On a rare break from my binge of reviewing the latest in queer comics (don’t be alarmed, that regularly unscheduled programming will be back before you know it, I’m sure), I picked up a middle grade graphic novel that provides a different sort of representation. Hereville #1, How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, touts itself as featuring “yet another troll-fighting eleven-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl”. And while it has a veeery busy corner of the market in which to distinguish itself (that was my sarcasm voice), Mirka mostly comes out on top.
I have talked before about how Superman is actually a Christ figure, but I have always described and explained it in a mainstream Christian sense. However, there was a form of Christianity that existed on the fringes during the end of the second century called Gnostic Christianity: an interesting form of Christianity that combines Christianity, various Pagan beliefs, and esoteric philosophy. Largely regarded by other Christians as heretical, this form of Christianity eventually died out, though it did have some modern resurgence after some Gnostic texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947.
When I was studying theology in school, I was talking to my professor about Superman as a Christ figure and he argued that Superman was more of a Gnostic Christ figure than a modern Christian one. And it is true that Superman does share some similarities with the Gnostic depiction of Christ. But after doing more research into Superman’s character, I realized that the creators of Superman were Jewish and that Superman actually has a lot more connections with Judaism than with Christianity. Despite this, in recent years writers have taken a more Christian approach to Superman. It’s interesting that Superman, despite being created by Jewish writers, later became more Christian, particularly in regards to the more Gnostic version of Christianity. Gnostic Christianity was more a rejection of Judaism, because it views the God of the Old Testament as an evil god. So is Superman more of a Gnostic Christ figure, or more like one of the Jewish prophets?
Say you’ve begun a new religion. Congratulations! Now you need followers. You could stand on a street corner and shout at people. You could serve the poor and provide for those in need, attracting people with your kindness and generosity. If you’re powerful, you could compel them by law to convert. But those aren’t very effective ways of getting your religion to spread far and wide and really stick. I know what you need: a religious text! Yes, a holy book is exactly what you need to reach people out of shouting range and to make sure people don’t garble your message in our great divine game of telephone.
Most actual, real-world religions have some kind of holy text, but it’d be a mistake to think that they all treat their text the same way, or that members of the same faith treat their same book the same way. Scholars call the way people interpret a text a “hermeneutic” (her-man-OO-tic). If you’re going to understand a religion that has a text, you’ve got to understand the different kinds of hermeneutics you might run into. To do that, I’m going to show you how similar hermeneutics pop up in our geeky fiction.
There’s an association between Jews and finance that goes back a thousand years into European history. The natural strife between creditors and debtors made moneylending an extremely unpopular profession, so much so that the Third Council of Lateran in 1179 threatened Christians with excommunication if they lent money at interest—expanding a 4th century prohibition against usury. Jews were exempt from this threat—and prohibited from most other trades—and so Jewish communities in Europe filled this loathed-but-needed economic niche.
The union of ongoing bigotry with intense financial resentment laid the foundation for a permanent form of anti-Semitism in the Western world. The massacres of Jews by Crusaders in the 11th century dovetails with conspiracy theories about the 2008 financial crash.
These intense associations between Jews and financial trades permeate modern pop culture as well, so much so that even works by Jewish or philo-Semitic creators still reflect some of these old elements, whether or not they carry the hostility. These can be physical:
Long, hooked nose, sunken eyes, payot (sidelocks), swarthy or sallow skin, all connoted a malevolent, alien intruder to European society. Personally, Jews were portrayed as conniving, greedy, and fundamentally untrustworthy. Moreover, they were capable of corrupting innocent Christians, bribing them or otherwise rendering them financially subservient. Corruption carried a sexual element as well, arousing particular fears. We can see a number of these stereotypes in today’s pop culture.
Inspired by Pan’s take on Satan, I felt it was time to look on the other side of the ledger at the Bible’s first superhero: King Solomon. He’s not the first Biblical figure to appear larger than life—his own father slew Goliath, after all, and some other guys had already parted the sea, wrestled angels, lived 900 years, and dreamed the future. But while his predecessors stayed within their own narrative arcs, Solomon built his own canon. He has an origin story, he has adventures, he fights monsters, and he even comes with his own set of accessories. As a bonus, there’s an alternate Solomon universe presented in the Qu’ran, and three thousand years of one-offs, apocrypha, and other non-canon-but-beloved stories.
Oh, and there’s smutty fanfic he might have written himself.
Many of you probably think of religion and science as always constantly at odds. And while it’s true that religion and science often disagree with each other, many of you probably don’t realize that devoutly religious people have contributed to science. Catholic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics (a sort of early theory of evolution). Fr. Georges Lemaître was a cosmologist and Catholic priest, and is the father of the Big Bang theory. Of course Catholics aren’t the only religious people to contribute to science. Obviously, Albert Einstein, one of the most famous and influential scientists in history, was Jewish and was agnostic but strongly identified with his Jewish heritage, and Judaism was a major influence on his life. Jonas Salk was devout in his Jewish faith (and often seemed annoyed by the religion vs. science debates) and a medical researcher. He is famous for developing the first polio vaccine. Jābir ibn Hayyān is both Muslim and the father of chemistry. Abdus Salam, another practitioner of Islam, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his electroweak interaction theory. In fact, it’s because of his faith that Salam pursued science. He said:
The Holy Qur’an enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.
So there are a lot of scientists throughout history who contributed greatly to their field and still loved and professed their faith. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked at our pop culture. Almost every science-minded character is an atheist. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of characters be scientists and atheist or agnostics (in fact, it’s important to have characters like that), but I worry that if every science-minded character is an atheist or agnostic, we end up perpetuating the conflict between religion and science.
When I was in grad school I had a Biblical Studies instructor who was from Romania. He was a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church, but he seemed to have a great love of Judaism and was an active advocate against anti-Semitism. I remember him sadly telling us how he was sometimes uncomfortable when he went back to Europe to visit family because he claimed that anti-Semitism was once again on the rise. That was three years ago. Now it seems like I can’t go a day without reading about how anti-Semitism is on the rise not just in Europe but in the U.S. as well. And sadly we can see this attitude reflected in our own geek culture. Today I am going to specifically talk about the anti-Semitism in the X-Men/Marvel Movie Universe.
When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.
Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.
Star Trek is probably one of the first nerdy shows that I ever experienced. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching the Star Trek original series (TOS). I remember, specifically, asking my father why Spock wasn’t captain instead of Kirk. It was probably very obvious from my father’s perspective that I had a little bit of a crush on the dashing and mysterious Vulcan as a child. But mostly I remember when I was a little older, sitting at the dinner table with my mother, and she would tell me all she knew about Star Trek. Like me, my mother was fascinated with the Vulcans, and Spock in particular. She told me about little details she loved seeing in the TV shows and the movies, and she would tell me about the stories in the Trek novels she had read that expanded on Spock’s past and on Vulcan culture. My mom recently passed away this past October after a terrible battle with breast cancer. She was a big nerd like me and she is probably at least partly the reason I am taking the recent death of Leonard Nimoy so hard.
It seems silly, I guess, to truly grieve over the death of a man that I have never, and will never, know. But when I heard about Leonard Nimoy’s passing at work, I felt nearly overwhelmed with grief. His character had felt like a part of my family. Star Trek and Spock were some of the primary ways that I developed a relationship with my mother, and I recently started re-watching TOS in order to feel some connection with my mother again. So for me, his death is extremely personal.
My personal feelings aside, that is the not the only reason I want to honor Leonard Nimoy today. There are many celebrities out there that we, as geeks, love, but sadly we know the celebrities we love are not always the best people.Though I don’t know if Nimoy was perfect (none of us are, really) in many ways Leonard Nimoy was probably one of best examples of an intersectional feminist in our geek culture. It’s his great advocacy for all human rights that I want to honor today.
I can’t remember how I discovered the Millennial Gospel on Tumblr, but now that I have, I don’t know what my life would be like without it. As someone who studied theology and is a feminist active in social justice, it is sometimes difficult for me to find people who feel the way I do when it comes to God. It’s difficult for me to find people who believe Christ would be marching on the streets in Ferguson, telling someone off for slut-shaming, or chastising churches for their hostile attitudes toward the queer community. So imagine my surprise when I found the blogs of two lovely ladies who were embarking on a project to show what the radical nature of God’s love would, or should, look like today. This is exactly what the Millennial Gospel is.