The Hidden Link Between Martin Luther and… Peter Parker?

Can’t say I was expecting the following (timely!) illustration to pop up in the Substitution […]

David Zahl / 10.27.17

Can’t say I was expecting the following (timely!) illustration to pop up in the Substitution chapter of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, ht RS:

A substantive argument against the motif of atonement and substitution is that people in other cultures around the world do not see themselves in the categories we have been discussing–guilt, incapacity, bondage, shame, failure, defeat. Yet the more one hears this, the more the categories seem to pop up. Here is an example that originated in American comic-book culture and spread around the world. In a highbrow essay review of Spider-Man, the blockbuster movie of 2002, Geoffrey O’Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, harks back to the original comic of 1962:

The crucial plot point in the original episode was that Peter Parker’s initial burst of unwonted arrogance on receiving his spider powers led… to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. The notion of a moral lapse (his momentary hubris) that could never really be atoned for gave the comic book its air of perpetual dissatisfaction; being Spider-Man was… a perpetual reminder to the hero of his own shortcomings, a kind of penance. There was always the possibility that he would fail again, and so he was condemned to a vigilant monitoring of his own reactions and impulses. In such a situation an unqualified sense of triumph was by definition impossible. In its goofy way, The Amazing Spider-Man acknowledged the tragic sense of life.

This remarkable paragraph from a secular journal incorporates much of what we have been trying to say all along. Moreover, it mirrors in an almost uncanny way the struggle of Martin Luther to monitor his behavior and his consequent discovery that an “unqualified sense of triumph” is “by definition impossible,” and can only be experienced through the victory of Christ…. In his reference to the “tragic sense of life,” O’Brien means to set the guilt of one individual into its context, that of ubiquitous human failure. In great novels of universal significance such as those of Joseph Conrad, the same dynamic is revealed. Conrad’s narrator Marlow tells stories showing that the guilt and shame of one man (Lord Jim) are made to stand for us all, and the guilt of the British Empire (Heart of Darkness) is drawn into the larger saga not only of the individual soul but also of cosmic entrapment in the infernal stream… of darkness.”

If this be “Western,” make the most of it. (pg 491-92)