How far back do you go with popular culture? What version of Trivial Pursuit do you like to play? If the question should come up, “Who said the magic word ‘Shazam’?” and you answer “Gomer Pyle,” you aren’t going far enough back. It was originally the calling card of Billy Batson, boy broadcaster, who, upon uttering it, would turn into “the World’s Mightiest Mortal.” The word was an acronym, each letter standing for one of the hero’s divine patrons: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury. It denoted that Captain Marvel possessed the powers of wisdom, strength, stamina, power, courage (though invulnerability would seem to fit Achilles better), and speed. Some of these are conveniently ill-defined because in comics vagueness of power usually means near-omnipotence. Well, this comic book mythology tells me a few things. Or, better, it reminds me of some important things.

First, the scenario envisioned is ostensibly one of supernaturalism and magic, but underneath, it bespeaks a kind of Humanism. The first clue is that Solomon is ranked alongside Greek and Roman deities, implying his equally mythical character. Or, since his wisdom is said to be God-given, his appearance here is euphemistic for the Hebrew, biblical deity. To add Jehovah’s name to such a list would have sounded blasphemous to the mothers of many readers (as when I once suggested to Humanist musician Gerry Dantone that he might want to record a song called “Jehovah Can Kiss my Ass”).

Second, since the comics featuring Captain Marvel did not feature the Olympian deities as narrative characters (in stark contrast, e.g., to Wonder Woman or Hercules comics), we must suspect that the investiture of Billy Batson with divine powers is a comic book parable of Ludwig Feuerbach. Feuerbach (in his classic work, The Essence of Christianity) observed how theologians (from Calvin to Schleiermacher) all agreed that we cannot and do not know God as he ostensibly is in himself. All we know are the attributes, qualities, virtues of God as they impinge upon us. We cannot know what the Gnostics called “the deep things of God.” But then what conceivable reason is there for us to believe there is a flower central to these petals? Maybe the divine attributes exist all right, but in here, not out there. Perhaps his “communicable” attributes (the ones theology says we can share, that can rub off on us: righteousness, love, forgiveness, justice, etc.) exist only in us, only in the human heart.

To pin them on God, like a paper tail onto a cardboard donkey, is to eschew them and to heap them onto the shoulders of an imaginary scapegoat. For you see, lazy human beings want not only to slough off blame for what they have done, but equally to shirk the responsibility for what we should do but have not. We could be virtuous? Compassionate? We could excel? Ahhhh... no thanks! What a great and pious-sounding excuse to clip our own wings, to whine that we, poor us, could not hope to do in our own miserable strength what religion calls us to do. Oh no! That would be to allow mortal flesh to exalt itself in the sight of God who alone is righteous. Our every confession of sin only shows how righteous God is, number one, to do the right thing himself, and, number two, to condemn us. But that’s okay, because this very groveling moves him to forgive us!  How convenient.

Well, Captain Marvel puts those divine virtues back where Feuerbach says they belong. Billy Batson is a transparent example of the moral challenge all men and women and children face. Accordingly, Cap’s team-mates included a boy, Captain Marvel Junior, and a girl, Mary Marvel. In all three cases, it is a child who says the magic word and gains the powers of maturity, but this crucial aspect of the image is clearest with the Big Red Cheese himself: the child literally transforming into an adult. Cap Junior and Mary, remaining children, albeit with super powers, symbolically underline the fact that the virtuous person is the child who claims his birthright or (moral and psychological) power.

That all this is really about plain old human beings, lest we forget the meaning of the imagery, there is also the comedic Uncle Marvel who stuffs his bulk into a Captain Marvel costume and shares the Marvel Family’s adventures as far as he can with no extraordinary powers at all: except his wits. It is he, not the godlike Captain Marvel, Junior, or Mary, who defeats Black Adam (Captain Marvel’s evil counterpart) by clever trickery. Uncle Marvel rubs in the point of the whole Shazam myth of transformation of “mere” humans into the mighty titans we can and should be, that we evolved to be!

But there is more. In the origin story of Captain Marvel, young Billy Batson is led by a mysterious figure down a hidden tunnel. Bracketed torches reveal that the hall is lined with huge leering, tusked idols with the collective title: “The Seven Deadly Enemies of Mankind.” You guessed it: they are the “seven deadly sins” of pride, sloth, gluttony, greed, lust, anger, and vanity. But the word “sins” has disappeared, to be replaced with “enemies of mankind.” The significance is exactly the same as when merchants change “Christmas trees” to “Holiday trees.” The point is secularization. And in this case, the secularization is an excellent idea. It is to see the difference between the categories of “sin” (an essentially theological term: wrong done to God) and “wrongdoing” (an ethical term describing injuries done to one human by another). Why are particular ceremonial transgressions forbidden (whether in the Bible or in any other culture)? It seems arbitrary to outsiders, though there is always a complex underlying order, even if its own upholders have forgotten it. (See Mary Douglas’s classic essay, “The Abominations of Leviticus” and indeed the whole book of which it is a part, Purity and Danger.) They usually boil down to violations of the culture’s taxonomy, eating something from the “Forbidden” column on the menu, something not supposed to be considered food. These, in any case, are acts that do no other human harm. They remove the transgressor’s ritual purity, his or her qualification for religious participation. Such were “sins” proper.

But in time the “sin” category expanded and inflated to include every sort of wrongdoing, and there was a downside to that. It obscured distinctions that enabled us to understand how, why, in what sense, certain acts were supposed to be “bad.” It was sinful to eat pork but hardly “immoral.” Eating shell fish did no other Hebrew any harm, but it violated the ceremonial requirements of the covenant with Jehovah. And if we mix these up, things start sounding absurd and ridiculous. For instance, I argue that, biblically, premarital sex is forbidden as a matter of ritual purity and of property rights. It has nothing to do with morality. So when church kids get the nerve to ask why premarital sex should be wrong, they can never get a convincing answer. Their elders have forgotten the original distinctions and sound ridiculous trying to provide a moral answer when there never was one in the first place.

Today we are little concerned with forbidding things that do no pragmatic harm to ourselves or to others. And this is what is so significant about “the seven deadly sins” becoming “the seven deadly enemies of mankind.” It provides a reason beyond mere prohibition. If lust and sloth are “sins” it means God doesn’t much like ‘em, but that is no longer a good enough reason. But if we realize these attitudes are poisonous to human character, inimical to moral maturity, that they tempt us to treat others as means rather than ends in themselves, why, we have understood why they ought to be avoided. It is not that, for his own inscrutable reasons, God somehow prefers something else. It is rather that we will not like the results of these acts in our own lives, and so we have a pretty urgent reason for avoiding them. They are our enemies. With the traditional (childish) view, God appears to be the enemy of mankind, selfishly hording the goodies, the pleasures, that he denies to us, just as the ancients portrayed Zeus, who wanted but failed to keep the good portion of the sacrificial beasts to himself, or Jehovah who could not bear to have his pet humans gain the wits to challenge his own divine rule.

You see? That’s what I’m talking about: when God dies, the way is cleared for the Superman to arrive. Just say the word.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
July 2009


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