Why Theology and Spider-Man?

By George Tsakiridis

As I begin writing this I am listening to the song “Stressed Out” by Twenty-One Pilots. It states “Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days, when our momma sang us to sleep, but now we’re stressed out.” In the newest book in the Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture series by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, Theology and Spider-Man, I (as the volume editor) attempt to turn back time and bring us into dialogue with someone, something, we all felt when we were younger. Both the criticism and the enthusiasm behind pop culture studies is that we often look at material as fans and not as critics, but I believe both should be in play.

This past week I was interviewed on public radio and asked why Spider-Man? Why is he a good subject for this type of study? Why does he resonate with people so much? I think this question addresses the divide between being a fan who enjoys pop culture material, such as Spider-Man, and one who studies it for theological value. You can listen to my response at the link above, which addresses why Spider-Man resonates so strongly with all of us from an inner life point of view. But I think the deeper answer to this question lies even further back in our past. When we are young children, I don’t believe we are thinking about Peter Parker’s social angst, or the moral dilemmas he faces. The answer is found in the answer I gave to my son the other day when asked a similar question, “Why do you like Spider-Man so much?” To him I gave an answer that revolved around the color of his suit and the aesthetic of the comics/character. As a two or three-year old, I wasn’t interested in complex moral dilemmas, I was interested in how things looked and that good guys were beating bad guys. I was interested in the fact that Spider-Man was fighting animal-like villains like Lizard, Dr. Octopus, and Scorpion. This is what draws us in. In academics, many people forget that what interests us is not always the intellectual questions, but the aesthetics and the story. Popular culture studies should allow for both (at least in my world).

Doing pop culture study in conjunction with theology, we can become children again, though children with a lot more tools to engage the moral questions in life. We bring depth to the narrative and, hopefully, shine light on an already beloved character. Most people who pick up the book Theology and Spider-Man already have some strong feelings toward the character, whether that be love or hate (in Spidey’s case mostly love). We’ve already got an audience with interest, and in the theology and popular culture series, we have a chance to lead that audience to another level of depth that they may not yet have experienced. Doing both academic and contemplative work (shouldn’t those be the same thing?), we get a chance to engage the audience in ways both we and they have not experienced previously.

In addition to writing, I am involved with film as an actor and filmmaker, and one of the things I always say is that “I love film because it is collaborative; I hate film because it is collaborative.” It is the same way with edited volumes. If they go right, they are incredibly fun and fulfilling because they bring together many creative talents in a way that bond us together as co-writers, and teach us as co-learners. On the other side of things, when it goes wrong, it can be a disaster, as conflicts might arise leading to stress and dislike for those you are forced to work with. Theology and Spider-Man fits into the former category. The making of this volume was a pleasure. It was a lot of work, as all of these projects are, but my collaborators on the project were responsive, creative, and engaged with the challenge at hand. Some of this flows from my initial point, that there is a natural inclination to the project because of love of the character. The melding of love of character/narrative with academic talent brings forth something pretty special.

But further, now that we’ve looked at the first step of why we do what we do in engaging Spider-Man, what about the specific theological depth? The core of intellectual curiosity into Spider-Man is fairly evident. He is a deeply moral figure who has suffered loss. He lives by the somewhat biblical phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Spidey also raises a lot of curiosity in his scientific and genetic makeup. He is transformed into a being with two natures, both spider and man, and his title “Spider-Man” is reminiscent of the early Christian creeds describing the “God-man.” His very nature also raises bioethical questions, as do his foes. Many of them arise out of the misappropriation of scientific knowledge, Lizard and Dr. Octopus foremost among them.

In this volume, the essays start with the foundational questions of sin and salvation, but move into broader theological discussion of creedal belief, bioethics, and iconography. Engagement with Black Theology and Liberation Theology are explored. The volume presents a kind of constructive or quasi-systematic theology of Spider-Man. But it just starts the conversation. Given the diversity of sources: films, comic books, toys, video games, etc., all of which are explored in the volume, one cannot create something comprehensive in 250 pages. What a volume like this can do is create inquiry, wonder, and narrative for your own engagement with Spider-Man. I encourage you to read this volume with an eye to fun and creativity, undergirded by moral and theological depth, and I think you’ll find joy in the journey. Of course, as the editor I’m fairly biased.

Tonight (12/16/21), I am going to see the film Spider-Man: No Way Home in anticipation of the next chapter in Spider-Man lore. His story is not yet done, and theological inquiry into his mythology is also not yet done. As you go to watch the new film, or just review the old stories, I encourage you to take a look at our volume as a guide to the journey. You might find that there are hidden treasures you have yet to unearth.

Dr. George Tsakiridis is a Senior Lecturer of Philosophy and Religion at South Dakota State University. He is currently writing Theology and The Americans and co-editing Theology and Breaking Bad for the Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture book series. George is also the co-host of the podcast Cheers Weekly, an episode-by-episode podcast on the TV show Cheers. Dr. Tsakiridis is also an actor, filmmaker, and a contributor to popularcultureandtheology.com (you know, the site you are currently on!). Check out his previous article on Fleabag! You can follow him on Twitter @dramaticlicence.

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