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'Way of X' prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in 'X-Men'

Comic Books

‘Way of X’ prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in ‘X-Men’

X-Men #7 is all about questions. With Way of X on its way, we will hopefully soon get some answers.

What are your beliefs based upon? Where does your religion come from? And, more importantly, what happens to your faith, when your personal experiences force you to question your religious doctrines?

In X-Men #7, which came out in February/March 2020, Nightcrawler wrestles with these themes before eventually concluding, “I think I need to start a mutant religion.” The upcoming series, Way of X, set to debut on April 21, promises to finally follow-up on Nightcrawler’s declaration. Accordingly, this seems like the perfect time to look back at this essential issue, written by Jonathan Hickman and with art by Leinil Francis Yu and Sunny Ghu.

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Because X-Men #7 is all about questions.

'Way of X' prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in 'X-Men'

Courtesy of Marvel.

The central plot element arises out of the question, “What should happen with the almost one million depowered mutants still living?” If they were dead, the Five could simply resurrect them with their powers restored. Hickman recognizes the moral and religious significance of both the question and the solution he has come up with: if so willing, a depowered mutant can take part in “Crucible,” a gladiatorial battle to the death against Apocalypse (which they will surely lose). Hickman also recognizes the many other moral, philosophical and religious questions that have risen out of the new mutant status quo he has created on Krakoa. He uses this issue to touch on some of them.

The issue starts by introducing us to the first participant in Crucible, Melody Guthrie, sister of the more well-known Sam (Cannonball) and Paige (Husk) Guthrie. Hickman purposely uses the family relationship to add emotional weight. We will not just see some relatively unknown character brutally killed, but rather a beloved little sister. And we will witness the heart-wrenching reactions of her closest family.

One naturally questions the morality of Crucible: Is it right or wrong? Good or evil?

Perhaps to show his own feelings, Hickman depicts traditional X-Men heroes either struggling to accept Crucible or rejecting it outright. The issue follows Cyclops, our point-of-view character, as he obviously and openly struggles with his feelings about Crucible. He goes to two of his trusted friends for counsel.

Wolverine, displaying a moral humility that we should more often imitate, admits that it is neither his decision to make nor his place to judge the ethics of Crucible. Nor is it his place to judge Melody’s choice to go through with it. He doesn’t want to openly say Crucible is wrong, but does admit, “[D]o I love the choice? No.” Still, he makes his feelings clear through his actions; he refuses to attend the deadly battle, but is present at the subsequent resurrection.

Cyclops then goes to Nightcrawler, who in X-Men canon is an ordained Catholic priest. The rest of the issue focuses primarily on his many difficult thoughts and questions. As far as what he thinks about Crucible: he turns a Buddhist saying around by proclaiming, “Violence to yourself is violence to the world and therefore violence to those around you.” He goes on to say, “For me, these acts have both an external and eternal cost, and…why they are sins.” He apparently argued against Crucible with an “impassioned” perspective. Later, he calls it “reckless.”

'Way of X' prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in 'X-Men'

Courtesy of Marvel.

Whereas the traditional heroes tend to find Crucible morally unacceptable, former X-Men villains have embraced this new mutant ritual.

Exodus, interestingly, uses religious language in describing Crucible, calling it a “glorious thing.” Around a campfire, he asks a group of young mutants, “[C]an you tell me what Crucible actually is?” One child answers, “I think it’s where a broken mutant has to die so they can be an unbroken mutant.” Later, summarizing their lesson, Exodus says, “The great gift of the Five means that any of us can be reborn — that we can be made whole. All that’s required is one thing. And what is that, children?” The answer: “You have to die.”

As an evangelical Christian, I keep trying to find a proper comparison or even a symbolic allegory between Crucible and the Christian theology of resurrection, redemption, and sanctification. The name “Crucible” alludes directly to religious concepts, recalling such biblical passages as Isaiah 48:10. “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” And the words of Exodus, at first, appear to align with the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 16:25: “…whoever loses his life for me will find it”; an idea theologically expounded upon by the apostle Paul at the beginning of Romans chapter 6. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life,” (Romans 6:4).

The similarities seem even stronger in Paul’s description of the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians 15: “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). So will it be with Crucible. The body that is sown is depowered, weak. It will be raised again in glory, with mutant powers fully restored.

But, the comparison quickly fails.

First off, Crucible is just too barbaric; too pagan. Leinil Francis Yu illustrates the mutants of Krakoa arriving to what appears to be a kind of religious ritual, banners hanging from the sky, in much the same way a body of believers would congregate for a church service. However, they gather together in a coliseum, reminiscent of ancient Rome. And the ritual they have come to witness is in fact a bloody battle to the death, just as would be seen between two Roman gladiators. But, most everyone today would agree that this aspect of ancient Roman culture was barbaric and immoral. Presumably, this battle is meant to give a depowered mutant an honorable death. And yet the brutal killing, witnessed and approved by the gathered community, comes off more akin to a human sacrifice offered by a pagan cult.

More importantly, the underlying motivation behind Crucible feels somehow off. The Christian idea of “losing your life in order to find it” is normally interpreted as a humble act of confession and submission. You confess the sins and flaws of your life, admitting that you do not and never could deserve redemption. Then, in submitting your life to God, dying to yourself, you allow Him to purify you of your sins and resurrect you from this figurative, spiritual death as a new, refined creation.

'Way of X' prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in 'X-Men'

Courtesy of Marvel.

In contrast, a depowered mutant chooses Crucible to earn their resurrection by showing their fortitude, merit and courage. So says Apocalypse, another former X-Men villain and the unyielding opponent in Crucible’s fight to the death. Crucible was, after all, his idea. It fits his character all too well. In this, he promotes his “survival of the fittest” creed on the mutant paradise of Krakoa. Only those courageous enough to die in battle against the fittest of them all prove themselves worthy of being a mutant again, “…to fight to the very last one to preserve our way of life. To fight and die for one another.” For him, the alternative, to commit suicide in order to be reborn a mutant, would be cowardly. As he puts it, “It’s a surrender.” He believes those depowered must earn back the right to be mutants again.

The views of Apocalypse and Exodus in this issue point to one of the more troubling and controversial aspects of Krakoa’s foundations; one hardly ever mentioned by the traditionally heroic mutants on Krakoa, but rather directly by the more traditionally villainous: the culture and goals of Krakoa are based on the idea of mutant superiority over inferior humanity.

Now, one must admit; most mutants have superpowers that make them, in one sense, more powerful or advanced than “normal” humans. They are considered the next step in biological evolution. In this way, they are superior.

But, more is meant by mutants being superior to humans. Exodus, while speaking of depowered mutants, says they are “[t]rapped in a body that was a prison. Can you imagine being able to do such wonders and then having your gift stolen from you?” Apocalypse shows more direct contempt for human lives, “Oh, how they envy us.” He insults Melody for now being just human instead of mutant, “And now—in all ways that matter—you are as they are…What a disappointment you must be.” Apocalypse never hides the fact that he views human life as worthless: “You can live like this. Like a human. It’s an existence of a sort. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

The ideology is clear: a human life has less worth than a mutant one. Returning to the attempted analogy to Christian theology, the parallels would take the form: “being human = being sinful and fallen, that which needs to die off” and “resurrected a mutant = reborn holy and sanctified, made whole.” This kind of comparison reeks of a fundamental discrimination against humankind; judging a person as worthless compared to another (yourself) is basically the definition of discrimination.

Accordingly, Crucible has led Nightcrawler to question exactly this controversial aspect of Krakoa’s foundations: “But what was it built on? Hope? Anger? Inevitability? Arrogance? What’s at the real center of it?”

'Way of X' prelude: Moral and religious questions explored in 'X-Men'

Courtesy of Marvel.

This is just one of many questions that the wonders of Krakoa have brought Nightcrawler, a man of deep religious faith. “Krakoa asks hard questions of me.” Some are explicitly related to his Catholic faith, “What happens to our souls when we die?” and “do they return to their mortal vessel when that vessel is reborn?” Also, “If one cannot die—if one is immortal—then what lure is eternity? Why seek heaven if we can — for all time — do God’s work here in the living world?”

Other questions fall more into ethical/philosophical categories, “If one is changed — made whole — in being reborn, then why shouldn’t other mutants have the same opportunity in death?” Apparently, some mutants have already drawn up wills, wanting to be resurrected into a different, better or tailor-made body with even more power. On the one hand, this puts into question the holistic interpretation of self: Am I still me, if I’m in someone else’s body? But it also touches on other morally controversial topics, such as the gene-manipulation of unborn children.

Interestingly, Nightcrawler admits that he doesn’t have many answers or opinions, “All I have are more questions…”

Now, no one should be condemned for questioning their own beliefs or those of their chosen church. It is necessary for the growth and strengthening of one’s own faith. One cannot fully understand deep truths without wrestling with them for a while. Too many churches and religions forget or ignore this fact, trying to constrain such questions, especially the questions without answers. In a certain way, Nightcrawler’s struggles with these questions are the crucible in which his faith is being refined.

This brings him to an interesting conclusion: “I think I need to start a mutant religion.”

His comment seemingly leans towards a so-called “bottom-up” theory of religion, which claims that religious beliefs arise out of our existential and philosophical questions. For example, we ask, “Where did we ultimately come from?,” and we come up with a creator God to answer that question. But, this proposes that the answers, and therefore all religious beliefs, are not truth, but more akin to myth; created in the imagination to answer deep questions that we do not understand. This is the preferred theory of atheists, dismissing all religious beliefs as nothing but made-up myths and fantasies.

On the contrary, nearly every world religion, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, professes a “top-down” theory. Religious truth is received from above by the revelation of God or some other deity. In this theory, asking the question does not lead to the creation of the answer or our faith in it. But rather, the answer, the truth, existed before, revealed by a Higher Power to those who seek it (and sometimes even to people not searching for it at all). Anyone honestly searching for the truth that satisfies our deepest existential questions, must agree that this truth existed before we did.

To his praise, Hickman leaves nearly every question raised in X-Men #7 open. In the end, Nightcrawler along with us readers are still left wondering. As far as Crucible goes, Cyclops concludes, “Right or wrong. It sure is something, isn’t it?” To which Nightcrawler replies, “Yes. Yes it is.” Hickman forces us readers to make decisions for ourselves. Now we can wrestle with these deep, religious, moral, and philosophical questions, letting them lead us to other questions and still other questions until we hopefully arrive at truth.

X-Men

Courtesy of Marvel.

Of course, leaving so many questions and ideas open also creates space for more storytelling. Supposedly, the upcoming series Way of X, from the creative team of Si Spurrier, Bob Quinn and Java Tartaglia, will address many of these dangling threads. Although, Spurrier did recently tell our own David Brooke, “With WoX, I realized there was a contingent out there who had the book mentally positioned as A Story About Religion — which is a long, long way from what it’s really about,” while emphasizing the importance of this series, “I don’t want anyone to feel like this is a book that can be easily skipped-over. It’s not. It’s core.”

Still, all signs point toward Nightcrawler’s mutant religion being explored and/or developed in Way of X. The title itself alludes (whether intentionally or not) to the name given to the very first Christian fellowship: The Way (see Acts 9:2 and 24:14). And the recent teases have nearly all referenced either religious symbols or alternative world views. Even the first preview pages reveal the prominence that religion and people of faith will have in the series.

I for one look forward to what will develop out of Nightcrawler’s attempt to start a mutant religion. One would assume, considering his religious background, that his search for answers should lead not to a “Bottom-Up” creation of myth, but rather to a “Top-Down” revelation of truth. But, without a definitive mutant God, who or what should reveal this truth? Will Nightcrawler receive answers from Krakoa itself? Many promotional articles for Way of X have hinted at Nightcrawler digging into the soul of Krakoa and finding something corrupted there.

And what will the new mutant religion look like? From the start of Jonathan Hickman’s Dawn of X, the new mutant status quo on Krakoa has been permeated with numerous examples of religious symbolism, most deriving from Judeo-Christian doctrines. Will we continue to see parallels to Judaism and Christianity in Nightcrawler’s mutant religion, will we instead find influences from more Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, or will we be confronted with something completely different?

Perhaps, we can expect a more thorough philosophical and moral analysis of the new mutant culture on Krakoa. Will Nightcrawler develop a code of mutant morality which eliminates the troubling ideology of mutant superiority? Will there eventually be a moral basis upon which one can make a conclusive ethical judgement of Crucible and other new mutant practices? And will the actions and ultimate goals of mutantkind be judged as good or evil?

As stated at the start, X-Men #7 is all about questions. With Way of X on its way, we will hopefully soon get some answers.

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV.

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