Weird and wonderful superheroes haven’t had it so good since the days of Baal and Zeus. Turn on the television, and you can be touched by a heavenly angel, pull for a dark angel on a big bike, or recoil from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sometime boyfriend Angel. And this season there’s the off-beat Joan of Arcadia, in which in each episode a teen-age girl runs into God who every time shows up in a different guise, ranging from boy heart throb to the old woman who dishes the hash in the school lunch line. In recent years, Prime Time has been home to powerful aliens who work for good and evil in shows like Alien Nation, Roswell, the Star Trek franchise, and the X-Files–to mention only a few. In theaters dark-side clones battle good Jedi knights in Star Wars, and American pilots battle cosmic octopi in Independence Day. Men in Black takes a comedic view of battling aliens. We’ve flocked to see and celebrate Spiderman, Superman, Batman and The Fantastic Five. And we are in the middle years of Harry Potter’s battle with Lord Voldemort and, at last, the Fellowship of the Ring’s assault on Lord Sauron’s Mount Doom has culminated with The Return of the King. For animation fans Monsters, Inc. and Shrek are available in tape and DVD.
Evangelical Christians prefer superheroes in cosmic conflict. Frank Peretti has written several demon-under-every-bush best-sellers. The Left Behind franchise sells millions more with each installment. More seriously inclined evangelicals buy guides like Francis MacNutt’s Deliverance From Evil Spirits: A Practical Manual and Joe Beam’s Seeing the Unseen: Preparing Yourself for Spiritual Warfare. The New York Times recently reported that there are now at least three hundred exorcism ministries in the United States; thirty years ago there were none.
In short, contemporary culture, whether secular or Christian, is enthralled with what the Greeks called agons, with heroes and antiheroes, imagined and real, who do superhuman battle on earth and in heaven. In this article, I’ll argue that today’s fascination with agons is related to how we read, and I’ll explain that it is symptomatic of a worrisome cultural reorientation towards conservatism in power politics.
Today’s fascination with these super-sized heroes isn’t unique to us. Superheroes have ruled before. To understand why and where they ruled, I need to briefly describe three different kinds of literacy. First, there are oral cultures where written literacy is relatively rare, usually the possession of some sort of elite. For most of the church’s history, at least until sometime after the invention of the printing press, the vast majority of Christians lived in oral cultures.
Second, some cultures may be described as “literate.” Although widespread literacy was already on the rise before the invention of the printing press, over the course of one or two hundred years after its invention, Europeans took to reading and writing like Canadian kids to hockey. In literate cultures, not only can nearly all people read and write, but many are also deeply engaged in deeply literate pursuits at home, church, or in the academy.
Communication scholars designate a third type of culture as “secondary orality.” This culture is “secondary” with respect to oral culture because it has adopted many of the features of orality even though it hasn’t totally given up basic literacy. Most secondary-oral people can read. On average, however, many fewer are deeply engaged in literary pursuits, whether for work or pleasure. North America now seems to show many signs of becoming a “secondary oral culture,” in large part because time devoted to electronic media has displaced time once devoted to more literate pursuits.
Fascination with agonistic heroes and their amazing cosmic conflicts is typical of oral cultures. Stories of Baal riding on the storm and of Zeus and his ilk battling each other on earth for Olympian prizes are at home in oral cultures, because, says Catholic scholar Walter Ong, “oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. . . . Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics.”
Now, although many people in oral cultures could not read or write, one should not assume that they were therefore less accomplished than literate people. They were not. Pick up Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation of Beowulf, and imagine trying to memorize it. Incredibly, the memorization of such tales wasn’t uncommon 1,000 years ago. In fact, the ability of oral people to memorize all sorts of details necessary to living a good life was a prodigious feat, amazing really, that we post-moderns are but poorly equipped to duplicate.
Both orality and literacy are actually different kinds of what American philosopher Kenneth Burke calls “equipment for living.” Depending on which equipment you have, you are suited to accomplish some things with ease, but constrained from accomplishing others. Consider this analogy. My wife and I like to hike into the wilderness for a few days at a time carrying everything we’re going to need in our packs: tent, sleeping bags, food, stove, and water. Backpacking allows us to break out of our dull routines and get with nature–a great gift. But backpacking also constrains us. Out in the woods we can’t order pizza, drink cold beer, or put a Joseph Suk violin concerto on the stereo.
That’s how it is with orality too. It gives gifts. It encourages the development of great storytelling and listening gifts. Orality frees people from having to spend years learning their abc’s in school. Orality ties people to their local scene and often creates a warm link between them and the land. But orality–like backpacking–also constrains people. Orality limits the amount of information people have at hand, since that information is limited to what you or whoever is with you has memorized. Orality doesn’t equip you to think in great detail about long chains of abstract reasoning, since having a pencil and paper in hand are a necessary aid for most people doing this sort of calculation. People in oral societies generally don’t subscribe to underground journals from the other end of the continent, and so orality constrains one’s opportunities to hear new ideas.
For nearly fifteen hundred years the church accommodated itself to the weaknesses and strengths of orality. The church taught its laity through the use of drama, as in mystery and passion plays. The church invested heavily in visual arts. Pope Gregory the Great wrote that “painting should be used in churches, that those who do not know letters at least by looking at the walls may read those [things] which they are not able to read in books.” Statues, gargoyles, stained glass windows, stations-of-the-cross, reliquaries, rosaries, shrines, and pilgrimages were used as aids to memory, and many still amaze and please us for their aesthetic excellence. Itinerant preachers preached in an enthusiastic and crowd pleasing manner that would have made Billy Sunday proud.
The invention of the printing press altered this world irrevocably. Over the course of a few generations, the explosion of cheap reading material helped propel vast numbers of Europeans into literacy. Where in oral Europe to be holy was to go to Mass, after the invention of the printing press, to be holy was to be schooled. Europeans learned to argue scripture amongst themselves, read confessions and catechisms aloud, and sing out of personal Psalters. Literate Europeans arguing about the latest tract out of Geneva or broadside from the Mennonites sometimes discovered that although they disagreed with their neigh
bors they agreed with writers who lived at the other end of Europe.
The switch to word literacy even had an impact on the sort of doctrines that won the people’s hearts. For example, over time most Protestants gave up on heroic stories of the atonement for more legalistic accounts. Consciously or not, they traded Christus Victor stories for substitutionary atonement formulas. In a typical Christus Victor account, Jesus tricks Satan into letting him into the realm of the dead by disguising himself in human flesh, so that he can smite Satan in the grave and set us free through that cosmic battle. As readers, however, Christians gave up this colorful account of what Jesus did for the complex chain of reasoning and analogies typical of Anselmian substitutionary atonement theology. Both accounts of the atonement are hoary with age. But one is obviously more memorable than the other, and so was more popular in an oral setting; to fully appreciate the other requires a few pages of linear argumentation about mostly abstract concepts. Walter Ong comments (though not specifically about this doctrine) that “with the control of information and memory brought about by writing and more intensely, by print, you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form.”
Agons are popular in oral cultures because they are memorable. They serve as black-and-white models for how one should live, what one should value, and where one’s help comes from. Beowulf’s unforgettable heroic deeds embody the sort of life and priorities that people should aspire to, and tell the story of where they came from.
But now, after being more or less out of fashion for three hundred years or so, the agons of orality are back. A literate culture that had mostly given up on Baal and Beowulf is now giving up on Systematics and Catechisms and on reading deeply and widely–at least compared to several generations ago. My grandfather, a Dutch immigrant, used to read Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd with his grade three education, and hundreds of unschooled immigrants just like him beat a path to his St. Catharines, Ontario, backroom bookstore in the fifties and sixties. Now, in the United States, the average college grad reads only two or so new books a year. And judging by a recent trip to the local Barnes and Noble, many of those are self-help or inspirational books more notable for their use of bulleted lists and white-space than weighty words or complex ideas.
Many scholars, from Neil Postman to Barry Sanders to Sven Birkerts, have explained how contemporary media have returned us to the past. In brief, with the advent of electric communication like the telegraph and telephone, and now with the triumph of television and the computer, the uses to which literacy have been put have changed dramatically. People can still read–but they have much less practice at reading deeply and reading well because they have devoted so much more time to non-reading activities, and especially to television. There is even some evidence to suggest that watching television can result in a lessened appetite for reading and less ability to make sense of the printed page’s potential for multiple levels of meaning, allusion, and complex linearity. As a result, in our secondary-oral culture, the agons and their memorable deeds are back, constructing meaning by their stories and supporting the mythic structures of society on their shoulders.
There is more to this switch, however, than a change in our culture’s reading preferences. I said, earlier, that orality and literacy each give gifts, and each constrains. There are at least two cultural constraints that secondary orality seems to insist on as surely as it does on agonistic heroes. Secondary oral culture, like orality, tends to conservatism in matters related to political power; it cultivates a worldview from the right, from the perspective of father-empire, the rich establishment, and the few.
In orality, conservatism is a function of not wanting to give up a structure or a thought or a skill that one had invested a great deal of time in learning. When there are few books and they are difficult to get hold of, and when not many people can read them anyway, useful knowledge is whatever you have in your head or whatever you can ask your neighbor about. So change, and the investment in time and intellectual resources it takes to master change, was looked upon with deep suspicion. This suspicion helped ensure uncommon political stability–at least with respect to the political order–even in the face of incredible instability when it came to food, disease, weather, and other “acts of god.” While kings and popes might come and go, or even reign in competition to each other, the structure they were part of stood the test of time.
Secondary orality is similarly conservative when it comes to power. Roland Barthes notes, for example, that “Statistically, myth [that is, agonistic story telling to account for political reality, as in talk of evil empires and evil axes] . . . is on the right. There, myth is essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, of morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of literature, and of entertainment.”
We live in an era of media convergence, where the channels of communication are owned by a few and therefore, necessarily, by the powerful economic agons of our day. Most people today rarely read much beyond a grade school level. Reading material in this niche usually mirrors attitudes and priorities approved of by the economic agons and their institutions. Such material might offer an entertaining diversion, or a tiny and superficial sampling of the day’s news, but it will only rarely offer consumers alternative points of view that might serve to undermine the place of the economic agons who sell it. Today’s citizenry is largely cut off from resources that would allow them to change their minds about anything much more important than brand loyalty. Finally, as individuals, by and large secondary oral consumers of mass media are usually conservative when it comes to maintaining today’s structures and powers because they don’t want or are unable to do the intellectual work–the reading, training and organizing it takes–to learn about new attitudes or understand complex structures.
As a result, secondary orality also fosters a sense of political and social apathy, and sometimes helplessness. If the important battles are between the heroes duking it out in the heavens or far away battlefields or cave complexes, between what AOL has described as a “mythic” Osama bin Laden and the aristocratic Bush clan; or if the battles are between a global free market and backwards third world dictators–what sort of difference can average citizens make? Not much. We may have more money, more shows, and more gigabytes than any other generation; but along with fewer books, we have less to say, and less say, than ever before too. As with Zeus and Baal, today’s agons exist mostly beyond our scope of influence. At best we can be careful consumers and perhaps write the occasional letter to Congress.
Most secondary oral people respond to feelings of powerlessness by allowing themselves to be more and more thoroughly co-opted by the system and its structures, a process which also reinforces their basic political (though not necessarily moral) conservativism. Realizing that structural change is unlikely and that different ideological paradigms are nonstarters, some of us, especially those of us who benefit materially from the status quo–which is to say most of us–just go along for the ride. We read USA Today, watch hours of TV, vote for centrist Democrats and Republicans, and if we’re really smart, save like crazy for retirement. Even Christians, who are supposed to be in some ways, at least, strangers
and aliens to the world and its ways in that we strive to follow the path of loving God and neighbor before seeking our self-interest, are hijacked into the system. I’m reminded of the Stockholm syndrome, where kidnap victims fall in love with their kidnappers, the way Patricia Hearst did when she joined the SLA in the late seventies.
A related response to a pervasive sense of powerlessness is the adoption of apocalyptic worldviews that promise amazing escape from the way things are.The CRC and the RCA stand in the same central spot; however, they stand back-to-back, looking different ways. If they could agree to join hands, then the mentalities of each might offer just the right balance to keep them standing for a long time to come. More ominously, extremists who have strong ideological objections to the agons, but feel marginalized, are likely to put their trust in charismatic leaders who can inspire them to sacrificial acts of courage, which they hope will propel the world into a crisis that will purify it or force the gods to act on our behalf. The 9/11 terrorist bombings were such apocalyptic acts. And Aryan Nation racist terrorists have for years been inspired by the apocalyptic novel The Turner Diaries, which tells the story of how terrorist cells of racists use bank robberies, assassinations and mass killing to precipitate a race war that exterminates all persons of color and gives whites North America.
Earlier in this article, I suggested that I didn’t want to make a value judgment about orality as better or worse, more or less civilized, than literacy. As Christians, however–as people of the book, and as worshippers of Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate–we would be wise to be as adept and resourceful at using words as we can be. We are ambassadors of reconciliation, says the apostle Paul, and smart ambassadors surely use as many avenues as possible to make their case to both the culture in general and the powers that be. In part, that requires us, as Christ’s ambassadors, to understand and adept at using contemporary media. However, real mastery of these technological tools–as opposed to simple consumption of their products–also requires that we not give up on deep literacy. Rather than be consumers of some elite’s agonistic story-telling, the Christian community needs to make sure its own old, old story is told and retold.