Until a few years ago, I hid a shameful secret. I read comic books. Oh, sure, when found out by others I would try to ennoble my guilty pleasure by calling them “graphic novels,” but the honest truth is I love immersing myself in the Marvel and DC universes whenever I can. The reason I am no longer secretive or ashamed is simple: I am not alone. I have been amazed to find out that a large number of clergy and laity leaders in our church are comic book nerds JUST LIKE ME! For many church leaders, Spider-Man, Batman, Wolverine, Spawn, and Wonder Woman provide as much inspiration (if not more) than Wesley, Borg, Wright, and Warren. (Though some seem to think that Rick Warren wears tights, a cape, and can fly…)
At a gathering of young pastors in 2005, I asked over 100 men and women under the age of thirty about their leisure pursuits. Not surprisingly, almost everyone named listening to music as a leisure pursuit, but what I found interesting was the number of pastors who read comics, science fiction, and fantasy (and watch films of the same types). Better than 8-out-of-10 read some form of comic/graphic novel on a regular basis. When I shared this information with a district clergy gathering (of mainly 50+ year-olds) I was surprised to find that about 60% of that crowd indulged in comics or fantasy. Add in the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomena and the number goes even higher. It is surreal to sit at table with a bunch of fellow-greying haired contemporaries talking about Green Lantern, the X-Men, Daredevil and Hellboy. Even darker titles like Preacher, 100 Bullets, Y: The Last Man, and The Walking Dead have a solid audience in religious leaders circles. Like me, most of the other pastors — both male and female — I have spoken with keep comic reading to themselves as a “dirty little secret.” “I would literally die of shame,” shared one woman, “if my parishioners knew I read comics.”
It is amazing how embarrassed we adults are to be engaged in pursuits generally associated with children, however, comics are not the sweet, innocent fare they were forty years ago. The Joker is not a mischief maker, but a homicidal maniac. Bullets don’t just bounce away with a “ping,” but actually kill and maim. Some heroes have no compunction about taking life. There is a serious dark side to today’s “funny books.”
So, what’s the appeal? Why is there an apparent draw for people of the cloth to heroes of the pulp? Why should spiritual and theological leaders waste time reading “junk?” (As my beloved mother used to say…) After a dozen or so conversations, here’s my Top Ten Reasons Pastors Like Comic Books:
10. They’re quick and easy — in a culture that reads less and less, pastors can finish a whole book in a night — beginning, middle, and end.
9. They’re simple — in a world of complexity — including the multi-layered ambiguities of religious faith — comics hold a basic, linear, dichotomous message. Everything is neat and tidy and can be resolved in 20 pages.
8. They’re contained — the world of a comic book has fairly clear and distinct boundaries. The morality — even when it is fundamentally corrupt — is easy to grasp and accept or reject. Crisp, bold lines separate panels; word balloons keep dialogue clear and concise. Would that we could have such order in our daily lives.
7. They’re colorful — there are very few drab comics (except for the black and white ones, and even that is used to graphic advantage). Colorful people in colorful situations making colorful decisions that always produce dramatic (colorful) results.
6. Super-villains — be honest, there is a Joker, a Doctor Octopus, a Magneto, a Doomsday, a Green Goblin, or a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in your congregation. Pastors often discover they have arch-enemies. Now, if we could only learn to have a few more super-hero team-ups we would all be a bit better off.
5. Secret identities — many pastors feel like they are two people; at home — normal guy, but at church? Super-Pastor! Robes are like costumes, stoles like capes, the Book of Discipline our equivalent of Captain America’s shield. Many of us often think, “If people really knew who I REALLY am…”
4. A deep desire for special powers — any pastor who sits in committee meetings and denies wishing for the power to speed up time is a liar. Many parishioners expect superpowers, pastors naturally wish they had them. (Watch the video at the end of this post.)
3. There is always hope — it does not matter how bad things look, there is always a way out. Perseverance, patience, self-control, faith, and trust lay a foundation upon which every solution might be built. Heroes never give up.
2. Death is an illusion — they killed Superman, but he came back. They killed Captain America, but he came back. Daredevil’s girlfriend? Back. The Flash? Back. They’re in the process of killing Batman and Dr. Strange, but don’t worry. In comic book world, resurrection is normal… just like in Christian world. Death cannot defeat a real hero.
1. Good is good and evil is evil, and ultimately good always wins — no matter how great the challenge, the good guys triumph. The deep desire of most pastors for a just, fair, and logical world is fed by the simplistic good over evil message of most comics and fantasy novels.
As escape, comics still provide an excellent option. When the “real world” calls into question the power of good over evil, it is nice to have an alternative where you can always count on the good guys. And in the end, pastors just want to feel like “good guys,” even when they can’t be heroes.
- Green Lantern
Be honest fellow nerds — who are your favorites?
And just for fun: for those of you who feel like you are expected to be “Super-Pastor”: