One pastor wrote a book about finding virtue, vice and holiness in the comics.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
VILLA HILLS, Ky. -- When H. Michael Brewer watches Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch battle Dr. Doom in "Fantastic Four," which opened July 8, he'll be seeing something much larger -- a metaphor for the church.
The Villa Hills pastor has been a comic-book fan since before he learned to read, and for almost as long, he's drawn parallels between superheroes and religion.
"Intuitively, I probably made the connection at a very early age," he said.
In the case of the Fantastic Four, Brewer likes to think of them as an unconventional family -- four individuals brought together by a crisis (exposure to cosmic radiation that gave them their powers).
Just like the diversity in the church, each member of the foursome has his or her own problems -- The Thing is disfigured by the accident; the Invisible Woman is loving and generous but taken for granted; the Human Torch is a teenager with a temper; and Mr. Fantastic, the leader, feels responsible for the group because of his role in the accident.
The "Fantastic Four have something to say about people living together in spite of differences," Brewer said. "They often fight, but they stay together because they're a family."
They also have something to say about the mission of the church: "They don't exist just to be a family," he said. "They exist to be a family that's trying to save the world."
Brewer, who recently turned 51, has been pastor of Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for 26 years. He also is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Northern Kentucky University.
He published a book, "Who Needs a Superhero? Finding Virtue, Vice and What's Holy in the Comics," in November.
"Comic books fit into a very old archetype," Brewer said. "The primary story is the savior story -- some figure, more powerful than we are, who steps in to do for us what we can't do for ourselves."
Gilgamesh and Beowulf were two of the first superheroes, he said, but the most enduring superhero of the modern era is probably Superman.
And the comparisons Brewer can draw between the Man of Steel and the Son of Man are seemingly endless.
USuperman's father, who lived in the heavens, sends his son to Earth.
UHe grows up in a small town but moves to the big city when he reaches manhood.
UHe takes a commonplace job.
UHe has amazing powers, but rather than using them to take control of Earth, he uses them for good.
UHis mission is to save the world.
UHe dies to save Metropolis but later returns to life.
"That's a pretty powerful role model," Brewer said of Superman.
Sometimes it's plain that a comic book's author intends a religious connection, Brewer said. Other times, the connections are "creative interpretation of the text."
Superman, for example, was created in 1938 by two Jewish teenagers -- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- making it unlikely that Jesus Christ, the Christian Messiah, was their inspiration.
Brewer is certainly not the first to suggest comparisons between comics and morality.
"There's actually kind of a small crop of this type of book," said Andy McClung, a lifelong comic-book fan who is pastor of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Tenn.
McClung, who reads and collects Daredevil and Moon Knight books, said that most of the books he's read take a theological or academic tone, but he found Brewer's work much more accessible.
"His love for comics really just permeated the book," he said.
McClung's congregation is used to hearing about superheroes during Sunday worship services.
"The kids always love it," he said.
On the day of his son's baptism, McClung gave a sermon based on Spider-Man, drawing on the refrain often associated with Spidey: "With great power comes great responsibility." In this case, McClung said, that responsibility was to raise his child as a follower of Jesus.
He has also preached on the strength in diversity exemplified by the X-Men, a band of genetic mutants who use their various superpowers to work together for good.
After reading Brewer's book, McClung finally got up the courage to preach about Daredevil, a blind superhero whose only powers are heightened senses.
The church was about to begin a discernment process, and he used his favorite character to teach a lesson about the effort to understand what God wants the church to be.
"We don't have to be super-Christians to listen for God's call," he said.
Joshua Combs, children's minister at Faith Baptist Church in Waterford, Mich., said he also was inspired by Brewer's work.
After he read the book, Combs said, the church spent six months teaching lessons themed on Batman.
The children's room was painted with murals of Gotham City, and Combs was fitted with a $1,000 Batman costume.
Faith Baptist brings in 1,000 to 1,500 kids each week, and during the series, which began in January, more than 200 accepted Jesus, Combs said.
"A lot of times, in churches, we stay away from the experimental," he said. "Instead of fearing popular culture, we just snagged it and claimed it. There's so much material from Batman."
The Caped Crusader, burdened by guilt that leads him to try to save the world by himself, helped teach the need to rely on God rather than ourselves.
The Joker made an appearance during a lesson in which pupils were taught that "sin is no joke," Combs said.
And Two-Face was used to demonstrate how "Satan has two faces."
Combs used the Riddler to convey the idea that "God does not want to confuse us."
Batgirl and Robin also went to church during the series.
"Mike's book was the whole springboard for that," Combs said. "When the kids walk in, they're excited about being there."