From Star Wars to Superman: An Interview with James Papandrea
Today, Jared Zimmerer sits down with James Papandrea, the author of a new book entitled, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films, in which he points out the Christ haunted nature of numerous films and the incredibly apt nature of the genre to portray a certain Christology.
Jared: Reading through the many figures you discuss in From Star Wars to Superman, it is very clear that you have a love for science fiction. Where did that passion originate?
James: I did read comic books as a kid, though I gravitated more toward the superhero stories when they were made for TV or the big screen. I think I really fell in love with sci-fi when I discovered Star Trek (the original series). By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, I was hooked. Now I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek series. I had also read a lot of books by H.G. Wells, and was really struck by The Time Machine, and then the whole concept of time travel became a fascination for me. Then in college I discovered Doctor Who, and that seemed to be this perfect combination of everything: science fiction, time travel, and he’s a bit of a superhero. So this book is a labor of love, but it’s also a critique, in which I pull no punches. I’m not simply looking for parallels to the gospel in these stories, but I’m analyzing the characters that are presented as Christ-figures, and comparing them to the real Christ, to see how they measure up.
Jared: You make the case that science fiction trades in the mystical through its use of mythology and esoteric religious symbols. What might you consider the strengths and weakness of sci-fi in regard to exploring the metaphysical?
James: To begin with the weaknesses, I think often science fiction is much too optimistic about humanity and human nature. If the twentieth century taught us anything, it should be that we humans are not evolving toward perfection – we are not progressing toward utopia – but in fact it could be argued that we are moving in the opposite direction. And yet, many sci-fi stories present an overly optimistic worldview in which technology is the answer to everything. (To be fair, other sci-fi stories speculate on the dangers of science gone too far.) But that humanistic optimism often sends the message that the only savior we really need is ourselves.
On the positive side, science fiction is never only about science and futuristic technology. It’s about the big questions, like what it means to be human, what it means to be free and have free will, and what it means to be morally responsible for our actions. To the extent that science fiction generates discussion about these issues, it can actually be a tool of evangelization. Not because sci-fi writers all want to promote the gospel, but because informed Catholics and other Christians can use the discussion to bring conversations around to talking about what it means to be spiritual and be in relationship with God and others according to the teachings of Jesus and the Church.
Jared: In large part your book explores the inherent Christology within the genre, would you state that the Christology is of good quality and how might one train their eyes to discover the Christology within story?
James: Christology is how we answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” And most hero stories offer up a “savior” who is some version of a Christ-figure. What I’m looking at in this book is how the writers and creators of these shows would answer Jesus’ question about their own heroes. So, in terms of the quality of christology that we find in these stories, it’s all over the map. Many times we are presented with stories that teach a version of christology and salvation that would mislead us if we took it as truth. And that’s really what the book is about - knowing what to look for in these stories so that you can go in with your eyes open and not simply enjoy, but also analyze and critique these stories – taking them to task for their bad theology when appropriate. So for each of the sci-fi characters or superheroes that I analyze, I’m looking at them as parallels to Christ, and comparing them to the real Christ. Some of them turn out to be pretty good analogies for the real Jesus Christ, and others are more like the ancient Christological heresies. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, and today’s speculation about what a savior might be like often ends up just repackaging the heresies from the early Church.
Jared: You state that within sci-fi there might also be examples of a particularly anti-religious bent, yet the stories still contain a sense of Christology, why is that and how might an evangelist better trade in understanding the religiosity within the genre in order to discuss with others the ways that Christ is inherent in these stories regardless of the authors intent?
James: Yes, many sci-fi and fantasy writers seem to have an agenda, which is not consistent with a Judeo-Christian worldview. For example, in the Star Trek universe, we see a vision of humanity in which the planet Earth has progressed to a utopia where there is no more war, and no more poverty, but there is also no more religion. The underlying message here is that human progress means outgrowing religious faith, based on an assumption that religion holds us back from realizing our potential. In the very humanistic worldview of Star Trek, humanity is its own highest authority, and science is the ultimate interpreter of truth. This is a very different view of salvation from the Christian understanding – this is a salvation by enlightenment, not by divine intervention – and it tries to teach its audience that they don’t really need God.
And yet, I believe that since we are made in the image of God, our psyches are hardwired to be receptive to the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh. And so the themes of incarnation, self-sacrifice, as well as death and resurrection keep recurring in the stories we write and in our media and popular culture – even when the creators of these stories are not believers, or are antagonistic toward the faith. Sometimes this is subconscious, and other times it’s more intentional, depending on the author. But sci-fi writers who are not Christian still know the emotional impact that Christian images and symbols have on audiences, and so they appropriate this symbolism for its ability to connect with audiences, even though they may only consider Christianity as one mythological option among many from which to draw their imagery.
My advice to someone who wants to use this kind of discussion for evangelization is to do what the Church fathers did – teach about the real Christ by exposing the false christs; understand who Christ IS by ruling out what he is NOT. For example, one of the most important things we know about Jesus Christ is that he has two natures: divine and human. When we look at fictional characters as analogies for Christ, we can ask whether they have something parallel to the two natures of Christ. A hero like Batman (a mere man who elevates himself to hero status) has the human element, but no “divine” element. He is really an analogy for what we call a christology of “ascent” – he starts out low and is raised up to become a hero. This is classic Arianism, the very heresy that prompted the writing of the Nicene Creed. On the other hand, a hero like Superman starts out “above” humanity and “comes down” to live among us, so he does have something close to two natures (a Kryptonian nature and a human nature). And so he’s a closer parallel to the Christ we know because he embodies what we call a christology of “descent” – he starts out as more than we are, and descends to become one of us.
Jared: There are numerous examples throughout the book, but I have to ask, which one is your favorite and why?
James: It’s very hard to come up with a favorite. And I have to say that even though I love most of these shows and films, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m endorsing them for a Catholic/Christian audience or for all ages. Having said that, I suppose my favorite film has to be The Fifth Element (hint: Bruce Willis is not the Christ-figure), but this film is not for the kids. A close second would be the most recent version of The Time Machine. But as far as characters go, it has to be the Doctor (of Doctor Who). As I’m writing this, I’m aware of the fact that some of my favorites are the ones that come closest to being analogies for an orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ, and so I think that’s a big part of why I like them. These are the stories, and the analogies for the incarnation, that can actually help us get to know the real Christ better.