May 17, 2016 The Churching of Comics?
Guest blogger, Hannah Powell.
An alien struggling to blend with human society while learning to use his abnormal powers to somehow protect- rather than endanger- mankind. An awkward, clumsy, and misunderstood teenager trying to fit in with both her ultra-white contemporaries and immigrant Muslim family.
Are these are our last hopes for the proliferation of religion in America?
We’ll start with Superman. What an obvious embodiment of Christ our Lord and Savior! the Catholics say. How clear it is that he is meant as a savior, a second coming of Jesus of Nazareth, a hero among men who knows our weaknesses and strife and still risks his own life to protect us from our sins!
How ironic, then, that Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are, horror of horrors, Jewish. And yet the elements of seemingly Christian themes are extremely apparent. He fights evil, but is not cruel, often turning the other cheek. He is of other-worldly descent yet lives among humans and understands their day-to-day fears, struggles and pain. He has powers inexplicable to most people. Perhaps Siegel and Shuster meant him as the Jewish Messiah, the one that, according to Jewish scripture and teachings, has yet to grace the earth with his love and healing powers.
I offer to you, however, a third alternative. Siegel and Shuster, along with the creator of Ms. Marvel, G. Willow Wilson, merely use their comic books as vehicles to enlighten readers on the values and morals of their respective religions. These works are not meant to convert the reader, but rather to advocate for and educate on the importance of principles of their faiths.
In Ms. Marvel, where the presence of Islam is constant and affects nearly every panel of the comic, there is not a hint of whether the reader is meant to find the religion morally sound or appealing, whether it restricts Kamala’s day to day life and her interaction with her peers, or whether it is a good idea for Kamala’s family to try to continue practicing traditional Islam in Modern American society. G. Willow Wilson merely lays out plausible scenarios (save the whole Kamala-is-actually-a-shape-shifting-teenaged-superhero-babe thing) regarding a normal Muslim family and their interactions with the very white, unfamiliar group of people that surrounds them.
In The Churching of America: Winners and Losers of our Religious Economy, authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark claim that all the different religions and denominations of religions throughout American history have used everything in their power (media, propaganda, demonstrations, sermons, threats, etc) to essentially “compete for souls.” They would therefore assume that any comic book with religious themes, Superman and Ms. Marvel included, would fall under the category of this gruesome competition.
Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, were about as average as it came before their casual invention of the most famous comic book superhero of all time. They met in high school, where they struggled to fit in and be heard, much like the Man of Steel himself and, you guessed it, Jesus. These ambitious Jewish boys were unwilling to settle, though, so they worked long past high school on a bunch of different works, some incorporating Judaism, some not. They were rejected and told they had no talent many times, until they finally put Superman on the table.
I would argue here that part of what made this new comic so appealing was that they had struck a balance between an overtly religious work and one that simply flouts morals altogether. In Superman they were able to express values that meant something to them without essentially preaching to their readers. Superman is appealing because he does the right thing (the Christian thing, some continue to insist) without saying why he does it, or asking readers to do the same.
Wilson’s background, like her comic book, is more obviously enriched by her religion. After she converted to Islam in college at the age of 18 (an unpleasant shock to her very white, very secular, East Coast family), she spent several years living in Cairo and discovering both what it meant to be Muslim, but also to merge her American lifestyle with the customs and traditions of her new faith. Often times she found it difficult rationalizing her American ways to her Muslim contemporaries, and rationalizing her religion to her friends and family at home.
These same difficulties are evident in Ms. Marvel- Kamala cannot seem to strike a good balance between fitting in at school and obeying the wishes of her deeply faithful family, and it is only through Ms. Marvel, her superhero form, that she finds she can do both. Wilson is therefore able to show her readers what it means to be Muslim in America, especially when surrounded by so many non-Muslims. Without even a hint of bias, her comics spread the wealth of knowledge about Islam that is often so lacking in the United States.
I find, contrary to Finke and Stark’s ideas, not an ounce of an attempt in either comic book to actually convince the reader of the correctness of the religious values at hand. Both comics offer to the reader perspectives on certain values and traditions; it is up to the reader to decide whether to relate Superman’s powers and role in society to an Abrahamic Messiah or whether the way Kamala Khan’s family practices Islam is an attractive option. The actual Churching of America, in my opinion, relies not upon intentional competition between faiths, but rather on the dedication of believers to perpetuating knowledge and information on their traditions and beliefs so that Americans will continue to have options in their religious or non-religious lives.