By Corey Patterson
This May marks the eightieth anniversary of the superhero known as the Green Lantern. First introduced as the mantle of a railroad engineer named Alan Scott, the character has since evolved to incorporate new concepts, powers, and people, making it one of the most dynamic superhero titles in comic book history.
It would be quite the understatement to say the character has had its fair share of adaptations over the years. But rather than whittling the hero down to non-relatable concepts, these changes reinforce one of the most remarkable qualities about Green Lantern: a personification of the human imagination. This is further reinforced by the character’s unique ability to produce constructs from his or her mind using green light.
Unsurprisingly, the Green Lantern’s adaptations have allowed the character to endure through multiple generations of readers. What’s particularly interesting are the similarities found when comparing both the history and powers of the Green Lantern to conceptions of the “More” in life, or what many call “God.” Both of these spheres of thought employ imagination to high degrees to further enhance the human experience.
The Green Lantern mythology remained in its infancy during Alan Scott’s tenure as the green-clad hero. But with the rise of science fiction’s popularity in the fifties, DC Comics deemed it time to further develop the character. And just like that, Hal Jordan was born — arguably the most famous Green Lantern of all.
This new version of the hero retained all the powers of hard light construction his predecessor was known for, yet found them rooted in science — not magic. In this way, Jordan connected with readers where they were. He provided a new narrative for those living in that era, both through his grounding in “science” and connection with the Air Force. And, as if starting a trend, we saw timely updates to the character as time went on.
One thing held true for each new iteration of Green Lantern — whether it was the brave John Stewart, creative Kyle Rayner, or determined Jessica Cruz, and that is their ability to will their imagination into reality, much like the process of constructing a theological framework.
Contrary to popular notions, imagination is not a simple dabbling in fantastical notions that are totally divorced from reality. In fact, the concept has historically referred to the ability of the human mind to combine known concepts into ideas that are not readily apparent.
The late theologian Gordon D. Kaufman found a strong connection between the imaginative process of humans and the religious/cultural frameworks they adhered to.
I have become persuaded that theology is (and always has been) essentially a constructive work of the human imagination, an expression of the imagination’s activity helping to provide orientation for human life through developing a symbolic “picture” of the world roundabout and of the human place within that world. In the course of history, the fertile human imagination has generated, in the great religious and cultural traditions of humankind, a number of very diverse views of the world and of the human. Among these are the monotheistic perspectives – largely descended from ancient Israel — in which the symbol “God” provides the ultimate point of reference and orientation for human life, indeed for understanding all of reality (p. 11–12).
According to Kaufman, theological imagination is the process we use to construct symbols that provide an orientation for us as we navigate the complexities of life. It’s not about making things up to fit our interests; it’s about recognizing the divine that’s already present within our world and constructing frameworks to better understand it.
Much like our Green Lantern heroes, we too can construct new ideas by paying attention to what’s going on in the world. When we’re aware of the sacred in our midst, it’s up to us to develop new ways of thinking to engage with it. God is an ever-present light; it’s time to put our rings on.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here and some of his reviews on Monkeys Fighting Robots.
Kaufman, Gordon. (1981). The Theological Imagination. The Westminster Press. 1962.