Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

 

 

 

 

College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)

 

Celebrating Catholicism in American Culture

Following on from yesterday’s post, we move to a more positive topic, which is what you can do to shake up people’s misconceptions about Catholicism.  Standing up and defending the Church is critical at this time, when the Church seems to be attacked in the press and on social media every five minutes.  Yet admittedly, some of us are better at fighting these kinds of fights than others.

Truthfully what all Catholics ought to be doing is not looking to plunge into great battles in the world of public opinion, but rather engaging in what we are supposed to be doing, which is evangelizing to those around us.  It is far easier to get into often-anonymous fights on social media, or even publish scurrilous blog posts such as the one which U.S. News had the misfortune to give the go-ahead, than it is to calmly and respectfully discuss Catholicism with one’s friends and neighbors.  And even though there is unquestionably a time for arguing, even strident arguing, more often it is through a self-confident witness that we will change minds and hearts.

A few years ago for example, I was rather surprised to be informed by a Protestant friend that Catholics do not believe in the Holy Spirit. I pointed out that the whole Trinitarian “thing” was our idea.  His counter was, that even if Catholics did believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit, we did not believe that He was God.

After wondering for a moment why therefore I had bothered about being Confirmed, or celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for decades, I realized that mere argument was not going to be enough.  I challenged my friend to attend Mass with me the following Sunday, so that he could see and hear for himself what Catholics actually believe about the Holy Spirit. To his credit, being a very smart and good fellow, he agreed.

I did not look at the readings for that Sunday in advance of our visit, but I do recall that before we left for church I prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to let us have a good Mass, and one that would open my friend’s eyes a little regarding what he misunderstood about Catholicism.  I was rather pleased to discover when we got there that it just so happened all of the Scripture readings at Mass that particular Sunday – and the hymns, to boot – were about the Holy Spirit. That, in combination with the set prayers and blessings which we regularly pray such as the Nicene Creed, persuaded my friend that he had indeed been misinformed.

Inviting your non-Catholic friends to come to Mass with you can be a good thing, particularly if you have a generally solid parish, but what about reaching those who are not interested in darkening the door of the Church at all? This is why cultural literacy has always been such an important issue for Catholics in this country, and something which we need to encourage more Catholics to take on as a virtue.  The study of history, literature, science, and the arts reveals a wealth of material stemming from Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and creativity, which all too often non-Catholics and even many Catholics themselves are completely unaware of.

For example, the Nativity scenes which everyone just finished packing away until next year, can all trace their origins to the first such scene, which was put up by St. Francis of Assisi.  The celebration of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) which, hard to believe, is just over a month away, is a Catholic tradition that arose from the practice of having a last celebration of feasting on rich food and drink, before the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  You know those little raised bumps called “braille”, which help the blind to read and to get around on things like elevators and trains?  They were invented by a deeply devout, blind Catholic named Louis Braille, who played the organ at Mass every day and received Holy Communion on his deathbed.  And even those who are fans of sports teams at the large, secular state universities like Alabama and Oregon owe the very existence of those schools to Catholics, who founded the original universities in places like Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford on which all subsequent universities are modeled.

So much of what Catholicism has given to the world is all around us, and yet we never take the time to point it out to others.  I suspect this is often because those of us who are inside the Church could do with some more curiosity about the Faith, but also because we often have no idea what those outside the Church have actually been taught about us.  And when we do find out what is being said behind our collective backs, as it were, we are so shocked at what others think that we do or believe, that we are at a loss to know how to respond.

Fortunately, Americans today live in an age of terrific resources, available to all for the price of a monthly internet connection.  From websites and forums, to videocasts and podcasts, to blogs and online publications, if you want to take an active interest in learning about your Church, so that you can then turn around and share that knowledge with others, you can do so at any time.  And what’s more, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, at your leisure, in a way which your Catholic ancestors could not even have imagined.

The responsibility of what you do with that information of course, is yours.  While you may use it to try to win an argument on Reddit or Twitter, in the end it may be even more productive for you to try using it to persuade someone you actually know in real life, around the water cooler or over the back fence, that perhaps Catholicism really isn’t what organizations like the (alleged) mainstream media keep saying that it is.  A Catholic who is interested in his Faith can serve as a reputable resource for not only defending the Church in the public square, but perhaps more importantly in bringing to others a sense of appreciation for the many good things which Catholicism has brought to America, and indeed to all of Western Civilization.

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Giusto di Giovanni de' Menabuoi (c. 1360-70) Baptistery, Padua

Detail of “Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Giusto di Giovanni de’ Menabuoi (c. 1360-70)
Baptistery, Padua