(Lectionary August 7, 2016)
In their 1977 book, The American Monomyth, Robert Jewett, a noted scholar of the New Testament, and John Shelton Lawrence, a long-time professor of philosophy, argued that America had birthed a new version of the mythology that Joseph Campbell had offered in his classic 1949 volume, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In the earlier book, Campbell claimed to have discovered in ancient literatures a near universal story that he called the monomyth. In that story a hero leaves his homeland, embarks on a dangerous adventure wherein his life is threatened, and in the midst of those threats learns a valuable lesson that the hero then imparts to his former home upon his return. As a result, the homeland is greatly aided by this new and hard-earned knowledge. However much this theory has been dissected, rejected, and enhanced, it remains a valuable lens through which a vast array of stories may be assessed.
Jewett and Lawrence used Campbell’s work as a springboard for their own idea that the USA has developed over the two centuries of itslife a uniquely American monomyth. In their analysis, especially of comic books and movies, they find a rather different mythology at work. In this new myth, a hero arises in the face of the American Eden that is threatened by forces of evil. The normal structures of that society—police, government, even the powerful military—are helpless and fail to defeat the evil. The hero, a singular, vastly powerful male (usually), comes to the rescue, using extraordinary and overwhelming powers to defeat the evil and to return the society to an Eden-like equilibrium. They add that the hero is usually completely alone in his work, eschewing any lasting female companionship, and after his work is done, fades into obscurity.
Their prime examples are Superman and Batman. In the former, created between 1929 and 1939 (the years of the Great Depression and the beginnings of World War II and the evil madness of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo), the mysterious Superman appears from the exploding planet Krypton, comes to the earth in a spaceship crib, and grows up in complete obscurity in the American Midwest, slowly recognizing his vast super powers of speed-of-light flight, incredible strength, piercing eyesight that can see through walls, among other spectacular attributes. Whenever evil appears, often in the form of a super-brainy villain, the “mild-mannered” Clark Kent, in the disguise of a reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, rushes into a handy phone booth or closet, and turns into Superman, complete with colorful red white and blue (get it?) tights. He then hurtles off to defeat the evil one, originally Lex Luthor, the brilliant but evil genius, but in subsequent episodes takes on any number of human, monstrous, and extra-galactic baddies. Of course, he always conquers them, and then returns to his Clark Kent persona, dallying with Lois Lane, who rejects Clark again and again, but is mad for Superman. Ands so the myth goes.
Batman is in effect the same story, updated a bit with the powers of the Batman rather more humanly based. Bruce Wayne is fabulously wealthy, though his parents were murdered before his eyes when he was young. From that moment he vows to fight evil in all its forms. He lives in an enormous mansion, placed right over the Bat Cave, and whenever he sees the Bat Signal flashed in the sky by the always failed police and other authorities in Gotham City, he, aided by his butler, heads to the Bat Cave, dons his very male Bat Suit (with pecs bulging and thighs outlined), leaps into the rocket-propelled Batmobile and drives off to face the foe. He, too, is ever victorious, saving Gotham City again and again, returning to the Bat Cave and his wealthy, but disguised life as a philanthropist and all-around societal do-gooder. He, like Superman, has an ongoing and odd relationship with a woman who is never able to pierce his disguise.
And that brings us to Donald J Trump, who on July 21 accepted the nomination for president from the Republican Party in a 75-minute speech that was noteworthy for many things, but for our purposes was nothing less than a Batman/Superman mirror of the monomyth. In chilling and half-truth-laden angry prose, Trump made the case that America and the world was on the verge of catastrophe and dissolution. Crime is wildly out of control (though it plainly is not), mobs rule the streets (though they plainly do not), America is the laughing stock of the world (though it plainly is not). But, fear not, he trumpeted (sorry) over and over, for I have come to save you all. I have the plans (unannounced beyond 1000-mile walls and shrewd deals) that can save you. And though he did on occasion use the pronoun “we,” hardly his favorite lexeme, lurking within the “we’s” was the ever-present “I,” his favorite pronoun by far. He cast himself as the 2016 version of Bruce Wayne, the fabulously wealthy entrepreneur, flying to the convention in one of his fleet of jets and lastly in his helicopter, all branded loudly and colorfully, “Trump.” He lacks only a Trumpmobile, though one of his vast fleet of cars could surely fit the bill. Though he does not at all reject the blandishments of women—after all he has had three wives and has even suggested that if Ivanka were not his daughter he would probably date her, too—he treats women as objects, sexualizing them in every way he can. His filthy assaults against Megyn Kelly of Fox News at that notorious debate, suggesting that her attacks on him were the results of a painful feminine monthly episode, indicate all too clearly what Mr. Trump thinks of women.
His continuous attacks against minorities of all sorts (“my African-American,” he shouts at a black member of an audience at a campaign event; “Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists and murderers, coming to take American jobs;” “Muslims need to be watched carefully, since many are anti-American and terrorists; their immigration must be curbed if not stopped”). He tops off these egregious caricatures by making fun of a disabled reporter, mocking his disability for a sick joke. He even suggests that too much experience of governing and too much intellectual expertise are to be avoided; this often- failed businessman knows all he needs to know, and needs no one else to school him. Yet, despite all this narcissistic and foul behavior, this man claims to be the savior of a lurching and crumbling country. He is the very personification of the monomyth run rampant.
We do not need such a would-be savior, such a deeply-flawed and monstrous hero. We need the words of 8th-century BCE Isaiah. He, too, in the time of his prophecy saw a nation crumbling, but the disaster was not one that could be fixed by ultimate power, by we-first thinking. Isaiah did not suggest that Israel build a wall around itself to seal itself off from the world (though anyone who has been to modern Israel can all too easily see such a wall); he did not counsel his people to think first of themselves, to reject all foreigners and immigrants as dangerous; he did not urge Israel to personify all non- Israelites as terrorists, as persons to be hated. Israel was failing its God because it was not living up to its responsibilities to those in their midst and elsewhere who were poor, weak, marginalized, and fearful of life under cruel regimes. Just listen to this very different call to action from Isaiah:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your actions from before my eyes.
Cease to do evil; learn to do good:
seek justice; (From Trinity Church, Boston)
rescue the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow” (Is 1:16-17)
If we are to become the nation we claim to be, we will not become that nation through adverting to self-aggrandizement, through hating our enemies, through separating ourselves from all those who are not like us, who do not speak our language, who do not dress as we, whose skin color is not as ours. In short, we do not need the hate- filled messianic hero that Donald Trump claims to be, who will “Make America Great Again.” Only when we open ourselves to others in love, seeking to aid those who cannot easily aid themselves, opening our hearts and lives to those who seek to live in our safety. We do not want walls of separation; we want minds and hearts of inspiration and hope.
Just what is a great nation? Genesis 12 answers clearly. “I will make your name great,” says YHWH to Abram at the very beginning of the nation Israel. Why? “So that through you (or by you) all of the nations of the earth may be blessed.” I urge you this November to reject the siren song of hatred, sung by Donald J Trump, this new representative of the monomythic savior. Down his road lies not salvation but uncountable dangers for Americans and for the world.