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Playing Dice With The Universe

Superman, Who Art From Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name

by Bill Kte'pi
Apr 15,2004


Playing Dice With The Universe

Superman, Who Art From Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name

Chances are pretty good your campaign doesn't actually have Superman in it, no matter what genre you're running. Even so, I'm devoting this column to a brief overview of possible religious responses to Superman, and along the way I think it will highlight some of the differences among modern religious approaches, as well as suggest ways you could adapt my take on things to your own superhero campaign (or any number of other modern campaigns with science fiction elements to them).

Why Superman? Partly because he's the first of his kind, and one of the superhero "types" who's most often duplicated. Partly because everyone knows who he is -- if DC were to call me up, say, tomorrow, and ask me what I'd like to do in return for them handing me bags of money, I'd say, "Why, hello DC, I'd very much like to write a series about an ethnic-religious group sometime in your setting's future, a group who are all descended in some way from the Wests or Allens and identify themselves as the Chosen People of the Flash Legacy."

But not as many people know who the Flash is.

And besides, what if DC calls tomorrow?

So it's Superman.

Let's set the stage: Thirty-Something Years Ago, a rocket lands in Kansas farmland, bearing an alien but perfectly human-looking baby who is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent and named Clark. His upbringing is almost perfectly balanced, so that he manages to come through adolescence still sane despite developing an ever-expanding array of incredible powers, and he relocates to Metropolis, where he fights crime as Superman while holding down a day job as the fastest-typing reporter in the business.

So now it's Twelve Or So Years Ago, and the world is getting its first look at Superman, the first superhero ever encountered, and the first alien once that's revealed. He looks just like us, but fire comes from his eyes, ice breath from his mouth, he can see through anything but lead, and he can crush diamonds in his eyelids by blinking wicked hard. Everyone's pretty startled by this once they get a gander at him, and at some point, everybody's going to weigh in on The Superman Issue -- politicians, biologists, astronomers, poets, and yep, religious leaders.

Obviously I can't cover every one of the world's religions -- or every one of its major religions -- or every one of the United States' major religions -- or all the major denominations and sects of those religions I do choose to mention. What I'm going for, and this will probably be the case in other columns when I'm dealing with modern religions, is an array of religions the reader is familiar with, the writer is competent at writing about, and the general public of the game setting under discussion would be exposed to.

So this time around, that means the major western "peoples of the book," and a couple of mix-ins.

Remember, as always, that very few useful generalizations can be made even about specific religions: not all Catholics agree with everything the Church says, not all Reform Jews practice their faith the same way, not all literalist Christians are born-again, and so on. Everything below describes either general trends or person-specific opinions; there would always be exceptions, and often controversy.

Superman and The Roman Catholic Church.

Unlike the other religions under discussion today -- unlike most multinational religions, period -- Catholicism has a centralized body of authority: not only the Pope himself and the infrastructure of papal government and the various bureaucratic organizations which oversee various aspects of the Church and its life, but the vast body of Catholic law and philosophy. As a result, though, the official Catholic response would be slightly different depending on when Superman makes his debut. You can skip the next four paragraphs if you want.

The easiest way to break it down is between "pre Vatican II" and "post Vatican II." Vatican II -- the Second Vatican Council -- was the council called by Pope John XXIII and held in the early to mid 1960s (John died while the Council was still ongoing, and Pope Paul VI succeeded him and saw the Council through to its finish). Vatican II is the source of many of the changes in modern Catholicism compared to what came before it: it approved the use of the vernacular in Mass and the liturgy, it admitted historical culpability in the development of anti-Semitism which was a prerequisite to the Holocaust, and it ended the notion that one must be Catholic for one to go to Heaven.

Vatican II was a liberal movement for the Church, but don't read too much into "liberal"; the word has a more generic meaning in this case and doesn't map well to the two-party politics of American government. Many people, Yrs Truly included, feel that the Catholic Church finally entered the modern age with Vatican II -- as was its intent -- but has been steadily moving away from those reforms ever since. In the US, Vatican II is often blamed for declining attendance in Catholic churches, but Andrew Greeley convincingly showed that the attrition came after the Church's decision on birth control, and that American Catholics actually skew more towards liberalism than conservatism, both politically and socially.

Vatican II also resulted in the birth of "traditionalist" Catholicism (such as that of Mel Gibson, as the hyperactive publicity surrounding The Passion has made clear), which shouldn't be confused with "traditional" Catholicism: there are various sects of traditionalist Catholics, but they are generally defined by their rejection of the Vatican II reforms, and many of them consider all the Popes from John XXIII on to be invalid, and have elected popes of their own.

Vatican II, and the post-Vatican II Church, become complicated issues upon close examination, and I'll be covering them in more depth in a future column. What's important for the moment is the issue of Catholic exclusivity for entrance into Heaven: before Vatican II, Superman would need to convert to Catholicism in order for the Church to fully embrace him; after Vatican II, he need only be a member of a mainstream Christian denomination.

You skipped, didn't you? That's okay.

The modern Catholic Church is fairly conservative about issuing opinions about things: one of the reasons why the pope's condemnation of human cloning was so newsworthy was that he condemned it so quickly. The Church today is very aware that it is a near-ancient institution which expects to survive many more thousands of years, and that everything it says remains on the "public record" for posterity: it doesn't want to look stupid or hasty, and it wants to minimize the amount of time it spends changing previous opinions.

It's unlikely the Pope, or any Vatican officials, would say anything of import -- much less issue any official statements -- about Superman until he had been around long enough that it was clear he was real, not a hoax, and not human. It might take a personal meeting.

Because Superman is an alien (and remember, for the purposes of this column we're only talking about Superman, so forget about the other aliens in the DC universe), the press -- and maybe parishioners -- will pester Catholic officials for some kind of comment on extraterrestrial life, and how that fits into the Catholic worldview. More than likely, the Church would refrain from issuing general statements about extraterrestrials for as long as it could, and stick to bland, nonspecific statements of approval of Superman's struggles against crime and injustice, particularly given his unwillingness to take a life.

Given John Paul II's idealism and history, it's very possible that if you're playing in a world where he is Pope, he would at some point petition Superman to use his powers to end conflicts in places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and other "hot spots" where war and widespread casualties might be avoided. You can bank on John Paul II doing so without actually calling for Superman to use force or harm anyone, although he would understand that might be unavoidable.

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin is taught only within Christianity, based on the Catholic Church's readings of the Old Testament; neither Judaism nor Islam view Genesis in the same way. Likewise, not all Protestant denominations teach original sin.

But within Catholicism, the doctrine states that as a consequence of Adam's sin, all his descendents -- the entirety of humankind -- are born "tainted," bearing the full weight and responsibility of the first man's sin. This is not only the origin of death and human suffering, but it's what necessitates Christ's sacrifice on the cross in order for humankind to be saved.

Superman, not being born of the descendents of Adam and Eve, would thus bear no taint of original sin.

Superman and Protestants.

Clark Kent was raised Protestant. Ask me how I know.

"Bill, how do you know?"

Because he's never gone to confession, that's how I know. Going to confession would mean giving up all his secrets, his secret identity -- that's lying, many times a day -- the violence he has to commit, even if he does stop short of killing, and so on, and so forth.

By the time he's Superman, Clark has embraced a lot of the generic "all faiths lead to good things" approach to religion, which is particularly common among American Protestants (in part, most likely, because the construction of "mainstream Protestantism" requires the ability for parishioners to move from place to place around the country and still go to church, even if their native denomination isn't present -- a Methodist may wind up going to a Presbyterian church, for instance, or an Episcopalian to a Congregationalist one). Even if the Kents were Catholic initially, they must have either moved to a Protestant church, one that wouldn't require confession of Clark, or removed themselves from church entirely.

I don't find the second idea very likely; Superman may not be an active religious person, but he demonstrates too much sensitivity to religious concerns, and the Kents are too traditional and middle American, for me to believe he was removed from church entirely: likewise I can't believe the Kents would counsel him either to skip confession or to lie during the sacrament (not just once, but habitually and with elaborate elisions).

Like I just implied, and like I'm sure you know, Protestantism -- as an "ism" -- has no centralized hierarchy authority, but is a collection of many denominations of various historical origins, with differences we generally consider less significant than those between Protestantism and Catholicism. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to generalize about Protestants, mind you, but it does mean that they lack the power base from which to issue an "official opinion" about Superman.

More than likely, Superman would be used as a symbol in sermons, a paragon after whose behavior we should model our own, an example of a mortal who can hold himself to a Christ-like standard.

Superman and Christian Parallels.

Speaking of using Superman as an example in sermons ...

An article in the Journal of Religion and Film, "Superman as Christ-Figure" by Anton Karl Kozlovic, lists 20 parallels between Superman and Jesus. I think almost all of the parallels are really stretching the point, if not missing it entirely (like paragraph 13), but nevertheless, there's a lot that Christians (and Jews and Muslims) would pick up on if Superman actually existed and were under public scrutiny:

* He's the son of a father from beyond Earth, but he considers himself -- and is -- very much of this Earth.

* He was sent to save a world (Krypton, by preserving its genetic heritage; see the saving remnant, below).

* "El" is a Hebrew word for "God" (which is why it shows up in so many names: Mich-El, Gabri-El, Emmanu-El, and so on), as well as Kal El and Jor El's surname.

* The dual identity -- in which Jesus is both "Jesus," fully human, and "Christ," fully divine, just as Kal El is both "Clark Kent" and "Superman," with neither of those identities being a lie -- is an under-recognized parallel which I point out for the next time you need to write a paper for a class on film, pop culture, or Superjesuses.

Superman and the Saving Remnant.

In Judaism and Christianity (Islam is aware of the phrase, but I'm not sure if it emphasizes the concept much), the idea of the "saving remnant" is an important motif. "Remnants" show up over and over again in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament): Joseph, when he comes to power in Egypt, says, "God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on Earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance." The Jews who live in exile in Babylon are called "the remnant who escaped the sword." The prophet Isaiah refers many times to the "remnant of Israel," in his proclamations of the nation's eventual triumph.

It's all part of a pattern in which almost the entire population of an area is destroyed, except for that remnant, that lone survivor or small group of survivors who are spared because of their righteousness: Lot and his daughters, in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Noah and his family, when the flood comes; Joseph and his kin, during the famine; and in many Christian views of the world, those who have been saved through Christ's sacrifice on the cross will be the saving remnant ("chosen by grace," as Paul puts it) of mankind.

Superman, you'll notice, is similarly the only survivor of his own world, saved by the sacrifice and works of his father, who had failed to save Krypton itself.

This adds enormously to Superman's symbolic power, and you can bet that many people in the world would desperately like Superman to come out in favor of their particular denomination, sect, or preferred way of life.

Superman and Judaism.

Judaism doesn't break down into denominations the way Christianity does, but neither is it monolithic; although there are no centralized governing bodies either for Judaism as a whole or its individual sects, you can generally speak pretty safely about those sects as approaches to Judaism. Orthodox communities, for instance, might vary from the Hasidim most people are familiar with (at least by sight) to the more liberal Orthodox Jews who have no objection to wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

Jews, even more than Christians, would appreciate Superman's "saving remnant" status -- but would not likely feel any of the missionary impulses mentioned above. Although people do convert to Judaism, Jewish communities don't go out of their way to seek converts -- and traditional definitions of "Jewishness" rely on having a Jewish mother or having been raised Jewish; Superman fits neither.

And if you've ever wondered, Superman isn't circumcised: there would have been no way to cut his Kryptonian foreskin.

Superman and Islam.

Despite its conservative reputation, Islam would probably have the least trouble accepting Superman's existence and status as an extraterrestrial: Muslims have talked about human-like life on non-Earth worlds for centuries, and many people interpret the Koran as referring to it as well.

The Koran also teaches that God sent prophets to every nation, every ethnic group, and this would include extraterrestrial ones, so Koranic scholars would be extremely interested in discussing Kryptonian religion and history with Superman, in order to begin the search for the Kryptonian prophet(s).

Are you ready for the cool part?

Mohammed says that God sent no prophets to Earth after Jesus and before him (conceivably, God could have sent them elsewhere, though, and DC, if you call about that Chosen People of Velocity series, I'd be happy to do a Muslim Green Lantern while I'm at it), and Islamic tradition further holds that there have been no prophets born since Mohammed.

However. A prophet could be born before Jesus's death, and take a very long time to get here, arriving after Mohammed -- if, for instance, he was stuck in a sublight spaceship that was carrying him to Earth from Krypton.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting for a moment that mainstream Islam would proclaim Superman a prophet. I'm suggesting that an interesting plot could be made out of a small Islamic sect doing so.

And speaking of sects that focus on Superman's connection to the divine, remember those fictional religious responses I promised you 2500 words ago?

The Second Coming.

The idea of a second coming of Jesus has gone through a lot of iterations since the first generation of Christianity, when -- at the risk of sounding flip -- everyone thought Jesus had just stepped away from the world for a bit and would be back in their lifetime. Since then, various Christian groups have forwarded or suggested a number of different takes on it -- in some, Jesus returns bodily, from the Heavens, to lead the army of the righteous in the battle at Armageddon. In others, he is reborn through another virgin birth.

If you ask me, I think it's just plain inevitable that Superman would be hailed by some Christians as the Second Coming of Christ, returning with a sword to cleanse the world of evil. All those parallels up above would be used in their rhetoric; Superman's words and deeds would be examined for their instructive content, and while some would truly try to base their lives on the example they'd believe Superman was setting, others would interpret him in whatever way suited their desires (which needn't be evil or selfish).

The fact that Superman would deny this isn't meaningful; Jesus told people to keep quiet about it, too, according to the Gospel of Mark.

It's not hard to picture people wearing the S, or building the First Church of Superman in Metropolis, based on the Daily Planet's artist's rendering of Kryptonian architecture, is it?

The Cape'd God From The Stars.

You don't need to start out as a Christian to decide Superman is worshipable, or represents something that is. When the proto-Christian church began, long before it was anything that could be called Catholicism, there was some debate among its members as to whether the God who fathered Jesus was the God of the Jews or not. That debate is often represented, today, as a debate about whether the Christian God and the Creator God were the same, and the contrary opinion is popularly attributed to Gnosticism; but forget that for the moment (and read Michael Allen Williams' Rethinking "Gnosticism" for the best book I've found on the topic).

Consider the initial debate: so much of what Jesus said was incompatible with the Jewish religion, but it's not always entirely clear that he was actually proposing a reform thereof. It isn't at all difficult to see why some people became convinced that the God Jesus spoke of wasn't the Jewish God at all.

(Much of the discussion, naturally, took place because of the related discussion as to which Jewish laws the newly-named Christians should have to follow. If the Christian God wasn't the Jewish God, then the answer would be "none of them," so that question had to be answered first.)

A church revering Superman, either as a god himself or as the incarnation/avatar/representative of that god, could quite easily include among its members vigilantes like the Guardian Angels -- people who see Superman's actions outside the law as a sign that "might makes righteousness." They might gloss it slightly differently, perhaps using allusions to the parable of the good Samaritan, and read in Superman's actions a call for citizens to take action instead of waiting for appointed authorities to act on their behalf.

A Superman church might also see Superman as a more literal paragon: they might believe that by following his teachings, and being initiated down the Kryptonian path, they too can attain superpowers. This is especially true if you're using Superman (or a Superman analogue) in a setting more like the movie, or the early days of the comics universe: a world where he's the only superhero.

"Let Us Make Man In Our Image."

When God proclaims that Man is to be made in his image, he not only does so in apostrophe -- speaking to someone we don't see, which is commonly explained away as a literary device -- he refers to himself in the plural. There are good, rational, reasonable explanations in both Judaism and Christianity for why this is so -- but another one is that the Creator God of the Bible is not the only one of his kind, and Superman is either another of that kind, a god as discussed above, or is himself the creation of another Creator.

Consider the fact that Superman appears perfectly human. Whatever the difference in Kryptonian genetics, he possesses all the human external features, and there's no reason to think his internal structure is different in any ways other than those responsible for his additional abilities, such as his heat and X-ray vision, or his flight.

Does that not in of itself seem striking? That a being from a planet so distant from our own would be so identical to us in appearance? Evolutionary biologists have pointed out repeatedly that the human form is not ideally adapted to its circumstances -- that, while it's certainly good, it's neither perfect nor is it the only form which could have developed to the same utility.

We're blueberry pie. Sometimes, you feel like dessert, and blueberry pie's an option. Just because it isn't worse than peach pie, or apple pie, or jumping out of the "pie" phenotype altogether and into the realm of "cake" or "cookies" or "frosting straight from the canister," doesn't mean that it's better than those options.

Blueberry pie is pretty damn good, but it's neither the best of all possible pies, nor the only possible pie.

Likewise with people. So it's very, very easy to find significance in Superman's blueberries.

(There's just no possible better sentence to end with than "it's easy to find significance with Superman's blueberries.")

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What do you think?

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