March 23, 2009
Just a few years after the start of [St.] Francis's order, on March 18, 1212, the seeds of another order germinated, this time in a young woman. On that brisk Italian night eighteen-year-old Clare Offreduccio snuck out of her Assisian home for a clandestine meeting. This was not a rebellious teenager stealing away under cover of dark in order to engage in some kind of silly prank or passionate interlude with a young man. On that destiny-forging Palm Sunday evening, Francis wed Clare to Jesus Christ and to a life of voluntary poverty.
The preaching of Francis was a magnet for idealists regardless of gender. Thomas of Celano, the first biographer for Francis, describes Clare as "young in age, mature in spirit, steadfast in purpose and most eager in her desire for divine love, endowed with wisdom and excelling in humility, bright in name, more brilliant in life, most brilliant in character." For years the beautiful but fiercely independent Clare had spurned the machinations of her very wealthy family to marry her off. There were certainly rich and handsome suitors who would have gladly solved the family problem of Clare's singleness. To be a wealthy fifteen-year-old girl and unwed was strange in Clare's day; to be eighteen and single was a downright embarrassment, making it appear that something was wrong with her or the family. And her younger sisters wouldn't be able to marry unless Clare did so first. Rumors spread and the pressure to marry increased.
On that Sunday evening when Clare knelt to pledge herself to the Franciscan ideal, Francis cut her hair, shaving the crown of her head (a practice of the monastic orders that perhaps harkens back to the Nazirite vow), and then covered her head with a veil. Dressed in sackcloth, she was whisked away to a Benedictine nunnery, as it would have been out of the question for her to live with the dozen or so brothers holed up with Francis. The next day the family patriarchs, learning of Clare's folly, raided the Benedictine house to "rescue" Clare from her impulsive decision and delusion under the teachings of a madman. But Clare was neither impulsive nor deluded. She pulled off her veil, revealing the tonsure cut into her hair, and claimed the refuge the church afforded those who would make such a pledge.
The excitement of a family kidnap attempt was not the Benedictine sisters' cup of tea. They asked Francis to do something else with Clare besides foist her and the unwanted attention that came with her onto their community. Since the brothers were now living at Saint Mary's, Francis moved Clare into an addition he had made to San Damiano, and she spent the next forty-one years living as austerely as the brothers. She opened the floodgates for young women and was soon joined by her fifteen-year-old sister, Catherine, and eventually by her own widowed mother. Although Clare was expected to live the single life in keeping with medieval norms that associated celibacy with the clergy, she held the conviction that following Jesus is sweeter than yielding to the social pressure to marry at all costs. Writing to Agnes of Prague, daughter to the king of Bohemia, Clare addresses Agnes's decision to refuse marriage to Emperor Frederick II and join the Poor Clares: "You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Emperor with splendor befitting you and His Excellency. You have rejected these things and have chosen with your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution. Thus, you took a spouse of a more noble lineage."
Within twenty-five years Clare drew fifty other women to the Franciscan life, and just hours before her death she received papal approval for the rule she had written for her community, thereby becoming the first woman to define a rule of life for a community of women. Many men, bishops and popes included, tried to dissuade Clare from the strict rule of absolute poverty that governed the lives of the sisters, but she stubbornly refused to live in any other way. If poverty was good enough for the Son of God, it was good enough for them.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:07 AM
March 19, 2009
St. Macrina the Younger (AD 330-390)
To continue our celebration of Christian women throughout history, we've chosen someone many people have never heard of: St. Macrina the Younger. Despite her relative obscurity, she greatly influenced people who helped to shape the course of Christian history and theology. We've included a very brief introduction to Macrina, followed by her deathbed prayer. All of the quotations, including the prayer recorded by Gregory of Nyssa (with many other sources), can be found online at the Medieval Sourcebook: www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.html#life.
Macrina the Younger is the little-known elder sister of two of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. When she was twelve years old, she was, at her father's discretion, betrothed to a man who died before they could be married. Upon his death, Macrina considered herself to be a widow, vowed to remain a virgin and refused to marry. Instead, she spent much of her life as a devoted helper to her mother in the raising of her many brothers and sisters. Some time after her father's death, and "when the cares of bringing up a family and the anxieties of their education and settling in life had come to an end," Macrina persuaded her mother to join her in a life of asceticism and poverty, serving and living with the poor. Over time, they established a community of like-minded women which became a monastery that included both male and female adherents. After her mother's death, Macrina assumed oversight of the women of the order.
Due to her excellent spiritual education at the hand of her mother, Emmelia, Macrina was highly influential in the religious training of her brothers, especially Peter (later, St. Peter of Sebaste), who was a great help to Macrina and Emmelia in the years after her father's death. Eventually, Peter assisted with oversight of the men of the monastery, was ordained to the priesthood, and later stood with his brothers, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, against the Arians.
St. Macrina the Younger is remembered by several Christian traditions, including Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic, for her humility, piety, chastity and charitable work.
A prayer uttered by Macrina shortly before her death was recorded by Gregory of Nyssa in "Life of Macrina," and is included below.
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Macrina's Dying Prayer
Thou, O Lord, hast freed us from the fear of death. Thou hast made the end of this life the beginning to us o£ true life. Thou for a season restest our bodies in sleep and awakest them again at the last trump. Thou givest our earth, which Thou hast fashioned with Thy hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day Thou wilt take again what Thou hast given, transfiguring with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. Thou hast saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both for our sakes. Thou hast broken the heads of the dragon who had seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedience. Thou hast shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of hell, and brought to nought him who had the power of death--the devil. Thou hast given a sign to those that fear Thee in the symbol of the Holy Cross, to destroy the adversary and save our life. O God eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother's womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth up until now--do Thou give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers. Thou that didst break the flaming sword and didst restore to Paradise the man that was crucified with Thee and implored Thy mercies, remember me, too, in Thy kingdom; because I, too, was crucified with Thee, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of Thee, and of Thy judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from Thy elect. Nor let the slanderer stand against me in the way; nor let my sin be found before Thy eyes, if in anything I have sinned in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our nature. O Thou Who hast power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before Thee when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received into Thy hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before Thee.
Posted by Christa Countryman at 1:29 PM
Helena of Constantinople
We continue our celebration of women from Christian history with Tamara Park--or, more specifically, her profile of Helena of Constantinople, mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, from the book Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem.
I like liberated old ladies. I know a couple of them. They can dole out sage advice, crack random jokes and, if need be, fart in public. It's those liberated old ladies who have lived well and loved generously that can take risks few others dare.
This pilgrimage was inspired by such a lady. Her name is Helena. . . . Helena was the mother of Constantine, the fourth-century emperor (the one with the Arch). Much of Helena's life is left to legend, but what we can piece together is that she was born around 248 C.E. in ancient Bithynia, today's Turkey. While working in a tavern she caught the attention of a Roman soldier, Constantius Chlorus. They became lovers, but as he rose through the ranks of power he moved on from her, leaving Helena a divorcée and single mother in her late thirties.
Fortunately her son did quite well for himself, making emperor and all. Helena is said to have officially embraced Christianity after Constantine's conversion in 312. So at the age of sixty-four she committed to a monotheistic religion, and almost fifteen years later, she became Christianity's first pilgrim from Rome to Jerusalem.
Helena is both a muse and a mystery to me. I envision her heading east on her historic journey looking elegant but wearing durable walking shoes. She insists on managing her luggage on her own, but is slightly scattered getting going. She's wonderfully free-spirited, still able to flirt, and yes, deeply spiritual. She is one of those women who has nothing to prove but loads to say. So to me, she's the quintessential liberated old lady.
Of course, that's simply the vision of her I've constructed. Eusebius, a church historian and contemporary of Helena's, describes the empress as handing out money to the poor, clothes to the naked and justice to the oppressed as she traversed from Rome to Jerusalem. Eusebius also notes that whenever she encountered a church along the way, she couldn't resist stopping to pray.
Helena's legend looms large once she makes it to the Holy Land. The majority of Christian pilgrim sites in Israel today are tied to her pilgrimage, as she scoped out sites attached to the story of Jesus and the early saints. Some places she visited already had a tradition of being sacred; others seem to have been declared holy after she shared a cup of tea with a hospitable local. Helena's biggest claim to fame was her discovery of the cross of Christ. Whether that was a legitimate find or not is debatable, but what is clear is that when she arrived in Jerusalem, it was considered a backwater city that had passed its prime. When she left, it was poised for a thriving pilgrimage industry.
Helena returned to Rome with a trunk full of relics, including a cross. Shortly afterward she died. In Helena's honor, Constantine built churches on many of the holy sites she visited, including the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.
I really don't know what compelled Helena to make the pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem. Eusebius portrays her as driven by religious enthusiasm, while later historians speculate that her pilgrimage was politically motivated. Perhaps she was trying to bolster her son's waning popularity. Constantine had recently made some radical religious reforms, including replacing many political officials with Christian dignitaries and suppressing pagan cult activities. He also made a few relational faux pas, such as murdering his wife, Fausta, and his son, Crispus, the year before Helena's historic journey.
I don't have the inside scoop on the empress's motives. I would like to think that in the mix of Helena's motives was a desire to see if this religion she converted to late in life was any different than the cults she grew up with--that ultimately her fourteen-hundred-mile trek from Rome to Jerusalem was a quest for truth. But what I take from Eusebius's tiny scrapbook of her life, and from all the holy sites helped along by her pilgrimage, is this: she had courage to go and capacity to savor the journey. On a trip of over a thousand miles she took time to talk to, listen to and respond to people en route. And when she got to the Holy Land, she wanted to go everywhere Jesus had been.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 5:51 AM
March 17, 2009
Julian of Norwich
Who better to launch our celebration of women's history than the endearing Christian mystic Julian of Norwich? Likewise Books had the audacity to claim her as one of our own when we launched our website. Here's what you'll find posted there about Julian; be sure to check out the other like-minded ancestors there too, in the incomplete catalog called "We Too Are Likewise."
The hermit of Norwich was first spotted by a group of anchorite enthusiasts and a tailor peddling soft linens. Her face is said to have appeared suddenly in the window of a modest hut. As no one in the observing party knew the recluse (and as none wanted to sound foolish), they referred to her as Julian--the name of a nearby parish. Julian, they reported, was enjoying a view of an effigy portraying a slender, effeminate-looking saint.
Scholars speculate that perhaps Julian's admiration for this statue and other diminuitive items inspired the first of her sixteen ecstatic visions:
Still others claim that the saintly presence outside her window explains her habit of referring to Jesus as "our Very Mother, Jesus."
Julian's birth mother was known among Norwich locals to be "troubled" on account of Julian's strange behavior as a child. It seems the little girl had a way of disappearing.* Years later, though, Julian's mother found relief in a particular passage of her daughter's book Showings. Reading the small book for the first time, this mother was met with an unforeseeable degree of coolness**:
For more on Julian of Norwich see Bernard McGinn, ed., The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: Modern Library, 2006), pp. 240-42.
*While a mode of disappearance is common in children, there are always a select number of babes that inherit the gift of mystical leaving and are said to go meet with God.
**Books generating pleasant coolness or detachment are rare.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:36 PM
July 3, 2006
Sympathy for the Bad Guy
I like Lex Luthor. I sent him a letter once, along with a copy of my book. I thought he might endorse it. He never wrote me back, but that's OK; Lex Luthor is a busy guy.
Luthor, played on the television show Smallville by Michael Rosenbaum, earned my appreciation in the first season. Here was a character known universally as a villain--the villain in the minds of many--reconceived as a tragic hero, struggling to come out from under his cold, calculated machine of a father's thumb to do right by his friends and his community. I knew that Lex would eventually go bad, but on Smallville Lex won my sympathy.
This summer we meet the fully grown Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. He's a villain again, but maybe he's just getting bad press. After all, he's playing opposite a superhero--the superhero in the minds of many--that some equate with the Messiah.
There's more to Lex than a bald head and a bad attitude; recent storylines in the comics are reconsidering the Superman-Luthor conflict not as muscle-envy or longstanding grudge (the early 80s SuperFriends cartoon suggested that Superman caused Lex to lose his hair) so much as a clash of worldviews. Lex sees humankind, not Superman and not even necessarily himself, as the world's savior.
According to Lex's worldview, Superman is in the way, a pressing problem in humanity's evolution. Superman is not one of us; he's an alien come to Earth by accident, merely pretending to be human. He can't be hurt by men or women or anything natural. He can't even be grounded. He isn't human and thus can't appreciate the human struggle. It takes one to know one, Lex believes, and by extension, it takes one to save one.
Lex reflects as he looks out the window of his helicopter in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel:
It's ironic that Metropolis never looks more magnificent to me than when I see it from his angle. But does he see what I see? Does he see the finest example of what humanity can accomplish, reaching for the sky? . . . Or does he merely look down on it?
He's not the only person to hold this conviction; consider the reflections of David Carradine in Kill Bill, Vol. II:
When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears, the glasses, the business suit, . . . that's the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He's weak, he's unsure of himself... he's a coward. Clark Kent is Superman's critique on the whole human race.
If Bill and Lex aren't authoritative enough for you, orthodox Christianity professes a Savior who was fully human. To presume that a being not fully human could accomplish our salvation is to commit heresy. Superman, of course, is not at all human, and so Superman condemns us even as he saves us.
Score one for Lex Luthor. But where, then, does he turn for salvation? Humankind is its own hope, Lex argues, the source of its own deliverance from its unique crisis: lives of mundane mediocrity. Addressing the entire world in the miniseries Justice, Lex allows that heroes like Superman
may save us all from a giant alien starfish in the middle of the ocean from time to time. But they save us only to send us back to our old lives. Back to our bills, back to our useless jobs, back to our suffering. If they were really the heroes they claim to be, they'd save us from those same lives as well.
The ultimate solution to this fundamental human problem is the actualization of human greatness. "Someone has to change the way this world works. That's what we're about to do. That's what we are inviting you to be a part of." Lex argues that we create hope out of nothing; it's our birthright, our responsibility. Again, in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel: "We were created to create ourselves. . . . Fate was invented by cowards. But destiny is something we hold in our hands."
Lex manifests his worldview for the rest of us. According to the first Superman motion picture, he's the greatest criminal genius of all time. In some continuities he's president of the United States. He's an icon of power and greatness. But how he achieves greatness exposes the flaw in his worldview. His power is consolidated through the methodical manipulation of people and events. He'll even help his greatest enemy on occasion; in issue 123 of Superman he co-opts messianic language: "As always, the question is this: do I gain more from Superman's suffering--or his salvation?"
Behold our "savior" in action, according to the worldview of Lex Luthor. A savior that is not fully human is insufficient, but a savior that is merely human creates a similar problem. The capacity to save is a kind of power, and power, in the hands of mere humans, corrupts. Mere humans cannot save themselves without destroying themselves and others in the process.
So we're left with a paradox: the source of our salvation must be human but cannot be merely human. We need the otherness of a deliverer as much as we need the sameness of a savior. Superman and Lex Luthor alike are not enough. But a God who created us, who took on flesh out of love for us, who is not so distant as to be "unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but . . . has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin"--such a savior would be enough.
May 19, 2006
Y B X?
A very perceptive reader caught a misspelling in my previous post, "R U X or S?" and very graciously alerted me to it privately. I'm now alerting you: paragraph 7, the "y" is mysteriously missing from the second sentence, "Maybe ou've discovered..." My apologies. A blessing on our head, dear reader. Oops--I mean, a blessing on your head.
I'm not nearly done talking about X-3, however. The idea of a cure for mutancy really intrigues me: what if by taking a pill I could stop being something that is core to who I am? It's one thing to take an aspirin to cure a headache: nobody would ever say "It hurts when I think; therefore it hurts when I am." But to consider taking a pill to make me no longer short or left-handed or ridiculously hairy is not so much a cure as it is an existential crisis.
The TV show ER is taking up this issue in the role of Carrie Weaver, the hospital's chief of staff. For nearly ten years she has walked with a limp and used a cane. No running commentary needed; it was refreshing simply to have a central character with a disability. But actress Laura Innes has started to suffer long-term physical problems as a result of walking with a limp unnecessarily. For the sake of her health, she needed to abandon either the disability or the role.
Carrie Weaver was given the option of surgery to correct the limp, but first she had to wrestle with the question that plagues the X-Men in X-3: How much of myself will I lose once I lose this part of me? If I am no longer known by my disability, or my appearance, or some other distinguishing facet of my person, how will I then be known?
And the question didn't go away with the limp. Interestingly, Carrie's first walk through the emergency room without her cane passed without comment from her colleagues. What she thought defined her in the eyes of others turned out to be something much less definitive. Her change only began the process of relearning who she is, in the eyes of others and at the core of herself.
Anyway, don't mind me. I'm just hooked on this idea of what's essential to who we are, and what's merely accidental. No biggie. Go see X-3 and we'll talk more about it.
My thanks to Alex Ness of Pop Thought.com, who's posted even more ramblings from me about this question. Check out the article here.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:49 AM
May 12, 2006
RU X or S?
Two blockbuster films are coming out this summer, films whose release dates are marked in my datebook, films that have already earned my thumbs up, sight-unseen. Both are sequels of a sort; one concludes an ongoing epic, and the other begins a new era for its hero.
If I were writing this in 2005, the two films would be Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith and Batman Begins. But this is 2006, so get ready for X-Men 3 and Superman Returns. Because I'm a comic-book geek and have a lot of youth-pastor friends, I've been asked by a few people to comment on how these two movies could be used with young people. I, of course, want my own spiritual excuse for seeing the movies multiple times, so I decided I'd spiritualize the movies sight-unseen. I can do that--it's my blog.
This summer our heroes will grapple with questions of identity and vocation. I'm inclined to think that X3 will appeal more to junior-high age kids than Superman Returns, but that's good, because X3 involves an identity crisis, and I think of identity as a key crisis of early adolescence.
The crisis in X3 is more existential than anything: a cure for mutancy is discovered. In X2, the distraught mother of the mutant Ice Man begged her son, "Have you tried not being a mutant?" With the latest film, mutants no longer have to try. They can choose to remain super, or they can choose to become normal.
Now when you put it that way, why be normal? If I could fly or couldn't die I'd be happy, believe me. But some mutants are blue, some are furry, some can't touch another person without killing them, and frankly some can't remain a mutant without losing their friends and family. The thing that sets them apart is also the thing that sets them apart.
Early adolescence is in many ways a crisis of identity. Your body changes, your social networks become more complex, you change schools more than once, you start to differentiate from your family, and so on and so forth. So if you're unsettled in your own skin, and you have the chance to redefine yourself, what do you keep and what do you abandon?
Suppose, for that matter, that not everything is on the table: suppose you can change just one little thing about yourself. Maybe ou've discovered that some of your friends think it's weird that you pray before you eat or that you wake up on Sunday to go to church or even that you have a youth pastor. Do you forsake your faith or your friends? Or do you subtly withdraw from both?
In X3 each mutant has to make his or her choice. The choices they make affect not only their own lives, but their relationships and in a very real sense, their society. I liken it to the choice one of Jesus' disciples has to make in his early encounters with Jesus: am I a fisherman, or a follower of Jesus? Am I Simon, or am I Peter? In one sense it's no change at all--I yam what I yam, as Popeye might put it--but in another sense it changes everything.
If X3 is a film about identity, then Superman Returns is a film about vocation, which is a good subject for late adolescence. If you could do anything, what would you do? What wouldn't you do?
Not much has been leaked about this film, but Ain't It Cool News has hinted that Superman's return is an open question. To return will mean to face the consequences of decisions he's already made--rumor has it that he has a son with Lois Lane, but Lois moved on when Superman ran away. So will he return to her and repent for abandoning her? Will he return to his son, who needs guidance that really only he can provide? Not to mention Lex Luthor's threat of global destruction. This world adopted him in his hour of need; will he now, in its hour of need, adopt it?
Superman Returns reminds me of Peter in the courtyard outside Jesus' trial. Jesus had embraced Peter with no discernible benefit to himself; will Peter now embrace Jesus and all the struggle and pain that comes with him? How now shall Peter, shall Superman, shall we live?
Superman's vocation is caught up in his identity--the previews and teasers for Superman Returns have played up the messianic undertones of his back story. Likewise, X3's identity questions have implications for each mutant's vocation--powerless ex-mutants give up the potential that their powers afforded them. That's the skeleton of every hero's story: Who am I? What's happening? How will I respond?
Sounds like a worthwhile exercise for each of us--no matter what age we are, whether we see the movies or not.
Buy my book! It's cheaper than two movie tickets!
December 5, 2005
If I Were King of the Forest
Well, we're a week out from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hitting theaters. Yesterday I got a good, up-close look at some of the merchandising. There was Peter, there was Edmund, there was Aslan--with biting action?
I confess I'm not well-schooled in the Chronicles of Narnia, but I don't usually think of Aslan as biting stuff, although I suppose that's what lions do. I think of Aslan as talking and roaring and motioning and singing the world into existence--none of which are particularly compelling to a toy-buying public. Still, Aslan with biting action is kind of like Jesus with karate-chop action: certainly possible, it nevertheless kind of misses the point.
I was also a bit surprised not to find a Lucy anywhere in the table-top display of Narniastuff. Isn't she the cat's meow, so to speak? But I guess boys don't buy girl action figures.
I shouldn't be too critical--the Narnia movies have to fit into a Disney template, which means in order to earn its keep each Narnia film needs to generate merchandising sales. And if it's going to generate merchandising sales, it's going to have to ruthlessly analyze the market and bend Aslan, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to its purposes. I'm sure that when The Horse and Its Boy hits the theaters, we'll be treated to a Bree action figure that shoots glue out of its hooves. (That one's for free, Disney.) It'll be edutainment.
December 2, 2005
I Don't Know Alaska
Last month I went to Alaska for the first time; technically I've been there before, but only technically. My family crossed a bridge from Canada into a border town, Hyder, just to say we did and to load up on t-shirts.
So technically this was my second trip to Alaska, but my first chance to really see it. I flew in to Anchorage and was met by a friend of mine, who then drove me three hours to our destination, a retreat center outside of Soldotna, the home of Alaska's only Dairy Queen. I wouldn't expect an ice cream shop to be a big draw for people living in "nature's refrigerator," but I'm told that people in Anchorage will make a day of their trip to Dairy Queen. Of course, that day would by necessity involve a lot of driving.
That's OK though, because driving in Alaska is a pleasure. There are mountains and rivers and forests and lakes. There are bald eagles (which I saw) and bears (which I didn't). And oddly enough, though you may be a day's drive from the nearest Dairy Queen, you're never more than a few minutes away from a cup of espresso.
Alaskans refer to the contiguous United States as the "lower 48" and take mild, amused offense at the tendency of map-makers to locate Alaska, for the sake of convenience, off the southern coast of California. If you leave Alaska you're going "outside," which is funny, since during an Alaskan winter the last place you'd want to go is outside.
While in Alaska I ate halibut ("for the halibut"), moose (in a taco--go figure) and reindeer. I'm told that in all likelihood, because our retreat center was a state-registered charity, I probably ate roadkill. None of this seemed too world-shaking for the people I was with, but as an "outsider" I was pretty wigged out. It took a couple of high school girls to help me come to terms with the fact that I was in all probability eating Rudolf for breakfast: "Just call it caribou."
Alaska is as surreal as it is serene, because it has this mystique surrounding it. And the odd thing is that the mystique has to do with just how down-to-earth Alaskans are. People who are pragmatic, people who are neighborly, people who are not alarmed by the appearance of elk--people like that are uncommon to the lower 48. People like that are mysterious, quirky.
We spent the whole weekend talking about superheroes, which made me feel more at home, which I suppose makes me quirky too. Quirky enough, in fact, that one of my favorite jokes depends on Alaska for its punchline (it also depends on you reading it out loud, so don't post a comment until you've heard yourself repeat it):
Q: Did Tennessee what Arkansas?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! That's brilliant!
October 7, 2005
Drawn Out Conversation
A few weeks ago I sat down with Andy Rau of ThinkChristian.net, and we had a delightful conversation about comic books, with a big fat digital recording device capturing the whole thing. He's posted that recording as ThinkChristian's first podcast, which is also, come to think of it, my first podcast. Check it out, and if you're so inclined and have an unusually high number of fingers, feel free to count the "umms" and "uhhs."
August 12, 2005
Back from the Wack
I'm back from the Wizard World: Chicago comic book convention. I've written a report on my experience for Infuze magazine, but I'll give you some quick highlights here.
1. People at a comic book convention much prefer books with pictures to books without pictures. You'd think there was no such thing in the world as a book of straight prose, based on the curious looks I got from people when they started flipping through our books on offer.
2. InterVarsity casts a longer shadow than I would have thought. A LOT of people came by saying either "What's InterVarsity doing here?" or "Glad to see InterVarsity here!" Usually no matter where I go, the more common comment is "What's University Press?" Further evidence that comic book readers are more literate than anybody else in the world.
3. If you're going to be stuck at a table for four days, make friends with the people stuck by you. I don't care how introverted you are, by hour eighteen you will WANT to talk with someone--even the guy in face paint and latex pants. Fortunately my friends Al, Carey and Mark Smith from IVP came to hang out with me at different points during the convention, and I reconnected with some folks I met last year, and I made some new friends in the comic book industry.
This weekend is the Fest for Beatle Fans, which will bring me in contact with a whole different set of obsessed fans. Till next time, then, enjoy your obsessions; I'll be sure to enjoy mine.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:04 PM
August 4, 2005
Get Your Geek On
I'm off to the Wizard World Chicago comic book convention, where I will be serving as chaplain. God help us all. In case you can't quite imagine such an event, here's a picture of the San Diego incarnation.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:14 PM
July 6, 2005
God Bless the Fantastic Four
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: God bless Batman. The film is doing well at the box office and afforded me yet another article opportunity; click here to check out "Everything Silly Is Serious Again."
But one thing I haven't said before is "God bless the Fantastic Four." I'm saying it now though, because it hasn't even opened yet and has already opened the door for me to write an article for Christianity Today online; click here to read "One Fantastic Family."
It's been a nice summer. I got a giant Batman for my birthday, and I continue to meet really nice, really interesting people simply as a consequence of writing about comic books. To quote George Gershwin: "Nice work if you can get it."
June 15, 2005
Batman Begins launches today, and a particularly geeky theater near me opened at midnight last night to let their particularly geeky constituency have first crack at the film. I did a book signing in the lobby and had a great time.
The movie is delicious. I'm so pleased that the Batman filmography has been restored to fighting shape. My first Internet posting ever was to a chat room soon after 1997's Batman & Robin debacle, directed by Joel Schumacher. I've since read Batman Unmasked by Will Brooker, and I'm willing to concede that there's a parallel history of silliness in Batman that provides balance to the hyperseriousness present in the current film.
My preference, however, tilts toward the hyperserious, so I was particularly gratified by this very grim portrait of a city on the eve of judgment day, and the ethical dilemma of how people committed to justice should relate to such a city. I'm reminded of Abraham's negotiation with God over the fate of Sodom, in which justice and mercy are reconciled. The city is a main character in Batman Begins, just as the city has played a significant part in other recent films such as Sin City. I take some heart that filmmakers and moviegoers are willing to show concern not just for individuals but for the fate of whole communities.
I was also gratified by the exploration of how fear interacts with the pursuit of justice. This is the subject of an article I wrote that I hope to see posted soon on Pop Matters. Fear is a running concern in our own culture, so to see it given proper treatment in such a super-cool movie is reason enough to go see it.
I did find some of the action sequences hard to follow, but my biggest complaint is what passes for wisdom teaching in the film. There are moments of profundity, but there are a lot more moments of people thinking they're being profound. Those people may be characters or they may be writers, but the net effect is that the moral lesson being communicated through this film is confused and confusing. There are reasons rooted in the story that we should not trust anything supposedly wise uttered by anyone in this movie. But maybe the point of such moral ambiguity is that Batman himself is an unsettled question: can a city whose moral compass is guarded by a masked vigilante ever truly find redemption?
Thumbs up. Four stars. Whatever.
As a follow-up to my friendship-straining debate with my longtime friend Steve regarding whether Batman Begins can be accurately described as a prequel, I admit defeat. Steve's the movie expert, and though I don't think continuity is too disrupted between this movie and the 1989 Tim Burton release, they don't completely harmonize and thus this movie is far less a prequel than Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Steve, please forgive me!
June 10, 2005
Chicago Book Geeks
Just in case you're interested, this weekend in Chicago is the annual Printer's Row Book Fair. A bunch of publishers, authors, booksellers and book geeks come together and get copies of new books of various stripes. It's free to the public, which is always a nice touch.
This year I'm signing copies of my book at the Borders booth Sunday at 3:00pm. Swing by and get a book--actually you'll probably get a lot of books. Can't beat that with a stick.
If I don't see you, have a great weekend. Maybe I'll see you at the midnight showing of Batman Begins Tuesday night instead . . . [see previous post]
April 4, 2005
All right, all you Alias geeks. I wanted to let you know about an article I wrote for inthefray.com about your little action-adventure show. I paired Sydney Bristow up with my own heroic obsession, Elektra Natchios, to look at the evolution of female action heroes. It was posted yesterday, just in time for the release of the Elektra DVD release. Just for kicks, here's the first line of the article, which should send some of you into immediate histrionics: "Jennifer Garner walks funny."
So, here's my challenge to you: read the article, and if you like it, go to all your little Alias or Elektra chat rooms and tell all your little friends about it. And if they really like it, tell them to go buy my book and save me from the shame of going out of print.
Comments are, once again, welcome. Hope you all had a nice April Fool's Day.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM
March 28, 2005
Desperately Seeking Dissemination
Help! I've written an article about Batman Begins, a guaranteed blockbuster film coming June 17 to a theater blissfully near me. I've written it, of course, as an attempt to hitch my book's wagon to this Clydesdale of a movie, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what publications to approach with the article. I've already approached a couple of online magazines, but I have yet to hear back and I'm not sure they're right for the piece anyway.
That's where you come in. What follows is an excerpt--the end of the article, which is tentatively titled "Everything Silly Is Serious Again"--and I'd love to hear from you what magazines or online forums you think would be game for such an article. The two thousand-some words that precede this excerpt focus on the history of Batman, who's gone through a regularly repeating cycle of serious devolving into silly, then back to serious.
Get the drift? Our comment posting capacity is going to be disabled for a few days, so chew on this for a while: Where would you expect to read an article like this one? What would you expect to learn while you read it? Who do you think would invest the fifteen or so minutes it would take to read it in its entirety? Also, and please be gentle: What's wrong with the part you've already read, and how would you fix it?
Of course, if you know someone who regularly publishes such stuff, feel free to cut and paste and make my case. The draft is fully written, but I wouldn't expect anyone to want to publish it until close to the movie's release.
Thanks for your help! If you can't wait till Friday to comment, shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If I Don’t Laugh I’ll Cry
The genre has clearly learned from Batman’s history. The principle of the dual audience has expanded to a triple audience: the young are courted through animation, merchandising and age-specific stories and formatting; the adult fanatics are honored with surgical misreadings of characters in a variety of formats; and the adult mainstream is guaranteed a laugh with winks of self-referential humor and with storytelling that acknowledges the silliness of simply being human. So, for example, the X-Men are represented in toy stores and on the Cartoon Network, they’re reconceived by postmodern storytelling juggernaut Joss Whedon, and they mock themselves in film with jokes about spandex and code names. Films that fail to acknowledge this triple reading, such as 2004’s The Punisher and 2005’s Elektra, are given negative reviews by fanatics and perform poorly at the box office.
The fact of the matter is, stories about superheroes, much like stories about all of us, can hardly avoid a simultaneous mix of seriousness and silliness. Fundamentally, after all, stories about superheroes are supercharged stories about us. The agony these heroes feel over the wrongs done to them may, from an objective distance, be clearly overdone, but with a sympathetic viewing they can be seen to be true expressions of how people struggle through the life they’ve been given. With a clear head we can laugh at ourselves for the ways that we react to others, for the things we give our hearts to. And yet, we can remove ourselves from our own lives for only so long before we have to deal again with the agony as we experience it. Our pain would be silly if it weren’t so sad.
An author has clearer sight than his characters; he can see the absurdity and the agony all at once. Authors who have over time told Batman’s stories, along with all his contemporaries in the various superhero universes, have chosen to emphasize either silliness or seriousness, but virtually no Batman tragedy is told entirely without humor, and virtually no Batman comedy is told entirely without the subtle weight of pain. We can sympathize with Batman even as we’re tempted to laugh, because life itself is such a subtle mix of tragedy and comedy that we don’t always know whether to laugh or cry. And there—somewhere between the tragedy and the comedy of it all—lies the truth.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:26 AM
March 1, 2005
Leashing the Hero in Us All
A friend of mine is going to become a grandfather for the first time. Moments later, he will become a grandfather for the second time, since his daughter is carrying twins, but that's beside the point. The point is, no matter how good you are with kids or how free you are with your money, becoming a grandparent is a big transition.
Not that I know. I don't have any kids, and becoming a grandparent in your thirties, while not totally out of the realm of possibility, would be a psychological blow to my Peter Pan ego. It was hard enough to be asked at a zip-line tour through the Jamaican rainforest recently if the seventeen-year-old behind me in line was my daughter. I was never more ready to inject Botox into my face.
Again, that's all beside the point. The point, actually, is that since my book came out, people of all ages and backgrounds in my life are reporting to me on the cultural impact of superheroes. We haven't given it to him yet, but my six-month-old nephew will soon be getting a Jamaican t-shirt with a picture of "Spider-Mon" complete with mask and dreadlocks. My friend the soon-to-be grandfather was doing research on grandparenting and found the following reference at a grandparenting website:
"If you hook a dog leash over a ceiling fan, the motor is not strong enough to rotate a 42 pound boy wearing Batman underwear and a superman cape."
The subtitle of my book, "Unleashing the Hero in Us All," finally makes a little sense. My publisher and I haggled back and forth over the perfect subtitle for what seemed like weeks, and we both compromised and settled on the final product after we had run out of energy--not the ideal creative process.
But once again, and predictably, that's all beside the point. The point is, if you want to be a superhero, be sure to practice superheroism responsibly.
I'd be interested in seeing the weird superhero stuff you've come across. Feel free to post it below.
February 18, 2005
What You Talking About, Zimmer-Man?
by David A. Zimmerman
I've entered a new season of life with the publication of my book Comic Book Character: I'm now talking a lot. Not that I wasn't already talking a lot; now, however, people seem to invite it. At least that's how I justify myself at the end of each day of talking.
Not long ago I talked for two and a half hours to a captive audience of middle schoolers who were only mildly interested in comic books and even less interested in punctuation but who nevertheless very graciously indulged my long-windedness. (Case in point: that last sentence was forty words long.) In preparation for the event the kids wrote down questions for me to answer, which I systematically ignored during my presentation. I hereby repent of my neglect and answer the questions that weren't addressed over the course of our vociferous day together.
1. Who Help You Do Your Work.
2. How Do You Make a Book?
3. How Did You Become So Popular? Do You Have Powers? What Kind of Powers Do You Have?
4. Are You Hairy?
I think that's enough questions for now. I'd forgotten what an, um, adventure middle school can be.
December 9, 2004
Superhero Movies I May Have to Make Myself
By David A. Zimmerman
Every one of us has a choice: we can (1) sit on our hands waiting for our dreams to fall into our laps, or (2) go out and make our dreams happen.
Personally, I prefer option 1. Who has time to make all their fantasies into realities? And why should every thought in my head be actualized anyway? I mean, come on, are my thoughts really that substantial?
We live in an age, however, where so much progress is being made that every passing thought, no matter how abstract, has a certain potentiality to it. My house is littered with scraps of paper on which I've written the title to my next treatise or the undiscovered rhyme that will revolutionize popular music or the joke that will kill at our next party. I write these things down so I won't lose them while I'm tending to my household chores--they're too important to let pass.
But some fantasies, no matter how important we make them out to be, will never become reality. Films on the docket for the near future include A-list superheroes--Spider-Man 3, Superman Returns, Batman Begins, X-Men 3, Fantastic 4 (wait a minute--I never saw Fantastic 1-3!)--but nowhere to be found are the films I make up in my head using characters that only people trapped in a high school locker might recognize:
Cloak and Dagger: Two orphans living on the street are kidnapped by drug dealers and exposed to toxins that make one the embodiment of darkness, the other the bearer of light. They're heroes, they're recovering addicts; they're dependent on each other, they exist in complete contradiction to one another.
I have others, believe me. And I'm not alone. I've encountered people who have moved heaven and earth to see such dreams become reality: the guy who sews superhero costumes for himself and his wife every Halloween; the guy who pours money into "previews" of superhero films, such as Grayson, he'd like to see in the theater; the woman who nearly fainted from excitement when she met the guy who created the character she was dressed as.
There's a euphoria that comes with the fulfillment of dreams--even little dreams--that can hardly be matched elsewhere. But not all dreams come true, nor should they. The life I'm living now is not the life of a rock star, a superhero, the president of the United States or a spiritual guru--all of which are lives I've dreamed for myself. The life I'm living now is much more simple than all that: enjoying my friends and family, finding satisfaction in my labors and trusting myself and my future to a good God. It's a good life, and for the most part I didn't do much to make it happen. It pretty much came to me--kind of the way dreams do.
Check out my latest dream come true at www.ivpress.com/zimmer-man.
November 12, 2004
Ramblings of a Rag Doll
The powers that be at InterVarsity Press have decided that the best way to promote my book Comic Book Character is to film me in a spandex body suit. Beyond the awkward pragmatics of such a decision--try getting reimbursed for the purchase of bikini briefs, for example--there's a great deal of existential dread that accompanies you as you open your office door and confront your colleagues wearing clothing that shows off every contour of your body. To quote Bill from the film Kill Bill, "This is me at my most masochistic."
I kept a journal of the experience, posted here for your amusement.
* * *
Today is the day. Today I put on a body suit and prance around like a sideshow freak in front of people for whom I have spent years carefully cultivating an image of cool. Today I get to be an IVP rag doll. Today I get to play the fool.
Not everyone knows what playing the fool is like. Some people only ever play it cool, which is certainly what I've striven for all these years. Nevertheless, I have long experience playing the fool. Someone has to do it, generally, and not everyone has the stomach for it. Eventually you get inoculated to the shame of it, and I'm almost there, but today is my final injection. Look out folly, here I come.
I wish I had written about Dominoes or Scrabble or some other geeky fascination that would require less public humiliation. I wish I had written a book about senators or football players or rock musicians or virtually anything but superheroes. None of them dresses funny--at least, not as a rule. I suppose you might argue that football players look a little silly out of context, but you certainly wouldn't argue that to a football player's face. They'd smash your face on the way to shoving you into a locker. Believe me, I've imagined it. It's not a pleasant experience, and you're permanently scarred thereafter, if not physically then emotionally.
I don't want to be typecast; I just want all the glory and a good lot of the money that publishing a book on a staple of pop culture could conceivably entail. I want the fame and the privilege so I can just sign off and demand the privacy that my celebrity has earned me. But no--I had to bypass Beanie Babies and stand-up comedy and instead write about superheroes, which is why today I get to dress up like a pro wrestler.
I never thought I would actually wear one of these outfits. It fits me like a glove fits a stomach. Yick. I look like a giant red tube-sock. Like Daredevil on a diet of donuts. Like I've let myself go.
Meanwhile, Tony the Super Villain gets to wear jet black and look like a ninja from outer space. Evil is definitely sexier than good. But then, I guess we all knew that, didn't we? Nothing satisfies the gluttonous, subhuman part of us like a sexy little evildoer, like a silver-tongued serpent, like a juicy, poisoned apple. We gravitate toward evil, which is why we need something beyond us to deliver us from it. Which is why we long for heroes--and why ultimately there can be only one Hero.
Which is why I wrote the book, and which is why I'm willing to endure the humiliation that attends to adult treatments of issues that are commonly considered juvenile. To quote REM: "Someone has to take the fall--why not me?"
* * *
If you made it through this week's Strangely Dim without following one of the links I set up in a desperate attempt to divert attention from my ignonimous acting debut, congratulations. Click here to view the video. And send it to all your friends--I might as well make the most of my embarrassment.
Let me know what you think by posting a comment. If you're not on my notification list for new Strangely Dim postings but would like to be, e-mail me at email@example.com.
My book allegedly arrives at IVP next Friday, just hours after I'll have left town for a week and a half. Sigh.
September 30, 2004
Who Needs a Superhero?
By David A. Zimmerman
There’s a group at my place of business who share my fascination with the comic book superhero. This art form captured (and in some cases still captures) our attention; the characters have grown to mean something to each of us. We admired them, we wrapped them in plastic, we played as them in our back yards. No big deal, I suppose, except that we're much more likely to stand around gushing over what superpower we'd most like to have than talk about who in our own, actual reality inspires us.
Why do we more quickly identify with fantasy heroes than with heroes of real life? I think there’s a control issue involved. We know what Batman will do—he will batter the bad guys without pulling a trigger; he will make things right no matter how much of his own blood, sweat, toil and tears he has to sacrifice. In contrast, we never know what to expect from our favorite sports figures, political figures, celebrities and pastors—and we can never with full confidence declare that their exploits will bring about truth, justice and whatever American way might currently inspire us--or, for that matter, that they are really fighting bad guys and not simply victimizing people who don't agree with them.
But perhaps the reason no real-life heroes loom large in our cultural view is because the job description is too difficult to live up to. Winston Churchill’s task was simply stated: Save Europe; protect Western civilization. Buzz Aldrin’s: Walk on the moon. Superheroes have life-sized problems beyond saving the universe--their boss lays them off, perhaps, or their girlfriend is flirting with their cousin. But they still manage to get the job done: they keep the universe for one more day from slipping into oblivion and entertain us in the process. A little shock, a little awe, a little butt-kicking, and we’re safe, secure and satisfied. There’s little circumspection to block the spectacle.
But in our current context, and in real life, questions interrupt our adulation. The “coalition of the willing” (a great super-team name if I’ve ever heard one) that toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq meets the old qualifications for hero—they took a brutal dictator out of play—but were they liberating Iraq or its oil? Should they have conducted these rescues militarily or diplomatically? And what about the prisoner abuse that took place in the process?
And I suspect that most would-be heroes decide that the title is more trouble than its worth. Just when one villain gets vanquished, another springs up, or the cops don’t know what to make of this vigilante justice, or the hero is late for lunch. I could help to change or even save the world, but ultimately, what’s in it for me?
Perhaps such navel-gazing obscures our view of what greatness in today’s world would look like. Frank Miller, in his benchmark The Dark Knight Returns, shows Commissioner James Gordon justifying his deference to Batman by recalling a larger-than-life American hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt:
“A lot of people with a lot of evidence said that Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was going to be attacked . . . and that he let it happen. . . . A lot of innocent men died. But we won the war. . . . It bounced back and forth in my head until I realized I couldn’t judge it. It was too big. He was too big.”
As of tomorrow, my book, Comic Book Character, is up, up and away at the printer. Look for it in six weeks--same bat-time, same bat-website.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:40 PM
August 9, 2004
Poster Children for Perpetual Youth
By David A. Zimmerman
Who would win in a fight, I wonder: Spider-Man or Harry Potter? Both have proven themselves heavyweights—each starring in a blockbuster film this summer. Both of them have exceptional abilities, and generally both of them fight the forces of evil. But what if they fought each other?
Would it be a fair fight? Spider-Man has the proportional strength, speed and agility of a spider, along with the ability to spin webbing as a weapon and a knack for sensing trouble just in the nick of time. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a growing command of magic and a keen eye for the Snitch. Laying them both side by side, I’d have to vote for the one with the webbing.
I’m probably betraying my age by siding with Spider-Man. We were, after all, kids at roughly the same time—if you count about twenty years’ difference as rough. At least, by virtue of the comic-book convention of capping a character’s age at about thirty, I’m closer in age to Peter Parker than I am to Harry Potter, and by virtue of J. K. Rowling’s late entry into publishing juvenile fiction, Spider-Man had a profoundly more significant impact on my upbringing.
Spider-Man was a poster child for teen angst in the 1960s, and though he grew to young adulthood before I was born, his stories still had relevance for me by the time I started reading them. Here was a hero who was obviously younger, with more joie de vivre, than other costumed heroes such as jingoistic Superman and dour Batman; here was a hero who liked to bounce around the bad guys, cracking wise, even though his girlfriend had just dumped him and his Aunt May was nagging him and his boss was being a jerk—not to mention that his enemies were trying to kill him. Peter Parker, even before he was Spider-Man, was a child of promise who was having to endure the growing pains of adolescence and, later, young adulthood. While lots of characters were my heroes, he was a role model.
By comparison, Harry Potter is a scrub, too wet behind the ears to know what’s good for him. He goofs around, bends rules, slacks off, frustrates his professors, goes looking for trouble and bungles relationships. He wastes so much of his potential by risking his neck; he needs to do some serious growing up.
Again, perhaps I’m dating myself. In reality, Harry Potter may well be the Spider-Man of his generation. Here’s a kid who’s coming into his own sense of empowerment and character formation before our eyes, who from book to book and from film to film is the same old Harry yet substantially different, who is forced by horrible circumstance after horrible circumstance to grow up fast and yet who somehow still manages to enjoy his youth. When I step down from my grouchy old thirty-something high horse, I have to tip my hat to Harry; he’s living life to the full.
But Harry, just like Spider-Man and just like all of us, will grow up. Rowling has suggested that Harry’s adventures will end after seven volumes have been written, and though the series will continue to entertain and inspire young people for years, he will eventually, necessarily, yield the stage to another icon as his generation yields to another. And in the meantime, if things ever get tense between him and Spider-Man, my money’s still on Spider-Man.
Check out my book, in stores this December.
Who is this masked man?
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:47 AM
July 9, 2004
Punisher 1, Spider-Man 2
By David A. Zimmerman
Spider-Man and the Punisher could not be more different. They actually regard each other as part of their city's problem: to Spider-Man, the Punisher's violent vigilantism aggravates an already violent citywide crime culture; the Punisher sees Spider-Man as a weak-willed gadfly on the tail of a beast that needs to be led to slaughter. Regular readers know that when these two meet, they will not likely be glad to see each other.
To those unfamiliar with these characters, however--both innocent bystanders in the comic book storylines and the nonreaders visiting theaters this summer--Spider-Man and the Punisher are two of a kind: big strong tough guys who like to wear tights and take out the bad guys. Without the context of each other, either hero defines the other. That's unfortunate, since each has a radically different vision for what an ideal world would look like, and each has a distinct method toward bringing about that vision. Their goals and their tactics are irreconcilable, to the point that when Spider-Man and the Punisher meet, they inevitably fight.
Spider-Man, you might say, plays defense. His goal is something approaching shalom, the Old Testament concept of peace and well-being that ought to characterize a redemptive community. He doesn't kill criminals; he wraps them up and delivers them to the local authorities. He intervenes when someone needs help and whisks away when his help is no longer needed. He is a hero only insofar as his community needs a hero; the rest of the time he is just Peter Parker--himself.
The Punisher, by contrast, is motivated by revenge first and justice second, and his sense of justice has been tainted by his lust for revenge. In a sense, who could blame him? He was widowed in an act of criminal violence, and only another victim can truly identify with how a person might process such an experience.
And yet, the community the Punisher is building by his ongoing actions is as foreboding as his skull-bearing costume. His task is the systematic dismantling of criminal networks, but every time he removes one source of power he creates a void that will undoubtedly be filled by more crime. He offers no positive agenda for his city--no way out of the forest of trouble that he's helped to plant, no way into a place of rest.
The Punisher, when we think about him, ought to trouble us. He has observed a true problem in the chronic crime facing his city, but his solution is clearly inadequate--if you think about it. He and we would benefit from reflecting on the ethics of power embraced by Spider-Man in the aftermath of his Uncle Ben's death: "With great power comes great responsibility." That one sentence has for forty years now effectively restrained Spider-Man from using his enormous power to wreak devastation, and has instead consistently directed him toward the redemption of his city. It is not surprising that Marvel Comics used Spider-Man to narrate the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Here our hero had been helpless to stop the devastation that took place, but he vowed to help in the restoration of his city's hope. Restoring hope--not punishing or pursuing revenge--is the type of work that ought to characterize our heroes, that ought to characterize us.
This Strangely Dim is adapted with permission from "A Tale of Two Vigilantes," which originally ran on the website Busted Halo.
Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:28 AM
May 4, 2004
If you love it so much, why don't you marry it?
My favorite website, Busted Halo, has agreed to carry an article I've written about Spider-Man versus the Punisher--two superheroes visiting theaters this spring and summer.
I was so excited to get an e-mail from Brett, the site's founder and editor, that I didn't mind his request that I shrink the article from its original, bloated 1,800 words to its now-svelte 793. I didn't mind his request that while I trimmed I also try to give the article a point. I was just happy to join the family that produces "Trivia Inferno."
Busted Halo is a ministry of the Paulists. It bills itself as "everyday faith for everyday people." I saw that and thought, Hey, wait a minute. I . . . am everyday people! This must be a site for me! Perhaps it's a site for you as well.
Sorry for the shameless plug. I hope you enjoy the article and the site. I also hope you'll come back to this site eventually; I'm here all week.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:20 AM
April 23, 2004
My Lowbrow Dinner with André
by David A. Zimmerman
"When you go out to dinner with an influential person, mind your manners." Proverbs 23:1 was on my mind as I drove to the House of Hoity Toity to share a meal with my boss and the editor of two recent thousand-page reference books. I was understandably anxious for a couple of reasons, not the least significant of which is the fact that I'm not the most graceful eater in the world.
I can hold my own when it comes to fast food--I've gotten to the point where I can shift gears without spilling ketchup on myself--but I'm out of my element when they only give you one napkin, particularly when that napkin is made of cloth. True to form, I dropped my steak knife on the floor five minutes into the meal (narrowly avoiding the editor's toe) and spilled my drink onto my steak. True to form, I reused the knife to eat the steak.
All this was survivable though--even charming in a goofy sort of way. The real anxiety for me surrounded the conversation more than the food. Here I was breaking bread with people each twenty years my senior, both having overseen the publication of several seminal works in religious publishing--and I was one degree removed from having my napkin tucked into my shirt collar.
Again, this isn't unfamiliar territory for me. I'm one of the only members of my family without an advanced degree. At work a colleague and I devised a word game to play during departmental meetings because we never understood what anyone was talking about. I have become, you could say, comfortably dumb.
Imagine my relief though when our conversation quickly turned to comic books. Here was sumphin' I could talk good about. We talked a while about the character-shaping influence of superheroes while I chewed with my mouth open and spoke with my mouth full. Then we moved on to discuss--you guessed it--reality television. By the time the check came, I had potato all over my shirt and we had finished a delightful conversation about professional wrestling--which, in case you were wondering, originated in Minnesota.
I can't begin to tell you what prompted such a pedestrian flow of conversation, but I do think it's an interesting commentary on the influence of contemporary mass culture--which I serve happily as priest. I feel bad, though I haven't mentioned their names, outing my boss and my reference editor friend, but in a sense I am unapologetic. If there is a purpose to religious publishing, it surely involves the exploration of meaning in a contemporary cultural context. And that means asking questions of culture. And that means being conversant enough with our culture to know which questions to ask.
I felt at this dinner the way the punk rock group The Ramones may have felt when National Public Radio counted their song "I Wanna Be Sedated" one of America's most important pieces of music: a little embarrassed, a little amused, but otherwise right at home. I've reconciled myself to being strangely dim, and it's always nice to have company.
* * *
Look, look! I'm writing a book!
Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:10 AM
March 5, 2004
The Truth About Flying
by David A. Zimmerman
I dream of flying, and it's the happiest dream I know. It's one of the few dreams I remember, actually, which is funny, since there's nothing much to the dream besides the flying.
Flying for me is like swimming--a matter of willing the body to push against a countercurrent. My flying is not so much an event, like Thor's spinning his hammer till it propels him through the air or Iron Man's activating his boot-jets, as it is a change of status: Once I was landlocked, but now I am airborne.
Flying in my dreams is silent, peaceful--not the ear-splitting adrenaline rush of the comics. I suspect that something in my dream compels me to be in the air, but once I'm there I'm in no hurry. I enjoy the sensation of being untethered more so than the opportunity to get where I need to be by any means necessary. I get a sense from this dream of just what control gravity has over me.
Ah, gravity, my arch-nemesis. Let me be clear that I don't wish to stop gravity; rather I wish I could control it. Gravity keeps everything around me literally grounded; it brings predictability to falling (if I drop my pencil, I know to tilt my head down rather than back--unless, of course, I'm suspended from the ceiling); I even count on gravity for, among other things, drip-brewing coffee and watering plants.
Having said all that, there's a case to be made for being outside of gravity's control. If gravity couldn't restrict my movement, I could hover wherever I felt like being or quickly remove myself from any uncomfortable situation to where no one could follow--and no one could do anything about it. I would not have to suffer the claustrophobia of too many people confined to one "two-dimensional" setting. I could be literally above the fray.
I've always dreamed of flying, I suppose. When I was a kid, I had a recurring apocalyptic fantasy in which I grew wings after being exposed to nuclear radiation. I flew around rescuing all the pretty girls in my class. When I was in college, all the characters I created in various role-playing games could fly. Interestingly enough, however, my favorite superheroes not only cannot fly but have few exceptional abilities whatsoever. Though I dream of ascending to the heights, I am inspired by people much more down to earth.
Maybe I should be concerned by that. Why am I so motivated to fly when the characters who have struck me as the most heroic do it all from the ground? My dreams of flying rarely involve acts of heroism. Heroes charge into battle, but I fly simply to escape.
Escape is one way of looking at my relation to the world, I guess. In fact, some end-times scenarios amount to pretty much just that--people flying off to heaven while everyone else experiences seven years of very bad luck. But what all my heroes would do--and what Jesus has done, for that matter--is to face such challenges head-on and use any resources available to them to deliver people from evil. If those resources include the power of flight, so be it, but we shouldn't underestimate what a person can do standing on the earth. The sky's the limit, you could say . . .
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What's your dream superpower? Post a comment.
Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:16 AM
January 30, 2004
Saying No to Boundaries
By David A. Zimmerman
I am sorely lacking in the art of self-assertion. Oh, I assert myself a lot, really, but I'm usually by myself when I do it. When I get in the company of others, I choke up. Call me weak-willed if you want, but I like to think rather that I've developed a theology of meekness.
It's a noble word, meekness--one of those things that Jesus draws attention to as particularly blessed. And there's a big payoff to it: the meek inherit the earth. But along the way to collecting our inheritance, we meek find ourselves saying yes to things we'd rather say no to, capitulating to decisions that offend our sensibilities, faking assent to our more assertive neighbors.
I resent my meekness at times, but I wear it proudly nonetheless, consoling myself with a sense of superiority to those less meek among us. For now, I live in an assertive culture that prizes go-getters, people who by sheer force of will yield agreement from people who might otherwise disagree.
The field that the assertive play on is often called "boundaries." For them, thinking too much of the needs of others and too little of our own needs is a sign of weakness or even moral failure--a rejection of God-given boundaries to our relationships. We're called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and if we're not loving ourselves, how will we know how to love our neighbors? Greed is good, self matters--to quote George Harrison, "All through the day, I-me-mine."
Is my bias showing? Once it's all typed out, it's not as noble-looking as I originally thought. It's not so simple, after all, as saying that the meek are the heroes and the assertive are the villains. Clark Kent is meek, but Superman is assertive--and they're the same person. Assertive Superman fulfills all the secret desires of mild-mannered Clark Kent. Clark gets to be noble; Superman gets to punch people through walls. I identify with Clark Kent, but I dream of being Superman.
Like Superman/Clark Kent, Jesus was one person. And he was as assertive as he was meek--at times silent in the face of persecution that makes my own suffering seem profoundly trite, and at other times taunting the authorities, confronting the immoral and challenging his followers. He was assertive at his own peril, and meek when it cost him the most.
That's part of being fully human, I suppose. Jesus in his person proves that meekness and assertiveness are aspects of the human condition, and how we practice our meekness and assertiveness is more important than claiming them as proof of our inheritance, for example, or lording ourselves over our loved ones. Jesus, in his meekness and his assertiveness, judged the world and found it lacking. And in his meekness and his assertiveness, Jesus saved the world and presented it to his Father--whole and without blemish.
Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:54 AM
January 16, 2004
An Open Letter to "Avengers Assemble"
by David A. Zimmerman
Once upon a time you could read a comic book and then mail your thoughts about it to its publisher. Many such letters would be included in later issues. In your own way, you were participating in the universe of your favorite characters--responding to their thoughts and words, what they did and what they failed to do. You could even help to ordain their future by suggesting plots, partnerships and personal struggles.
My comic of choice was usually The Avengers. Their letters page was called "Avengers Assemble," and though I never wrote in, I read the letters with great devotion.
Ironically, it seems in this age of chatrooms--perhaps due to the sheer number of fan websites, perhaps to save more money and space for storytelling--"Avengers Assemble" has been abandoned. And suddenly I have the urge to write.
I learned about "open letters" from a fellow I know who published an open letter to Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic. Havel never read it, I'm told, but at least it's out there. So, since the traditional forum for holding comic books accountable has been closed to me, I'll use my own means to register my complaint. So there.
To the writers and editors of Avengers 491:
I am bitterly disappointed by your recent treatment of Jack of Hearts, Ant Man and, with them, your readers. The death of a hero is always sad, but I will grant that death is inevitable even to heroes and that such deaths often allow an even greater story to be told. My problem, I guess, is how one hero died, how another hero responded to that death, and what message about heroism was communicated to your audience.
Granted, the Jack of Hearts has been a jerk, and his self-pity over his health condition would test the patience of anyone. Nevertheless, he has been a hero and a fighter his whole life. His abrupt suicide cheapens that life struggle. More important, his final act--executing an already defeated, mentally ill, defenseless opponent--can be characterized not as heroic but simply as barbaric.
Which brings me to Ant Man, who narrowly avoided the same act of barbarism only by Jack's intervention. Granted, having a gun pointed at your daughter would invoke rage from any parent. But the girl's police-officer stepfather, who was also present and had similar means of exercising his wrath, restrained himself and is thus guiltless in any death. More important, as the sole voice narrating the Jack of Hearts's homicide/suicide, Ant Man pronounces infinitely heroic what is inherently tragic.
Granted, Ant Man and the Jack of Hearts have never been friends or central characters, and I suppose I get some satisfaction from seeing Jack act in Ant Man's defense and from hearing Ant Man finally give Jack some respect. But in the process I am being subtly led by your story to praise both characters for acts that can be described most charitably as simply pitiable.
The rest of the Avengers, busy at the time discussing Jack's future, have so far kept silent about his fate. But I for one mourn the deaths of the Jack of Hearts and his victim, and I lament the coldness of his passing. I suspect, since I saw his body floating in space, that he will one day be resurrected, as is the way of comics and all of creation in a sense. But in the meantime I fear that our understanding of heroism has suffered a devastating blow, and I wonder about the impact of this new misunderstanding on the greater story being told.
By the way, nice job with Ant Man's daughter, and great art. Avengers rule!
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:28 AM