God is dead. Well, a god is dead. OK, if we're being technical, a not-quite-a-god is dead in the Marvel comics universe.
Last week, with the publication of The Mighty Thor #705, writer Jason Aaron killed the titular Mighty Thor, a.k.a. Jane Foster. Foster's death marks the culmination of six years of storytelling in which Aaron meditates on one question: What makes a god worthy of worship? Aaron's answer is fascinating, especially considering his Thor died right before Good Friday.
Aaron took over the title in 2012 with a story arc called "The God Butcher.” The antagonist was Gorr, an alien who declared war on all the gods of Asgard when his wife and child died. Gorr describes the gods as "petty and useless," at one point warning, "[Thor] isn't worthy of your devotion. None of [the gods] are." Though of course Thor eventually stops Gorr, the problem of evil (what theologians call theodicy) haunts the rest of his run.
Thor eventually agrees with Gorr. He sees the gods of Asgard as they are: selfish and self-absorbed. And so he becomes Odinson, the Unworthy Thor, unable to wield his mystical hammer, Mjolnir. In his place, Jane Foster (Thor's longtime love interest and very human nurse) places her hand on the hammer, transforming her into Mighty Thor.
But Jane has cancer. The magic of her transformation kills all poisons in her body—including the chemotherapy drugs that had been keeping her cancer at bay. The longer she remains Thor, the closer she moves toward death. This being comics, it is at this moment that we meet the Mangog, a being made of the rage of billions of wronged souls, seeking to destroy Asgard. And so Jane’s choice becomes even more pronounced: let the unworthy gods of Asgard be defeated, or transform into Mighty Thor to save them, at the cost of her own life?
The art work of Russell Dauterman masterfully captures the scope of Jane’s sacrifice. The irregular panels, spread across cosmic backdrops, convey the two worlds Jane inhabits—one foot in Asgard and one on Earth. After the final battle, the Unworthy Thor, Odinson, embraces his one-time love, who dies in his arms. It’s no accident that the final panel of the comic is a heart-breaking variation on Michelangelo’s Pieta, with Odinson cradling the dead Jane Foster in his arms.
What makes a god worthy of worship?
Aaron's story raises one of the great questions for persons of faith: what is the point of worshiping a god if they don't actually do anything for us? For Christians, we can get more specific: if God doesn't heal us, keep our families safe, or save us from death, then is God really worthy of worship?
Holy Week is our answer to this question. Throughout John's gospel, Jesus promises the hour of his glory is coming. “Glory” in Hebrew originally meant “heaviness.” To speak of someone's glory is to speak of their weightiness, of the impression they leave on the world (the notion of “fame” applies here). Jesus' listeners repeatedly assume the hour of his glory is his Messianic triumph, but readers of the gospel know he's looking toward his crucifixion. It is on the cross that Jesus becomes glorious. It is on the cross Jesus leaves his impression on the world.
But what sense does this make? Israel’s God had previously proclaimed that anyone who hangs on a tree is cursed. And now this is the fate of his one and only son? Does this mean that Israel’s God is unworthy? Unconcerned with the suffering of his people? Powerless in the face of the Roman gods? Or, perhaps, is Israel's God up to something altogether different, something so radical the only way it can be described is with terms like “resurrection,” “new creation,” or “eternal life.”
The gospels are unanimous in their portrayal of Jesus as the one who planned to die. He is God become human, creator entering into creation—something as impossible as trying to keep track of Marvel's Norse mythology and how many Thors there are. (Seriously, wait until you meet Throg, the Frog-Thor. Yes, that's a real thing.) If we tend to make gods in our own image, then surely Aaron's Asgardians are this: beings of immense potential that is wasted in petty, sinful struggle. They need to be saved from their own sins. Their salvation can only be achieved by one who is at once a god and human, one who does not cling to her life but gladly gives it up in the hope that her sacrifice will create new worlds of possibilities.
The Mighty Thor concludes next month. It remains to be seen if resurrection awaits Jane Foster, if the Asgardians will in fact become something other than what they have been. For us, Sunday is coming. We celebrate the God who did not leave us in our suffering, but became worthy of our worship by taking our sin upon himself, swallowing it whole, and inviting us to join him in a new creation.
Topics: Culture At Large