“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 all of this. I speculate that the more recent explosion in the popularity of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero stories is an attempt of an increasingly secular world to satiate its innate hunger for “sacred games,” rituals, “festivals of atonement,” and Eternal narratives. I understand Nietzsche had something else in mind when he considered what would and should replace our old-time religion, but I believe the truth in myth criticism is that our spirits retain some hungry memory for what we were taught in pre-mortality. I believe we continually create new myths, patterned after Eternal myths told where we used to live because we’re all groping for the truths that will lead us home.
In the case of this particular myth-movement, we replaced God with godlike men and we celebrate the revelation of each creative work in film, print, or video game with communal gatherings of costumed zealots who make pilgrimages to retailers and theaters while 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? One reason may be that we find the creation and exploration of fantastic worlds to be complimentary to our mantic beliefs.
I grew up watching He-Man, and I clearly remember thinking that the Power of Greyskull was an awful lot like the Priesthood. Take a moment to laugh if you like; this is pretty comical. 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.
I am not an avid follower of science fiction, fantasy, or superheroes, but I’ve always enjoyed such stories on occasion. 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) and the discussion of superhuman power and responsibility within those stories have always been an extension of my study of the Priesthood of God. And though there are obvious points where these narratives deviate from spiritual truth, comparing and contrasting gospel facts and science fiction has often seemed a useful exercise for sparking spiritual meditation.
I wonder how common my experience is for Latter-day Saints. Even today, the occasional Star Wars quote or analogy is liable to pop up somewhere in Sunday School, Priesthood, or Sacrament meeting. At any rate, these genres certainly 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
Even if Latter-day authors and readers don’t use this sort of literature as a gateway to serious spiritual reflection and discussion, there seems to be a culturally transcendant pleasure derived from infusing entertainment with an air of the miraculous and mantic. And cultivating a sense of wonder for man’s potential and God’s universe is clearly beneficial—as long as we don’t allow the signifier to overshadow or conflate with the signified.