My family has been enjoying the latest Disney+ superhero series, Ms. Marvel. We haven’t watched the finale that aired this week yet, so no spoilers!
The series tells the story of Kamala Khan, a young American teenager of Pakistani descent, as she wrestles with questions of identity, family, and to a lesser degree, faith. She is also a huge superhero fangirl in a world where superheroes are real. The drama is set in motion when Kamala seemingly gains superpowers from a family heirloom. I’d share more, but I don’t want to spoil anything for those who may intend to watch it.
I’ve appreciated watching this show as a family with three teenage daughters at different stages of figuring out who they are. And even though, on paper, I bear little in common with Kamala, I found the universal struggles with identity and purpose quite relatable. Struggling with these questions isn’t solely work for teenagers, after all, and as a comic-nerd outsider growing up, her character is quite compelling to this middle-aged white guy too.
Stories are powerful things, and we have some fabulous ones in the Bible. However, Bible stories aren’t the only ones we have access to; sometimes, it is far more effective to use contemporary media to share transformational truth. For example, from Jesus’ teachings, we know that God deplores racism and xenophobia. Embracing a story that finds value and virtue in the burgeoning heroism of a young Muslim girl helps, in a small way, to reinforce our understanding that God’s love transcends our fears and divisions.
Another way we can know that storytelling matters is by recognizing the backlash shows with diverse casts like Ms. Marvel often receive. Shortly after the first episode aired, Ms. Marvel received glowing reviews while simultaneously being “review-bombed” on several popular internet sites by people unhappy with a show of which they had maybe watched one episode. Similarly, Moses Ingram, a Black actress on the latest Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, was targeted with racist insults and messages on social media. While people’s tastes differ in ways that have nothing to do with racism, sexism or xenophobia, the disconnect between the reviews and the “comments” tell us that we need more stories with a meaningful representation of diverse actors and communities and not less. Everyone deserves stories (books, movies, etc.) in which they can find their lives authentically represented, and we all can benefit from seeing cultures different from our own.
The church has long understood the power of story – but our “old, old story” isn’t the only one worth telling. “Keep the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other” is advice often ascribed to renowned 20th Century German theologian Karl Barth. Barth understood the responsibility we have to share the Good News and the need for us to meaningfully engage with the stories people are telling each other today. In Acts 17, we find the Apostle Paul practicing this art as he speaks to the people of Athens, making allusions to the stories that had meaning for them.
While we must use our brains and theological reflection to discern virtuous narratives from harmful ones, I am thankful for the creativity at work beyond the church. And I am grateful to live in a world more fantastically interesting than we are often shown (even if superpowers aren’t real). It’s worth remembering that God moves in people well beyond the barriers we erect.