Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Stars My Destination, or 'Jesus Loves the Talking Raccoon'

My veins run thick with the red, yellow, green, black and blue hues of comic book ink.  For as far back as I can remember, the heroics of Superman and the “fastball-specials” of Wolverine have been nearly as important to me as are the Holy Scriptures.  At some points in my life, the canons of Marvel and DC have probably been more important than the stories of Abraham, Ruth, and the Twelve.  My priorities are rightly ordered now, but comic book stories, and the medium itself, are still significant sources of identity for me.

Perhaps that’s why watching the new film Guardians of the Galaxy was, on a profoundly deep level, a spiritual experience for me.  Setting aside its technical brilliance (which is amazing to behold), or the incredibly sharp wit of the script (which is sarcastic, emotional, and thrilling all at once), two things happened to me when watching it: I felt like an eight-year old boy seeing his dreams come to life on screen; and, strangely enough, I left the theater wanting to be a better priest than I am now.

Growing up, comic books were both a form of reality escapism and a kind of reality formation.  Before the advent of serious comic book film adaptations, ‘nerd culture’ as it is now known wasn’t so mainstream, wasn’t so accepted.  Nerd culture was not pop culture.  It was sub-culture.  For sure, characters like Superman, Spider-Man and Batman were widely known and loved.  But they were known and loved as broad cultural artifacts, characters that somehow belonged not just to comic book readers, but to the wider American public. You didn’t need to read an issue of Action Comics to know that Clark Kent was the alter ego of Superman, or that Batman was really a rich billionaire grieving the loss of his parents.

But to be a fan, to collect, to search through long boxes and attend conventions, to love the smell of a mylar bag and the feel of a perfectly cut, 24 page comic…that was a sub-culture, and that was me.  Comic book collecting was a way for me to move beyond some of the negative experiences I had growing up as one of the ‘nerds’.  In those stories, I could fly with Superman, journey into the Shi’ar Empire, swing with Spider-Man, and fight the Hellfire Club with Wolverine.  Whatever struggles were going on in life, family, or school, I could escape by reading those books.  But they were also reality forming because by reading issue after issue, I gained a deep appreciation for imaginative narrative.  Comic books, when done well, can be deeply emotional while being wildly imaginative.  Think, for a moment, about how Superman is such a compelling character.  Here’s a story about an alien planet facing destruction, and the exploits of her last son, who can fly, is indestructible, and can shoot heat vision from his eyes.  Wildly imaginative, yes.  But what we see in Superman is a reflection of the immigrant experience.  Originally created by two Jewish boys in New York, Superman tells the story of an outsider coming to grips with living as a human being in a foreign culture.  Deeply emotional, for sure.

Watching Guardians of the Galaxy took me back to my childhood and reminded me of why I love comic books and these characters so much.  What is amazing about this film is that it takes a motley crew of relatively unknown characters and weaves together an exciting sci-fi film, complete with a talking raccoon, and a reflection on what it means to be on the margins, mistreated and misunderstood, or even to suffer debilitating loss while not losing heart in the face of opposition.  From the mouth of the talking raccoon comes a strong, albeit drunken, speech about being abused and treated like something worthless to be thrown away.  The main character, Peter Quill, is a man out of place, still grieving over his mother’s death from cancer, who takes the opportunity life gives him “to give a shit for the first time” (his motivational speech is poster-worthy) to find within himself the courage to stand up to oppression even though it might result in his death.  This is a film filled with real human emotion, even when that humanity is expressed by humanoid aliens, talking raccoons, and walking trees. To see these obscure characters on screen in such a humorous, wild, exciting, and emotionally nuanced film brought me back to that boy who fell in love with these stories in the first place.

I deeply resonated with this tale of a group of ‘walking wounded’ outcasts who, despite their imperfections, have gifts to offer the galaxy.  I’m a priest, yes, but I am still a wounded human being in need of deep healing.  I am not always the best version of myself that I can be.  Often, I prefer to keep my wounds at an arm’s length, not facing the reality that I must admit my own imperfections and brokenness before I can truly transcend them.  And by transcend, I mean accepting my woundedness and brokenness for what it is, a part of who I am, but refusing to let it limit my becoming more fully who God is calling me to be.  Accept our brokenness, yes, but don’t let it maintain power over our growth.  The Gospel, then, gives us our own chance “to give a shit.”  We’re imperfect humans, but the grace and power of the Gospel give us opportunities to challenge the imperfection and injustice in the world we see every day.  We may not be stopping a galactic tyrant from destroying an entire planet, but we can all find ways to speak truth to power, to challenge structures and situations that tear down rather than build up.

More than any other comic book film, Guardians of the Galaxy had a significant emotional and spiritual impact on me.  Even on my worst day, even when I may feel as shattered as a window during a tornado, even if may question my vocation as a priest, I hope that when the Lord gives me an opportunity to stand up for what is right, I’ll take it, doing what I can to bring healing and peace to a hurting world.

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