When 50 years ago comics presented superheroes like Batman (and what was his relationship to Robin?) and TV ran the series about the Lone Ranger (and what was his relationship to Tonto?), a pattern of rescue was revealed in the American consciousness that may, ironically, delay the achievement of full liberation for the LGBT population. It will take several paragraphs to show this, so be patient with me, please.
I was fortunate to study with the mythologist Joseph Campbell before he was made famous by what was then the most popular PBS series ever created, The Power of Myth. Myths are stories that, usually unconsciously, pattern our ways of thinking about the world. The anecdotes of commercials, for instance, are incipient myths calculated to shape our behavior.
Campbell believed that myths of heroes have three parts, which can be described as stages on a spiritual journey: departure, initiation, and return. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949 and now a classic, he illustrates each of these three segments with stories from around the world.
But obviously American tales were the focus of Robert Jewett and John Lawrence in their 1977 book, The American Monomyth. In analyzing comic book heroes like Superman before the movies spiked the stories with romantic involvement, they applied Campbell’s three-part scheme and found something missing.
First they quoted Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day in¬to a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there en¬countered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Then they noticed that comic book heroes, and early TV heroes like the Lone Ranger, who appear from nowhere or who live in disguise, assist a helpless community to save itself, and then they ride off into the sunset or resume living in concealment. The Lone Ranger may kiss his horse, but he does not become part of the community he has saved.
What is missing, they say, is Campbell’s third stage where the deed or illumination of initiation is shared with the community. They worry about this pattern because it suggests that only a hero with superhuman powers can save the community from disaster. These superheroes defy the limits that constrain our merely human form. They sometimes break the laws of nature. They violate legal standards. They are too good to be restrained by rules and too superior to be part of the community. The stories reveal no spiritual growth in the character because he is born with super-powers rather than gaining insight and wisdom as a result of his initiation.
Jewett and Lawrence think this characteristic pattern, their “monomyth,” derives from the Christian story of redemption, where super-hero Jesus comes into the world from beyond, saves it, and then leaves it, ascending into heaven, instead of working with the rest of us. Just recently, Helen Gray’s July 15 Kansas City Star story quotes several theologians on the parallels between Superman and Jesus.
Christians can respond that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to replace him, that he did respect the community, now called “the church,” and that his long-overdue return is imminent.
But Jewett and Lawrence’s 2002 book, The Myth of the American Superhero, is not reassuring. They suggest that the American pattern of focusing on a charismatic individual rather than the community weakens both the community and democracy.
And here’s my point, and my questions, for the LGBT community: Are we really a community? Or do we hide behind masks, our true identities unknown by the rest of society? Do we expect a charismatic leader to save us from the disabilities the laws enforce and the prejudice that constrains our brothers and sisters? Have we purchased the American Superhero myth? Or might we find more abundant life by strengthening the community with the illumination of our ordinary gifts?
The Rev Vern Barnet, DMn., does consulting, teaching and writing for religious and educational organizations here. His Kansas City Star column appears each Wednesday. Vern can be reached at vern@cres.org




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