Faith, In The Worlds of Marvel

Some Christians may be surprised, but within the Marvel Universe there are Christian characters - and their faith is not presented like the butt of some joke. Consider some recent films.

Aunt May's faith came across in the first Spider-Man movie, When Norman Osborn discovers that his enemy Spider-Man is actually his son's best friend - Peter Parker. He is instructed by his alter ego - the Green Goblin, to attack Peter's heart. His Aunt May. Here we see her praying for Peter with a picture of him and her now deceased husband Ben.

Steve Roger's faith also comes across in Captain America's skepticism towards Black Widow's comment, about the Asgardian's status, as possible gods - in the first Avengers film. "There's only one God ma'am, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't dress like that."

Likewise, the mutant, Nightcrawler is also a man of faith, and it's an integral part of his origin story - this was told in the second X-Men film. Here you even see an example of him sharing his faith with Wolverine, one of the most cynical and walled off members of the X-Men, in the X-Men animated series from the 90's.

Some Christians may choose to nit-pick and find a reason to dismiss the significance of this, or to cast it in some nefarious light. But the important thing to notice here is not the depth or accuracy of the character's theology - but that these are respected characters - so their faith is not presented as something to be mocked or easily dismissed.
I don't expect comic books to teach my faith, that's not their job But when they portray a world where there is a place for sincere belief - I believe it's important to acknowledge the service they do to making the real world a place where civil discourse is possible in our culture. Can we realistically expect anything more?

3/15/2018 UPDATE

Thanks to J.D. Wofford, for pointing out a glaring oversight in the comments.

I forgot to include Daredevil in this list of Christian characters in the Marvel Universe. How could I have missed that. I love the Netflix series. My only excuse could be that I binge watch the episodes when they drop and since I haven't watched it recently Netflix was not at the front of my brain when I was thinking of these examples.

Matt Murdock (Daredevil,) is another Christian character in the M.U. who spends his days trying to help people as an attorney - and his nights doing all the other stuff that attorney's can't do - does he ever sleep? As a good Catholic he struggles with the kinds of decisions he is confronted with. Many times his inner struggle is revealed to us through his visit to the confessional. Here is such a scene from the awesome Netflix mini-series. 


Monday Meme's: No Fear

Do you still see the slogan "No Fear" around anywhere?  I do, occasionally. 

According to Wikipedia the slogan "No Fear," is a lifestyle brand created in 1971 by Mark and Brian Simo, and Marty Moates of No Fear Inc.  It's associated with extreme sports, mixed martial arts, and a general contempt for social norms.

I used to see these window decals all over the place in the 1990's. The slogan was very popular then. And like every other trendy thing, it inspired a Christian clone in the Evangelical Subculture.

The Christian version would say "KNOW FEAR: Proverbs 1:7", because - you know - "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." 

Now I'm not really a big believer in T-shirt or bumper sticker evangelism - but that doesn't stop me from identifying what's wrong with this message. Actually, I'd recommend scraping the slogan "know fear" and just adopting the original slogan - which is just fine.

Why reject "Know Fear"?
Because it sounds like a threat.  What the Bible actually means by the word "Fear" here, is reverence, not terror - but your average person on the street doesn't know that. To them, it makes God sound like the villain preparing to inflict pain on his captive "You will know the meaning of Fear."

"No Fear" is already perfect
There really is nothing about the slogan "No Fear" that prevents Christians from adopting it as their own and subverting the meaning.  1 John 4:18 says "There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear." Is there any message better than that?

I think the slogan "No Fear" subverted by the text 1 John 4:18 is a much more powerful message than the "clever" bit of wordplay based on Proverbs 1:7.  Its not repulsive, and it gets to the heart of the Gospel. But I guess that means you can't sell your own decals - what with the Trade Mark and all. Shoot.


Monday Meme: COEXIST

You've probably seen this meme on a bumper sticker.  Occasionally I'll be riding in the car with another Christian and have a chance to point it out to them, and ask them what they think about it. Usually the ones with very strong convictions say they don't like it. They'll say "it's relativism" or "new age bull crap".  I know where they are coming from.  

There is no way around the fact that Christianity is a proselytizing belief system. The great commission is spelled out in Matthew 28:19 "Go and make disciples of all nations. . ." One way of looking at this is "I know the truth, and you believe lies. If you do not recognize this, you are my enemy and I must give you no quarter."  This response is ingrained by the Evangelical Media Culture which is hostile and highly politicized. This response is not helpful, instead of building bridges it builds walls. That's when I tell them I think it's Biblical. "No!" they say, "How do you get that?"  That's when I like to point out this passage from the Apostle Paul.

18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mineI will repay,” says the Lord. 20Rather, if your enemy is hungryfeed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
 - Romans 12:18-20

Here we see that what Paul advises is very different from what passes for wisdom today.  Instead of giving no quarter, he says if your enemy is hungry feed him, if he is hungry give him something to drink. 

We've forgotten that our battle is FOR flesh and blood, not against it.  These people with beliefs so different from our own are not obstacles, they are our mission field.


Philip Shorey and Curse of the Vampire

Back in June I interviewed Philip Shorey about his participation in the May Day Parade, and his new book Kill Your Art. What you don't know, is there was another project that didn't make it into the final blog post. Philips comic book, Curse of the Vampire. At the time Philip and I decided that the interview should focus on Kill Your Art. We decided to save this part of the interview for early October. I think it was the right decision.  Here is the missing part of the interview.

Mike: I see you’ve come out with this comic book called Curse of the vampire. I love creepy things. I visited the Del Toro Exhibit here in Minneapolis this summer.  For that reason alone, I’m drawn to read this thing – but what makes this story different?

Philip: It’s a vampire comic about Jesus. It doesn’t romanticize the vampire like modern vampire stories do. Vampires are everywhere today, in pop culture, but its like “Oh the poor vampire. They’re stuck between life and death.” And the vampire is this glamorous kind of thing. It can live forever - locked in its youth. So in this story, and in early stages of vampire folklore vampires were seen as pure evil. As dark creatures of the night to be feared, terrible beasts. That’s how vampires are portrayed in Dracula, and Nosferatu. It’s not your modern cultural perspective on vampires.

So when I watched Nosferatu as a kid, I saw it, and I just, for some reason, saw the Gospel very vividly in that film. Its that old classic horror 1922 movie. German expressionist film Nosferatu, I just saw the Gospel in it, and I wanted to do something with that concept. I left it alone for many years.  A couple of years ago, I saw it again, with a live ensemble. I really didn’t like how the music portrayed the vampire, at least, I didn’t like how the music portrayed the woman. So what you get in this film is, you get this woman who really has this christ like character because she offers herself to the vampire to get rid of the vampire. To save the village from its curse. To save her love John harker. So then, once the vampire is seduced by this willing sacrifice, he forgets about the sun, and so the next morning he’s destroyed. So once the vampire is destroyed, all that were under his curse are set free from his spell.  So its like, the cross? She willingly gives herself to the vampire.  The resurrection and then death is destroyed, and now the curse of sin is lifted off of everybody. And so then the relationship is restored between her and the community and John Harker – her loved one. So, I didn’t really change anything. I partnered with an artist in Brazil, and he didn’t know any English – we used Google translate to talk about everything, we’d never met before. It was a very beautiful relationship that we formed. He’s a Christian guy. He came out of the Goth Metal scene in Brazil, and he has this incredible talent of using this very Tim Burtonesque and Edger Allen Poe style of art and drawing, and he didn’t know where to use it for the Gospel. He wants to do something for Christ, but your normally not going to see that kind of style in a bulletin at church, you know?

So he was struggling. And it’s amazing you know, because I had the same problem, I used to write lots of creepy circus music and I loved it, but I didn’t know how God could ever use that. Until he introduced me to an evangelistic circus that was trying to develop, and it was the perfect fit for my creepy circus music. But anyway, we worked together, and we put this comic together, and I wrote it, I produced it, we printed it and its available on Etsy, you can search for “Curse of the Vampire” and you can buy it in bulk. The idea is that you buy 50 copies at Halloween and hand them out to Trick or Treaters. Or just have them in your pocket, because, its just this beautiful comic where you can just give it to someone and say “hey do you want a vampire comic” and they’ll be like “yeah”. They’ll read the vampire, I mean it’s not for everybody – but for certain people who are most jaded by Christianity pretty much. But they’ll read the comic and they’ll realize, “Oh, what’s this all about? it’s beautiful, its entertainment, its artful?” you know, “what’s this all about, this is interesting? What did the director mean by all of this?” And then they’ll naturally be intrigued to read the Gospel message, and read the parallels – how it ties in. There’s scripture, and there’s an invitation at the end. There’s a place for a little message by the person that is giving it out. Or you can tell people, “here is a vampire comic about Jesus, do you want it?”  And most of the time they’ll say yes, because they’re so intrigued, and that just seems so strange – they want to see what its all about. So, we’ve handed it out at ComicCon, Metal shows, in the street corners, leaving them at lobby’s, for businesses, with all the other magazines . And we’ve had people just look at, for an hour, over an hour, just read the Gospel message over and over – just soaking it in. It’s just going to connect with people in a way they won’t get in a church, they won’t go to a church. They’ll see a tract and they’ll see “oh, it’s about Jesus” and they’ll throw it away. So this is going reach people, and hook them in, because its beautiful, it speaks their language. This is like Paul on Mars Hill to the “T,” right now. Speaking their language, finding those Gospel themes in their culture, and then using their story to share with them who Jesus really is. . .

If you are on Facebook, you can like Philip's Curse of the Vampire page (here).
If you'd like to order copies you can connect to his Etsy page (here).


Is the Success of the Church Directly Proportionate to the Abilities of It's Members?

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
 - Acts 28:11-15

Several passages in the New Testament support a concept called The Universal Priesthood - or The Priesthood of All Believers.

  • Jesus gave the Great Commission to all of his followers (Matthew 28:19-20). 
  • Paul teaches that the church is a body made up of many parts and that each one has an important contribution to make (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). 
  • Peter refers to them as a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).

As people think about how they could possibly live out such a high calling, many people turn to prominent New Testament figures like Paul as a model for their individual Christian lives and ministries. After all
  • He always had the right words (consider the epistles).
  • He has a proven track record (a successful string of church plants).
Is the answer really that we all just need to be more like Paul? I don't think so.  I would contend that this exemplification of Paul presents a rather lopsided view, which has more to do with our false notions of leadership than it does with Paul himself.

It has been called the Great Man Theory: the belief that the wheels of history turn by the actions of uniquely gifted people, and I think has been historically paralyzing to the church.
  • What if I can’t speak like Paul?
  • What if I can’t achieve the kind of things he did?
If this view of leadership is correct then the extent to which we don’t live up to greatness the church will suffer. If that's the case, maybe it would be best to leave the work of ministry to someone else.

If we take a closer look at Paul though, we find that this view has caused us to selectively limit our reading of him, to those traits that we think can explain his success. This over inflated view in turn eclipses the role that God played in the development of the early church.  I’d like to take a few minutes to examine some of these perceptions.

Myth 1 - Paul always had the right words:  When we think of Paul's communication abilities we immediately turn to the epistles. However, the epistles are carefully composed letters; they provide no evidence that Paul was a gifted speaker.  In fact we have testimony to the contrary.  Paul himself admits that he does not come across as wise or eloquent (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).  And in his 2nd letter we find out that the Corinthians agree (2 Corinthians 10:10).  Paul asks the Colossians to pray that he might be able to speak his message clearly (Colossians 4:4). And Peter tells us in his first letter that Paul is often hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16). In reality, Paul gives the credit for his persuasiveness to the power of the Gospel – which itself is living and active and is at work in the world. He tells the Colossians that the Gospel is growing throughout the entire world (Colossians 1:6) speaking of it as a force in and of itself.

Myth 2 - Paul’s success record: Many people have perpetuated the myth that Paul was responsible for single handedly evangelizing the entire Roman Empire, which simply is not true. While the book of Acts focuses on his ministry, if you look a bit closer you see that God did far more through the  collective contributions of average people than He did through any one individual – including Paul.

Before Paul even set foot on the mission field God had used ordinary men and women to spread the Gospel throughout the empire. Jews who had traveled to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost had heard the Gospel and taken the knowledge of Jesus home with them. Parthians Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Capadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt and Libya, Cretans Arabs and Visitors from Rome (Acts 2:5-12). These Jews had homes in far off countries established during several historic and strategic exiles in Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. These pilgrims traveled from their home countries to Jerusalem because they were Jews, but they returned home as Christians - and brought the Gospel with them.

This brings me to the purpose of my passage.  It says when Paul arrived in Rome he was greeted by followers of Jesus who belonged to a pre-existing Christian Church, and that he was encouraged and thanked God at the sight of them. Why was he encouraged? Not just because he had arrived at the end of his journey, or because there would be people to look after him. He was encouraged because the Gospel had gotten there before him. The church Paul that greeted Paul upon his arrival to Rome was a beautiful example of how God had been at work all along, laying the foundations of the church, and supporting the contributions of all believers. The success of the early church didn’t depend on the abilities of exceptional people like Paul, but on the collective contributions of each of its ordinary members: a word here, a good deed there. No one person could take credit, or understand how it all fit together, but God was orchestrating it all to bring about His kingdom.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:20-31


Leveraging the Attention Bias for Spiritual Growth

We typically think of biases as those bad thought patterns that prevent us from thinking rationally.
What they really are though are heuristics that make our thought life less complicated. These shortcuts are only bad if they routinely direct us to make errors in judgement. We can however take note of these problematic patterns and refocus them in beneficial ways.

Attention bias is the tendency for people's perception to be affected by their recurring thoughts at any given time. For instance, if think there is something significant about the number 13, you will start to notice it everywhere. Attentional biases explain an individual's failure to consider alternative possibilities, as specific thoughts guide the train of thought in a certain manner (see Wikipedia entry: Attention Bias). 

What this means is that whatever it is you are focused on will be amplified in your perception, your subconscious will automatically direct your attention to things you've selected as important, and ignore things that you have by default not selected as important.  Watch this short video experiment.

Most people, who follow the instructions, miss the gorilla because they are focused on counting the number of times the people in white pass the ball. In order to track the people in white, the brain suppresses information about the figures wearing black. The gorilla - which is also black - is able to walk right through the center of the group and pound his chest without ever attracting attention.

There's great potential here to distort reality, if someone's selective attention is programmed with conspiracy theories, or political propaganda, or racial prejudices for instance. These faulty premises will actively draw attention to things that support this belief, and suppress information that counts against it. This is a kind of sub-group of the attention bias, called the Confirmation Bias.

Aside from the power to distort our perception of reality however, the attention bias also has the power to draw our attention to very real things - both helpfully and unhelpfully. An example of an unhelpful focus would be focusing on all the things that don't go our way. This is something I do, and it can lead to to believe that the universe has it in for you. I often find myself thinking "nothing ever works out for me." These thoughts can result in debilitating depression.

Apparently it works the other way too though - thankfully. For instance, people who think they are lucky have a self-serving attention bias that causes them to focus on things that do go their way, and to suppress their recollection of things that do not. More importantly it probably helps them notice opportunities that a person with a negative bias might miss - and keeps them open to taking risks.

But, I'm not interested in cultivating a belief in luck. What I would like to talk about is gratitude - having a spirit of thankfulness. A lot of us believe we would feel more thankful if we had more things to feel thankful about. In truth, we probably don't have more things to be thankful about because we are not thankful for the things we have. By exercising our ability to express gratitude we become aware of the just how much God has done for us, and we free ourselves from being paralyzed by

I read this article recently titled "I Skeptically Tried Practicing Gratitute, It Completely Changed My Life." The author, Leslie Turnbull, did an experiment where she actively wrote five things that she was thankful for each day, the catch was, she could not be thankful for the same thing twice so the exercise becomes more challenging as you go. Turnbull started off like me, very cynical (I imagine post-its with smiley faces on my mirror and cheesy motivational posters). But over time her attitude began to change. She began to actually feel more thankful - and to notice more things to be thankful for.

I really want to give this a try. The reasoning behind it makes sense.  I found this app on Google Play, a gratitude journal called BLISS. It gives you a number of exercises, like "Best Possible Future." which helps you identify the things that are most important to you, "Honoring People" which helps you train your brain to focus on the positive aspects of your relationships and be a better friend. When you first open the app however, you are always greeted with "The Gratitude Exercise" where you must state something you are thankful for - including your reason.

I'm excited to give this a try.  It's unfortunate it doesn't nag you to use it every day though. My cynical self is likely to forget that its on my phone.  Hopefully not though.  I'll check back with you in a month and let you know how its going.


The Role of Shame in Terror Recruiting

It's been 16 years since 9/11 - and since George W. Bush declared the War on Terror. Yet military action has not led to a more peaceful world. In fact, terrorist ideology has spread. The problem is exacerbated when people try to fight the war on terror in their own way - against people who are not terrorists - but just happen to be Muslim,

Though people have been repeatedly warned that this is exactly what groups like ISIS wants - that warning seems to fall on deaf ears. Even Christians who have tools for peace, more powerful than any government, have bought into this futile pattern of response.

I've just read an insightful post by Leena Al Olemy titled "Terrorists Don't Kill For Their Religion, It's Something Else." In it, Olemy points to a common factor among people drawn to terror groups and actions. The common factor is not religious devotion she says - it's shame.

As more and more details emerge about the perpetrators of terror, we are discovering that these are not devout men - but rather, people with criminal histories, drug abuse issues, and sexual problems. The Paris airport attacker Ziyed Ben Belgacem for instance, had a criminal history that included drug abuse, theft, and the receipt of stolen goods. His toxicology report revealed the presence of alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine in his system. In a phone call he made to his father - while driving a car he had stolen at gunpoint after shooting an officer - he said "Dad, please forgive me. I've screwed up." Afterward he proceeded to Orly Airport in Paris, where he put a gun to a soldier’s head, declaring: "I am here to die in the name of Allah (...) There will be deaths."

What violent extremist groups like ISIS offer to the young men they recruit is a way to externalize their shame,  and be transformed from a social outcast to a hero by attacking a corrupt society. What amounts in Christian terms to a false gospel.

If this is correct the potential recruits of terror, could be just as open to receive the Gospel - a message that specifically addresses the burden of shame by revealing the self sacrifice of a loving God for the forgiveness of sin; which teaches people to respond to evil with love. I'll grant you though - American Evangelicals are the first people to forget this. But it is possible that the Church is called to have a larger, and more hopeful role to play in fighting terrorism than just supporting the military option.

On a final note, Here is another interesting article about just such a conversion - from the New York Times. March 24th, 2017. The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus.  It tells the story of 25 year old Bashir Mohammed who leads a prayer meeting with Christian refugees in Istanbul. Once he fought on the front line of the Syrian Civil War for the Nusra Front - an offshoot of Al Qaiada. Now, his fellow Christians refer to him jokingly as an irhabi (a terrorist). But he is no longer a terrorist. Now he meets for prayer with people who in the past he would have seen as enemies. Just as Jesus brought Simon the Zealot together with Tax Collectors for his enemies - and brought Saul of Tarshish into the community of believers he once persecuted. Jesus shows us that the people who we think are the farthest from God are actually closer than we think.  Perhaps right at the door to the Kingdom. Will we open it for them, or shut it in their faces?

Faith, In The Worlds of Marvel