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When Scripture and Superheroes Collide

Johnny Miles says modern superheroes and ancient Jews have a lot in common.

When Scripture and Superheroes Collide

Johnny Miles says modern superheroes and ancient Jews have a lot in common.

Johnny Miles is an expert in biblical studies with an emphasis in Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures.

Johnny Miles, lecturer in religion and associate graduate faculty, is the author of Superheroes and Their Ancient Jewish Parallels: A Comparative Study (McFarland 2018). His work looks at how superheroes are tools that reflect a nation’s culture. Photo by Joyce Marshall

Johnny Miles, associate graduate faculty member and a lecturer in religion, is the author of Superheroes and Their Ancient Jewish Parallels: A Comparative Study (McFarland, 2018). His work looks at how superheroes are tools that reflect a nation’s culture. Photo by Joyce Marshall

So why was he wearing a Batman bowtie to the graduate course he teaches? He wrote Superheroes and Their Ancient Jewish Parallels: A Comparative Study (McFarland, 2018).

Miles, associate graduate faculty member and a lecturer in religion, found his interests in the Hebrew Bible and American superheroes converging.

“To me, it was a natural fit. … It’s like kismet — it was meant to be,” he said. “I get to combine both of my loves.”

Within a year of the 9/11 attacks, Marvel Comics released its Spider-Man film. In his book, Miles counts 71 live-action superhero movies from 2002 to scheduled release dates in 2020.

It’s no coincidence.

“All of these superheroes, and the proliferation of these superheroes, come at a deep context of crises within American culture — specifically the Great Depression and World War II,” said Miles, who teaches Superheroes Across Global Contexts in the Master of Liberal Arts program.

That’s where looking at modern superheroes was advantageous.

“I was using what we know about modern superheroes and what we know, in general, about hero myths (that tie across cultures, time, geography, etc.) as a lens through which to look at these particular characters from ancient Israel as heroes in that cultural context,” Miles said.

He analyzed how characters in the Jewish tradition could be construed as hero figures. Secondly: What would have led to a need for these particular hero figures in that culture?

Superheroes “help us navigate our way through life either by providing certain insights into our character or certain insights into what our morals or values should be.”
Johnny Miles

“I wasn’t really so much looking at the ancient Israelite characters to see how they help us to see superheroes function, but the reverse,” Miles said.

In his book, Miles pairs King David with Captain America. The chapter “The National Icon as Hero” details the similarities: everyman beginnings and inner qualities that superseded their outer frailties until they received “magical aid.” For David, it was the spirit of the Lord; for Captain America, it was the Super Soldier Serum and Vita-Ray treatment. With these new strengths, they were able to take down enemies: David slaying Goliath, and Cap socking Adolf Hitler in the face.

Considering their significance in their respective cultures, Miles also pairs Moses and Superman, the immigrant as hero; Esther and Wonder Woman, the diasporic woman as hero; and Samson and Batman, the liminal avenger as (anti-)hero.

Comic book characters “serve so many functions over time,” said Wesley Cray, assistant professor of philosophy.

The influence of superheroes on their audiences goes beyond role models and tchotchke collections. Cray said they serve as a barometer of what is right and wrong.

“So many kids get their sense of justice from superhero stories,” Cray said. “Kids love the Avengers or the Justice League or whatever. I think these end up being formative to them. Kids have heroes who they identify with, and these then shape them. Serious study of these narratives is really important.”

Researchers have examined the relationship for decades. “The Effect of Comic Books on the Ideology of Children,” a 1941 study, found that comics were a valuable tool to examine a child’s emotions, mind and reactions.

Johnny Miles finds that times of crisis, heroes emerge to model virtues that inspire a sense of commitment and worth. Photo by Joyce Marshall

Johnny Miles finds that in times of crisis, heroes emerge to model virtues that inspire a sense of commitment and worth. Photo by Joyce Marshall

“Long after games of make-believe end, some people maintain a part of the disguise,” Miles said.

“I think that the majority of us operate under a thin veneer of deceit — that what we present to others may not be who we really are deep down inside. We want people to like us, or we want to be noted for something. The façade that we present to the public: That’s our mask.”

Miles said the parallels he presents in his book help investigate the complexities of the human world, such as deciphering who is the enemy and who is not. Superheroes struggle with big decisions just like everyone else.

“They help us navigate our way through life either by providing certain insights into our character or certain insights into what our morals or values should be,” Miles said. “They’re one of many voices in our culture that are there as a guide, and they don’t give the definitive answer.”