“By the Power of Greyskull” and Other Answers to Nietzsche’s Questions
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
—Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125
John Bennion once asked, in a class on LDS literature at BYU, why Latter-day Saints have taken such a ready interest in fantasy and science fiction. This question came to mind recently as I carpooled home with an LDS co-worker who loves superheroes, science fiction and fantasy in all mediums (print, film, video game, etc.), and it occurred to me that while LDS participation (as readers and authors) is by no means negligible, it is likely merely a subset of a massive growth in these genre’s throughout western society.
Considering my inclusion of Nietzsche’s statement above, you can anticipate where I’m going with this. Yes, I suspect the dramatic rise in sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero popularity reflects the efforts of an increasingly secular world to satiate an innate hunger for “sacred games,” rituals, “festivals of atonement,” and Eternal narratives. I understand Nietzsche did not have an endless string of superhero blockbusters in mind when he asked what would replace our old-time religion. But I believe our spirits retain some hungry memory for what we were taught in pre-mortality. I believe we continually create new myths patterned after those told where we used to live – as evidenced by the parallels described by myth criticism – because we’re all groping for the truths that will lead us home.
In the case of the superhero/sci-fi/fantasy myth-movement, we replaced God with godlike men and celebrate the revelation of each creative work in film, print, or video game with communal gatherings of costumed zealots, making pilgrimages to retailers and theaters, and re-enacting and discussing scenes with religious fervor. We may not believe these myths are true, but we willfully suspend our disbelief for the religious experience in an approximation of faith.
But what about Dr. Bennion’s original question? Why are Latter-day Saints rushing to join in? Has the “sophic tide” described by Richard Cracroft risen so high within mormon culture that we too have grown thirsty for theophany? I don’t suspect so. Rather, I would argue that we are drawn to these fantastic worlds of art and literature because they resonate with what Cracroft calls our mantic worldview.
I grew up watching He-Man. Often, when my dad came home from work, he would find me with a cardboard sword down the back of my shirt. I clearly remember thinking that Orco (the bumbling ghostlike character who was there to warn He-Man of danger and to explain the moral of each episode) was like the Holy Ghost and that the Power of Greyskull was an awful lot like the Priesthood. (I recognize how absurd these parallels are, but stick with me.) Maybe it’s because the only other Adam I knew of at that time was the father of all living, or because I had a vague notion that being the “Prince of Eternia” was something like being an heir of Eternity, or because “by the Power of Greyskull” sounded similar to “by the Power of the Melchezidek Priesthood,” but the association between He-Man and the Gospel is indelibly etched in my brain to this day.
When I grew out of He-Man, he was replaced by Spiderman, Superman, Luke Skywalker, and the like. Krypton was Kolob (except for the exploding part), the Force was the priesthood and spider-sense was the Spirit. More fruitfully, stories that explored what it means to be super-human inspired meditations on what it means to be an eternal intelligence capable of infinite progression.
Whether or not such thinking is common among Latter-day Saints, fantastical genres afford the freedom Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft claim authors need when exploring spiritual narratives in fiction:
For the writer to explore the past for himself, he needs to be himself, to be free to invent, to juxtapose, to alter at will the events of the past in order to explore not so much what happened as the meaning of what happened to those involved and to those who, like himself, look back and wonder. In this sense, he needs to be allowed to take to himself the same creative freedom that Shakespeare had. No one cries “False!” when we watch Prince Hal and Hotspur contesting on stage as contemporaries. Historically they were years apart, but by putting them together in Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare presents us with profound insights into the problems and complexities of wearing the crown of England. Given the same freedom and some of the same genius, what might the Mormon writer tell us of Joseph Smith, for instance, and the problems and complexities of wearing the mantel of a prophet?
—Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft, from the introduction in 22 Young Mormon Writers
Following Lambert and Cracroft’s argument, it is a small leap to say transliterating LDS doctrine and history into narratives set long, long ago in a gallaxy far, far away offers Latter-day Saints the opportunity to be authentically mormon while mitigating the threat of rejection by non-mormon readers. Some of the more prominent LDS science-fiction writers have done just that. Consider Orson Scott Card’s own description of his Homecoming series:
These books are really just another dramatization of the Book of Mormon, only transformed into a science fictional setting, where by fictionalizing it I have the freedom to explore questions of character and society in a way that I couldn’t in a more direct adaptation.
Or how about Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica? Though Orson Scott Card called the original 1978 TV series, “an uninspired, untalented, badly written television show,” it was clearly an effort to explore LDS theology behind the veil of science-fiction. If you’re unfamiliar with the numerous parallels included in the series, click here.
There seems to be a culturally transcendant pleasure derived from infusing entertainment with an air of the miraculous and mantic. Can science-fiction incite meditation on celestial-fact? Sure. Can fantasy engage non-mormon audiences in philosophical discussions that may pave the way for doctrinal conversion? Perhaps. But I suppose there’s always a danger that the signifier may eclipse or conflate with the signified, leaving you and I comfortless at the base of a counterfeit cross.