At long last, here's Part 2 of my conversation with T.J. Cofield about the Justice League of the Bible, the differences between DC and Marvel comics, and how we treat the characters of scripture. You can read Part 1 here.
Chris: I never really got the DC-Marvel flame war. I prefer DC because I grew up on Superman and came to love that universe but I don’t have any beef with Marvel. When there are two choices for something, I think we often convince ourselves that you HAVE to pick just one and hate the other. You’re either Marvel or DC. You either like Coke or Pepsi. You’re either a Republican or a Democrat. You’re either a Letterman person or a Leno person. Then to prop up our decision, we belittle the other side in a way that’s totally unfair. Well, except for Leno fans. They’re the worst.
But back to what you were saying concerning DC, Marvel, biblical figures, and the saints. I like the way you put it that DC characters are superheroes who happen to be human and Marvel characters are humans who happen to be superheroes. You’re right that it is an overly simplistic way of viewing the two universes (I’ve long argued that Superman’s humanity is what makes him so great), but that perception exists for a reason.
Going off those stereotypes, it should have been easy for us to come up with biblical counterparts to Marvel characters, but I think we have this habit of elevating biblical characters to a superhuman level. We smooth out their rough parts. We strip them of their humanity. And I wonder why we do that because you only have to read a chapter or two virtually anywhere to realize that most people in the Bible are as flawed and screwed up as the rest of us.
Is this the byproduct of some people believing in an inerrant Bible? When you try to transform a book about faith into this perfect document of science, history, etc. then is it just a short step to making the characters perfect too? Is there a concern that any fly in the ointment messes things up?
Or by elevating biblical characters do we think that it takes us off the hook from following God in the ways that they followed God? After all, if Elijah or Mary is superhuman then of course we can’t expect to be as faithful to God as them. But if they were as human and messed up as us yet still did great things for God then we have to seriously reflect on the robustness of our faith. What are your thoughts?
T.J.: We can't be surprised that we do with biblical figures or historical saints what we do with our comic book characters. We want to believe they're flawless. I guess we do this because we think we need flawless character profiles to validate the faith we believe in; or, perhaps more selfishly, we do so because if they really are as perfect as we make them out to be, then we can excuse ourselves for not being as perfect. "How could we be? They're superheroes of the faith," we might say, "and we're just the powerless normal folks in the background." This line of thought is a great way of ignoring the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers that, you know, the whole "go ye therefore and teach all nations" endeavor is kind of built upon....
Nonetheless, when it comes to comics on film, I feel striking the balance between sinner & superhero is where Marvel Studios has succeeded the most among the studios. You get that Tony Stark is sort of a smart aleck narcissist, but you also get that he's trying to clean up his act. Captain America is, of course, just an all-around great guy, but sometimes even he has to watch his, "Language!" (a great running gag from "Avengers: Age of Ultron") Perhaps the best example on film so far is Marvel's series, "Daredevil" on Netflix. Matt Murdock / Daredevil is a great balance of not-so-super (from his physical blindness to his non-superhuman vulnerability and his own personal mishaps) and superhero (fighting for the powerless, getting up when he's knocked down, sticking to his principles.) Matt also wrestles with balancing his bare-knuckled, often violent quest for justice with his own Christian faith, often quite openly in confession with his priest. (I really can't plug Marvel's Daredevil enough; it does earn its TV-MA rating with a lot of gore and some scattered bad language, but it is, in my opinion, the best thing Marvel Studios has done, and the conversation between Matt and his priest about the devil is the best theological dialogue that's been on television in a long time.)
Chris: If I ever get around to watching Daredevil, we might have to sit down and talk about it. The tension between the violence of superheroing and the non-violence that is a pretty dominant theme in the New Testament is something about which I’ve wondered.
So last question: Who are your Avengers of the Bible? Again we’ll go with the most popular lineup, which is the crew from the movies. Iron Man, Cap, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Thor. The possibilities are pretty intriguing. For Iron Man, do you go with Paul (undisputed leader, but also probably a bit arrogant) or Noah (great at building things, has problems with alcohol)? Do you try to retroject Cap’s patriotism onto the context of scripture? Is there any character that is a better fit for Black Widow than Deborah? Do you dare go with God for the Hulk (you wouldn’t like Him when He’s angry)? The possibilities are endless, TJ, and I feel like this was a question you were born to answer.
T.J.: OK, I'm going to do my best to make a Bible Avengers (which sounds oddly like a really bad LifeWay venture from the 90's).
IRON MAN - Solomon
I get why it seems odd to compare Tony Stark to a king known for his wisdom. Tony makes his mistakes - irresponsible sales of weaponry, injecting his body with dangerous chemicals, ULTRON, etc. - but then again, so does Solomon. Both are rich, both are known to be womanizers, and both are renowned builders - Solomon of buildings and temples, Tony of weapons and technology. They also live in the shadows of their fathers - Solomon with King David, and Tony with his father, Howard. However, thanks to a major crisis in their lives - Tony's heart condition and Solomon's existential crisis - they gain some clarity.
CAPTAIN AMERICA - Mary
Ironically, it was very difficult to find a guy in the Bible whose character is as consistently virtuous as Steve Rogers. So naturally, I had to find a woman. Mary is a humble kid from a humble background who is suddenly charged with an unbelievable power & responsibility, and she steps up because she's brave and she wants to serve. Sounds a lot like scrawny Steve Rogers when he's approached about the Super Soldier program. Although, as awesome as it is to defeat HYDRA in World War 2, it obviously pales in comparison to playing a role in the ultimate salvation of all humanity...
THOR - Esau
Go with me on this one, because the parallels are numerous. Both Thor & Esau are older brothers. Their younger brothers are both ambitious tricksters. In one way or another, their meathead-ed tendencies cost them their birthright to said trickster younger brothers. They also get sent some distance away because of those tricky younger brothers. Nonetheless, they are mighty warriors and command their own group of warriors. Eventually, they make some uneasy peace with their younger brothers, although it comes after great conflict.
HULK - Jeremiah
Jeremiah was known as the "weeping prophet" because he didn't view his calling as a blessing, but as a curse. Indeed, most of his prophetic calling was to deliver horrible news that led to a lot of destruction, and people generally hated him for it. Similar to Dr. Bruce Banner and the curse of having the Hulk live within him, don't you think? Everyone thinks it'd be great to go green and smash, but think about being the guy who has to deal with the physical side effects of the transformation and the knowledge that at a bad moment, you could turn into a weapon of mass destruction?
BLACK WIDOW - Mary Magdalene
Black Widow & Mary Magdalene are both women with a mysteriously checkered past who are trying to make up for it, and neither one of them gets their due respect, quite honestly. Black Widow's portrayal in Age of Ultron has come under fire for essentially being anti-feminist; I think this is, at best, a reductionist view. Black Widow is strong, but she also has a heart, and she lives with remorse. (I would go on at length to address these criticisms in another conversation.) Likewise, Mary Magdalene (thanks to Dan Brown, not any legitimate text or respected biblical authority) has been relegated to Jesus' wannabe-girlfriend / actual wife (*groan*) or, more lazily, to the prostitute that Jesus kept from being stoned (there is no evidence these two women were the same character.) What we *do* know about Mary Magdalene is - and we need to get that this is a big deal - she is the first person to tell anyone else about Jesus' resurrection. She is literally the first evangelist in Scripture. Give these women the credit they're due.
HAWKEYE - Thomas
I want to take a moment and explain that there is a monumental difference between Hawkeye on film so far (portrayed excellently by Jeremy Renner) and Hawkeye in the comics. While we have learned that Hawkeye on film is basically the most stable member of the Avengers, comics Hawkeye is sort of a hot mess. He lives alone in a crummy apartment, he feeds pizza to his dog (whose name is Pizza Dog, by the way), he drinks coffee straight from the pot, and he has lots of ex-girlfriend drama. He's a dude that's always in way over his head, but he sort of enjoys that. Thomas always strikes me as the disciple who is in way over his head, and he's pretty comfortable saying so. He has a hard time buying what Jesus is doing. He has a famously hard time accepting that Jesus has actually risen from the dead. And even when he's on board with Jesus' march into Jerusalem for his crucifixion, he says (in something that comes across like a cynical, cavalier tone), "Let us go too that we may die with Jesus." (John 11:16, CEB) That sounds a lot like Clint Barton - brave on his own sarcastic terms.