The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture/Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture/Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The Gospel According to Superheroes: Religion and Popular Culture B. J. Oropeza, Editor. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.

Star Wars and Philosophy: More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine Kevin Decker and Jason T. Eberl, Editors. Chicago, Open Court Publishing, 2005. Volume 12 in the Popular Culture and Philosophy Series.

I was hired for my first teaching post by a man who claimed direct pedagogical descent from John Dewey. His own favorite professor had studied with Dewey at Chicago and had advocated progressive educational ideals to his students. Dewey thought that schools as training places for citizenship should embody democratic teaching practices. In his classic Experience and Education (1938), he wrote these famous words: "To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience" (19). Living out this wisdom, the professor who had hired me pulled a comic strip from a pile on his desk. He proceeded to illustrate how you could take the student's naïve understanding of such a superficially transparent artifact and cloud it by raising questions about word meanings, presuppositions regarding the real, conventions of representation, etc. It made perfect Socratic sense to me and I often acted later in the Dewey-inspired faith that professors should trust students to begin inquiry with reflections on their own beliefs as a prelude to the more text-historical, academic ways.

I found this Deweyan concept of progressive pedagogy helpful in understanding the approach of these two titles. Star Wars and Philosophy is a textbook that assumes student familiarity with the popular mythic franchise while The Gospel presupposes acquaintance with the caped crusaders of American comic books. In some important respects, stances taken toward their material are quite different.

On the surface, the editors of Star Wars and Philosophy evince a gleeful self-identification with the franchise success. This will likely put off those who are irritated by Lucasfilm Ltd.'s values, staying power, and cultural influence. Here are some samples. Instead of a traditional "Acknowledgments" page, we find "Heroes of Rogue Squadron." In the place of "Contributors," we have "Masters of the Jedi Council"-perhaps discordant with the final two Star Wars films, since the Jedis there fall to spying, bickering, and being outschemed by the wicked Emperor. (Or maybe this is a sly confession of misadventures in battles with chairs, deans, and presidents?) This shtick, which runs through Open Court's successful Philosophy and Popular Culture series, may prepare one for an uncritical celebration of everything in the Star Wars canon. That does not entirely happen however, because this book typically uses characters and situations as a window through which to view a range of perennial philosophical problems formally debated since the ancient Greeks. Christopher Brown, for example, uses a few of the situations in Star Wars to present a discerning and readable discussion of the problem of evil-why bad things happen to good people. Elizabeth Cooke's essay lifts up the environmental ethical issues embedded in the fate of assorted planets and peoples. Kevin Decker's essay on the decline of democracy into the tyranny of the Empire ranges over Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Dewey, and Strauss. Whether the topic be technology, artificial intelligence, war ethics, virtue, the emotions, the essays are vigorously and succinctly written, thus fulfilling progressive teaching's mandate to take present experience and transmute it into reflective understanding. Each essay taught or reminded me of something important about Star Wars or the history of philosophy.

The book will strike some as being negligent in failing to address prominent issues raised within Star Wars or by its status of cultural supremacy. The words "sex" and "gender" do not appear in "The Phantom Index" and there is no topical treatment of the subordination themes related to Leia, Padme, and women generally.

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