Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Purple State of Craig
Because the conversation continues….
How many kids reading comics, envision themselves flying? They may imagine making that single bound off the roof of their home, only to land with a deflating thud (and maybe even a broken arm)? Mutant and Mystics is a throwback to a time when comics and sci-fi first expanded our notion of what’s possible, when adolescent dreams were fueled by the visions of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Philip K. Dick. Yet, it also aspires to help us master human flight, to incorporate the astral projections of John Carter, to literally get to Mars.
Jeffrey J. Kripal’s mind-growing Mutant and Mystics aims to elevate consciousness. Or at least connect the dots between the human consciousness movement and the rise of sci-fi driven comic books. It mines back-issues of the X-Men series to point out just how normal it made the paranormal. Jean Grey isn’t merely a superhero, but an exemplar of the kinds of gifts and experiences we all should aspire to develop: mutants as our highest ideal.
Mutant and Mystics is distinguished by the seriousness with which it treats the seemingly ridiculous. (It is the featured at this month’s Patheos Book Club). Kripal manages the rare feat of offending both conservative Christians and materialistic scientists. He combines three areas that have been equally maligned by the scholarly community—science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. While many have noted how comic books reflected the anxieties of the atomic era, Kripal pushes past the cultural connections to suggest a broad rising of consciousness found in the writing of Charles Fort, Ray Palmer, and John Keel. His attention to detail is admirable. Kripal snaps across esoteric and obscure corners of Amazing Stories with rare facility. Mutants and Mystics is a wild, dizzying ride.
Kripal’s rigor is matched by the creativity of the presentation. Mutants and Mystics is a beautiful book loaded with eye-catching graphics. Kudos to the University of Chicago for publishing a hardback that literally POPS.
What further distinguishes (and complicates) Kripal’s research is his personal connection to the stories he’s studying. (Read an interview with Dr. Kripal at Patheos). He begins Mutants and Mystics by recounting his own paranormal experience in India, where he felt the Tantric goddess Kali dancing across his paralyzed body in 1989. And the book ends with an affirmation of the human possibilities championed by the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. What began as prior research for Kripal turned into full-blown conversion. He is both Esalen’s historian and a dedicated practitioner. Should the lack of objectivity inherent in his research disqualify him? Perhaps an earlier era would have seen too many jumbled agendas. But in the postmodern moment, Kripal’s first hand experiences with the paranormal seemingly make him more qualified to tackle it as a subject—we understand why he is so interested in his subject.
As a scholar who writes on the intersection of theology and pop culture, I tread a similarly fine line. My book, Into the Dark, begins by recounting the profound effect the movie Raging Bull had upon my eventual decision to take Christian faith seriously. I write to try to understand my own spiritual experiences and filter them through detailed scholarship. Kripal is doing the same thing with sci-fi and the paranormal. He talks about UFO’s with the same passion I bring to the four Gospels.
Are we both equally crazy to merge the personal and the professional? Does it detract from our work or give us energy to burn? Christian scholars who have pointed to the Christological shape of the Superman story may be shocked to discover Kripal tying it to notions of aliens and the occult. (Read this excerpt from the book here). Jack Kirby’s contributions to the Fantastic Four are ascribed to Kirby’s personal Kabbalah. Yet even a cursory glance at Spider-Man’s mask demonstrates Kripal’s striking connections to the descriptions from alien abductions. Just when I thought he jumped the shark, Kripal lands a big one.
One haunting question unanswered by his impressive research: why are all of the writers he discusses (both of comics and sci-fi) men? Is there something inherently masculine in the human potential movement? Do aliens prefer guys? Or does it take masculine hubris to believe we are progressing toward Super-status?
Some may feel Kripal tries too hard to fit his examples into his overriding Metamyth. But I found his humor and perspective refreshing. Perhaps the mythic elements of comic books are rich and pliable enough to fit into multiple religious traditions. Mutants and Mystics explains why a film like The Matrix can be claimed by multiple traditions as ‘their story’. Kripal builds a convincing case for reading comics as a mystical, right-brained primer for human potential. For those who wonder why Hollywood keeps mining the Marvel vaults for more material, Dr. Kripal provides a provocative thesis. We have only just begun to discover our true power residing amidst aliens in spandex.
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