X-Men and Evolution and Evangelicalism

The late ’00s was a weird, transitionary time in my life.  In the period encompassing 2007 and 2009, I finished undergrad, got married, became really serious about my faith as an evangelical Christian, took a white collar job, realized I didn’t like white collar work and really did want to be a teacher, and embarked on a project that I had wanted to do since I was a kid: reading the entire backlog of Marvel’s X-Men comics line.

The core parts of my life that I’m really content with took shape in that period: I’m still happily married, I’ve been working as a teacher for three years now and I love it, and I’m pretty thoroughly educated in the world of the X-Men (that one’s honestly pretty minor in comparison to the other two, but it’s great fodder for conversation and blog posts).  Other things have changed radically: I’m no longer an evangelical, which in that subculture effectively means I’m not a Christian anymore (although I take serious issue with that), and undergrad is so far in the past now that I’ve reached the point of grudging nostalgia (this is slightly galling, since I recall very clearly as an undergraduate resenting alumni who would come back to campus to indulge their own nostalgia; it’s definitely a case of thinking that my younger self would be disappointed in me).

It seems kind of silly now to look at all the stuff that I was doing at that point in my life and come to the realization that my totally just for fun comic book hobby played a part in my gradual renunciation of evangelical theology (especially since I still love both the X-Men and Christian theology as topics for thought and conversation), but that’s the case.

It goes like this.

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with mainstream superhero comics knows that it’s a medium that flouts all known science right out of the gate.  Biology, chemistry, physics do not work that way in the real world, and it’s absurd to assume you can expect anything beyond the most fundamental “Hell yeah, science!” message from superheroes.  Do not use these stories as educational on any level.  When dealing more specifically with the X-Men, you have to always remember that evolution does not work that way.

The funny thing is I was aware of this fundamental rule of the X-Men when I was an evangelical.  I thought it was kind of insidious that the series was fundamentally pro-evolution, but also absurd because it was so wrong about how evolution operates.  Essentially, I had some really complicated feelings regarding my consumption of mainstream entertainment when I was evangelical pertaining to the constant worry over ideological infection (which actually turned out to be valid, though from this side I don’t think it was a bad thing at all).

See, besides the pro-evolution stuff that undergirds X-Men’s narrative, there’s also the persistent message that people who are different are not monsters (I know, it’s shocking, right?).  Occasionally, about once per generation of new X-Men, this message gets played out explicitly through a character’s introduction as they flee in terror from an angry mob (X-Men writers really love angry mobs).  Off the top of my head, I remember this scenario occurring with Iceman, Nightcrawler, Wolfsbane, and Oya.  Iceman’s story isn’t that interesting, but the other three have in common a major unifying factor: they’re targeted because the locals who are trying to kill them believe that they’re demonic (and each case is working within an explicitly Christian mythological frame).

Rahne’s been pretty screwed up for most of her life, and it’s really only in the last few years that her faith has shifted from being a burden to being a strength for her. (Image credit: Comics Vine)

Nightcrawler hails from the German state of Bavaria, a traditionally Catholic part of the country, and in his origin story from Giant-Size X-Men #1, he’s attacked by local villagers who take his unusual appearance as a sign that he’s a devil (sadly, Nightcrawler’s origin was eventually retconned so that his biological father actually is a devil, which I think undermines the point of this origin).  Rahne Sinclair, Wolfsbane, is an orphan who was attacked by members of her small Scots Presbyterian community after they discovered her mutant ability to shapeshift into a wolf (to add insult to injury, this mob was motivated by the bigoted preaching of her abusive guardian Reverend Craig, who was eventually revealed to have also been her biological father).  Idie Okonkwo, Oya, is a young girl who was attacked by local militia who took her for a witch after her powers manifested and she accidentally burned down her village in Nigeria.

Idie, like Rahne, was pretty screwed up for quite a while after her powers manifested. Noticing a pattern? (Image credit: Comics Vine)

While Nightcrawler has been largely resilient in the face of his early treatment (he’s always been content with his appearance and displayed no residual self loathing due to the way he was treated in Bavaria, largely because he also grew up in a traveling circus where he had an extremely supportive foster family), Rahne and Idie haven’t been so fortunate.  Rahne’s character arc for many years dealt with her slowly coming to grips with the abusive nature of her upbringing and realizing that the wider world wasn’t as horrible a place as Reverend Craig made it out to be.  She took a long time to accept that her nature as a mutant wasn’t the result of some inherited sin.  Idie, who’s a much more recently introduced character, has had a much shorter character arc revolving around her internalized sense of being a monster because of her powers.  She comes from a village where Christianity had apparently been spread, and up until very recently, she was convinced that her powers meant that she was automatically damned.  Idie’s portrayal in recent stories has shown her as more comfortable in her mutant identity, though the state of her faith is ambiguous (she was involved in a plot by the Purifiers, a group of fundamentalist Christian terrorists who have been recurring enemies of the X-Men since the ’80s, to infiltrate and destroy the Jean Grey School, and it’s unclear how those events have impacted her relationship with her faith).

I bring all this stuff up because I remember really sympathizing with Rahne’s story in particular during my evangelical days (Idie hadn’t even been introduced back in 2008 when I was playing catch up).  Hers was an example of how fundamentalist forms of faith are intrinsically harmful, and even if at the time I was thinking, “I’m glad I’m not that kind of Christian,” I realize now it was important that I was recognizing that Christianity could indeed hurt people in that way and that exclusionary theologies were particularly bad.  My reading X-Men comics was one of the first experiences that helped me grow towards the more inclusivist model of Christianity that I’ve adopted in the last few years.

And yeah, I’m totally cool with evolution, even if the comics always get it wrong.

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