My five sons and I are headed to our local cinema tonight, excited to see the premiere of Shazam. I’m probably more excited than they, because I’ve been a fan of the Shazam mythology since I was a small child, the age of Billy Batson or younger. Many a time, after reading a set of Captain Marvel (the nomenclature before copyright disputes with Marvel Comic’s various Captain Marvels made the name confusing) comics, I would find myself walking through the Mississippi woods behind my house, yelling “Shazam,” just to see if, maybe, just maybe, I could harness the power that would enable me to call down some magic lightning. Never did. Today, though, I’m thinking about why this figure in pop culture, initially discounted by many as a Superman copy, keeps rebounding in popular culture. Many reasons are behind this, but one of them, it seems to me, is the resonant idea of accessing power through a word.
In his monumental book on comics mythology, Supergods, Grant Morrison argued that, despite all the copyright wrangling between the Superman and Shazam franchises (before DC adopted the Shazam family in through a buyout), Shazam really wasn’t a reworking of the Superman mythos at all.
“Superman celebrated the power of the individual in setting drawn to look as true to life as possible,” Morrison argued. “Captain Marvel’s stories offered a world that slid and slipped and became unreal, a world where the word took center stage. He embraced the interior world of dream logic, fairy-tale time, and toys that come to life. If Superman was Science Fiction, and Batman was Crime, Captain Marvel planted his flag in the wider territory of pure fantasy.”
Morrison continued: “His origin story detailed an out-and-out shamanic experience of a kind familiar to any witch doctor, ritual magician, anthropologist, or alien abductee.” For those of you who don’t know, the superhero in this account is a child, who is able through an ancient wizard’s guidance to connect with magical lightning connecting him to an adult form and the powers of five gods and one sage. All this happens whenever Billy speaks the wizard’s name.
Now, those of you familiar with Morrison will know that he holds some, let’s put it this way, out-of-the-mainstream (any mainstream) metaphysical views. Despite all my disagreements with him on such, Morrison is on to something when it comes to the human longing to connect with the supernatural through word. In the Shazam narrative—and in countless others—there’s a “deep, dark tunnel that leads to an elevated, magical plane where words are superspells that change the nature of reality.”
Like me, Morrison as a child would try out the Shazam word, just in case, but he argues that’s about more than childish imagination. “Eventually, everybody searches for his own magic word: the diet, the relationship, the wisdom that might liberate us from the conventional into the extraordinary,” Morrison contended. “That eternal human hope for transcendence gave the Captain Marvel strip rocket fuel.”
“The magic word was a concept that connected the hero with human speech; language, storytelling,” Morrison noted. “Captain Marvel’s power came not from years in the gym or from his alien biology or his royal blood.” The power was beyond him, and it came to him through words.
Again, Morrison is off-base, in my view, on his shamanic vision of reality, but he is closer than contemporary secularism to a biblical view that there is a transcendent order underneath the visible, and that words are more than just evolutionary adaptations to make communication easier. He’s right that this concept shows up in all sorts of folklore and cultic practices. But why? Could it be that the underlying pattern—of the aspirations for meaning, the need for security, and the connection between Word and reality are part of what human beings long to be true, because, in a very real sense, it is? As a Christian, I believe that neither the devil nor more benign human constructs can be ultimately creative at all. At best, we plagiarize from God’s uber-creativity, and, at worst, we distort that creativity into idolatry (Rom. 1; Acts 17).
Jesus encountered many shamanic attempts to channel power through word. The demonic beings try—and fail—to use Jesus’ name in order to get power over him (Mk. 1:24). Instead, Jesus drives them away with his own word, (Mk. 1:25), sometimes by asking the piercing question, “What is your name?” (Mk. 5:9). Moreover, Jesus, in teaching us to pray, disentangled us from the idea that magic words or vain repetitions were needed to get God’s attention (Matt. 6:7). We come to God in Jesus’ name—not as a disconnected, impersonal talisman—but because, by faith, we really are united to him. And we are not transferred the power we want from loaning forces, but rather the Word that inhabits us redefines what power is in the first place (1 Cor. 1:22-29). The Word is not Herculean but cruciform.
Our words really do matter, because all of the created order around us is originated and sustained by a Word (Jn. 1:1), not an impersonal word that can be channeled and manipulated but a Word that became flesh and dwelled among us. We are then addressed by a living Word of God, which becomes a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. And we cry out, in words, “Jesus is lord!” and “Abba, Father!” Indeed, when we don’t know what words to say, the Spirit himself intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26).
Shazam is fun, because it’s good storytelling. But it’s good storytelling because it connects with some more universal human longings. To be a child is to be vulnerable, and every human being feels both his or her own vulnerability and that there’s great power out there somewhere. And somehow we know there’s something powerful in words.
Those intuitions—often twisted into dark and manipulative forms—are there because there is more than a wizard out there, but a God who creates and recreates and regenerates on the basis of a Word that is better than magic. We are right to tremble a bit at the mysteries all around us, and inside of us. Much of it is dark and dangerous. But, as Martin Luther reminded us, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for, lo, his doom is sure. One little Word shall fell him.”
I love the Shazam story, but I learned a long time ago that “Shazam” will not turn a vulnerable child into an invulnerable legend. But the name of Jesus can turn an adult seeking legendary power into a child, born anew, who can rest in the love and providence of a personal Father, who speaks and acts, in our great weakness.
“Abba” is a simpler word than “Shazam.” And regeneration happens invisibly and almost imperceptibly. But the power on the other end is real, and he has a Name. That’s the Light that overcomes the darkness, better for us than magic lightning could ever be.