Thursday, March 11, 2004

Interview with John Shelton Lawrence about the American Monomyth

Interview with John Shelton Lawrence, co-author of The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade against Evil

1. Why would two scholars from serious academic disciplines write a book about superheroes in comic books, video games, TV shows, and popular films? Isn't that just kids' stuff?

John Shelton Lawrence: The short answer is that our college students forced us to start looking at these materials. It happened because we were both committed to teaching students to think critically about their ethical and religious beliefs. We discovered early in our teaching career that many students spent a lot of time with popular culture and became emotionally involved with some of the stories and heroes. Yet quite a few of them were very reluctant to examine those attachments. Like so many of the academic apologists for American popular culture, they thought that life was one thing and entertainment was simply a diversion with no impact on their attitudes or behavior. So, in their view, there was nothing to talk about. The religious subtext in pop culture became even more apparent in the late 70s, when we discovered that students and their parents sometimes attributed great spiritual significance to the Star Wars epic. But in their view, discussing "The Force" as faith in violence was unwelcome, even a rude interference with their private lives. They wanted privacy for that part of their experience. But I shouldn't leave the impression that all students resisted the discussion of their favored pieces of pop culture. Many of them were pleased to begin exploring it seriously and they became great helpers and teachers for us.

2. So where does the superhero come into this? Can you tell me why you and Robert Jewett believe that there's an American superhero? Don't all countries have their heroes?

John Shelton Lawrence: You are correct that heroes and heroic myths appear in all nations. Our book puts heroism in the frame of what we call the American monomyth, and thus acknowledges Joseph Campbell's famous description of the classical monomyth that pervades world culture. The classical hero typically has human or exaggerated human powers, as in the case of Hercules who is exceptionally strong. And most of his heroic deeds in service of the community are penance for his moral failings. The superhero, with more than human powers, and the immortality required by serialized episodes, emerges in American pop culture during the 20s and 30s. The odd and the special character of the American monomyth's hero is a peculiar kind of mythic discord. Whereas most of the world's heroic myths celebrate the social ethos of their societies, the American monomyth seems exceptional to us because it consistently dramatizes the need for its heroes to reject principles of American democracy.

3. How does this myth reject American social values? And as a popular story, how does it get away with turning against our official democratic ethos?

John Shelton Lawrence: Here we need to talk about the myth and its appeals. The American superhero story portrays someone blessed with gifts of moral and physical perfection. He (and occasionally she) rescues communities whose institutions, laws, and leaders have failed in confronting a clearly defined threat. The hero must rise above those failures and rescue the community — typically violating the law in some way. These heroes are not full members of their community. They have a disguise of some sort because the failed societies around them would persecute them if they could identify them. So the myth shows us democracy fails and demands rescue by someone who stands on the outside. In addition to giving us the thrill of singular heroism, this fantasy offers an escape for citizens of democracy in rejecting their responsibility for the success and safety of his community — yet offers a vision of rescue anyway. We call this experience "mythic redemption" and see it as the secularized counterpart of the much older religious idea of redemption.

4. Can you give me some examples of a redemptive American superhero?

John Shelton Lawrence: If we take the longer historical view, we have to go back to tales of rescue for colonial captives held by Native Americans and the stories of their rescue. Then we have the tales of vigilante justice, with The Virginian of a hundred years ago as the leading example. He is the clear predecessor for the unknown cowboy gunman who roams into the distressed village. Somewhat later in history, you have the masked and caped superheroes that alternately hide and then emerge from the phone booth or the Bat Cave to save the city. Jumping to the present, let's take the summer's hit film, Spider-Man. It's especially significant because it came out almost a year after 9/11 and offers a portrayal of the New York Police and Fire Departments, who were clearly last year's real life democratic heroes. The newspaper (an important democratic institution) has been depicting Spider-Man as a criminal and has managed to convince the police that they should arrest him. At a crucial moment in the film the police and fire personnel confront Spider-Man at a burning building with a threatened child inside. With craven fear in their faces, the fire personnel are too afraid to enter and the police stupidly want to arrest the only person who can carry off the rescue. Spider-Man rescues the child and then defiantly eludes the police. Think about it. After all the national celebration of New York public employees in the 9/11 catastrophe, a popular superhero film comes along and casually trashes their reputation. Even more remarkable is that it doesn't even register with critics or audiences because the story pattern is locked into our popular myths. Many of the great American superstars and superhero characters have built their franchises on roles that, like Spider-Man's, show them circumventing laws and the leaders so that they can be saviors. Our book discusses Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Charles Bronson, John Wayne, and many others. We find it striking that our most honored stories and heroes are outsiders so unlike the heroes of the classical monomyth — persons who become fully integrated members of the community, accepting permanent responsibility for its welfare.

5. Are you taking these stories too seriously? What if I take the viewpoint of your students here and say that they are just entertainments?

John Shelton Lawrence: We would like to think that the widespread popularity of the American monomyth doesn't translate into behavior. Unfortunately, we find a correlation between the myth and increasing passivity of our citizens. Voting participation is steadily declining, especially among our younger citizens who spend the most time absorbing the mythic products that come to them as computer games, movies, comic books, and television programs. We also find that with popular, decades-old franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars, forms of religious adulation are beginning to emerge. Some ministers have given sermons inspired by The Matrix. Our book describes groups and individuals who say that these materials help them find life meaning, some even claiming that they illustrate the truths of the Christian faith. We also discuss the more overtly religious program Touched by Angel, which highlights psychological manipulation rather than violence. We don't find Touched healthy either, because it is just one more way of dramatizing failed institutions and calling for intervention by disguised superheroes who will leave after they exercise their special powers.

6. Why not take your religious inspiration wherever you can get it?

John Shelton Lawrence: When spiritual sensibilities are nurtured by and focused on media products, individuals are likely to reduce their commitment to institutions where they accept responsibility for the welfare of others. Working within churches and other care-focused groups can be a form of civic training in its own right. We believe that there's a significant connection between such work and the ethos of democracy. Another hesitation to accept this form of mythic inspiration is that the American monomyth's heroes typically redeem by violence. The great religions of the world attempt to break down stereotypes and celebrate the possibilities for coexistence. That kind of message never appears in the American monomyth, which stereotypes the world according to moral stereotypes and achieves redemption by the destruction of evil.

7. What's wrong with attempting to destroy evil? Isn't that what America is attempting to do in fighting against terrorists?

John Shelton Lawrence: Terrorism certainly produces evil. America would be suicidal to ignore destructive acts against citizens and allies. However, we have a constitutional system of national government and international treaties designed to guide our response to criminal attacks.
The myth tells us that laws merely restrain our commitment to destroy our enemies. The American superhero is the person who understands and circumvents those laws in order to save the community or even the entire world. In our current world situation, we can see the tension between what we might call "constitutional realism" and the call of the superhero myth. President Bush himself has often spoken the language of the myth in describing the way "we will rid the world" by fighting "the evil ones" and has threatened to "go it alone" in the American battle. The truth is that the will cannot be mapped according to the myth. Evil is real, to be sure, but it is real in us because we are not the paragons of virtue in the myth. And we need allies to press forward against the great dangers we face. I think that President Bush knows this. But he wavers between responding to the myth and committing the nation fully to the constitutional constraints on the way we exercise power.

8. Haven't some other countries seen Bush as a mythic "cowboy" figure? And have they shown any interest in The Myth of the American Superhero?

John Shelton Lawrence: President Bush is an interesting figure because he wavers between the stance of the courageous cowboy who threatens to act alone in fighting against evil and the president who is reigned in by constitutional considerations and U.S. treaties with other countries. He has openly announced a preemptive war doctrine that violates our United Nations treaty obligations, but has backed off after seeing how much alarm has been inspired by these stances. We have a chapter on the president as superhero that fits him in some respects. Some publications in other countries have expressed interest in our ideas about pop culture inspirations as an element in foreign policy. We have done articles and interviews about the book's ideas that have appeared in Germany, Finland, and Japan. We are hoping that we can come through the current crisis in Iraq without another surge of monomythic talk and posturing.

9. You seem very critical of the American myth system you discuss. Do you think that it's better to live without any myths at all?

John Shelton Lawrence: Actually, we don't think it's desirable or even possible to live without myths. The democratic standard that we appeal to rests upon a faith in the capabilities of ordinary people and their judgment. The system of letting citizens choose their leaders who are in turn restrained by the rule of law grows out of a mythology that can never be "rationally proven" as the best way for societies to organize their affairs.

10. Can we talk a little about how you and Jewett collaborate? You live in Berkeley, California and he lives in Heidelberg, Germany. That sounds hard.

John Shelton Lawrence: The short answer here is that we rely absolutely on email. And then we have worked together on popular culture issues for several decades. It's basically a matter of one person drafting and the other person revising, with an occasional intervention from our wise and wily editor at Eerdmans, Reinder Van Til. Because I live in America, I did most of the work in looking at the latest films, television shows, and video games. But Jewett was always indispensable in developing our interpretation and fitting it into the mosaic of American culture.

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