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By Neal Bailey
Stephen Skelton's book "The Gospel According to the World's Greatest Superhero" is a critical examination of Superman as both an allegorical representation of Christ and a literal one, positing that through the theory of the intentional fallacy, one who is Christian is motivated or even obligated to understand Christ in greater depth through literature, and that in our society, one of the best representations is Superman.
The book covers this in deep, provoking discussion through examination of the films, the comics, the radio serials, through interviews. If you're looking for a thorough, and I do mean thorough examination of Superman as a Christ figure, you can't find a better, more in-depth examination.
The Superman Homepage would like to thank Stephen for agreeing to do this interview, and for fitting it into his busy schedule.
A: Discovering the parallels. And then discovering that the parallels were created on purpose. On the comparisons between Supes and Jesus, I wanted to write the definitive reference. Something that got past the half-heard rumors and provided a concise collection of the facts that show the essential parallels between Superman and the Son of Man, between Jesus and "Supsus."
My major introduction to Superman was "Superman: The Movie", which obviously makes a lot of the parallels explicit. But in the research I found that the process of shaping Superman into a Christ figure began long before that. With early Siegel and Shuster stories and the George Lowther novel having the first profound effects on what is popularly accepted as the canonical story today.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most Christian relevance of Superman as a character, after all of the research that went into this book?
A: It's his story. The moral character traits can be found in other figures as well. But it's the story that is the retelling of the unique, proprietary story of Christ.
A heavenly father sends his only son to save the Earth. "El" the father and "El" the son, literally translated from the Hebrew "God" the father and "God" the son. The earthly parent's original names being Mary and Joseph. "Although you were raised a human being you are not one of them." "For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you - my only son." The Death/Burial/Resurrection of Superman comic storyline. And finally Singer saying the new movie is about "what happens when messiahs come back" to complete the second coming imagery.
In the specifics, that is nobody's story but Christ's. It's his origin story, it's his mission/ministry story, it's his death/burial/resurrection story, and it's his second coming story. And to the extent we respond to that story in Superman, we respond to the story of the Gospel. I think that's worth having a dialog about.
Q: Do you believe the new movie will be as Christian relevant as the original film?
A: The teaser trailer seems to point in that direction. Also some of the things that have been whispered about Lois' son seem taken straight out of the Christian lexicon and iconography.
It is interesting to see the new movie makers promoting Superman as a Christ figure. I think it's a smart move from a financial standpoint. I have not heard any nonbeliever say that he would not see the movie because of the parallels. Yet, on the other hand, I have heard of some believers who are now more interested in going to see the film because of the parallels. So it seems to be a win-win.
Of course, everyone is watching for the parallels now. That's different from the cultural context of "Superman: The Movie" when the Christ figure parallels were being promoted so forcefully for the first time in a big screen movie. Certainly, it would be hard to equal "Superman: The Movie" in that regard today.
Still, I'm reminded of when Kelvin over at Latino Review asked Routh if the movie's message was about a messiah, and Routh agreed that was the message you come away with. Of course, months ago, Singer said publicly, "Superman is the Jesus Christ of superheroes." So I suppose we shall see.
At the end of the day, provided the new movie is well made - the story, the acting, the effects - I have no doubt that everyone will enjoy it whether believer or nonbeliever.
Q: If Superman is a Christ figure, and Batman works from vengeance, as you point out, how do you see him in the mythos?
A: Batman would fit right into the Old Testament. He is of the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth persuasion. In that regard, he is like the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. In the book, we point out the trinity of the "big three". With Batman as the Father figure, Superman is, of course, once again, the Son, and if we relate the Holy Spirit to Sophia, the Greek word for Wisdom personified as womanly, then we will come to Wonder Woman.
Q: Lois is alternatively Mary Magdalene and the Holy Spirit. Touchy question, but given biblical roles of women, which are depending on interpretation either subservient or as the strong force from which the glory of man springs (man in the "people" sense), how do you see the common interpretation that Lois is an iconographic figure of feminism, given that many people place Christianity and feminism at odds? Note, I'm not saying they ARE at odds, just that that's a common critique.
A: Thanks for making that distinction. While Judaism and Christianity take a stand against Goddess-cult worship, they are not at odds with feminine appreciation. The mention in the question above provides an excellent example of that. The reference to Wisdom being personified as womanly comes from Proverbs 8 and 9. She is called the first of his works. She is called the craftsman during the creation. She is seen delighting with God at the foundation of the world. Pretty prominent place to be appreciated, don't you think?
Is Lois a strong, smart and sexy feminine icon? Yes she is. And more power to her. Proverbs would approve.
Q: This is more of a meandering to comment on (heck, most of my questions are), but given that Clark, in Smallville, often makes wrong choices, and given that Superman, in the comics, often errs, (once declaring himself the King of the World while usurped by Luthor/Lucifer), how do you see the idea of Christ, who is theoretically morally infallible, being God-as-man, as compared to Superman, who once brought home a dog that tore off the kitchen oven door? Meaning, Superman is undoubtedly human. He identifies more with humanity than with his god-father, following your book's metaphor. He is a human man that can do a godlike thing, but he's happier when he's like us. Jesus is humble in much the same way, but he's often portrayed as never making a mistake, beyond the moneychangers, which many see as an appropriate answer to the face of unchecked, Satanic capitalist's greed over the needs of the people. What's your take on all of that?
A: I've never heard the moneychangers moment called a mistake. I'll go with your qualifier in the second part. It's a proactive demonstration of how to fight the good fight...against Satanic capitalistic greed.
In the book, we point out that a fictional character can be a Christ figure and at the same time his own person - in fact, he must be. If a Christ figure cannot also be his own person - with his own thoughts, feelings, and actions apart from Christ - then he would not be a Christ figure, he would be Christ.
This is actually a key element to the broad appeal of Christ figures. The requirement of strict symmetry would bankrupt the appeal of a character as a Christ figure to anyone but believers. While a character that is both Superman and a Christ figure can speak to both nonbeliever and believer, a character that is strictly Christ will appeal only to his followers.
So, in the case of Smallville for instance, we must allow Clark Kent to be free to be a Christ figure (divinely infallible) and, at the same time, a "Clark figure" (humanly fallible).
Q: How long did the book take to write?
A: Off and on, about two years.
Q: Where can people get a copy?
A: Nearly everywhere: Barnes & Noble, Borders, BookWorld, Books-A-Million, Family Christian, LifeWay, Cokesbury, Amazon.com, Wal-Mart. And English-speaking foreign countries like Canada, Australia (go Steve Y!), the U.K. and Krypton...wait, that store was closed.
Q: How would you pitch this book to an atheist? How to a Christian?
A: Actually, maybe surprisingly, it's the same. It's telling them that the book reveals how the Superman storytellers based Superman on Jesus on purpose. I've seen both believers and nonbelievers react to that news with the exact same interest.
Q: In Infinite Crisis, it is Superman's sin of inaction, at least, to common wit, that leads the world to a crisis point. I can certainly see this point in terms of Christianity. One of my biggest problems with the faith is that it's waiting on a moral figure that is conspicuously absent beyond personal interpretation. When Superman appears to save the day in Infinite Crisis, the problem resolves itself. In that, I, even as an atheist, relate more to the character than Christ. Please don't take that in offense, it's just the truth for me. What would be your response to those who would say that Christ as an adaptive moral figure is conspicuously absent, while Superman is a morphing, continual moral arbiter? Christ died and rose from the dead, but Superman died and rose from the dead, and kept writing more and more gospels, if you follow... A: I would say: Wait. The story of Christ is not done. This is what Revelation tells us.
If we're looking for a parallel in the Superman story, we find it in Superman Returns. Remember, Singer says, "It's a story about what happens when messiahs come back."
Like Christ, Superman has ascended into the heavens. Like Christ, Superman returns to Earth. In the time Superman was away, people have come to resent him. Once he left, the world fell into chaos, and their dependence on him has became painfully obvious. Because of their pride, what they really disdain is their own weakness, their undeniable need for a Savior, as is often the case with people who resent Christ. Even Lois says, "The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I."
Upon his return, Superman inevitably saves the day, as does Christ. Many of the same signifiers of the Revelation story are there.
Q: You come up with a lot of ways in which Superman is compared to Christ, subconsciously, consciously, and otherwise. What are key ways in which you found them wholly different?
A: They are different in some literal ways; just as they are the same in some literal ways. But I always find the literal differences too obvious and not as much fun. When you can show people what was hidden in symbolism right in front of their eyes that they didn't even know was there, that's neat; it's a revelation. On the other hand, when you point out the literal differences in how Superman flies and Jesus walks... Or when you point out that Jesus can absolve sins and Superman cannot... Those points of literal distinction don't impress people much.
Q: Thank you for your time, your book, and subjecting yourself to my impertinence. Your work is truly appreciated, and I hope we can help you out by turning people on to the work. I asked hard questions, but I really enjoyed the piece...any plans for a next book, or a book in a similar vein? Where can we find you next? A: All the thanks goes to you, Neal. You have more than proven yourself knowledgeable, insightful and courteous. In those respects, you're a model for us all.
Next, we're planning cross country speaking engagements in conjunction with this book. We're equipping folks with the ability to have meaningful conversations with those who are attracted to Superman but don't know his spiritual history. Please, look for me... up in the sky.