The Gospel Not According to Superman
I was tricked; John T. Galloway, Jr. pulled a fast one. He opens The Gospel of Superman (1973) with a galvanizing statement of purpose: “It is not my intent in this book to find the gospel in Superman. Rather I seek to find the gospel where it can best be found—in scripture and in the changed lives of Christians.” Instead of a book about Superman, I had gotten an overly-earnest minister railing against relativism, comparing “young people who take LSD” with adults “taking medication, coffee, alcohol in hopes of being really themselves,” and laying out obscure diagrams that were about as helpful as my aborted attempt to pictorialize Levinas’ philosophy.
Except Levinas is Important and Complex, while Galloway is decidedly not either of those things.
Still, I stuck around. Maybe I was tired of reading Important and Complex texts. Galloway’s earnestness dated him, but it also made it hard to just toss the book aside. After all, it’s easy to deride self-righteous fundamentalists, but it’s a lot more difficult to tell your kindhearted elderly neighbor that, actually, you don’t want to hear her prayer of the day because—you know what?—God doesn’t exist. How’s them apples?
As I forged onward, I realized that the dated Galloway was more prescient than my initial cynicism allowed. First, he understood that Superman is boring. This may seem obvious today, with Superman’s fellow crime fighters calling him the “Big Blue Boy Scout” and sales in a long, slow decline, but in the 60s and 70s, Galloway’s perspective was still fresh.
Only a decade prior to Galloway’s Gospel, Umberto Eco had written “The Myth of Superman,” in which he described Superman as “kind, handsome, modest, and helpful; his life is dedicated to the battle against the forces of evil; and the police find him an untiring collaborator.” Today, this sounds like someone that my mother would love to have around the house—for Eco, these were the very qualities that made Superman an American icon. But for Galloway, Superman is just “repetitious” in his good-doing, lacking the surprising twists and human foibles of Jesus’ life and not even coming close to the inscrutability of the ways of God.
Second, Galloway anticipates the weak theology of contemporary theorists like John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, who emphasize Jesus’ moment of doubt on the cross and the fragility of religious belief. Galloway writes, “The Jesus we encounter on the pages of scripture, however, was another breed of man. He is tied to us in many ways. For openers, he lost his temper. He cried. He got thirsty and hungry. He got tired. ‘The Word became flesh (John 1:14).’ He showed us in his life what ours can be all about.” Galloway doesn’t succumb to the atheism of the contemporaneous “Death of God” theology, the fundamentalism of the re-emerging Christian Right, or the individualism of Tillich and Barth.
Third, Galloway’s critique of the late-twentieth century’s emphasis on personalized faith and its easy co-existence with capitalism resonates with Zizek’s recent theological work. Galloway’s book has dashes of Freudian projection, an unwittingly Lacanian vision of the Other, and a retrospectively Zizekian stance against the individual:
“We should radically abandon the notion that external social institutions betray the authentic inner experience of the true Transcendence of Otherness… If there is a lesson to be learned from Kafka, it is that, in the opposition between internal and external, the divine dimension is on the side of the external.”
– Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf
“In a day and age when person feelings and desires are given so much nearly exclusive authority, we run into a strong headwind when we proclaim a message that comes from the Other. But the time has come to hand over the source of authority, for ultimate truth does not originate within you and me.”
– John T. Galloway, Jr.
In describing his own youthful reaction to one of Superman’s many near-deaths, Galloway writes, “You could have heard a piano drop, the theater noise had quieted down so much. It looked as though our champion was a goner.” This malapropism, it turns out, is actually rather fitting today.
Take, for example, the classic Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America. He was so boring that Marvel had to kill him off and replace him with the Winter Soldier, whose bionic arm and sordid past as a brainwashed Soviet assassin gave the character some much-needed bite. And yet, despite the publicity blitz, which managed to reach mainstream audiences like no other comic book event in recent history, fans didn’t exactly witness the event with bated breath; everyone knew that Rogers would be back.
After all, what superhero hasn’t died? Superman was offed in 1993, Bucky in 1964, Wonder Woman in 1997, Flash in 1985, Green Lantern in 1996, Miracle Man in 1985, Animal Man in 2007—the list goes on. All of these characters, by the way, are still alive thanks to aliens, supernatural resurrections, time travel, clones, regeneration matrices, and various other contrived deus ex machinas that would make mature proponents of the “graphic novel” blush.
So you definitely wouldn’t have heard a pin drop when Captain America died, or when Superman died either: it would have taken a piano, and probably a grand one at that, to be heard above the cynical commentary. This should not be surprising.
After all, if after Jesus’s death and resurrection he kept wandering around the countryside, walking on water and giving the blind sight, people would have developed a similarly blasé attitude: been there, done that, show us something new. The Jesus of Galloway, of weak theologians, and of Zizek, is compelling not because he died and was resurrected, but because he died and had the sense to say a few quick farewells, then split for the long haul. Meanwhile, the whole Second Coming thing keeps us on our tiptoes; if Superman was really so great, he would have figured that one out a long time ago.
Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.