Review of Nicholaus Pumphrey, Superman and the Bible

Review of Nicholaus Pumphrey, Superman and the Bible November 15, 2019

I thought I would share the complete original version of my review of Nicholaus Pumphrey’s book Superman and the Bible, which I edited (and probably improved in the process) for publication in Reading Religion, the book review outlet of AAR, where it has now appeared.


Review of Nicholaus Pumphrey, Superman and the Bible

By James F. McGrath, Butler University

Pumphrey’s book seeks to accomplish a number of heroic feats at once, illustrating what happens when a self-professed comic book nerd who is also an academic reads the Bible, while also standing against those archvillains who oppose the valiant champions of the value and importance of such elements of popular culture as comic books. In some circles, it is the Bible and not the graphic novel whose importance is seriously doubted in our time. For some, Jesus is less interesting and relevant than Superman, while for others the reverse is true, and it is perhaps those who can discern no difference between them or the genres of literature about them that are the most troubling concern.  Many scholars (to say nothing of other readers of scriptures and/or comic books) have struggled with the idea that different versions of Superman or Moses can all be valid (p.2). “Superman is by no means static. He keeps changing and evolving and cannot be adequately described by anyone” (p.3). This, of course, makes it impossible to speak of the influence of Superman on the Bible in a straightforward or monolithic fashion, and this is one of the issues that presents itself as kryptonite in the context of what Pumphrey sets out to do.

Pumphrey starts the introduction (p.5) with Star Wars, since The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi were released as he was working on the book. He notes that “while Star Wars is 40 years old, Superman is 40 years older” (p.5). Pumphrey describes our era as “post-Superman” not in the sense that we have moved beyond Superman but that we are shaped by Superman: “the monolith that is Superman changed the collective subconscious of western society and, to some extent, the entire world” (p.6). The introduction explores intertextuality, the ways in which figures like Samson or Moses have informed Superman, and conversely, now our awareness of Superman informs our interpretation. Chapter 1 looks at efforts to trace the “authentic” roots and precursors of Superman, not in order to join that quest, but to ask what the effort says about modern readers, while rejecting the notion that such efforts can achieve what they have historically set out to. Here the notion of intertextuality is further explored and elaborated to highlight how readers of both Bible and superhero comics bring together those materials not merely to elucidate either or both, but in order to create (whether aware of it or not) new narratives that emerge in the act of reading that is shaped by these heritages and influences.

There is a certain irony about the fact that Pumphrey lambasts the intellectuals who placed the author on a pedestal, imagining that such an individual could create and control the meaning of a text, while offering a text that regularly presents the reader with awkward typos or repetitive phrasing (for instance writing “breakdown” on p.24 and p.153 when he meant “break down,” “a high number of literacy” when “a high rate of literacy is meant on p.27, “dominate” when “dominant” is meant on p.42, “hope” instead of “hop” on p.53, “apart” instead of “a part” on p.131, and “kinder-transports” instead of “Kindertransport” on p.147; he also replaces “probable” with “probably” in a quote from Soggin’s commentary on Judges on.p.134 while also leaving out part of Soggin’s text without indicating this through elipses).

Already in this early part of the book, issues arise that will stand out especially vividly to scholars of religion. For instance, it is hard to know what to make of his claim that the Protestant Reformation took the Bible from the hands of the church as collective and placed it in the hands of well-read and educated Reformers (p.24). The Reformation certainly did not “liberate” the text or enable all to read it as many seem to imagine, but his idealization of the relationship between text and reader prior to the Reformation is every bit as much at odds with the relevant historical data, if not more so. Pumphrey also engages in unhelpful rhetorical exaggeration about the extent to which (to quote him) “Simply put, all people read differently. All people speak differently” (p.29). The awkwardness of quite a bit of the prose in the book does not justify the exaggerated claim that “grammar is never strictly adhered to in any situation, especially syntax” (p.29). As p.30 better illustrates, there are shared cultures of meaning-making. Southerners and Californians may disagree on whether to refer to shopping carts or buggies, but the question is a regional one and not a purely individual one. The same is true when it comes to who is a superhero or a monster, or who pops into one’s head first when the word “vampire” is uttered. When I write that the image may be of Dracula played by Bela Lugosi or a character from Buffy or Twilight, I am not the only person who will understand the meaning of those words and the cultural references I have made. The nuances will differ and vary, to be sure, but the point is that the reality is neither one of absolute uniformity and clarity of reference, nor one of absolute plurality and uncertainty. The very act of writing a book in which Pumphrey engaged depends on this very fact. The statement that “readers cannot gauge the author’s original intent, and the author’s perspective really has little or no bearing on the meaning that is constructed by the reader” (p.33), is certainly an exaggeration. If Pumphrey genuinely believed this, I suspect he would not have bothered organizing words on pages as he did. He seems to contradict himself on p.39 when he says that any American reader will recognize that a text is a letter if it is ordered a certain way and contains certain genre clues. But perhaps I have misunderstood him, and in the process proved him right? Neil Gaiman (quoted p.34) seems to get the balance better, indicating that the writer, illustrator, and reader together contribute to the process of reading and meaning-making.

Chapter 1 also explores canon, with particular focus on continuity as a defining characteristic, noting in the process how appeals to canon and continuity can mask racism when the matter under discussion is the ethnicity of a character (pp.47-48). Pumphrey also notes the strains on continuity and consistency that an long and expansive canon create, when he writes, “My greatest fear when presenting Superman to audiences is that comic book readers always know of an example or an exception where Superman does not do what I say he does” (p.50). Chapter 2 explores the creation of Superman, challenging the assumption that Siegel and Shuster’s Jewish identity necessarily entailed what a predominantly Christian culture considers devout, and thus also in the process resisting the assumption that there must have been a deliberate religious aim in their efforts. Key influences from science fiction and comic strips are discussed, as well as the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal. By the chapter’s end, the focus has shifted from cultural influences on Superman to Superman’s influences in culture. Chapter 3 moves on to explore the evolution of the concept of the hero, highlighting how Christianity and monotheism colored the evaluation of Greek and other polytheistic traditions from antiquity. This thread continues into the context of World War II and the U. S. military, including Superman’s eventual role as anti-Nazi propaganda.

Chapter 4 brings the study into the Marvel era, as superheroes became more complex. Interesting in this regard is Stan Lee’s introduction of the thought bubble (p.92). When characters are morally complicated and do not simply instinctively do the right thing all the time, knowing their thoughts becomes an interesting and meaningful part of their stories. The nature of genre and the postmodern approach of deconstruction are explained briefly, in ways that provide a helpful inroad for readers who may not be familiar with them. Pumphrey characterizes the exploration of flawed heroes as “polytheistic” in contrast with Superman’s “monotheistic” character (p.95). This is a helpful and provocative way of approaching this, suggesting that a key difference between these religious structures is whether or not the attempt is made to envisage a powerful being as purely good. Pumphrey also explores the corresponding shift towards more complex and thus empathetic villains, who have motives with which it is possible to sympathize even if not agreeing with their actions or methods. Not only flawed heroes but anti-heroes, monsters, and demons are also discussed. At the end of the chapter, Kingdom Come is brought into the picture, and its relationship not only to biblical imagery, but also to the “Golden Age” of comics, is discussed, as is its deconstruction of the very premise of the original Superman, namely that there is a meaningful moral or character distinction between the godlike superhero and the ordinary human.

Chapter 5 brings the Book of Judges to center stage. While it is surely incorrect to suggest that scholars have on the whole neglected negative attributes of characters in Judges (p.120), Pumphrey nonetheless provides a helpful exploration of how the category of superhero has influenced the reading of the Bible, surveying a few specific examples from commentaries which emphasize the heroic character of Samson. Within the framework of the Deuteronomistic History, Samson represents a low point in the history of Israel, whereas for many modern readers (particularly Christians), Samson is the greatest hero in the Book of Judges (pp.128-9). Chapter 6 looks at how Superman has influenced perceptions of Moses and Jesus. The terminology of “messiah” is explored (albeit in ways that do not really elucidate either the historical roots or the subsequent development of the term). The chapter also explores the convergence of the two types of literature in the form of graphic novel Bibles. The conclusion draws the book’s major points and threads together, emphasizing that it is essential for biblical scholars to engage in a serious manner with popular culture in ways and to an extent that have not been typical in the past. While far more appears to be happening in this area today than even a few years ago (making Pumphrey’s complaint already appear somewhat dated), it is certainly true that there is a need not only for still more scholarly attention to be brought to bear on biblical echoes in popular culture, but also the ways in which those receptions loop around to influence the way the Bible is perceived, not only by the wider public, but even by scholars, who (for all our attention to ancient literature and reconstruction of historical context) are just as prone as anyone to allow our notions of the heroic to influence our conclusions unless (and sometimes even though we are) careful.

While there is plenty of interesting material in Pumphrey’s book that will be useful for students and educators in the realm of biblical studies, highlighting important comic intertexts, the writing style and penchant for hyperbole and oversimplification undermine the extent to which the book will be either an enjoyable read or a useful text to assign as a textbook. Nevertheless, those interested in the intersections of superhero comics and the Bible will find the book worth consulting, since it highlights influences in both directions to a greater extent than is typical, and provides many specific references, attention to movie casting, and other details that scholars can usefully draw on, while also finding much to interact and disagree with as they make their own arguments about biblical and comic book heroes.

Ultimately, however, the central point of the book retains its validity in spite of the issues I’ve mentioned: “Because of his influence and pervasiveness, Superman has truly infiltrated our meaning making through intertextuality, which forces us to read the Bible as if Superman were in it. And he is, because we put him there…His influence is so vast, simultaneously subtle and overt, that we cannot always see him, yet he appears if we look closely” (pp.50,171).






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