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059: Conversation With a Comic Scholar

Jules_from_pulp_fictionThis is Part 2. FOR THE REST OF THIS 3-PART SERIES on the creative explosion in spiritually themed Comics, click here: Part 1. Part 3.
    How did you do on yesterday’s SUPER-spiritual Quiz? Superbly?
    TODAY, in Part 2 of our 3-day focus on Faith and Comics, we’re thrilled to share a Conversation With Greg Garrett, a leading expert on religion in popular culture.
    In an earlier review, we recommended Greg’s book, “The Gospel According to Hollywood.”
    However, he’s also the author of an upcoming “Revised and Expanded” edition of his 2005 book on comics: “Holy Superheroes!”
    What’s more, Greg is the only Christian writer I’ve ever met — and, perhaps the only Christian, period — whose conversion was sparked by director Quentin Tarantino’s R-rated pot-boiler, “Pulp Fiction!”
    MORE on that Amazing Tale in a moment, but first consider this …

Greg is a longtime professor of English at Baylor University in Texas and his personal journey into sacred realms of mythic storytelling is a fascinating echo of C.S. Lewis‘ own pilgrimage from Atheism to Christianity.

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    One of the defining moments in Lewis’ religious awakening was an encounter with his close friends in which they articulated the nature of faith to Lewis in a strikingly persuasive way. Lewis and his scholarly friends in Britain, who included “Lord of the Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien, all adored the world’s mythic literature. In fact, they had devoted their lives to studying and teaching the genre to university students.
    Finally, Lewis’ friends got through to him about the powerfully transcendent nature of faith by insisting: Myths can be true! In other words, it wasn’t only in fairy tales that heroes sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Creation, beauty, self-less love and courage don’t exist only as relics of ancient mythology. Quite the reverse, Lewis’ friends argued: These themes endure in stories from ancient times because they resonate from the truth of God.   
    This led to the celebrated idea of “true myth” and the whole Mythopoeic movement — the rocket fuel that propelled “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the great masterpiece of the movement: “The Lord of the Rings.”
     Yesterday, we pointed out a direct-line connection between major shifts in American culture and the growing attention to religious themes in popular comic books. Today, we’re pointing out that there’s also a direct-line connection between Mythopoeia and the exploding interest in spiritual comic books, graphic novels and manga.

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   Before we go any further — we need to make one thing clear: Yes, Greg is a Christian writer and many of the people exploring spiritual themes in comics are Christian in the U.S. BUT, the interest in comics is truly a multi-faith movement.
    Best-selling author Deepak Chopra is developing a line of Hindu comic books that you’ll find on the shelves of your local Borders stores — and he’s also involved in adapting existing comic characters from the U.S. for Asian audiences.
    In the Muslim world, the hottest series of comic books is called “The 99,” which finally hit the U.S. in a couple of colorful issues this summer. Check out the series’ homepage if you want read more about these Muslim superheroes.
    Spiritually themed comic books, graphic novels and manga are emerging from just about every corner of the religious cosmos these days. In fact, the New York Times recently ran an extensive review of top graphic novels, many of which wrestle with spiritual themes.   

Pulp_fiction
S
O, you get the point. This is a Big Story in Spirituality.
    AND — that brings us back to Greg’s conversion story!
    For those of you who never saw “Pulp Fiction” — or have forgotten the precise storyline — let me remind you that it’s a sprawling, circular tale about a pair of professional hit men who are stunned, one day, when another gunmen unleashes a hail of bullets at them — and completely misses them.
    Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, declares this “Divine Intervention” and by the end of the long movie decides that he will turn his back on violence forever — and pursue a new religious vocation. This sudden conversion experience very nearly costs Jules his own life, but even staring down the barrel of a crazy young woman’s pistol, Jule vows: “I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.”

    DAVID: Greg, I’m amazed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone who was converted by watching “Pulp Fiction.” But if “Pulp Fiction” led to your conversion, then — most comic books are tame by comparison in their treatment of larger-than-life comic themes. I guess it’s easy to see how comic books could play a role in evangelism.
    But, first, let’s talk a little more about this fascinating moment. It wasn’t an altar call that moved you. “Pulp Fiction” was your call.
    GREG: Well, let me explain that I’m a fairly orthodox person.
    I’m an Episcopalian and I’m a pretty serious Episcopalian at this point. I’m still a tenured professor at Baylor, but I’ve also just finished three years of seminary and I have a master’s of divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, where I also work now as a writer in residence. I serve as a lay minister in a big downtown church in Austin and I’m exploring the possibility of ordination as an Episcopal priest.
    DAVID: But tell us the story of “Pulp Fiction,” because I think this directly relates to the power of mythic, graphic tales to move people spiritually. I see a direct link here between your story and your whole approach to comic books and C.S. Lewis’ own journey toward conversion.
    So, tell our readers more about how this unfolded.
    GREG: When “Pulp Fiction” came out in 1994, I saw it right away. At that time, I was a very spiritual person, as a lot of Gen-X and Gen-Y people describe themselves, but I wasn’t the least bit religious. I had not found a church or a religious community that spoke to me.
    Then, I went to see this movie. It’s powerful. It’s full of violence and vile language, but at the heart of the story I saw these glimpses of grace in the character of Jules.
    In Jules, we see a character who feels the touch of God and he decides not to be the sort of person he was, anymore. From that moment on, Jules decides he’s going to be the sort of character who God wants him to be.
Ben_grimm_thing    And I thought: Here in this movie with all the blood and violence and vile language — right there in all the muck and mire of the world — there’s this character played by Samuel L. Jackson who powerfully encounters grace.
    DAVID: You’re right. It’s a pretty shocking scene at the end of the movie with all the other lurid things in the storyline to have Jules talking about a passage from Ezekiel and his sense of a divine calling.
    GREG: Yes, that movie has all the worst that real life can possibly contain, including these hired killers — but I was so struck by what I saw that I watched that movie seven times! And, when I finally was able to put into words what was going on in my head, I put it like this:
    This shows that there can be a turning away from the muck and mire of the world. There can be a turning back toward God. No one ever is too far away from God to make the journey back.
     DAVID: I’ve got an early copy of your revised book on comics, which I’ve read — and I’ve already recommended your book on Hollywood to our readers. Overall, what you’re arguing here is that our taste in popular stories these days is becoming more mythic, right?
    GREG: Right. Archetypal images are underlining a lot of the stories coming out of Hollywood and showing up in comic books, as well.
    DAVID: Like this whole storyline involving Ben Grimm, the super-strong superhero in “The Fantastic Four” comic books and movies — who suddenly revealed proudly that he’s Jewish. And prayed in Hebrew in a comic book. And then suddenly in a popular American superhero comic book, readers are reading about references to Ben Grimm as a sort of Golem figure — the mythic Jewish tale of a sort of un-formed, mighty superhero.

Kavalier_and_clay
    GREG: I think it’s part of a larger resurgence of these stories. That “Fantastic Four” story came out right about the time that “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” came out.
    DAVID: Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for that. And that’s a novel about the birth of comic books — and how comic culture relates to powerful myths. And, you’re right, there’s the resurfacing of the Golem story again in “Kavalier and Clay.” Who would have thought that an obscure story like the Golem suddenly would wind up back in the popular imagination?
    GREG: This is such an incredibly creative area now — and so many people still think that comics are just for kids. Of course, that’s not the case anymore, if you walk into a comic store or look at the graphic novels in a bookstore.
    DAVID: One of the things I like about your new edition of “Holy Superheroes!” is that you’ve got this whole list of essential comic books that people should try to read, if they want to understand this very creative genre. I noticed that you’ve got one of my personal favorites in that list: The Sandman.
    That’s Neil Gaiman’s creation. He’s a multiple award winner from the Mythopoeic Society for some of his other fiction. And Sandman, which has evolved from these surreal DC comic books to these very elaborate tales of cosmic spiritual struggles — well, Gaiman’s really exploring realms between art, literature, faith and — well, I think you agree with me that Sandman is almost a case study all by itself in how big, broad and global these comic reflections can get, right?
Sandman_neil_gaiman
    GREG: I have one Sandman example there in my “Essentials” list and, honestly, if I had organized that list just on the basis of the quality of comics, I probably could have filled five slots on the list with different Sandman books.
    What Neil Gaiman did in Sandman is to create a mythos that’s as powerful as any of the archetypal stories we’ve seen from different cultures. He has shown us that comics can be high literature. One of the reasons I want to steer people toward Sandman and other comics like this is that, for 20 years, a lot of the best comics have been for older readers.
    DAVID: This takes us back to your central point, right? There’s a return to mythic interest in understanding the world — and it’s not a bad thing for people of faith.
    GREG: Yes. And, there’s this important crossover between comics and films and TV shows now. Think about the movie “Superman Returns.” The most popular comic books are read by maybe 100,000 to 150,000 people, but films and TV shows have a much wider audience.
    Think about this: Bryan Singer, the director of “Superman Returns,” has been very much up front in saying that he was creating a new idea of Superman that was very much like Jesus. Here’s a son sent by a powerful father to redeem Earth.
    These stories become a central part of our mythos — the stories that shape who we are and how we live. And, now, it’s more than just comic books. Films and TV shows are bringing these stories to people all around the world.

Superman_returns
    DAVID: And you’re saying that religious leaders shouldn’t see these as a threat — shouldn’t see these as their enemies. They should see this cultural shift as something that’s potentially positive, right?
    GREG: If you’re a minister today, then you’re facing generations of people who aren’t familiar with their own religious traditions. They may not have gone to church or synagogue or a mosque — they may not know anything about the core traditions of their own community’s religious life.
    But a starting point may be that they’re impelled by these central spiritual myths. They may want to know more about where these ideas came from originally.
    That’s what has driven me to write about religion and culture — to help people see this connection. Lately, when I talk to people, I tell them it’s a way to lay bread crumbs back to the central stories of our faith. So, if we talk about Superman as something like a god-like redeemer, well we’re retelling the story of Jesus, or Messiah, if you’re from the Christian tradition.
    DAVID: OK, so going back to “Pulp Fiction.” I’m smiling about this idea. I mean, you’re not suggesting that churches start showing “Pulp Fiction” as an evangelistic outreach.
    GREG: With comics, with films — with any form of popular culture — if you’re sifting for spiritual meaning out there, then personal discernment is vital.
    “Pulp Fiction” was pivotal in my own spiritual journey, but for other people the subjects and the language in the film may be damaging — may be deeply offensive.
    People should take ratings systems seriously. There are ratings on comics, now, too. If a comic says it’s intended for adults — then people should treat that comic like an R-rated movie. Actually, I think a lot of people understand that already. For 20 or 25 years now, more comics have been bought by adults than kids.
    DAVID: Well, obviously, our whole theme at ReadTheSpirit is the we should engage popular culture to find those spiritual voices that can be so valuable in our lives.
    GREG: Yes, pull the threads together. That’s what I do. Not everyone agrees with me on this. I understand that. I’ve heard from a lot of people, including a lot of Christians, who disagree with me on this. But I say: If you’re so afraid of our popular culture that you want to climb into a Christian ark and pull the ramp up behind you — then you’re going to miss out on some very powerful stories that can teach us a whole lot about our faith.

    AND WITH THAT, we close today’s Conversation …
    COME BACK TOMORROW for the third and final story in our series on the spiritual revival in comics.
    We always want to know what you think. Click on the Comment link at the end of any story on our site to add your thoughts — or Click Here to email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

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