Go back to 1938 and discover why the 2018 Spider-Man film is a hit. 1938 is when the first Superman comic book appeared. It’s also the year J. R. R. Tolkien addressed the question: Why fantasy literature?
Last week we considered our cultural antennae, prophetic voices that “get there first.” They recognize the times. This includes fantasy films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The superhero film is based on the Marvel Comics character Spider-Man. Spider-Verse refers to alternate universes that keep appearing throughout the movie.
It’s a telling movie. Spider-Man starts with a teenager, Miles Morales. One night he goes to an abandoned subway station to paint graffiti. A radioactive spider bites him. Miles gains spider-like abilities. When he returns to the station, he discovers a Super-Collider. It was built long ago by Wilson Fisk to gain access to parallel universes.
However, with the discovery of the machine, bad things begin to happen. So the original Spider-Man arrives from another dimension to disable the Super-Collider. Next thing you know, Spider-Woman appears from yet another dimension. Then Peter’s aunt, May Parker, who is sheltering more heroes from other dimensions—Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Ham, and Peni Parker. Watch the movie to see where it all ends.
I bet J. R. R. Tolkien would have enjoyed Spider-Man. That’s because he recognized two purposes for fantasy. Renewal and escape. Tolkien addressed both in the 1938 Andrew Lang Lecture.
Good fables, ones with elves, dwarves, witches, dragons—even multiple universes—renew us by reminding us “of the presence of the marvelous.” Tolkien knew scripture often refers to God’s universe as “marvelous.” But he also recognized that fantasy renews us only if we know “from what we are escaping.” Tolkien said it was a prison. In the 1999 film The Matrix, Neo is trapped in a prison for his mind. The Enlightenment. In The Matrix, we are slaves in a marvel-less world.
Tolkien knew how this had happened. 19th century Victorians, many of them evangelicals, had excised gargoyles and goblins from fantasy literature. William James felt this when he visited a Christian camp. He wrote of “the atrocious harmlessness of all things.” He longed for a universe with “heights and depths, the precipices and steep ideals, the gleams of the awful and the infinite.” James didn’t find it in the Christian faith. It was marvel-less.
Nature abhors a vacuum. We long for the marvelous. Small wonder that several decades after William James’ comments (and one year after Tolkien’s 1938 lecture), Marvel Comics was launched. The name says it all.
Fast forward to 1987. I’m a church planter. To understand the times, we look to our cultural antennae, John Stott. New members are required to read one of Stott’s articles where he writes that the great need of our day is transcendence. “So-called secular people are looking for something beyond. They don’t find it in the quality of our worship. No wonder those seeking reality often pass us by!”
Stott was prescient. Fast forward to 2014. Linda Mercadante has studied the “spiritual but not religious” group. They seek “a resacralization of the world,” a return to a sacramental world where God is seen as present in the entirety of creation, where multiple universes simmer with gargoyles. Religious “nones” long for the marvelous. They “want to see and experience the sacred.” Most view Christianity as marvel-less.
Linda Mercadante is one of today’s cultural antennae.
If people don’t experience the marvelous in a faith, they’ll seek it elsewhere, in film for example. Thus, the dramatic rise over the last 20 years of fantasy films depicting multiple universes. Game of Thrones. Star Wars. Black Panther. Guardians of the Galaxy. A Wrinkle in Time. Tickets sales for the new Avengers are expected to exceed a billion dollars.
There is a way to fix a marvel-less faith. Reframe it as marvelous. That’s what I do. I help people of faith, no faith, differing faiths discover why we work, get married, build cities, and so on. I do it mainly through neuroscience and ancient fables like King Arthur’s Round Table. Some religious “nones” find it fascinating, marvelous.
If you’re not into film, consider how music also serves as our cultural antennae. When we listen to how music has changed since the 1960s, we hear more of our marvel-less world. But that’s grist for next Monday’s mill.
 Quoted in William Edgar, Taking Note of Music (Third Ways, SPCK, 1986), 18.
 John Stott, The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Intervarsity, 2015), 33-34
 Linda Mercadante, Belief Without Borders: Inside The Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014), 251.