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Finding faith in superheroes: From Superman's spirituality to Wolverine's wounds

Callahan | Shutterstock

Tomek Grodecki - published on 06/03/20

Fr. Christopher Ortega talks to Tomek Grodecki about finding God in 'Man of Steel,' 'X-Men (TV Series)' and 'Batman: The Animated Series.'

Fr. Christopher Ortega is a parochial vicar of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Albany, Georgia. As well as having hundreds of parishioners, he also has thousands of Instagram followers! A blogger and a host of the podcast Casual Conversations, Fr. Christopher is known from his insights on faith and popular culture. His motto is “to be IN the world but not OF the world” for a reason.

“Growing as a child, I always liked cartoons,” he says. “I always liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, Superman … and that desire was always there.”

FR CHRISTOPHER ORTEGA
Photo provided by Fr. Christopher Ortega

Together, we’re discussing religious themes that can be found in the stories of superheroes. The article contains some spoilers on Man of Steel, X-Men (TV Series) and Batman: The Animated Series.

Tomek Grodecki: In Man of Steel he meets a priest. In For All Seasons he talks to a pastor. Why does a character such as Superman seek help from the clergy?

Fr. Christopher Ortega: Dude, why are you asking me this? (laughs) In the movie, Superman is the strongest man on Earth and his body is only responding to radiation, the Sun, which makes him stronger. He had this experience with his father who told him to decide what kind of man he wants to be. Good or bad. Whatever he chooses, he’s going to change the world.

But then there is a moral standard, something that helps us understand what is right and what is wrong. So even though Superman is strong – even though he can do the good in the end – he’s struggling with what is the right decision, what is a good thing to do.

The priest asks him: “What is your gut telling you?” and he says: “Zod can’t be trusted. The problem is, I’m not sure the people of Earth can be either.” He’s struggling with what is the good thing to do and even though Superman is an alien, even though he doesn’t belong on Earth, he’s still having those questions. He needs to be directed. He needs those answers. He’s looking for something beyond him. He’s looking for guidance, and ultimately the priest does that. He brings about guidance. Points him to the truth. Points him to God.

The priest is meant to be the one who’s talking to God, talking to Jesus. The priest is talking to the Holy Spirit, to God the Father. So ideally the priest ought to know something deeper – the truths of the soul, the truths of the human person. Ultimately, the priest is trying to guide everyone to understand what is true, good and beautiful. To do the right thing. So I think Superman is definitely wanting that. He’s wanting to be guided.

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It’s a pretty interesting part, because Superman and the priest discuss a “leap of faith.” “Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.” This concept can be found in the works of the philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard.

There is a part of you that just doesn’t know. There is a part of you that doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Faith allows us to see the things we can’t see. It allows us to trust somebody. The thing is, you can’t really divide faith and trust. They both go together. And I see what the priest was saying though. You need to be able to trust that something is going to happen. You need to stand on your ground and look at the good of something.

And then, when he was talking about trust, he was ultimately talking about your relationship with people. You trust in the good, you trust in God first. That is the faith. And then, when the priest said that the trust part comes later – you trust God, but you begin to trust humans. You begin to give yourself to them. That’s actually the part of spiritual life. Everything flows around our relationship with God. From there we’re meant to go out to people. From there we begin to interact and relate with others.

I think that’s what the priest is saying. You take the leap of faith first. The trust part comes after. You have to entrust yourself to a Higher Being first. A Higher Cost. A Higher Good. Simply – God. And then, from there you begin to interact and have that trust with other individuals, who are broken, who are hurt as well, to do the good thing.

I know you’re an X-Men fan. In one of the cartoon’s episodes, Nightcrawler is a monk who spreads the Gospel to Wolverine. What are your impressions after watching it?

I found it quite interesting revisiting this episode. First of all, I was just amazed how explicitly it was talking about God. It was very good, because you could see the woundedness of Wolverine (and how Nightcrawler understood it), but ultimately Wolverine didn’t allow that woundedness and his anger to stay with him. He allowed himself to be open to God’s love.

I think Nightcrawler said: “To see in different eyes.” Wolverine’s eyes were closed and he refused to go outside of himself. So I think it was great to see Nightcrawler addressing that yes, there is hurt. There’s anger. There’s woundedness. And there’s a lot against us. But that doesn’t define us. We can still change. We can still see things as God sees.

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There’s an episode of Batman: The Animated Series that maybe isn’t faith-related, but I would still like to discuss it. In “It’s Never Too Late” Batman teams up with a priest. What do you think about it?

What’s really cool about it, is the whole idea it’s never too late. It’s never too late to change. You can see [a crime lord –Ed.] Arnold Stromwell who was upset at life and who had money, power, but that brought him misery. His marriage was falling apart. His son got hooked on drugs. His empire was crushing. And he didn’t even care about it. He was still trying to have more power.

And Batman with the help from Fr. Michael was able to talk with him about it, that you can change, that this is not who you are. You can be different. And by changing, you can change the world around you. What happened to your son, you can stop it. It doesn’t have to be the same result for other people.

It was a really great episode. Just about repentance. To be able to change. There’s always an opportunity to come back to God, to come back to doing a good thing.

A bonus question: Why did you dress as Batman?

Why did I dress as Batman? Because it was so much fun! (laughs) I think someone gave me those pajamas and the children at school were having a Pajama Day in December, so I thought: “Hey, I’ve got pajamas! I’m going to wear them, too!” It was a lot of fun to be a child again with them, to have a child-like personality. And of course, to pretend to be Batman!



Special thanks to Steven McCormick for editing assistance.

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