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The 'Way' forward: Breaking down Nightcrawler's beliefs in 'Way of X' #1

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The ‘Way’ forward: Breaking down Nightcrawler’s beliefs in ‘Way of X’ #1

‘The problem was not mutantkind, but me.’

Spoiler Warning: This analysis of Way of X #1 contains spoilers!

In my previous essay, after exploring the events in X-Men #7 which led Nightcrawler to propose the creation of a mutant religion, I expressed my eager anticipation in seeing how the creative team (Si Spurrier, Bob Quinn, and Java Tartaglia) would follow up on this plot thread in the new series Way of X.

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But, after the first read-through, Way of X #1 had me fairly annoyed.

In nearly every scene, and on almost every page, Nightcrawler’s Catholic beliefs are either directly or indirectly attacked, discredited, criticized, or belittled in some way. Even the title on the recap page, “Playing Make Believe,” suggests the reduction of religious faith to the fantasy games of children.

The 'Way' forward: Breaking down Nightcrawler's beliefs in 'Way of X' #1As an evangelical Christian, I share many of these beliefs and felt…well, not exactly personally attacked, but definitely annoyed at the prominence of these relatively commonplace anti-religious arguments. I worried that writer Spurrier, who identified himself as agnostic to our own David Brooke, may be letting his personal views drive his narrative. That he might, in a way, be trying to preach to us.

However, this interpretation of Way of X #1 and Spurrier’s motivations felt too simple; especially when one has already experienced the depth of insight found in many of Spurrier’s other works. I had the feeling that he was probably trying to accomplish something else. I also recognized how strongly my personal views affected my initial annoyed reaction. I realized that I would have to analyze this issue more deeply.

Furthermore, a second read-through was always going to be necessary, because the creative team packed so much into this first issue. Maybe this should have been expected from nearly 40 pages of story, but somehow every one of these pages is stuffed to the brim with things to process.

For the meticulous X-fan, Way of X #1 provides intriguing additions to the new X-Men mythos in Jonathan Hickman’s Krakoa-Era. The anti-mutant Orchis organization finally returns, bringing new revelations about their current structure and practices. A data-page on Krakoa’s islands foreshadows the exciting revelation of a potential third Krakoan locale. The creator of Krakoa’s miracle medicines is finally revealed. And the creative team introduces us to a villain lurking amongst the shadows of Krakoa, the mysterious, horror-inspired Patchwork Man. By the end of the issue, we seemingly learn his true identity.

But this issue doesn’t just provide X-Men fans plenty to obsess about.  It also contains a copious amount of philosophical musings and sociological theories to go along with the religious references, commentary and the already mentioned criticisms.

There is really too much to cover. Instead, I’ll try to focus on one of the central themes: the deconstruction of Nightcrawler’s beliefs in the wake of the mutant cultural revolution on Krakoa. A further analysis has led me to believe that Spurrier does indeed have a deeper purpose in filling this issue with arguments against religious faith. As Spurrier offers very few counter-arguments in favor of religion, I will also refrain from sharing how I would personally respond to each of these arguments against faith (although credible counter-arguments do exist).

One of the first criticisms of religion made is that all such beliefs arise out of indoctrination or brainwashing. The initial plotline shows Nightcrawler leading a team of mostly youthful mutants as they infiltrate a church in Venice. They find the Orchis organization recruiting missionaries of hate from an order of all white Catholic priests. The art and the plot make a joke of these religious men and the beliefs that Orchis is supposedly indoctrinating them into. Generalizing this assumption to cover all religions, Pixie starts to comment that some people would say all belief systems are a form of brainwashing. Spurrier obviously chose a Catholic church for this scene to make the connection to Nightcrawler’s faith. Still, the claim of indoctrination is not directly leveled at Nightcrawler personally.

Almost all of the arguments aimed more directly at Nightcrawler’s faith follow the same theme; in the face of the developments mutants have achieved on Krakoa, religious faith has become at the very least outdated and probably even completely obsolete. The motto rings: out with the old and in with the new. Mutant culture has now surpassed human culture, creating new moralities along with new ways of thinking, believing, and living. And most importantly, with The Five, mutants have guaranteed access to perpetual resurrection. Death is dead and the need for a spiritual hereafter has evaporated. Nowhere is this better summarized than Professor Xavier telling Nightcrawler in the very first scene, “Mutants have upgraded morality and beat mortality. I’m afraid your cassock has little to offer my conscience.”

In the real world, one has found the same argument, at least in Western cultures, since the Great Enlightenment. Often, scholars and others who consider themselves well-learned disregard religious beliefs as an outdated way of thinking in the light of the scientific, philosophical, and cultural developments of our current Age.

The 'Way' forward: Breaking down Nightcrawler's beliefs in 'Way of X' #1

Courtesy of Marvel.

Back in the Marvel Universe, Magneto continues in this vein in a later scene, urging the mutants of Krakoa in a bold speech “[t]o forsake the past and seize a brave new future.” In the following private conversation, while continually referencing Christian concepts, he calls Nightcrawler’s God “dusty.”

We find this same theme in the obvious contrast made between Nightcrawler’s more traditional way of thinking and that of the emerging culture of Krakoa’s youth. With access to perpetual resurrection, the youthful members of his team show no qualms in facing death and therefore little respect for their own lives. They treat it like a game; teasing Pixie for being nervous about dying, since she’s never done it before. They display a kind of consumer mentality, as if to say, “Everyone’s doing it.” Eventually, Pixie gives in, letting herself be brutally killed by an Orchis soldier. Her teammates celebrate the horrible death with cheering exclamations as DJ makes sure to record it.

Although this doesn’t represent an explicit argument against faith in general, it deconstructs one of the most important and emotional tenets of Christianity and especially Catholicism: the sanctity of life. For a Catholic, not only does every living person have worth, every life is sacred. And Nightcrawler has always shared this conviction.

The magnitude of Nightcrawler’s empathy for every life becomes clearer in the later Crucible scene. His anger at watching the ritualistic murder of a helpless woman leads him to act out against Krakoa’s new cultural ritual; physically trying to stop Magneto. At the end of the scene, what troubles him most is not another slight from Magneto, but rather the enthusiastic cheers his fellow mutants give the brutal killing.

We see a disturbing development, at least as far as Nightcrawler is concerned. Given that The Five have made resurrection repeatable and almost immediate, Krakoans have started to treat their lives as disposable and they engage in what Nightcrawler calls “Cheap Death.” This, more than all of the other controversial developments on Krakoa, hits Nightcrawler in a deeply emotional and personal way. One should recognize that he only acts out in physical violence twice in this issue; both times against someone taking another life. But, when DJ questions Nightcrawler’s horrified reaction at seeing Pixie walk deliberately into a brutal death, Nightcrawler struggles to give an answer.

To emphasize how outdated Nightcrawler’s worldview has now become, this early scene ends with his youthful team’s insulting final verdict, “You used to be fun.” They then, as they also do later in their only other scene, leave Nightcrawler and his traditional views on the sanctity of life behind and all alone. Out with the old and in with the new.

On the more philosophical side of this issue, the most academic and yet insulting criticisms of Nightcrawler’s faith come from Dr. Nemesis, best described as a mutant mad scientist, and revealed here as the one who developed the Krakoan medicines so central to the current X-Men run. He almost immediately calls out Nightcrawler’s doubts, referring to “an air of bewildered pointlessness” about Nightcrawler. He also suggests that Nightcrawler’s religious beliefs have already reached their expiration date, calling Nightcrawler’s rosary cross, “that superstitious dross,” and comparing his faith to being on the Titanic.

Way of X

Courtesy of Marvel.

Dr. Nemesis argues, whether directly or indirectly, against the truth of religious beliefs on two grounds.

The first exists only in the fictional universe of superheroes. Considering that the X-Men have gone up against a number of actual gods, considering that they have faced alien life and near omnipotent metaphysical beings, and considering that they have now conquered mortality, what place is left for belief in the Judeo-Christian Godhead? The truth is, Doctor Nemesis is probably right in this assessment. Many of the things that exist or have occurred in the Marvel Universe definitely rule out most of the foundational teachings of Christianity. How lucky for us believers, that the Marvel Universe is a fictional place.

In this conversation, Nightcrawler offers his one and only counter-argument in the whole issue. When Dr. Nemesis questions why Nightcrawler continues to believe in “the only [god] of whom we’ve seen no trace,” he responds that this is the very reason why he continues to have faith in this God. It may at first sound like a cop out, as Dr. Nemesis suggests, but it highlights one characteristic of the God of the Bible that I personally find very inspiring: he is very unlike anything you might expect. It is exactly this unlikeness that makes the Christian God both mysterious and yet very credible; as if no one could have made this God up, because he is exactly unlike what you would make up. God doesn’t just appear when and where you would expect. And when he does show up, he doesn’t always act the way you want him to.

Dr. Nemesis’ second argument derives from the fields of sociology and philosophy. He brings up the theory of Dunbar’s number, which shows that humans are able to maintain more social relationships than would normally be expected when compared to other primates. To explain this, Dunbar hypothesizes that all religions are sociological constructs, abstractions created to bring order to a society that has grown larger than the expected maximum number of relationships. Nemesis makes it clear that he agrees with this hypothesis and believes religious doctrines are not truth, but rather, “[t]hings that have no reality unless a majority chooses to act as if they do.” He does at least recognize the beneficial use of these myths and hopes that Nightcrawler might be the one to develop such abstractions in order to peacefully unify Krakoan culture.

Finally and most interestingly, further questions and criticisms of Nightcrawler’s faith come from Nightcrawler himself. And yet, this highlights one of the strongest and most admirable aspects of his character. He possesses the humility to accept that he could be the one who is wrong.

Way of X #1 includes numerous data-pages revealing Nightcrawler’s “religious” writings. In one of them he reflects on whether his faith is outdated, stating, “I know now that my anxieties arose from obsolete modes of thought rooted in the outside world.” In another he questions why he was disgusted with Krakoa’s mutants trivializing death when death had been defeated. In his humility he also recognizes his own hubris in thinking he could develop a mutant religion, find the correct answers or even ask the right questions. When he applied the principle of Occam’s razor, he concludes, “The problem was not mutantkind, but me.”

Nevertheless, the cultural developments on Krakoa continue to feel off, and Nightcrawler’s disquiet grows evermore. At the resurrection of both Pixie and the unnamed victim of Crucible, he summarizes his feelings perfectly to Professor X, “There is wonder and hope…ja…But also there is vice and violence and death. Cheap death…The problem is, I can give no good reason why mutants shouldn’t behave as they do. Even at their most savage, I can find no moral flaw in these…emerging cultures. But I feel it. Something terrible, just out of sight. Waiting for the cracks to appear.”

All of this underscores the exceptional empathy and character of Nightcrawler. Multiple times from multiple characters, he is referred to as “one of the kindly ones.” His attempts at developing a mutant religion might be misguided, but not his character. Printed in bold type on the very first data page of his “religious” writings he states, “I hoped to learn what we ought to believe. I learned instead how we ought to live.”

The 'Way' forward: Breaking down Nightcrawler's beliefs in 'Way of X' #1

Courtesy of Marvel.

One often hears the common misperception that religious faith is only a set of truths and doctrines to believe in; when an honest reading of the Bible reveals that Christianity has also always been about how we live, or rather the unification of our convictions and our actions. This is easy to miss, considering how too many religious leaders poorly represent Christianity. But, one finds the importance of living out one’s faith in James 2:17, “[F]aith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” And Jesus, while condemning false prophets, compared the way one lives to fruit in Matthew 7:17 and 20, “Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit…Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

This has always been one of Nightcrawler’s greatest attributes, at least when the character is properly written. And Spurrier writes Nightcrawler’s character well. Nightcrawler has never been preachy about his faith; he just lives as a person of faith should. Returning to the metaphor of fruit, the apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23, “but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” All of these qualities describe Nightcrawler’s character well. He is in fact one of the kindly ones.

Ever since Way of X was first revealed, theories abounded as to what the title referred to. Most assumed it was the name of the new mutant religion. But, Nightcrawler’s “religious” writings in this issue suggest that the “Way” refers to a path or a journey.

Spurrier fills Way of X #1 with attacks and criticisms of Nightcrawler’s religious beliefs in order to show us the state of Nightcrawler’s faith. His worldview has been torn down to its foundations. He has been brought to question everything he has believed in. He recognizes that he must now start upon a new path of discovery, searching for universal, moral, or religious truths in light of the Krakoan revolution. And, as the name of his religious writings, “The Path Unto the Path,” suggests, this issue is about finding his way. For Nightcrawler, the central conflict, or rather the central journey, of Way of X will not be against some super-powered villain, but will rather be an internal conflict of faith.

(PS: Nonetheless, this inner path does lead him to an external conflict against a super-powered villain, as the final scene supposedly reveals the mysterious Patchwork Man to be none other than Legion, Professor Xavier’s mentally troubled and incredibly powerful son. And, as if to emphasize the religious themes of this series, Spurrier even includes a biblical reference to Mark 5:9 in the “to be continued” line: “His name is LEGION for he is many.”)

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

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