Culture At Large

Black Panther and our impatience for shalom

Vincent Bacote

I took my daughters to see Captain America: Civil War on opening weekend. The movie contains quite a catalog of superheroes and sets up a number of sequels, including a film for Black Panther, a character who turns 50 this year. A new Black Panthercomic book also launched last month, written by The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me and recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant.” 

Black Panther’s popularity will only increase with Coates as the writer. Those expecting the comic to immediately bear the signature of Coates’ work in other genres may be surprised to discover the first issue only lightly touches on his typical subject matter. Coates has said he will address questions of race and history, but that in Black Panther he primarily asks, “Can a good man be a king, and would an advanced society tolerate a monarch?”

The issue begins with Black Panther, the alter ego of King T’Challa of Wakanda, facing unrest and rebellion in his kingdom, the most technologically advanced civilization on earth. Just as we are drawn into the story’s conflict and meet vital characters, we arrive at a cliffhanger that stokes our anticipatory juices for the issues to come. Through visual storytelling we find ourselves wondering how this great civilization could be so destabilized by forces internal and external. How will T’Challa restore order? Will he wisely steward his privilege and obligation as Black Panther? I almost exclaimed, “Not yet!” when the first issue came to an end, because so many questions are introduced and no resolutions have yet occurred.

“Next time” is a prominent feature of serialized stories. In time, I have learned that such waiting and anticipation are typical for human existence. The struggle that ensues while questions linger in the air is part of the joy and stress of our experience. There is part of me that wants to know the end of the story right now and another part of me that simply wants assurance that T’Challa will show that he is a virtuous and triumphant king. Honestly, I always hope all superheroes will transcend their flaws and weaknesses and reveal they are messianic in some way. I don’t need them to be just like Jesus, but I want them to consistently rise above the fissures of character that indicate that superheroes are most often “almost” completely beyond us mortals.

God’s transformative work does not come via ill-fated attempts to bring shalom by my own willpower.

There are two issues at work here. On the one hand, there is my desire for the arrival of full shalom that attends my discomfort with the uncertainties and difficulties of life, whether this is mirrored in comics or experienced personally. Cornelius Plantinga helpfully defines shalom as the way things are supposed to be, where everything operates according to God’s specifications. A world with shalom is free from the dissonance displayed in the beautiful but unstable kingdom of Wakanda. Interestingly, Coates’ question of a monarch’s suitability for an advanced society stands in tension with the Christian vision of final shalom that arrives when Christ returns. We await a king who will inaugurate and rule a world with its potential fulfilled, rather than a fully democratic society. I certainly want a king. 

The second issue is a question of spiritual formation, particularly the sanctifying process that yields perspective, patience and maturity. Put differently, the desire for having all the answers immediately resolved — in a comic book or in life — often shortchanges the hidden gifts that come with the slow process of discovery as stories unfold and move toward degrees of resolution. While waiting for God’s kingdom to arrive, God’s transformative work does not come via ill-fated attempts to bring final shalom by my own willpower. God reveals another way to us, where we invite the Holy Spirit to bring foretastes of the final shalom to our character and refine our perception so we regard current challenges of life and society through a lens of hope.

I haven’t read lots of comic books in recent years, so my reacquaintance with Black Panther has exposed me not only to new wonders, but also to new dimensions to the state of my soul.

Topics: Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, Theology