Superman and the Bible

How the Idea of Superheroes Affects the Reading of Scripture

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Nicholaus Pumphrey
  • Jefferson, NC: 
    McFarland & Company
    , January
     2019.
     214 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781476665023.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Superman and the Bible, Nicholaus Pumphrey seeks to accomplish a number of heroic feats at once, illustrating what happens when a self-professed comic book nerd and academic reads the Bible, while also standing against those archvillains who oppose the valiant champions of the importance of comic books in popular culture. In summing up what may be considered the central thesis of the book, Pumphrey describes our era as “post-Superman,” not in the sense that we have moved beyond Superman but that we are shaped by Superman: “the monolith that is Superman changed the collective subconscious of western society and, to some extent, the entire world” (6).  The introduction explores the ways in which figures like Samson or Moses have intertextually informed Superman, and conversely, how our awareness of Superman informs our interpretation. In chapter 1 Pumphrey looks at efforts to trace the “authentic” roots and precursors of Superman, not to join that quest, but to ask what the effort says about modern readers, while rejecting the notion that such efforts can achieve what they have historically set out to achieve. Here, the notion of intertextuality is further explored and elaborated upon to highlight how readers of both Bible and superhero comics bring together those materials not merely to elucidate either or both, but to create (whether aware of it or not) new narratives that emerge in the act of reading that is shaped by these heritages and influences.

In chapter 2, Pumphrey explores the creation of Superman; the author challenges the assumption that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Jewish identity necessarily included what a predominantly Christian culture considers devout, and thus, in the process resists the assumption that there must have been a deliberate religious aim in their efforts. The author discusses key influences from science fiction and comic strips, as well as the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the chapter’s end, the focus has shifted from cultural influences on Superman to Superman’s influences on and in culture. Chapter 3 explores the evolution of the concept of the hero, highlighting how Christianity and monotheism colored the evaluation of Greek and other polytheistic traditions from antiquity. This thread continues into the context of World War II and the US military, including Superman’s eventual role as anti-Nazi propaganda.

Chapter 4 brings the study into the Marvel era, as superheroes became more complex. Interesting in this regard is Stan Lee’s introduction of the thought bubble (92). When characters are morally complicated and do not simply instinctively do the right thing all the time, knowing their thoughts becomes an interesting and meaningful part of their stories. The nature of genre and the postmodern approach of deconstruction are explained briefly, in ways that provide a helpful inroad for readers who may not be familiar with them. Pumphrey describes the exploration of flawed heroes as “polytheistic” in contrast with Superman’s “monotheistic” character (95). This is a helpful and provocative way of approaching this topic, suggesting that a key difference between these religious structures is whether or not the attempt is made to envisage a powerful being as purely good. Pumphrey also explores the corresponding shift towards more complex and thus empathetic villains, who have motives with which it is possible to sympathize even if not agreeing with their actions or methods. Not only does the author discuss flawed heroes, but also anti-heroes, monsters, and demons. He also writes about the deconstruction of the very premise of the original Superman, namely that there is a meaningful moral or character distinction between the godlike superhero and the ordinary human.

Chapter 5 brings the Book of Judges to center stage. While it is surely incorrect to suggest that scholars have on the whole neglected negative attributes of characters in Judges (120), Pumphrey nonetheless provides a helpful exploration of how the category of superhero has influenced the reading of the Bible. He surveys a few specific examples from commentaries which emphasize the heroic character of Samson, whereas within the framework of the Deuteronomistic History, Samson represents a low point in the history of Israel. Chapter 6 looks at how Superman has influenced perceptions of messianic figures like Moses and Jesus. The chapter also explores the convergence of the two types of literature in the form of graphic novel Bibles. The conclusion draws the book’s major points and threads together.

While there is plenty of interesting material in Pumphrey’s book that will be useful for students and educators in the realm of biblical studies—highlighting important comic intertexts—the writing style, and penchant for oversimplification undermine the extent to which the book will be either an enjoyable read or a useful text to assign as a textbook. It certainly seems to be an exaggeration that “Everyone thinks, speaks, and reads differently” and that “grammar is never strictly adhered to in any situation, especially syntax” (29).  As evidence, Pumphrey clearly shows that there are shared cultures of meaning-making. The statement that “readers cannot gauge the author’s original intent, and the author’s perspective really has little or no bearing on the meaning that is constructed by the reader” (33) is likewise an exaggeration. Pumphrey himself seems to contradict this when he says that any American reader will recognize that a text is a letter if it is ordered a certain way and contains certain genre clues (39). Such features are persistent throughout the volume. The very act of writing a book and expecting it to be understood calls out for a more nuanced view of the complex and multifaceted dynamics of authorship and reading.

Those interested in the intersections of superhero comics and the Bible will nonetheless find the book worth consulting, since it highlights influences in both directions to a greater extent than is typical, and provides many specific references, attention to movie casting, and other details that scholars can usefully draw on, while also finding much to interact and disagree with as they make their own arguments about biblical and comic book heroes. And ultimately the central point of the book retains its validity in spite of the issues I’ve mentioned: “Because of his influence and pervasiveness, Superman has truly infiltrated our meaning making through intertextuality, which forces us to read the Bible as if Superman were in it. And he is, because we put him there. . . .His influence is so vast, simultaneously subtle and overt, that we cannot always see him, yet he appears if we look closely” (50, 171).

About the Reviewer(s): 

James McGrath is Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literacy at Butler University.

Date of Review: 
November 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nicholaus Pumphrey is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Curator of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas.

Keywords: 

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