Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Wednesday, November 14, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What the legacy of Stan Lee teaches us about the reality of human beings as narrative creatures
The headline in yesterday morning's print edition of USA Today was this, "Marvel man led generations to truly believe." Brian Truitt in the lead to that article tells us, "Stan Lee the cultural icon responsible for many of Marvel's most popular superheroes in comic books and movies died Monday. He was 95." The headline in the print edition of The New York Times yesterday was a bit more expansive and the article expanded tremendously on the importance of Stan Lee in pop culture.
As Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster reported for The Times, "If Stan Lee revolutionized the comic book world in the 1960s which he did he left his biggest stamp maybe bigger on the even wider pop culture landscape of today." The reporters went on to say, "Think Spider-Man the blockbuster movie franchise and Broadway spectacle. Think of Iron Man, another Hollywood goldmine series personified by its star Robert Downey Junior. Think of the Black Panther, the box office superhero smash that shattered big screen racial barriers in the process," and said the reporters, "That is to say nothing of the Hulk, the X-Men, Thor and other film and television juggernauts that have stirred the popular imagination and made many people very rich."
Stan Lee wasn't always Stan Lee, he was born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 in New York City. His parents were immigrants from Romania. His father was identified as a sometimes-employed textile cutter. But the man that millions would come to know as Stan Lee personified in many ways the American dream, but beyond to that he also exemplifies the role of pop culture, sometimes reducible to even something that many might dismiss. The comic book medium and to the role of pop culture in shaping the entire cultural landscape in this country as we know it.
The New York Times reporter summarized the situation this way, "If all that entertainment product can be traced to one person it would be Stan Lee who died on Monday in Los Angeles at 95." From a cluttered office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the 1960s, the reporters tell us, "He helped conjure a lineup of pulp fiction heroes that has come to define much of popular culture in the early 21st century." Now if you think of a major obituary like this sometimes there are very important insights that appear to be merely details.
For example, Stan Lee was born in New York City. He died in Los Angeles. What does that tell us? Well it tells us that during the last half of the 20th century the headquarters for popular culture in the United States actually shifted from New York City and its predominant print culture to Los Angeles and to the massively expansive culture of modern film and media entertainment. It's not an accident that he was born on one coast and died on the other, and with that life story tells us a great deal about the transformation of how Americans came to receive to enjoy and to be shaped by narratives. That gets us to the next big point in understanding why Stan Lee's obituary is important to us.
We are looking at the reality of human beings as narrative creatures. God made us that way at least a part of what it means to be made in God's image is that we cannot discuss anything of importance to ourselves, and that includes even our own story without recourse to story. When we identify ourselves, we have to turn to story. We were born here, we were raised there, this is what happened to us, this is who we marry. It's a time line which again is very important to the Christian worldview of past and present and future.
We identify ourselves by story and we as human beings as storied creatures–as some theologians would say homo-narrates, the being who tell stories–we discuss many the most important issues of life in story form and that's not just something that is new. Think of the Old Testament. Think for that matter of the New Testament and why Jesus spoke in stories, why he so often in his earthly ministry spoke in the form of a parable. We as human beings crave stories and we are shaped by those stories. In a very real sense, what you have in the larger culture is a continual competition of stories and whoever tells the story, the story that becomes dominant is the one who shapes the culture. Its morality, its understanding of reality, its self-identity, its understanding of the biggest questions of life. These all come down to stories and to the stories we tell and to the stories we celebrate.
In the end they have a large part in determining who we become and what our culture becomes. Stan Lee was an epic storyteller. That's how he made his fortune. That's why he became an iconic figure on the American scene. The stories he told were told through predominantly at least at first, the medium of comic books. Many people would simply dismiss comic books saying that they are unimportant. Stan Lee put it this way, "I don't analyze things too closely. I find the more you analyze the more you get away from spontaneity. I have only one rule," he explained, "I want to write a story that would interest me. That's the only criterion I have. Am I eager to see how it ends? If these characters," he said, "really existed, would I want to see what happens to them? If I like something there are bound to be millions of people who like it too. And if they don't. Shame on them."
Now, that's a very interesting artistic philosophy but it tells us a great deal about the power and the simplicity of the stories as told by Stan Lee. He was very defensive of the comic book format. He said this, If Shakespeare and Michelangelo were alive today and if they decided to collaborate on a comic, Shakespeare would write the script and Michelangelo would draw it. How could anybody say that this wouldn't be as worthwhile an art form as anything on earth?"
Well, those who will argue for high culture over against lower culture may have an argument with that. But Stan Lee wins the argument as to how stories get mainstreamed in the culture. The comic book turned out to be a very effective way of shaping the culture and that only became amplified when the comic book stories leapt from the comic books to the big screen of the movie theater, and of course then beyond. But we need to look deeper still at this story because we come to understand that what we learn about Stan Lee and Marvel Comics tells us a great deal about the moral transformation of this culture and its worldview during those very same years.
For example, as the reporters of The New York Times tell us and I quote, "Under Mr. Lee Marvel transformed the comic book world by imbuing its characters with the self-doubts and neuroses of average people, as well as an awareness of trends and social causes and often a sense of humor. In humanizing his heroes," they said, "giving them character flaws and insecurities that belied their supernatural strengths Mr. Lee tried to make them real flesh and blood characters with personality." In a comment he made to the Washington Post in 1992 he said, "That's what any story should have. But comics didn't have until that point. They were all cardboard figures."
Now, that tells us something else we need to know we need to look further. Why would until Stan Lee and Marvel Comics so many of these comic books been cardboard characters? What did it mean for them to escape that cardboard existence? Well, in order to understand this you have to go back and look at the moral panic that infected the United States during the period of the Cold War particularly during the Korean War and then the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the latter part of the 20th century. A moral panic came to the United States that America's youth were being undermined and they were having their own morality subverted by the telling of tales that young people should never hear and that included the comic books.
There was a comic book panic during the 1950s in the United States that even led to hearings before the United States Senate and those hearings became an example of that kind of moral panic. Tennessee Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver. He chaired those hearings and as the New York Times said, "It came in the context of investigating allegations that comics promoted immorality and the juvenile delinquency."
The New York Times then says this, "Choosing to police itself rather than to accept legislation the industry established the Comic Code Authority in order to ensure wholesome content. Gore and moral ambiguity were out but so were largely wit literary influences and attention to social issues." The Times goes on to say that many of those who are reading the comics they found the comics boring with this kind of sanitized content. But looking even beyond what was reported in the mainstream media it's important to look at the fact that that comics code that was developed in 1954, it actually demonstrates the fact that American society at that time perhaps more so than now understands the power stories.
It may have looked with undue suspicion at comic books but it had not looked with undue concern at the competition of stories and the importance of stories. And even as there was a moral panic particularly addressed not only to the young in America but to boys and young men there was the understanding that whoever controls the stories that shape their hearts and minds will eventually control the entire culture. That's the bottom line and that's an irrefutable fact.
Stan Lee and his co-creators were responsible for so many the most memorable comic book and then movie characters of the 20th and 21st centuries, but his very favorite character was actually Spider-Man. And the reason he was Stan Lee's favorite is because of his sheer normality. He was just a normal intellectual high school student who was in an abnormal way bitten by a radioactive spider and thus he developed these superpowers. But what made Stan Lee so fascinated with this one very famous of his creations is that Spider-Man was a very normal person, or a very normal young man until he needed his superpowers in which case he became anything but merely normal.
But underneath the comic book, underneath the movie we have to understand that there is something of tremendous worldview importance reflected in the fact that almost every one of these stories is in its essence a story about the competition between good and evil. What made Marvel Comics under the direction of Stan Lee more complicated is that Stan Lee moved the competition of good and evil from merely outside his superheroes to the inside of those characters.
This is where Christians understand that's not a wrong move, it may not be the way we would tell the story. It is not, but it is important to understand what hasn't been reflected in the mainstream media’s analysis of Stan Lee and the comic books. And we have to understand that that is that what they describe as more complex characters are actually by a Christian worldview understanding more truthful in the sense that we know, because the Bible makes this clear that the greatest battle between good and evil is not outside of us but inside of ourselves.
Next, we would simply have to note that those who look at such stories especially about superheroes they would make an historical connection or they should between for instance ancient Greek and Roman mythology and the modern comic book. Artistically and in a literary sense that might seem like quite a leap but just realize what you are looking at there is the human need for stories that explain why occurrences take place in human history, why there is a moral dimension, why is there good, why is there evil, how is evil to be confronted, how will good end, will good win in the end? That's extremely important.
And even as the Greco roman mythology points to a human need that is here in us merely because of the image of God, that same reality explains why we as human beings in the 21st century we will label ourselves far more sophisticated than the ancient Greeks and Romans still find ourselves longing for stories and fascinated by them. It also explains furthermore why Christians operating out of a consistent Christian worldview can look to these stories and analyze them, can even enjoy in this sense a secular world trying to tell the story. Telling the story by its own tools and in its own way very well, but this is where Christians always have to come to the bottom line conclusion that as well as this story might be told as artful as this medium might be, as well drawn and complex as the character is this simply doesn't even come close to an adequate diagnosis of the human problem. It doesn't come anything close to understanding the great cosmic battle between good and evil.
And whatever hope is found in these superhero comic books, it's a hope that doesn't even last until the conclusion of the credits at the end of the movie. But finally before leaving this story I want to go back to that headline in USA Today, Marvel man led generations to truly believe. Think about that for a moment to truly believe. What does that tell us? Well it tells us first of all of a deep human longing to truly believe, to know someone, something, some truth in which we can truly believe.
Now here's the problem as much as you might respect the role played by Stan Lee in American popular culture. The reality is that no one, no sane person watching those movies or reading those comic books truly believes. This is where Christians must understand an opportunity, our opportunity is not merely to say to the world stop telling those stories that way. It is to say, "Well I'm interested to hear your story. I'm interested to hear you tell it. I'm interested to know what you mean by it, but I want to tell you a better story, I want to tell you a truer story, a story that is better than good and it is truer than true." In a very real sense every moment of cultural engagement and even more importantly every moment of evangelism is sharing a story. The Christian story, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
High-profile trial of notorious drug lord ‘El Chapo’ poses unique security challenges in New York City
But next to a shift from Los Angeles back to New York City and a trial that is beginning adjust to this week. As the Wall Street Journal reports the story, "New York City is no stranger to high profile criminal trials but few defendants have represented the challenges posed by Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. One of the most infamous criminals in modern history. The reporters Nicole Hong and Zolan Kanno-Youngs tell us that opening statements in Mr. Guzman's trial will begin this week at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn New York. "An undertaking that will require an almost unprecedented law enforcement effort to ensure the safety of government witnesses, jurors, other New Yorkers and Mr. Guzmán himself."
The next paragraph, "A 17-count indictment which spans nearly three decades of alleged criminal activity accuses Mr. Guzmán of building a multi-billion dollar international narcotics empire through murder and violence as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Mr. Guzmán now 61 years old has pleaded not guilty to the charges." Now, why would this Mexican drug lord be tried in Brooklyn? Well, it turns out it's due to this, it's due to the fact that the Mexican government and its high security prisons could not hold him. He escaped not once but twice from the maximum security prisons in Mexico.
Mexican governments have been very reluctant, it's a loss of national prestige to allow the extradition of a criminal such as this. But in the end after two highly publicized maximum security breakouts, the Mexican government decided that it would exchange Mr. Guzmán for a pledge from the American government that the US would not seek the death penalty against the man accused of so many murders. The United States made the arrangement, Mr. Guzmán was moved to the most secure place in North America where we are told a federal prisoner may be held awaiting trial and this has caused nothing less than mayhem in New York City.
The security around this trial is in modern America absolutely unprecedented. Repeatedly during the pretrial process, the Brooklyn Bridge itself was simply stopped evacuated so that the caravan conveying Mr. Guzmán from his high security prison to the Brooklyn federal courthouse could cross the bridge. No one else was allowed close, shutting down one of the most important bridges in New York City for a matter of hours until this very important prisoner could be transported from one place to another.
One of the things this demonstrates by the way is the American commitment to the rule of law and the understanding of why the entire trial process is important to us even for someone accused of the most massively horrifying crimes as in this case “El Chapo,” Mr. Guzmán. That too can only be explained by the fundamental reality of the Christian worldview behind our understanding of law and justice. The Wall Street Journal goes on to report this, "Mr. Guzmán will travel in an armored vehicle flanked by police escorts to his Brooklyn trial. He will go on Mondays and return on Fridays."
A law enforcement official said during the week he is expected to stay at an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. Snipers will be stationed on rooftops along the two mile route and New York City Police Department helicopters will occasionally follow the escort. Officials say, "The general's report went on to say that officials in the United States are very worried about violence against the trial, against the jurors." One juror by the way shut down all of the proceedings on Tuesday when evidently thinking about this kind of threat, the juror experienced a panic attack stopping the entire process but it's also interesting as the journal reports that the American government is worried about an assassination attempt against Mr. Guzmán.
Why would that be so? Well, when you think about it the answer becomes very clear. He knows a very great deal that will not only indict him and lead to his conviction if it becomes known but he's in a position to be of great legal danger to many, many others. That's the organization part of organized crime, but that then leads us to yet another story with deep importance from the Christian worldview although many Americans might not at first recognize it.
Honor among thieves: How one mobster's demise reveals the inevitability of a moral order
Here's a headline from the October 31st edition of The New York Times, "A murderous Boston mob boss as mythical as he was elusive," the articles by Robert D. McFadden. Why that headline, why this story, why the front page of The New York Times is because Whitey Bulger convicted of multiple murders and being the kingpin of organized crime in Boston. Well, he was killed by fellow prisoners in a West Virginia federal prison on October the 30th.
Now, that raises a host of questions. What does that mean? Well, for one thing it tells us that there is a code of morality even amongst organized criminals that becomes very important. That's also explainable only by the fact that we are made in God's image and it comes out in perverse forms at times as we try to create a moral order, even criminals have a moral order. Back in 1969, the novelist Mario Puzo wrote a novel entitled, 'The Godfather'. It became a very big film in 1972, it was at one point the largest grossing movie of all time. It was not only understood to be an unquestioned commercial success, it was also an artistic success. Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture with other Academy Awards thrown in for good measure.
Why was it so interesting? Well, it turns out that it was a great literary and Hollywood success to depict the code of honor, the morality code that existed even amongst members of the Mafia. The word 'Mafia' by the way, had been a part of popular culture but it wasn't until fairly recent times to 1969 and 1972 that the United States federal government even admitted that organized crime in this sense existed. But then, that also raises an interesting question, why would normal law abiding citizens go by the millions and pay millions of dollars in order to see a movie about organized crime?
The answer is such a novel, such a movie and whatever his format tells a tale as old as time. It takes us right back to Genesis 3, and as human beings, we just can't help being fascinated by such stories. It's also again very revealing of what it means to be made in God's image that even those who live an amoral life based upon an amoral world view that condones murder even they have their own code of honor.
That explains the assassination of Whitey Bulger just a couple of weeks ago in a West Virginia prison. In the language of organized crime, he had ruled in Boston but he was whacked in West Virginia. Why? Well, as it turns out he had ratted on his friends. The big rat ratted on other rats and eventually the code of honor of organized crime means that if you rat some of the rats will find you out. And Whitey Bulger found his end the day before Halloween in 2018 in a federal prison in West Virginia.
In a strange paragraph in the New York Times article, 'We Are Told', "To the families of those he executed gangland style and to a neighborhood held in thrall long after he vanished in 1994, Mr. Bulger's arrest in Santa Monica, California in 2011 and his conviction of gruesome crimes brought a final reckoning of sorts and an end to the career of one of America's most notorious underworld figures, the heir to a nation's fascination with Dillinger, Capone, and Gotti." But here's what makes that paragraph odd, that wasn't the final reckoning, not his conviction, not when they sent it to prison. You might say that on earth his final reckoning was oddly enough the second to last day of October in 2018 in a federal prison in West Virginia.
Here's where Christians understand, that was not the final reckoning either. The final reckoning will come on the day of the war and that's going to be a reckoning very different and a justice infinitely different than any justice that can be handed down by a human court. Once again, Christians understand that it is fascinating as the headlines might be even more fascinating and more important to us is what's underneath the headline. That's something that the world might miss but we dare not.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to SBTS.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Birmingham, Alabama, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.