizes “pleasure as the absolute most important thing.”  Laich says that when you live by a “pleasure first” principle:

You are more loving, more kind, more patient, you have more gratitude for everything, everybody’s awesome, things are funnier.

This is telling in a different way.  In this, Laich is actually on to something: the human desire for happiness, which should motivate the whole moral life.  The problem is that he has mistaken pleasure for happiness.  Pleasure in good things is indeed good – but pleasure alone cannot satisfy our deepest longings.  Here’s hoping he’ll figure that out while he’s living out his own personal re-enactment of “The Devil in Miss Jones.”

I mock this situation so I can save myself from being outraged by the audacity and stupidity of it.  But I’d love to hear from others: am I right in thinking this situation is so ridiculous that any person should be embarrassed to have even thought it, let alone express it in an interview? Or have we come so far in our cultural dysfunction that sexual satisfaction – however one defines it – becomes a necessary ingredient for 21st century happiness?

Our selfishness cast us from the garden of Paradise and once again we demonstrate we haven’t learned a damn thing.

Godzilla and Laudato Si

GodzillaOk, work with me here on this one.

A couple weeks ago, the family went to see Godzilla: King of the Monsters (in IMAX, of course).  It was a hugely exciting experience for the three kaiju fans in the house…and my beautiful wife endured it for the opportunity to see us so giddy.  The movie did not disappoint me and I honestly look forward to getting the chance to see it on the big screen again.

The movie was full of Easter eggs and homages to the old movies (there are 34 others, by the way; most people don’t know that), including the use of one of the most important and persistent themes: Godzilla as metaphor for humanity’s failed stewardship of the planet.

I need to do some spoilers for the movie here, but by this point you’ve likely either seen the movie or don’t care about the plot, so here we go.  It turns out that the giant monsters on the earth have always existed as a sort of balance for the ecological health of the world.  When a scientist throws in with a group of ecological terrorists, they plan to unleash all of the monsters to wipe out humanity and give the planet a fresh start.  However, they failed to account for an otherworldly monster named Ghidorah that has been imprisoned on the earth since pre-history.  When it is released, it takes control of the other monsters and sets about its plan to re-shape the world.  Godzilla, Ghidorah’s ancient rival, rises up to defend the world.  When the dust settles finally, it is revealed that peaceable relations between humans and monsters have started to heal the ecological devastation of the Earth.

Giant monsters as a metaphor for the environment, ecological balance, and a check on humanity’s hubris? Maybe that’s a little odd, until you remember that Godzilla was originally a horror movie about a monster born as a result of the American nuclear weapons used on civilian populations in Japan in 1945.  Less than 10 years after that event, the terror and scars of nuclear abuse were still all too real.  For decades afterwards, Japanese filmmakers returned to ecological balance as a theme again and again, always paired with the foolishness of human confidence in technology unchecked.

These themes perfectly complement Catholic teaching in general, and in particular Pope Francis’ Laudato Si.  To me, the best part of that document is when he talks not only about ecology in the traditional sense of the word, but specifically of human ecology (a term originally used by John Paul II in Centesimus Annus).  In paragraph 155, Francis says, “Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment.”  King of the Monsters aptly demonstrates the connection between the natural environment and the moral environment in the decisions made by overeager scientists, the military, scientists looking to preserve balance, and terrorists who have no respect for human life.  There is an intimate web of relationships between persons and the environment that needs to be nurtured with the cardinal virtue of prudence.

ghidorah.jpgThe movie even gives us an appropriately Satanic figure in Ghidorah, an alien to this world, who seeks to destroy both humanity and natural order, who became a temptation to go beyond the bounds of wisdom, and who is more powerful than humanity alone can withstand.  As a result, the human race needs to rely on a power greater than itself in order to save the world.

Godzilla as Christ-figure? Well, the movie doesn’t actually shy away from such imagery at all, but I don’t think you need to go as far as that.  It’s sufficient for us to realize that we are not the rulers of the earth, but merely its stewards.  We are beholden to a power greater than ourselves, and only respectful submission of mind and will to the Creator can assure us a peaceful existence as persons and as communities.

Long live the King! (And long live Godzilla, too.)

So what has everyone been up to?

HolyCrossAs I noted in my last post, I had to take some time away from posting here to work on another project.  That went pretty successfully, so I have some freedom to come back here.  I didn’t make it back before the end of Lent: I barely made it back before the end of Easter! For those who had a chance to use my Lenten reflection booklet, I hope it was a good companion on your journey.  It seems a little odd to me that we have books of reflection for Advent and Lent, but not ones for the joyous and glorious seasons of Christmas and Easter.  Hmmm…this is something to mention to my editor…

I do have an Advent booklet coming out at the end of the year (though I do not know its final published name yet) and I will be writing another Lenten booklet this summer.  Look for those.

It’s been a busy time if you are an ecclesiologist: Pope Francis has issued a new motu propio and a new draft on structural changes at the Vatican.  I have not yet had the opportunity to reflect seriously on them yet.  There are a couple things that seem very positive, but others that I’m still apprehensive about.  I wish I could approach texts like this with greater openness.  I need to trust the Holy Spirit more.

It’s always a busy time if you are a moral theologian.  Here in the diocese of Worcester, I had the opportunity to be with Bishop McManus when he presented on the topic of transgenderism at the yearly bioethics conference sponsored by Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy.  As I should have expected, this created another tempest in a teacup over what was really a very uncontroversial presentation of Catholic teaching on the subject.  Particular exception was taken to His Excellency’s use of the research done by Dr. Paul McHugh, who has become a high-profile target for suggesting that maybe we think more carefully about modernity’s obsession-of-the-moment: gender identity.  There should be nothing especially controversial about this either, but if a conversation on the subject takes as an indisputable starting point that gender is entirely a social construct with absolutely no meaningful basis in biology, there’s no room for meaningful discourse anyway – just shouting and arguing.

There remain legitimate questions about the best way to minister to persons in the Church who experience gender dysphoria.  This is the new version of the question of how to minister to persons who experience same-sex attraction.  There remains a fundamental divide between acknowledging the dignity of a person and loving him or her and accepting all their actions or their perceptions about reality.  But this is not how the mandated rules of public discourse function anymore: a rejection of a person’s act or a person’s point of view is a rejection of the person.  We are all mere summations of our attitudes and ideas; matter and form matter no longer.

So it continues.  The world remains in travail until the full revelation of the sons and daughters of God (Rm 8:22).  Let’s keep loving.

Beginning of Lent Update


Just a quick update and explanation of what happened: I make a resolution for short weekly updates, and then promptly fail to keep my promise.  Man, if that’s not an appropriate reflection on fallen humanity here at the beginning of Lent, I don’t know what is.

The reason I was not able to keep my promise was that other time-sensitive writing assignments have come up and occupied my writing time.  This Advent, in your parish seasonal materials, look for a reflection journal written by me.  Several of you have written to me to tell me that you have picked up Finding Forgiveness in Lent; I pray that that is useful to you this season.

Now I am in the midst of finishing a different writing assignment that is not related to my other professional work, so I’ll still be slow to post here until that’s done.  I missed an opportunity to talk about Momo (don’t bother looking it up if you don’t know what it is), but I do have some other ideas that I hope to get to during Lent.  Soon.

“You seem to have a case of…being a man.”

jesusI’m not going to talk about the Covington kids or MAGA hats or Gillette commercials; you can read more about them just about anywhere.  I wanted to reflect on something that is supposed to be a shade more academic than all that, yet I haven’t seen too much commentary on it in these past few weeks of evidently poisonous men.

It’s a real shame that it has taken this long to have concerted cultural conversation on masculinity and a bigger shame that it is being treated in this way.  Men started having serious conversations about the meaning of being a man back in the ‘90s with Robert Bly and Iron John especially, but also from a host of other writers, many of them good Catholic men.  Some of the excesses of that movement were lampooned in popular culture (shirtless middle-aged guys in the woods wearing war paint and beating drums, men hugging and crying like children because they were “allowed” to have feelings) and maybe rightly so.  But there were also many important ideas that came out of that movement, most notably a sense that what it meant to be a man had been lost and that men were confused about who they were.  Men were drawn to the movement because they knew they had something important to offer specifically because they were men, but that had become lost.

It’s even further lost now.  Many men who actually care what other people in their lives think about them have become scared or embarrassed to act like a man, talk like a man, or even express that they like being men.

(For what it’s worth, I love being a man, and I encourage my two sons to love being men also.)

That’s all by way of reflection on the past.  Now to what I mentioned in my first paragraph.  The American Psychological Association this month released Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men (though it is dated August 2018).  It has missed the mark.  I’m not especially surprised by this: the APA has not been a legitimate source for the truth about the human person for at least 50 years.

In fairness, the guidelines were intended as an overdue companion to their Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women, released in 2007.  But there can be no doubt that there is an ideological agenda at work in releasing these guidelines right now.

And what do they include? I encourage anyone interested to read the 36-page document themselves, though it’s a pretty frustrating read.  One encounters problems right from the outset:

  • On page 2, there is a need to define “cisgender,” “gender bias,” “gender role strain,” “masculinity ideology,” “oppression,” and “privilege.” The document’s landscape is defined by a host of ideological buzzwords before men themselves are even addressed.
  • By contrast, these same definitions are included in the guidelines for women, but only after 11 pages of description of the situation of women in the world are provided first. In other words, there is a presumption about “women” that cannot be taken for granted for “men.”
  • The guidelines strive to avoid stereotyping of women and the effects of bias on women. The first part of the guidelines for men instead state that there are competing masculinities.  This calls into question the meaning of masculinity right from the start, which is not done for women.
  • The guidelines for men question behaviors in which men act out against themselves and others, while the guidelines for women discuss behaviors that are done against women. I am willing to believe this was not entirely intentional, but there is a curious narrative here of men doing evil and women suffering evil in these documents.

In fairness, it’s not all horrible: the guidelines note that men die sooner, commit suicide more often, and engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices more regularly, and that these are serious problems facing men.  But I couldn’t get away from the very real sense that the reasons things were so bad was that it was our fault, and that if we were men who were just different than the creatures of the last several thousand years the world would be a better place.

Of course, a different view of the history of the world shows that, without those creatures, we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation today.

Let me end by reminding us of simple theological truths.  God made us men and women, two different ways of being a body, but both equally made in the Image of God and both equally saved by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.  But they are made different for more than just reproduction.  The simple observation that we intuitively understand our manhood or womanhood as something more than just a matter of our genitals is built in us for a purpose.  In salvation history, Mary is exalted because of her faith and because she is a woman.  The Incarnation is God-Made-Flesh for the salvation of all and he is also a man.  These are not accidents.  They are part of the perfection of the divine order.

I hope our current cultural moment might spur useful reflections on masculinity and I hope it will continue to shed light on practices perpetrated by men in the name of manhood that have nothing to do with a whole and holy masculinity.  But in the end, I hope we can all appreciate men for being men and stop trying to make them into something else.

The Fish and the Devil


I’m a little late to the party with some of the more recent superhero media available (it’s finally coming out so quickly and consistently that I can’t consume it all as it arrives anymore), but this past week I finally saw Aquaman with Bridget.  It was a thoroughly entertaining movie, but it does suffer from a number of nitpicks that definitely keep it out of the A-list of big-budget superhero movies.  However, my goal today is not to review the film (though I will happily discuss it in the comments) but rather to draw attention to one particular part of the film and compare it with another superhero property.  In doing this, I will do my very best to keep spoilers to a minimum by not describing the context of the issue in question any more than is necessary.

One of the things that matters the very most to me when watching a superhero movie or TV show is the dialogue used to express what it means to be a hero and why that is important.  As I have written previously, I think this is the most important element of these productions for our popular culture.  The “hero speeches” in Aquaman are fairly brief (and most of the most important one is contained in the trailer, of course).  They do the job but I can’t say I left the theater with a very strong sense of why Arthur Curry is a hero when compared to his peers Superman and Batman.  I came away understanding that being a hero is important, and he was considered a hero, but I wasn’t fully sure what that meant for this character.

When talking about superheroes and virtues, one critical issue for me is the issue of killing.  This is controversial among some comic book fans, I suppose, but by and large, I think superheroes are not good superheroes if they kill their opponents – even when that seems totally impractical (Batman and the Joker readily come to mind here).  A superhero might accidentally kill someone, or he or she might be pressured to do so in order to save the universe, but these decisions are rare and not to be taken lightly, and they should have a lasting effect on a hero.

Without getting into too much detail, there is a death early on in Aquaman, a death that could have been prevented.  When it occurred, my wife and I both said, “That’s not a good thing,” confident that it would come up again later in the film.  It did – but the discussion of it had very little to do with the objective wrongness of the act.  The hero regretted the death because it caused inconvenience to people he had come to care about and had led to other deaths.  There’s nothing wrong with these reasons for regret, but they should have been combined with the realization that we are called to a higher standard – a heroic standard that doesn’t evaluate morality solely by pragmatic or utilitarian terms.

This failure was not enough for me to say I didn’t like the movie, but like I said, there was little to distinguish this “superhero” movie from “action movie with a protagonist who happens to have superpowers.”

Bridget and I also plowed through Season 3 of Netflix’s Daredevil this past week.  It came out a few months ago, but we needed the Christmas break to have time to focus on it.

Talk about a contrast.

There is no question that this show was the best of the 11 seasons of all the Netflix Marvel shows and among the best superhero television or movies so far produced by anyone.  It’s that good.

It also happens to have the issue of killing at the forefront of the hero’s story.  I won’t spoil who does or does not kill, but there are several conversations about what killing means and what killing does to a person.  The show makes it clear that it adversely affects a person no matter how justified the act might be.  We get to see some of these effects on the characters.  Throughout it all, there is a very clear message: killing, even if done for supposedly noble or justifiable reasons, is objectively wrong and always leaves scars.

On a different note (and slightly off topic), this season of Daredevil also does an excellent job of framing specifically Catholic thought in the violent life of a superhero, providing a priest and a nun who, while unconventional in some senses, give real, human portrayals of both the truth of good and evil, God and free will, and the struggle to actually live that truth.  This is worthy of a conversation in itself, but perhaps that should wait for another time.  For now, I’ll just say that any Catholic interested in both the moral life and superheroes should see this show.

Thus, we have two different superhero presentations: one is bright, colorful, clearly larger than life, and aimed at a wide audience.  The other is dark, brutal, and sometimes difficult to watch.  Yet Aquaman fails in its portrayal of a compelling moral vision.  Given how many more people, especially young people, are going to see this movie, that’s unfortunate.  Warner Brothers is still struggling to follow Marvel’s lead in making excellent movies about their characters (Wonder Woman, so far, has been a wonderful fluke).  I believe a significant part of that struggle is the way they portray their characters.  More than trying so hard to get the “cinematic universe” that Marvel Studios has produced, perhaps they should give some thought about what it really means to be a hero in the first place.

Angels and Opportunities


I assume that I am among the hundreds of bloggers who have New Year’s resolutions for their writing.  For my part, I am going to attempt to no longer complain about the difficulty of writing with any consistency and instead I’m just going to try doing it.  In an effort to encourage some accountability on the part of those reading, I’ll even be specific about my intentions: I am going to write on Thursdays, at least for the next several months, as I have no classes on Thursdays.  This means a post should be up by the weekend.  However, in order to also make this a real possibility for me, I am giving up my preference for writing 2000-word essays and instead focusing on shorter, more succinct pieces, at least until I develop some sort of a habit.  Let’s see what happens.

The New Year is normally a time of optimism about new possibilities, and I have certainly experienced (and personally felt) some of that optimism.  However, I have also seen some shades of cynicism about the future in greater degree than normal for only a couple days into January.  For some, there just seems to be “too much,” defined by any number of standards: political incivility, the “culture wars,” the crises in the Church, personal challenges, etc.

A few things come to mind when reflecting on this.  First, this is the way of the world.  This is the legacy of original sin.  And this is the way things have always been.  Are times worse now than they have been before? In some ways, sure.  But the very end of the world has been upon us since the Incarnation, a theme prominent in Advent and still present in this season of Christmas.

Second, “the times are never so bad that a good person can’t live in them.”  This paraphrase of St. Thomas More reminds us that we always have an individual responsibility to face up to the crises of the moment.  We can complain (and we all do), but complaint has to give way to prayer and action.

A third point is that we cannot address the crises of our times alone.  We always do this as Church, as the Mystical Body of the one who took flesh to show us how to live and how to love.  We work with and among all those who share the discomfort brought about by these end times.

In addition to the people we live and love and pray and worship with, we are also joined by an immense host.  Beyond the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant, we work alongside the legions of beings whose very existence is ordered toward furthering the redemption of creation: the angels.

I have been very thankful for the Church’s more explicit acknowledgment of this truth in these last few months.  Dioceses across the country – including here in Worcester – have returned to the practice of reciting the prayer of St. Michael as a community at the end of Mass.  We can never forget that the whole of our natural lives is lived alongside a much deeper supernatural reality – a conflict between truth and lies, unity and division, dignity and degradation, love and hate.

The profound disagreements and discord of our times have their origin in something far more fundamental than differing opinions; ultimately, this is a conflict about the very way we understand reality.  If we get this wrong, we can only be victims.  So at the beginning of this new year, while we’re making all sorts of resolutions about being better people and holding on to all sorts of hopes for the future of our Church and our country, let’s also pray for a more lively awareness of the presence of the angels (and the demons) around us.

St Michael the Archangel, pray for us!



New Myths, Same Old Virtues

The-Uncanny-X-Men-126.jpgNote: This post first appeared as a special article in a February issue of Assumption College’s student newspaper Le Provocateur.  With the imminent arrival of Infinity War in theaters this Thursday, I decided to re-print it here.

I wanted to offer a witness, a side of my personal story that I don’t often get to tell.  The story begins back in my childhood, but the love that was born there became a bigger part of my life over time.  I don’t think I realized how important it really was to me until I was an adult.  And now it is something that has become a part of my life every single day.

I’m speaking, of course, about my love for superheroes.

The image that began the journey was the cover of a comic book: Uncanny X-Men #126.  It was a splash shot of colorful characters bursting through a hole in the wall and towards the viewer.  The motif was a pretty standard one back in the day and it captured my attention: Who were these people? What were their powers? Where were they going in such a hurry? So began the love affair that has only grown over the years.

My comic book collecting had actually started earlier, back in 1977 with Star Wars #7.  Episode 4 had just come out (we just called it “Star Wars,” of course) and I was thrilled that there were more stories involving these characters.  But after a few years of reading Star Wars, I wanted to learn more about the superheroes that dominated the comics rack in the local hobby store.  It started with the X-Men, but I quickly devoured everything I could get my hands on.  I picked up the pace of my collecting in high school, slowed down in college and grad school, and then stopped altogether when it became way too expensive.  Now I do all my reading thanks to public libraries and the Marvel Unlimited online service where, for six bucks a month, I can read all the Marvel comics I want.  I highly recommend it.

However, the point of my story is not about comic collecting or even comic reading.  It is very specifically about superheroes and why they became so important to me.  American comic books have created new myths in the 20th century.  Just like the stories of the gods of old, there are noble truths to be unveiled and poor choices to be condemned.  The stories are constantly revived to respond to new times and new cultural circumstances.

Why do we need new stories of new gods? I think there are a couple reasons for this.  The first is that these stories often fill the place that our old gods used to occupy.  In a world that has maintained a lively desire for the spiritual while denigrating the religious traditions that gave birth to the Western world, the image of the superhero and the virtues of heroism on display serve a quasi-religious purpose in teaching moral truth.  The second reason is, for those who already recognize the role of the divine in the world and in their lives, these stories of god-like beings can often give us new ways of understanding important truths about a God we already know.

For example, when Ben Parker tells his teenage nephew Peter that “with great power comes great responsibility,” he wasn’t only providing a maxim to inspire 50 years of motivation for the most popular superhero in the world; he was also re-telling the words of Jesus in the parable of the faithful servants: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48).  Spider-Man needs to live up to his call, and so do I.

For me personally, no one is better at conveying the connection between superheroic motivation and my own desire to be virtuous than Captain America.  In my life, I hold Jesus to be the most important guide for living my life…followed closely by Captain America.  The examples I could give from his life and words are many, but I’ll just share what is widely considered the most famous (it is quoted in abbreviated form by Sharon Carter in the movie Captain America: Civil War).  This version was written by J. Michael Straczynski in Amazing Spider-Man #537:

Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say.  Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.  This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: “No, you move.”

In fairness, Cap is quoting Mark Twain (and the original comic states this explicitly).  Also, it is worth noting that you can take this exact same quote and use it to defend any number of otherwise contrary propositions.  But I really think that the context here matters: it’s coming from Captain America, a paragon of virtue, who always stands up for the best of what America can be, rather than any specific instantiation of it.  This can be understood in a broader context than the original quote in order to inspire one to always live according to the Truth, beyond any ideological constraint (see John 14:6).

Other than being consistent money-makers, there is a deeper reason that superhero movies now come out every couple of months with no sign of going away (there are several dozen superhero films and TV projects already greenlit through the year 2022).  Superhero stories give us new ways of looking at our contemporary circumstances and re-kindling ideals to fight the problems of our world.  They give us a safe, entertaining environment to look at conflicting perspectives on how to fight injustice and how they can be resolved by striving to be our best selves.  Most especially, these stories give us hope that righteousness will triumph, evil will fail, and the fight necessary to secure victory for truth is always worth it, even when it comes at a high cost.  In other words, these stories inspire reflection on the theological virtue of hope:

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every person; it takes up the hopes that inspire our activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps one from discouragement; it sustains us during times of abandonment; it opens up our hearts in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, one is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1818)

The heroic exploits of superheroes inspire reflection on the life of virtue.  Just like the myths of ancient cultures, these stories provide a narrative way of teaching moral truth.  The grandiose nature of the stories appeals to our longings for a bigger, better world than the one we deal with in our everyday lives.  For all these reasons, we need superhero stories in our world.  We should all be thankful that they are so easy to come by.  I know I am.

Strange Thing Mystifying


Jesus Christ Superstar Live aired Sunday night on NBC and in many ways, I’d say that it exceeded expectations.

The performances, the choreography, the staging, the visual effects, the camera work, the use of the live audience – all were excellent in bringing the show to life.  John Legend gave us a Jesus that was not nearly as whiny as Ian Gillan on the original soundtrack, which made his divinity more plausible.  Brandon Victor Dixon was fantastic in the role of Judas, especially in really conveying not just his ambivalence about betraying Jesus, but his strong desire not to do so.  As I said before, we can easily reduce Judas to the cardboard role of “villain” in Jesus’ actual life, but the reality of his situation had to be more complicated than that.  The show last night provided ample food for thought in this regard.  Sara Bareilles was also excellent as Mary Magdalene.  She conveyed her own confusion about Jesus’ identity (aided by the inclusion of “Could We Start Again Please?” from the movie version of the show) while Legend did not show any reciprocity in Mary’s feelings of conflicted romantic love for Jesus.

Nobody failed to deliver among the rest of the cast either.  Norm Lewis and Jin Ha exuded menace as Caiaphas and Annas (costuming really helped here as well), Jason Tam did a lot with the mostly wordless portrayal of Peter, and Ben Daniels had great moments as Pontius Pilate, especially one simple pause where he stared into the eyes of Jesus and suddenly recognized the man from his dream.

I could continue to praise the performances themselves (and I would love to hear your thoughts about the show), but instead I want to comment on how the show succeeded in creating opportunities for spiritual reflection.  I already mentioned a couple points above: first, Jesus was more believable as the Son of God.  In the show, one of the most un-Christ-like lines occurs during the second part of “The Temple,” when the wounded and diseased crowds mob Jesus (my sons found this scene to be particularly uncomfortable, which means the director hit it right).  As the mob piles on top of him, Jesus shouts, “Heal yourselves!” In the original soundtrack, it’s a loud frustrated growl that conveys the idea that Jesus is annoyed with healing the crowds.  By contrast, Legend said the line with exhaustion and a hint of desperation.  Either way, the line seems wrong coming from the mouth of Christ, but at least this version made it less troubling.

Several lyrics were changed throughout the show (I haven’t yet found a site with all the changes collected in one place).  In some cases, I wondered why the changes were made, as they felt merely “different,” not necessarily “better.”  But in a couple places, they made a big difference.  In particular, there was a change at the end of “Gethsemane” that “fixed” the song for me.  This song occurs during the time in which we are seeing Jesus at his most human.  His fear and anxiety make total sense to us.  However, in the original soundtrack, the end of the song suggests that Jesus is just a man who is begrudgingly doing what God has asked and is frustrated by it: “God, thy will is hard/But you hold all the cards.”  The lyric in the live show was changed to “God, thy will be done/Destroy your only Son.”  The line is still poignant, but it better reflects the Gospel and Jesus’ decision to place his fear aside to fulfill His Father’s plan of redemption.

I guess I was right and wrong about the Resurrection.  There was no Resurrection in the show, but the ending was still not as final as the original recording, which ends with his burial.  Instead, they used the music for the burial during an extraordinary technical achievement: Jesus on the cross was lifted high above the crowds and faded away into a blinding white light.  While this was not a literal resurrection scene, the important implication was very clear: Jesus was no longer among us.  I thought this was a nice compromise between those who prefer the ambivalence of the original show and those who want the show to be about the Christ of the Gospels.

There were other things that I liked and there were some nitpicky things that I could critique, but overall, it worked to bring an emotional and reverent end to the Easter Solemnity for our family.  What do you think? Did you watch it? What parts did you like or dislike?

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