Tag: Elementary Forms of Religious Life

Emile Durkheim Likes “Man of Steel”

Fourth of July we went to see Man of Steel with our son and daughter-in-law. Overall, a good retelling of the the Superman legend with some interesting twists. I particularly liked the flashback scenes where young Clark learns the power of his special gifts and struggles with not-fitting-in; an awful thing for a teen, even if you are a superhero. And I didn’t hate Kevin Costner!


Crowe

I was a bit leery to see the movie because the previews had made a great deal of the Messiah references. Every time Russel Crowe speaks as Jor-El, you learn that Clark was supposed to be the model who would tell humans how to live. He came from another place and had powers that nobody understood. His family crest means Hope. And he came to earth but they didn’t understand him.

The backstory of Krypton was particularly telling. The planet had not cared for its environment and had so overused their natural resources the planet was destroyed from the inside out.

A critical point of the story is the presence of the Codex. All babies born on Krypton were genetically developed to fulfill specific roles: soldier, scientist, politician, etc. It’s a remarkably rigid class structure. There was no individual choice as General Zod observed — all he knew was to be a soldier for that’s what he was created to be.

Superman (Kal-El) was different. He was born in freedom because his birth was unlike anyone else’s (miraculous?) — apparently his parents made a baby the old fashioned way that no one had successfully done in hundreds of years. Somehow the entire Codex was merged into Kal-el’s genes so that he individually represented all aspects of Krypton society. It survives in him even though the planet doesn’t survive.

I won’t give away the rest — although Lois Lane is there, ┬áSuperman doesn’t die, and the military is inept. (One surprise is that something made Larry Fishburne really heavy unless I was supposed to be watching in HD!)

The contrast between Superman and General Zod made me think of Emile Durkheim and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Using Marcel Mauss’ data on Australian Aboriginals, Durkheim observed the overlap of community (clan) values with those reproduced through religious ritual. Through some detailed analysis, he comes to his conclusion that “Religion is Society Worshipping Itself.”

I’ve always explained to my students that while I don’t hold to Durkheim’s analysis with regard to Christianity, we must be vigilant against the elevation of cultural values to sacred realms.

It’s interesting, then, that the backstory of Krypton is between class immobility and the freedom to be fully human. When we create a Messiah-type of Superman, the language we use in describing him is about hope and freedom, individual achievement, overcoming obstacles, and being able to use your gifts for good. That’s set against the no-choice, bull-headed, selfish, brutal Zod (not his fault — he was created that way and can’t be anything else).

The Messiah imagery breaks down at several points. Russel Crowe isn’t a creator per se. The love interest is well done (interesting that Amy Adams is way smarter and braver than Margot Kidder in the original). And there is a key point where Superman tells a minister that he’s the guy they’re all looking for (after Zod gives his “Surrender Dorothy” message to the world) and there are huge stained glass images of Jesus.

But the Messiah imagery DOES work as a Durkheimian Civil Religious symbol. Superman is the expression of American ideals set against a totalitarian vision. His shows us what it means to be free and the pursue individuality even at the expense of all the innocent victims in the streets and in the buildings that were destroyed.

There were a number of media reports about the religious connection. Tom Krattenmaker did this interview on how the movie was promoted to evangelical churches. But it strikes me that more insidious than the direct Christ-parallel story is the substitution of American individualism, which is then somehow morphed into a Christ figure. The implication is that Christ would celebrate the individualism represented in Russel Crowe’s vision. As Durkheim would suggest, we’ve made our religious figures endorsers of our values — thereby worshipping ourselves.

And I still thought the movie was pretty good. Miles better than The Lone Ranger, which had too many holes to analyze.

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