Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Current UU World: Superheroes and Generational Change

Depending on where you live, you may or may not have received the winter issue of UU World. The articles have been on the web site for about a week, and your copy may still be in the mail.

My cover article looks like it's about superheroes, but really it's about the difference between my (50ish) generation and the (30ish) parents of toddlers who are likely to be showing up at UU churches now and for the next couple decades. I'm making the case that if people my age try to promote UUism by making the appeal we wanted to hear 20 years ago, it will fall flat. This generation is different than we were.

Explaining that difference is where superheroes come in: Superhero comics (and the associated cartoons, TV shows, and movies) is a genre aimed at children and adolescents, so changes in the underlying superhero mythology can be an early warning of generational change. I'm pointing to changes that started happening in the late 70s and continue up to the present.

The heroes I grew up with in the 60s and early 70s had no role models. Many of them were orphans: Batman watched his parents' murder; Spiderman was raised by an aunt and uncle and feels guilty for his uncle's death; Superman could forget about any received wisdom, because his whole planet had blown up. In that era, an essential part of being a superhero was making it up from scratch. No SuperDad could tell you how to do it.

I think it says something about my generation, that this orphan fantasy worked for us. "The wisdom of our elders," I write in the article, "was an oppression we longed to escape."

But superheroes started changing in the late 70s. X-Men was created in the 60s, but it didn't really take off until the 70s. By the late 70s it was the hot comic, the one that everybody wanted to imitate. What was unique about X-Men was that the heroes had a mentor: Professor Xavier, who established a secret school for super-powered mutants. Young mutants didn't have to recreate heroism from scratch. Professor X could teach them to be X-Men.

Also in the late 70s, Star Wars came out. Luke is a transitional figure, with some orphan-like qualities. He thinks his father is dead, and at the beginning of the movie there is no one who can show him how to be a man. But a strange old guy takes an interest in him, and lo and behold he turns out to be Obiwan Kenobi, the last of the Jedi knights.

So Luke doesn't have to make it up. There is an ancient lineage that he can join, and a mentor to show him how.

After 1980, everybody has a mentor, and many heroes discover that they are part of some lineage: Buffy, for example, has a watcher Giles who can tell her about the lineage of vampire slayers. Even the older mythologies adjust: In 1999 DC makes the Batman Beyond cartoon series. It's Star Wars transplanted into the Batman mythos: The strange old guy is Bruce Wayne, and lo and behold, he can teach the young protagonist how to be Batman.

OK, what's all that got to do with Unitarian Universalism? "The Unitarian Universalist church I joined in my thirties," I confess in the article, "was an ideal place for orphans whose birth-planets had exploded."

The UU churches of the 1980s were places to start over, places to build your own theology. You went there looking for freedom to think your own thoughts, independent of any received wisdom.

I believe that's exactly what the upcoming generation doesn't want. An essential part of their generational fantasy is that somebody can help them figure out what's going on, and that the progress of humankind is something they can join, not something they have to restart from scratch.

Forward through the ages,
in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits
at the call divine.

I think our 30-somethings aren't looking to start over. I think they're looking for the end of that unbroken line, so that they can join it.

But if they're met at the church door by 50ish people telling them that they're free to believe whatever they want, that's going to sound like an abdication. We'd be telling them, "I've got nothing to pass on to you. You're on your own."

I'm not asking my generation of UUs to invent a heritage. We have one. And if we're honest, we have to admit that in fact we didn't make our religion up from scratch. In hindsight, we are part of an unbroken line. We need to start retelling our story from that perspective, so that we have something to pass on.

And speaking just for myself, I'm getting a little old to try to be Batman. Maybe it's time to start thinking more like Professor X.


John A Arkansawyer said...


P.S. Already sent your article out to our board.

Robin Edgar said...

Butt. . . butt. . . butt. . . speaking just for myself of course. :-)

I am by no means getting a little old to *actually* be that Transcendentalist Super Hero known U*U World*wide as The Emerson Avenger aka The Dark Knight Of The U*U World.

Indeed it is still boatloads of fun being The Emerson Avenger, dreaded scourge of U*U "evil-doers" U*U World*wide. Even if *some* hysterical* U*U hypocrites would have people believe that I suck.

* In every sense of the word hysterical. . . :-)

kimc said...

I love your insights.