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| 29.6.02
Superman: The Complete History, by Les Daniels

This book caught my eye when I was browsing in Barnes and Noble last week, and I ended up spending the entire evening there reading it from cover to cover. Not only is Daniels exhaustive in bringing us the twists and turns in Superman's evolution since he was first published by Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (cartoonist) in June of 1938, but he also compellingly explains why Superman has remained a popular character for over 60 years.

The real reason I picked up this book, however, is because I've been thoroughly obsessed with the new Superman television show called Smallville that came out on the WB network this year. While Superman: The Complete History is ironically incomplete in this regard (being written in 1998 it ends its chronology with the end of the ABC series Lois & Clark) it still brought to light many synergies between the lives of Superman's creators, the early comic books, and the latest incarnation.

Here are a few of the choicest bits:

Siegel and Shuster grew up in an Ohio town called Glenville. Superman grew up in Smallville.

Both Siegel and Shuster were quiet, nerdy, Clark Kent-like characters.

Joe Shuster drew cartoons for his school newspaper, the Glenville Torch. On Smallville, Chloe is the editor of the Smallville Torch. In a first-season episode she even dates a nerdy guy with super powers who draws cartoons for the paper.

Joe Shuster's hometown was Toronto, and was his inspiration for the city of Metropolis (the name Metropolis, of course, is a tribute to the 1927 silent film classic directed by Fritz Lang.)

Toronto's newspaper was called The Daily Star, and this was an early candidate for the name of the paper where Clark Kent was to work, before an editorial decision changed it to The Daily Planet.

Although Siegel and Shuster sold the first Superman cartoon (including all rights and ownership of the character) for the paltry sum of $130 in 1938, they had been developing the concept (and changing it) for years. One of the first prototypes they had was a character called "The Superman," who was an evil bald scientific genius with vast mental powers. Lex Luther, anyone?

Lex Luther was first introduced in 1940. The original Lex had curly red hair. It was a nice touch in the Smallville pilot episode that young Lex had the same curly red hair, before losing it in the meteor shower that brought Clark to Earth.

It was not until the first Superman radio show aired in 1945 that flying was established as a super-power. On Smallville, Clark Kent has not yet learned to fly.

In the original cartoon the symbol on Superman's chest doesn't look the way it does now --it was a less triangular shield with a more standard looking "S" on it. I caught a glimpse of a very similar emblem on Whitney's (Lana Lang's boyfriend) high school letter jacket in the pilot episode of Smallville. For some reason the emblem on his jacket is just an ordinary "S" in all subsequent episodes.

The actress Annette O'Toole plays Clark's mom on Smallville. In the movie Superman III, she plays Lana Lang!

Why has Superman remained such a phenomenon for so long? Les Daniels explains it in terms of our insatiable appetite for heroes. Superman is similar to the gods and heroes of ancient Greek mythology. Yet while Superman is physically and morally better than us, he chooses to live his life as the humble Clark Kent. This affirms the ordinary individual, causing us to identify with him rather than resent his superior powers. The Superman incarnated in the humble, bumbling human also taps into the imagery of the Christian story.

Great book, and a great show!

PUBLISHER: Chronicle Books; ISBN: 0811821625; (1998)

Amazing Grace

| 28.6.02
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris

In this well-written, interesting volume, Kathleen Norris takes the timeless words of Christian vocabulary such as grace, perfection, belief, doubt, and Bible (just to name a few) and defines them in the light of her own experience and struggle to reconnect with her faith.

Drawing on her own spiritual journey back to Christianity as an adult, Norris explains how certain words erect barriers to faith, and how imaginative re-appropriation of these words can tear the barriers down.

Each essay is very short, which makes the book easy to read in short bursts. While I also read long stretches, it's the perfect book to put on one's nightstand and read a chapter or two each night.

While I found the "definitions" in her "lexicon" interesting, the most useful thing to me was her method --the way she allowed herself the freedom to roam freely around a word, finding a way to appropriate it creatively and intelligently into her spiritual vocabulary.

PUBLISHER: Riverhead Books; ISBN: 1573227218; (February 12, 1999)

Just As I Am

| 27.6.02
Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham

Billy Graham is a man who has impressed me (both positively and negatively) for quite some time, and Just As I Am is an equally impressive treatment of his life and ministry. Overly long in parts, the book nonetheless gives a fascinating look into his ministry, family life, personal convictions, and interactions with many famous political figures. While Graham's evangelically focused message of faith and repentance may be simple, Just As I Am shows us the complexity of the man himself, and the surpassingly open-minded way in which he reacts and interacts with those who hold differing theological views than himself.

One of the things the book does best is show how Billy Graham has evolved over the years. Recounting his first meetings with a United States president, Graham candidly admits to country-bumpkin manners and overly flashy showmanship (including an impromptu prayer on the White House lawn while photographers' cameras flash) after a private audience with President Johnson. Learning from these mistakes, however, Graham proceeds to become the "pastor to the presidents," having been a personal friend of Richard Nixon and Ronald and Nancy Reagan, as well as being in amazingly close contact with presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter.

Just As I Am lays out Billy Graham's theological convictions shortly and simply as that of response to Christ's sacrifice on the cross by accepting responsibility for one's sins, recognizing Jesus as God on earth who died to pay the price for those sins, and (through God's help) a life in which one seeks a personal relationship with Jesus, giving God power and "lordship" and attempting to live according to God's will. This is the process that Graham believes Jesus teaches in the New Testament as being "born again." It is the type of conversion experience that Graham experienced personally as a teenager, and is fairly standard evangelical theology.

While his theology may be evangelically orthodox, however, Graham was not and is not a standard evangelical. While so much of evangelical Christianity today has gravitated towards a right-wing political agenda, Graham has been painstaking about not becoming involved in partisan politics. Although raised a Southern Democrat, and despite his deep personal friendship with Richard Nixon, Graham has explicitly refused to publicly endorse any presidential or any other political candidates, recognizing that there are sincere Christians in both major political parties. This is an attitude I think many evangelical and fundamentalist leaders would do well to adopt today, where political powder kegs such as abortion and school prayer become de facto litmus tests for acceptance in some churches, and partisan jokes and comments are commonly preached from the pulpit. Graham recognizes these attitudes as diluting the effect of the gospel message that he has devoted his life to preaching.

Another area in which Graham deviated from the conventional thought of his heyday was the issue of segregation. Believing that such racist attitudes were contrary to the Bible, Graham insisted on non-segregated seating for Crusades, and actually refused to bring his organization to South Africa because of the apartheid government there, long before such sanctions were fashionable. This alienated him from more socially conservative Christians, as well as opening the issue with more liberal groups because he didn't get directly involved in the civil rights movement of the 60s.

The cord that ties all these views together is Graham's understanding of the Bible. The main theme that runs through Just As I Am is Graham's willingness to confront any obstacle, use any technology, and sacrifice as needed in order to spread his understanding of the Christian Gospel. To Graham the gospel message is paramount, and where evangelical mores or fundamentalist norms hindered the clear articulation of that message, he innovated. Graham recognized that times change, cultures change, and preaching techniques change as circumstances warrant. However, to Graham the gospel message is timeless and personal. Graham is always quick to say that he has accomplished nothing without the support and prayers of family and friends, and has done nothing but be a willing servant of God. While containing some regrets and counting the cost of being an itinerant evangelist; on the road most of the time and away from his family, Just As I Am is generally just that; a down to earth account of an extraordinary man and what he has accomplished.

PUBLISHER: HarperCollins; ISBN: 0061010839; (March 1998)

Pilgrims in Their Own Land

| 26.6.02
Pilgrims in Their Own Land: 500 Years of Religion In America, by Martin E. Marty

In the most general sense, this book is an excellent resource for those looking for a survey of American religious history. Starting with a brief overview of tribal rites performed by early native Americans prior to Columbus' arrival, the book takes a panoramic view through the centuries. Catholicism, Judaism, and the myriad forms of Protestant Christianity are covered as well as the major forms of Eastern thought as they relate to the United States context.

Martin Marty's thesis ties the book together, stipulating that even since early periods in its history the United States has taken a unique market place approach to religion. Unlike the relatively homogeneous states of the European past, in the American setting a wide variety of religious expression has been available since the beginning, and the average citizen has been able to pick and choose from a number of faiths competing for believers. Major revivals in the American Christian tradition, far from being ecumenical, often degenerated into sects competing for the new converts shortly after the tent-poles of the camp meeting were disassembled. This unique past, according to Marty, tends to make the average American more apt to "shop around," crossing denominational lines to find a church that best suits his or her needs, instead of remaining in the faith of the family or the community.

Pilgrims in Their Own Land does an excellent job of focusing in on the details of religious leaders and movements. Marty was able to encapsulate the details of relatively minor figures such as John Humphrey Noyes, or sects such as the Quakers in just a few pages, leaving plenty of room for breadth in this well-penned tome. Definitely a must-have reference source for anyone serious about learning United States religious history, the book's footnotes and bibliography also provide a great reading list for learning more about any particular segment of the past that interests the reader. I've already bought three more books after reading this one, specifically because Pilgrims In Their Own Land peaked my interest.

PUBLISHER: Penguin USA (Paper); ISBN: 0140082689; Reprint edition (August 1985)

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