Jeffrey Kripal on Superhero Spirituality

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doctor strange

This week upcoming Beams is going to have something of a mini-theme week on superheroes. Tomorrow Br. TJ publishes a piece on the proliferation of reboots of superhero storylines (with a cool tie-in to ancient Greek tragedies). On Wednesday I publish a piece looking at the theology of redemption in the recent Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy (a followup to my earlier piece on Batman as master shadow worker). 

The topic of superhero spirituality is gaining steam. TJ has already discussed Deepak Chopra's recent book on superhero spirituality.I'm currently reading Jeffrey Kripal's recent book Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Supernatural. Kripal is to my mind the best scholar on religion and spirituality around. What makes him so unique is that he actually takes the spiritual realm seriously. He actually thinks mystical experiences and the like give us some valuable insight into the process of life.

The thesis of Mutants and Mystics is that writers of comic books have themselves often been influenced by spiritual experiences. The comic books embed (even if in exaggerated ways) actual spiritual truths. I've written along these lines when I discussed how fairy tales embed shamanic consicousness (and sometimes even practices). Comic books are in many ways are contemporary fairy tales and therfore not surprisingly hold similar themes. The book is brilliant. You can read an excerpt of it here. 

Kripal writes (page 3 in the excerpt):

There is also the deeper historical fact that the idea of a superhuman is finally an ancient religious trope, not a political, American, or even especially Western one. Indeed, we could easily trace the notion back to what many believe to be the "first" and most primordial figure of the history of religions: the shaman. The shaman's mystical calling through an initiatory crisis, often around puberty (mental illness, anomalous sexuality, near-death experience via visionary dismemberment or descent into the underworld, lightning strike), and subsequent magical powers (clairvoyance, soul flight, luminous energies, the acquisition of animal languages, magical battle with demons and black magicians) look a lot like our modern superhero myths.

i am number four

I was thinking of Kripal's thesis the other night as I watched I Am Number Four, a film adapted from the novel of the same name. The movie itself isn't the greatest. It's fairly formulaic but decent anyway. But many of the themes Kripal articulates are found well represented in the film.

The film centers around "John Smith", a teenager from the planet Lorien who (along with 8 other teens) have escaped their planet as its inhabitants were being murdered by rapacious bloodthirsty beings called Mogadorians (clear echoes of Superman's origins there). John is Number Four. The Mogadorians are hunting down and killing the Loriens in order. The film begins with the murder of number 3, leaving our hero as next in line. He has a Lorien protector, alias Henri, who assumes the identity of John's father. They flee to Paradise, Ohio (having grown up in Ohio I found this humorous--even the aliens wouldn't expect anybody to live in Ohio! Again notice the Superman theme of hiding out in Midwstern America). 

In the film John begins his senior year in his new high school (in the book apparently he's 15). It's at this point that this superpowers begin to manifest themselves brought on by the emotionally fraught domain of high school: making friends with an outsider kid who gets bullied, then being bullied himself, falling in love with the hot nerdy girl (who just so happens to be the ex-girlfriend of the guy bullying him), and just trying to blend in like everybody else while keeping the fact that he's from another planet secret. In Kripal's book this falls under the label of alienation.

At certain points it's unclear which is worse--the evil Mogadorians who are trying to murder him or high school. One involves being marked out for physical, mental, and emotional pain simply for being different while living under constant fear and the other is the Mogadorians.  

number four

As Kripal notes, the crisis of puberty brings on his shamanic powers. John's powers include the capacity to shoot energy from his hands. The energy comes directly out of his palms. This energy can take the form of a beam or a kind of force-field (the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics). He also has incredible powers of strength, speed, and agility. The Lorien's call these special powers 'legacies'. In the religious traditions of the East these are called siddhis

His protector Henri then begins to mentor John in the proper use of his powers (he will need them to defeat The Mogadorians). One of the key points Henri stresss is his intention. He simply has to intend for the energy to flow and it will. This gives John a capacity to control turning his powers off and on. 

Now I want to bring this back to Kripal's thesis that superheros (as shamans and mystics) are hiding certain clues about our own potential spiritual growth and capacities in this life. The notion that energy comes out from the palms through the act of intention, after one has been initiated, is very common in energy healing traditions. I practice Reiki so this is the only energy system I can speak with authority to (but I have seen similar processes in other energy systems).


This pattern is precisely what I have experienced. First I was initiated-- in Reiki this is called attuning where one person who already functions as a channel for the Reiki passes energy onto the student, opening up his/her channels to the energy. This attunement occurs through the laying on of hands and usually with certain breathing rituals--exactly like when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples after his Resurrection (Gospel of John Chapter 20, verse 22).  

After having been attuned, I now intend to be a channel for the Reiki energy and then it flows through my palms, just like it does for John (as well as Doctor Strange, see image at the top of the page). Now of course I don't see beams of blue light fire out that blow up giant holes through walls and kill bad guys and what not. But I think this does verify Kripal's notion that the superheroes have this hidden element that's really about our own spiritual development. It's just one example--his book is brilliantly filled with many of them.

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