The Origin Stories of Mutants, Mystics and Messiahs

By Jonathan Fitzgerald

[This post is part of a conversation on the new book Mutants & Mystics at the Patheos Book Club. Check out the Book Club for more posts on this book and for responses from the author.]

Everybody loves an origin story. This fact accounts for the endless debate over the origins of the human species as well as it explains why less than a decade after Tobey Maguire was bit by a radioactive spider and donned the blue and red spandex of Spider-Man, we will have the opportunity to see Andrew Garfield do pretty much the same exact thing again this summer. Our interest in origins explains prequels and biographies, biopics and “Behind the Music” inspired tabloid television. Some of us care as deeply about the evolution of Darth Vader as we do that of Steve Jobs; to many, the genesis of America seems as important as the birth of Middle Earth.

I think the reason we are so captivated is precisely because we all believe that at this very moment, we are all living out our own origin stories. Sure, some people–celebrities and politicians maybe, many memoirist certainly–acknowledge that they’ve “arrived.” President Obama campaigned, like many presidential hopefuls have, on his origin story. But, for the rest of us–for me, I hope that someday I will refer to today, as I sit in my tiny office pounding out words for the love of writing (and not for the money I will presumably make when I get out of my origin phase) as the beginning of my story.

In Mutants and Mystics, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s new book about the relationship between the paranormal and popular culture, the origin stories of the writers he describes are absolutely essential. They are, in fact, what separates his book from just about anything else I have ever read. Kripal tells the story of graphic novelist Alan Moore’s paranormal experience that led him to write his Promethea series, and of Philip K. Dick, the famed science fiction writer, whose experience with a “vast active living intelligence system” inspired his acronymic trilogy, VALIS. And, Kripal tells his own origin story, which, not surprisingly, includes paranormal experiences as well. Clearly, Kripal believes these kinds of encounters can and have happened, and he expects his readers to as well. He writes, “These things are real in the sense that they happen. What they mean is an entirely different issue.”

So the first and most initially surprising thing about Mutants and Mystics is Kripal’s assertion not only that paranormal origin stories inspired the writers he addresses, but that believing that they actually happened is essential to understanding the work they created. “There is no way to disentangle the very public pop-cultural products from the very private paranormal experiences,” he writes. As other readers have noted, this is not an easy thing to accept.

But, why not? As I’ve written elsewhere, my own religious origin story includes a childhood lived against the backdrop of a non-denominational, charismatic Christian church where paranormal experiences like speaking in tongues, prophesying, and becoming “slain in the spirit” occurred with more regularity than communion (which, depending on your denomination, is also a paranormal experience). If I saw, and in some cases experienced, these types of phenomena first hand, and, ultimately, if I frame my life around the story of an incarnate, resurrected God, why should it be so difficult for me to accept the existence of paranormal phenomena I have not experienced. Thus, as Kripal states, I know these things happen, perhaps the difficulty really is in determining what they mean.

In light of this, I am enjoying having Kripal as a guide through this process of uncovering the meaning behind the bizarre origin stories of writers of bizarre origin stories, as well as my own. In Mutants and Mystics, Kripal effectively rewrites the history of superhero comics by showing how the old “Three Ages” model is in adequate. In light of this he creates a new “Super-Story,” to frame this history, which is comprised of stages that include orientation, alienation, radiation, mutation, realization, and authorization. It is in this final phase–authorization–that the mystical work that began in the origin story comes to fruition. The preceding phases place readers in a story, with realization marking our awareness of the narratives in which we exist, but authorization allows us to step outside the story and begin to write the story anew.

This opportunity to become authors requires us to adopt a new worldview. As Kripal puts it, “You can’t free yourself with the tools that the master provides you. You need a new story and new cognitive tools.” In short, in order to see the culmination of the origin story–the opportunity to create our own stories–we must be willing to accept the bizarreness of the story we are in.

It seems to me that there is some application here for the superhero story that frames my life. Christianity has the opportunity to be extremely pertinent and immeasurably useful, if only we can begin to wrench it free from the modernist, rational-crazed, hands that have held it since the Enlightenment. If we can see the paranormal nature of our own origin story, the incarnation of God into man, apart from the lens of reason and rational explanation, we too will be able to rewrite the grand story in which we live–we will be better prepared for the work of building a kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more on Mutants & Mystics.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the managing editor of Patrolmag.com, and writes on the various manifestations of Christianity in culture. Follow him on Twitter or at his website, www.jonathandfitzgerald.com. Fitzgerald’s column, “In Progress,” is published every Wednesday on the Progressive Christian Portal.


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