Monday, August 01, 2011

Sermon: "The Religion of the X-Men" (Delivered 7-31-11)

Good morning and welcome to this place. At first appearance, you may think that you have arrived at the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church. That is actually an illusion. This morning you have actually come to a mansion on an estate in Westchester, New York. Welcome to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters serving the educational, developmental, social, and vocational needs of mutants.

You are welcome here as the person you truly are, no matter your race or ethnicity, your gender or sexual orientation, your beliefs or your doubts. You are welcome here no matter your superpowers of levitation or teleportation, your ability to breathe underwater or sprout wings and fly.

Join us as we invite every person into caring community, inspire spiritual growth, and involve everyone in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world. And, join us as we foil villainous masterminds who plot to destroy the world.

If this is your first time visiting us this morning, we hope you stopped by the visitor table in the foyer to pick up an information packet, fill out an information sheet so that we can contact you, and put on a nametag, because not all of us possess telepathic mindreading powers. Also, at the visitor table you can get measured for your spandex body suit and cape.

Call to Worship
Mutatis Mutandis. It is a Latin phrase that is not nearly as interesting as it sounds. The phrase literally means “by changing those things which need to be changed,” or, more commonly, “all necessary changes being made.” And, while the phrase mutatis mutandis may sound exotic, its uses are actually pretty boring. The Latin phrase is used in legal documents and in philosophical and economic writing to signal that what applies to one set of things also applies to another set of things. Yawn!

Mutatis Mutandis is also the motto of a special school for young mutants in the X-Men comic books. Here the term’s meaning is not boring or legalistic or procedural. It is ambitious, noble, even heroic. What a noble calling: to live in such a way so as to change those things that need to be changed.

We gather in community to recommit ourselves to such a purpose, to the changing of things that require change. We come together, each of us holding onto things within us we would wish to change, to release, to let go of. We come together with the injustices of the world weighing heavily upon us, with awareness of the world’s pain heavy upon our conscience. We seek the courage and the encouragement to continue to live in such a way that we do our part to change what needs to be changed, envisioning the world not as it is, but as it might be. To paraphrase reading #453 in our hymnal [which lists as its source the Passover Haggadah?!]:
Together, let us use our powers, ordinary and extraordinary,
to heal and not to harm,
to help and not to hinder,
to bless and not to curse,
and to serve the causes of goodness, justice, and mercy.

One of the blockbuster movies of the summer of 2000 was the first X-Men movie. I didn’t plan to see it. I do have a soft-spot in my heart for the bombastic thrills of action movies, but I’d never been a big fan of superheroes. As a boy I collected baseball cards, not comic books.

What inspired me to go see the first X-Men movie more than a decade ago, and to see each of the four subsequent movies in the series, was a review of the movie that ran in Dallas’ LGBT-friendly newspaper. (You see, I found myself in the heart of Texas and the arts and culture recommendations in the gay paper appealed to me a lot more than the rodeos, livestock shows, and country music concerts I read about in the “straight” paper.) The reviewer wrote that The X-Men was a not-so-thinly veiled allegory for the gay and lesbian experience.

And, the reviewer was right. The world of the X-Men is a world populated by souls searching for a safe and understanding community on account of persecution from a hostile populace and demagogues who would score cheap political points by making them scapegoats. In the world of the X-Men, the public is panicked over the presence of mutants. Beginning at a young age, many of these mutants go to elaborate lengths to conceal their identities in order to pass in the world. Many live double lives and fear being “outed.” Most mutants feel a little bit different during childhood, and those feelings are magnified during teenage years when they tend to feel alone and like no one can possibly understand them. Scientists attempt to locate the genetic basis of mutation and argue about whether there is a “cure.” Meanwhile, mutant pride groups insist that mutation is natural and beautiful. In one of the later movies, there is even a teenager breaking the news that he is, in fact, a mutant while his parents sit uncomfortably on the family sofa searching awkwardly for words. Finally, the mom turns to him and asks, “Well, can’t you decide not to be a mutant?” [See the endnote on Superpowers and Sexuality at the end of this sermon.]

The X-Men were the creation of two young comic book writers from New York named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Respectively, their birth names were Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg and they were the sons of Jewish Eastern European immigrants. The first X-Men comic books were written by Lee and Kirby nearly fifty years ago at just about the same time as the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists in the early 1960s. Lee wrote of his comic book creations, “Mutants have an extra power, extra ability, some extra facet or quality denied a normal man. The word ‘extra’ was the key. Mutants are, in a sense, people with something extra… And a man with something x-tra could conceivably be called an x-man!” [As quoted in The Serpent’s Gift by Jeffrey Kripal, p. 126]

In the comic book series and various spin-offs you can encounter hundreds of mutants. Some have fairly basic superpowers: the ability to fly, super-strength, extraordinary speed, the ability to control water or wind or turn something into ice, the ability to shoot powerful lasers from one’s eyeballs. Other skills are more nuanced. Mystique, a female mutant, can mimic anyone’s outward appearance, but in her own natural state she's covered with repulsive reptilian scales. Rogue’s superpower takes the form of radical empathy; she absorbs the memories of anyone she touches. However, this proves so traumatic that she goes to great lengths to avoid touching anyone. And then there is a young male mutant, Banshee, whose superpower is the ability to emit a destructive, deafening scream.

In Stan Lee’s imagination, these extra abilities are a result of genetically-based evolutionary mutations. “The evolutionary mutation… is at once an astonishing gift and a social curse – the uncanny power… sets one apart from the rest of the crowd.” [Kripal, p. 127] In the mythology of the X-Men there are two competing philosophies represented by two powerful leaders. One of those leaders is Professor Xavier who possesses the mutant ability of telepathy. He can read other people’s minds and can even control other people’s minds with his own. Professor X believes that mutants and non-mutants will eventually live in harmony and he creates a special school for young mutants, “safely hidden from the gaze of the public,” [Kripal, p. 126] in which they can not only master their mutant skills, but also develop emotionally, socially, and morally.

A competing philosophy is represented by Xavier’s arch-nemesis Magneto. Magneto’s mutant ability involves being able to control metal magnetically. He can change the trajectory of a bullet, cause metal objects to levitate or hurl them through the air, and can even hold up a locomotive with his magnetism. Magneto’s character is Jewish. As a child he witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of the Nazis during the occupation of Poland. From this Magneto took away the lesson that people are hardwired to try to annihilate those who are different. Magneto sees the world as a place that is fundamentally hostile to difference. For him, it is better to eliminate others before they have the chance to eliminate you.

Magneto endeavors to destroy the non-mutant supermajority of humankind as a means of self-protection. For Professor Xavier, difference and diversity are marvels. They deserve to be celebrated for they are evidence of the very miracle of life. For Magneto, difference and diversity are the root cause of suffering. Difference needs to be abolished before it destroys us.

I’m not going to spend this entire sermon rehashing the various and complicated plot-lines of the X-Men comic books. I do however want to say a little something about how these characters and mythologies might relate to us and speak to us.

As the reviewer in Dallas’ lesbian and gay community newspaper noted, the X-Men movies of the 21st century play on themes of inclusion and exclusion. In contemporary society we find forces of acceptance and forces of hostility directed towards homosexuals. For Stan Lee in the early 1960s, the comic books’ subtext touched on not only anti-Semitism, but also racism and sexism. The X-Men are remarkably egalitarian when compared to any organization or club you can imagine in the early Sixties.

The X-Men can be read as autobiography, as the memoirs of Jewish boys coming of age in New York during the Great Depression, with the obvious embellishments of spandex and superpowers. The competing philosophies of Professor Xavier and Magneto are really two sides of a psychological coin having to do with identity formation and social acceptance. There is pride and shame, the idea of being chosen and the awareness of being oppressed. There is the secret knowledge of one’s own cultural heritage with its language and learning, its rites and rituals, its history and mythology, and there is the awareness that all of those things make you not only special but also “other.”

I would be willing to bet that most everyone here has, at some point in their life or another, felt a bit like a mutant. Maybe, for you, it was a long time ago, like when you were going through the pangs of awkward adolescence. Or, maybe it is during your family reunion and you wonder about the extent that you share a genetic match. (You know, humans and chimps share 98.4% identical genetic material. And you look at your relatives and think, “Oh, it has to be less than that.”) Or maybe you feel like a mutant in your own neighborhood. Or when you try to explain that you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or when you share your political and social views or your lifestyle choices. A member of our church recently remarked that she might as well have a third eye situated in the center of her forehead. The “miscomprehension of family, friends, or society in general” [Kripal, p. 132] can be devastating.

I decided to attempt to preach on the X-Men when in the course of a weekend in June I went to go see the fifth X-Men movie and I read a book entitled The Serpent’s Gift by leading scholar of religion Jeffrey Kripal, whom I had the pleasure of studying under as a graduate student at Harvard. One chapter, “Mutant Marvels,” describes parallels between scholars of religion and the mutant gnostic superhero. Later this fall, Kripal will release another book, Mutants and Mystics, that continues to explore these themes. He is a challenging, exhilarating, and unconventional scholar.

If you will allow me to geek out for a few moments on academic religious theory, there are two ideas in Kripal’s academic work that we might want to consider. The first point to consider is the idea that neither the superhero of popular culture nor the supernatural within religious mythology is entirely fictional. Rather, they are fantastical exaggerations of what is true. Or, to put it more plainly, we might doubt as to whether Jesus could cure leprosy or heal blindness with his touch. But, we can surely imagine Jesus repairing a person’s psyche, healing the spirit, and leaving a person feeling, well, healed. Not a lie, but an exaggeration that points to something true. Jesus would fit right in among the other mutant superheroes.

Kripal would say that the superheroes of Marvel Comics are also fantastical exaggerations. He’s right; I’ve met these superheroes. I’ve met Mystique, always altering her outward appearance in order to please, while inside feeling malformed and shapeless. I’ve encountered Rogue in the shape of several women and men whose depth of empathy leads them to carry deep reservoirs of pain and memory within them. And, I’ve met dozens of Banshees, whose deafening primal screams push away and offend.

Kripal’s first point that I want for us to consider: superheroes are real. It is just that when their stories get written down, the truth is exaggerated and mythologized. Kripal’s second point is a lot more dangerous. He is speaking to scholars of religion, but I would actually suggest that he might say the same thing to us. Could it be that living an authentic religious life means embracing our inner mutants, accepting and realizing the potential of the “dreams and strange gifts that [we ourselves] do not quite understand and cannot quite accept”? [Kripal, p. 133]

Which leads me to ask, what superpowers and mutant abilities are present within this room, within this congregation? And, an even more interesting question: If we can imagine that this church community is something like Professor Xavier’s mutant academy, what role do we play in the development of special abilities and in the instilling of heroic purpose in our members? What powers are here and how do we best develop them?

Now, I am not a mind reader. I possess no X-ray vision. For all I know, some of you may be wearing capes and bright colored spandex under your clothing. I do not know your alter ego. What superpowers and uncanny mutant abilities do we have in this room?

If you stumble looking for an answer, I would ask you to examine this question: Do you ever feel like some kind of mutant? Do you ever feel like you might as well have a third eye in the middle of your forehead?

Allow me to suggest a hypothesis. My hypothesis is that we feel like mutants, that we feel like we have a third eye in the middle of our foreheads, when we perceive the world in ways that are deemed abnormal or strange. That’s what it is about, right? After all, what is a third eye or a sixth sense but an unusual means of perception? I would even go beyond perceiving. Perceiving things differently can get you labeled as a mutant. Being in relationship with the world in ways that break cultural taboos will definitely get you labeled as mutant. Perception and relationship.

You may speak an unfamiliar mutant language. It could be the language of science, or computer code, or poetry, or heretical theology. You may have mutant vision, seeing beyond the normal horizons of eyesight. You may see the world through the lens of another cultural tradition causing you to look critically upon your own unquestioned culture. You may keep company with people whose perspectives are often marginalized. Mutants perceive what is not normally perceived, sense what is normally not sensed. Accordingly they possess a special knowledge, a knowledge that makes them dangerous and feared and despised.

All superpowers are really extra abilities, abilities that allow us to reach beyond, to connect: In the superhero comics much of that reaching beyond is spatial. A superhero can tunnel under the earth, fly into space, jump over buildings, or run extremely fast. Some of that reaching is natural, to reach out and commune with molecules and minerals, with animals and atoms, or even with the earth itself. Some of that reaching is psychological: mind readers, telepaths, empathic readers of dreams and desires. Some of that reaching is intellectual, or even radically emotional, a reaching into the depths of rage or desire or hope.

We might consider, then, that one of the superheroes at the height of the pantheon of superheroes exhibits some strong Unitarian Universalist tendencies. I am, referring to the master spinner of webs, Spider Man, whose power lies in reminding us of our connection to an interdependent and interconnected web. When your Spidey Sense is tingling, spin that interconnected web.

Endnote on Superpowers and Sexuality
I began this sermon above by making reference to an piece of writing that read the mythology of the X-Men as an allegory for the experience of the LGBT community in contemporary America. To be fair, superhero comic books make reference not only to homoerotic sexual energies, but to all sexual energies. Kripal argues,
In order to understand properly the hero motif in world mythology, and in American mythology in particular, we must be willing to mythologize sexuality as an originary expression of a kind of mystical humanism and recognize that hidden within human sexuality lie real “secret identities” and “superpowers” that continue to sublimate and morph throughout the life cycle into multiple forms of consciousness and energy as wild and various as any superhero team... Hence Dr. Kavita Rao’s rather matter-of-fact observation in a recent issue of Astonishing X-Men that “[a] child’s mutant power usually manifests at puberty.” My point exactly. What is x-tra is the seXual. [Kripal, p. 136]
Historical “decency” campaigns that have claimed that comic books have a corrupting influence on the young have frequently made reference to the erotic encoded within comic books. If you don’t believe me, watch this short clip from the first Spider Man movie. Or, read this scene from the screenplay, in which Peter Parker has sequestered himself alone in his bedroom:
Two empty glass bottles stand on a bookcase on the far side of Peter's bedroom. SPLAT! A web strand fires toward them, misses by a mile.

Peter, sitting on the opposite side of the room, frowns and tries again. SPLAT! Another wild miss. He looks down at his wrists, thinking.


Aunt May at his door with a bunch of laundry. She knocks.

Peter? What's going on there?

(opens door a crack, peeks out)
Exercising... not dressed, Aunt May.

Well, don't catch a cold.


He closes the door revealing the room is full of webs.