The Mighty Thor and the Nature of God

Ever since Jane Foster picked up Mjölnir and became Thor, Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman have been delivering the most exciting, original, and thoughtful stories – all gorgeously rendered – I’ve ever found in the pages of The Mighty Thor.  Sure, I loved Tom DeFalco’s Thunder God, my intro to the character.  I’ve enjoyed the other versions I’ve read too.  (And who doesn’t love Chris Hemsworth?)  But Jane Foster’s the mightiest Thor for me.  Their most recent arc, “The Asgard/Shi’ar War,” is a perfect example of why this has become my definitive take on Thor.  It features what all the best Thor stories do – a wild cosmic landscape, universe-spanning clashes between celestial beings and alien forces, layered/interesting characters – while also offering an elegant theological commentary on the ontological nature of both humanity and divinity.

Thor and the Divine 10

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Running through The Mighty Thor #15-19, “The Asgard/Shi’ar War” begins with Gladiator and the Shi’ar forces invading Asgardia.  Battle rages through the Realm Eternal until Gladiator manages to get his hands on Thor.  Once he’s physically touching her, Thor and all the Shi’ar forces are teleported off Asgardia to M’Kraan Palace, the home of the Shi’ar gods.  Looking to prove their dominance over all other deities, Sharra and K’ythri – the Starmother and Father of Light respectively – force Thor into participating in the Challenge of the Gods by threatening to destroy Earth if she refuses.  As Thor faces Sharra and K’ythri in their divine contests, Lady Sif rallies Hildegarde, Hogun, Fandral, and Cul Borson (Odin’s bother, reigning regent of Asgardia, and the God of Fear) to invade Shi’ar space to save Thor.

Thor and the Divine 27

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Through the entire story arc, we have a narrative operating on two different levels.  The first is typical comic book  action…and it delivers.  Here we see Thor doing battle against K’ythri and Sharra across the cosmos.  We also have Sif, Fandral, Hogun, Hildegarde, and Cul Borson leading the Thunder Guard into battle against the Shi’ar.  This story features everything we hope for in a great issue of The Mighty Thor.  We see characters wielding medieval weapons engaging in combat on alien worlds.  Swords clashing!  Arrows flying!  Hammers falling!  It never looks more majestic than when it’s all drawn by Russell Dauterman and colored by Matthew Wilson either.  The panels are as visually stunning as the narrative is intellectually and emotionally engaging.

Thor and the Divine 28

Let to cosmic action commence! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The second level of the story is the theologically-rich nature of the conflict between Thor and the Shi’ar gods.  To balance the entertaining and the intellectual so perfectly is no easy feat.  In placing these divine characters at odds, the story intentionally explores one of the most important questions in human history.

Sharra – “We are Sharra and K’ythri, the Starmother and Father of Light, creators of all space and time.  Supreme deities of the one true cosmic chosen people, the everlasting Shi’ar.”

K’ythri – “We breathe nebulae to life.  We weep comets and speak with the voice of a quadrillion supernovae.”

Sharra – “And today, Thor of Asgard, we will teach you what it truly means to be a god.”

Thor and the Divine 12

Thor isn’t messing around with these two. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Their opening lines to Thor show this narrative will revolve around “what it truly means to be a god.”  Both the question, and our answer, are significant.  The great scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell gives us context when he says, “‘God’ is an ambiguous word in our language because it appears to refer to something that is known.  But the transcendent is unknowable and unknown.  God is transcendent, finally, of anything like the name ‘God.’  God is beyond names and forms…We want to think about God.  God is a thought.  God is a name.  God is an idea.  But its reference is to something that transcends all thinking.  The ultimate mystery of being is beyond all categories of thought.”[1]  So, we wrestle with what God (the name we give to the transcendent) is even though we can never fully grasp it.  If we could understand, it wouldn’t be transcendent.  To broach such a topic in a comic book is impressive.  To handle it with such skill, raising more questions for the reader than offering definitive answers, is even more impressive.  This question Jason Aaron builds the plot of The Mighty Thor around is not just one of humanity’s most important questions either; asking it is perhaps the defining trait of our humanity.

As the religious scholar Karen Armstrong tells us,  “Religion was not something tacked on to the human condition, an optional extra imposed on people by some unscrupulous priest.  The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”[2]  There are many things we look to as being the defining traits of our humanity – our art, music, tool use, language, community, self-awareness, etc. – and all can be found, to some degree or another, with other animals in creation.  However, to the best of our knowledge, we are the only species to contemplate the transcendent.  So, Armstrong continues, “Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.  Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art.”[3]

Thor and the Divine 3

Exactly what we believe in has varied all through human history.  The fact that we do believe in something is central to human experience all though history. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In contemporary society we often view the choice of whether or not we believe in God to be one made like any other – political party, vocation, relationship status, Team Cap or Team Iron Man, etc.  However, the idea of atheism is a very new one historically.  Armstrong continues, “Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering the flesh is heir to.  Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done.  It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity.  Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history.  We have yet to see how it will work.”[4]  And even the atheist approach still requires a movement of faith.  Given the nature of transcendence, we can no more prove God than we can disprove God.  Every atheist is committing as large an act of faith in proclaiming that God doesn’t exist as believers do when they claim God does exist.  To be human then is to wrestle with the nature of and our connection to God.

All of this serves to underscore the ambitious and expansive nature of the themes Jason Aaron is exploring in this title.  It’s not hyperbolic to say he’s touching on the fundamental questions of our humanity.  In a comic book!  Go him!  He’s been doing this for sometime in The Mighty Thor.  We already know that Jane Foster is a different kind of god than the ones we’ve seen before in this title.  It wasn’t Jane that sought the hammer; it was Mjölnir who called to her when the Odinson found himself unworthy.  In picking it up, she became Thor and the Odinson began a journey of anger, self-loathing, and ultimately self-discovery.  In the finale of The Unworthy Thor miniseries, Odinson tells Beta Rey Bill the words Nick Fury whispered to him that left him unable to lift Mjölnir.

Thor and the Divine 22

The soon-to-call-himself Odinson is so sad.  He can’t lift Mjölnir anymore :(. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Thor and the Divine 23

The Odinson has a new outfit, new haircut, new ax, new arm, and a little bit more wisdom on how the gods conduct themselves. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“Gorr was right…We gods do not deserve their love…We are all unworthy.”  Despite Gorr’s claim, Thor can wield Mjölnir and she’s able to use the hammer in ways no one ever has before.  This underscores the point Thor is differentWhy is Thor different? becomes the driving question and its answer touches on the ontological nature of both true humanity and true divinity.  While I don’t think it was necessarily Jason Aaron’s intent (although it could well have been, the story is incredibly academic), the ways in which Thor differs not just from Sharra and K’ythri but from all the other gods we are used to seeing in this title touches on another major element of human theological thought.  In the vision we have of Thor, we find many of the differences that separated the God of Abraham from the other deities of the time.

When we look at Judaism’s history we see two unprecedented  theological shifts they contributed to religious thought.  The first was the idea of monotheism, the second the character of their one God.[5]  It is in contrasting the God of Abraham with the other deities of the time where we find similarities to how Thor stands out against her contemporaries in Jason Aaron’s narrative.

Thor and the Divine 1

Our picture of how the divine operates. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Religious scholar Huston Smith explains, “The God of the Jews possessed none of these traits, which in greater or lesser degree characterized the gods of their neighbors.  It is here that we come to the supreme achievement of Jewish thought – not in its monotheism as such, but in the character it ascribed to the God it intuited as one.  The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods’ characters.  First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent.  The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these counts.  Whereas the gods of Olympus tirelessly pursued beautiful women, the God of Sinai watched over widows and orphans.  While Mesopotamia’s Anu and Canaan’s El were pursuing their aloof ways, Yahweh speaks the name of Abraham, lifting his people out of slavery, and (in Ezekiel’s vision) seeks out the lonely, heartsick Jewish exiles in Babylon.  God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in his works.”[6]

From the very opening of the story we see this juxtaposition.  The narration over the Shi’ar invasion explains, “And battle unparalleled did rage.  And as usual when it comes to conflagrations involving the gods, most combatants seemed unaware of why the battle was even being waged.  Or what they were fighting for, beyond their own lives.  And the thrill of the combat itself.  No words were said about how tensions had arisen of how they might be resolved.  Or who, if anyone, was to blame.”  In a few short lines, Jason Aaron captures the nature of the deities worshipped by the majority of the Mediterranean people a few thousand years ago.  It is not insignificant that it’s Thor who arrives to proclaim the conflict ended.  While the other gods battle, regardless of who’s in the middle, Thor seeks to halt the violence.  This difference only becomes more clear as she faces Sharra and K’ythri in the Challenge of the Gods.

Thor and the Divine 14

Tell me Russel Dauterman and Matthew Wilson’s art isn’t breath-taking.  You can’t because it is!!! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

The first round, the Challenge of Natural Disasters, takes place on the Shi’ar Thrown World Chandilar, home to 18 billion people.  For their opening gambit, Sharra conjures a tidal wave and sends it towards a densely populated beach.

Thor – “You…made a tidal wave?  Why would you…”

K’ythri – “Because even after thousands die tragically for no reason whatsoever…”

Sharra – “Millions, most likely.  I have quite a knack for weather-related destruction.”

K’ythri – “…even before the bodies have been buried, the survivors will flock to their shrines…to worship us.  The more senseless carnage, the more they pray.”

Sharra – “And for every prayer we receive in the next 24 hours, we are awarded one point.”

Kythri – “So expect our score to be about 18 billion for this round.  Minus the few million who drown of course.”

Sharra – “That is power, Thor.  The type of power you could never understand.  And that is the reason you are here to –”

Thor and the Divine 25

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As they speak, Thor immediately flies down to protect the people of Chandilar by stopping the tidal wave.  Afterwards, Thor is shocked as she sees everyone thank her, praise her, and offer their prayers to her.  It is clear Thor is uncomfortable with being the focus of such devotion.  She is not looking for homage.  She just wants to protect the innocent.  Thor wins the first round as they move on to the Challenge of Cosmic Manipulation (despite what the text in the last panel indicated).

Here Sharra and K’ythri hurl a supernova through space like a comet, knowing full well billions will die when it eventually hits an inhabited system.  However, as before, their concern is not with the people who may die but rather in proving their mastery of the cosmos.  Thor puts herself in the path of the super comet, asks the Mother Storm that resides in Mjölnir for help, and the Mother Storm absorbs and diffuses the supernova.  Thor wins this round too.

Thor and the Divine 13

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Next, on Chandilar, a father is about to kill his son for Sharra and K’ythri (very Abraham and Isaac) when Thor intervenes to destroy the knife moments before he can use it.  She forfeits the Challenge of Inspirational Infanticide in an effort to “end this madness.”  Sharra and K’ythri then make it rain fire and brimstone while Thor rescues those in the path of the destruction.  This round goes to the Shi’ar pair.  Following their first victory, Sharra and K’ythri create an entire race of giants “from nothing but dust” in the Genocide Round while Thor spends all of her time stopping them from murdering others, giving the points to Sharra and K’ythri in this round too.

Again and again and again Thor does all she can to protect innocent lives, acting in righteousness, loving-kindness, and mercy.  K’ythri and Sharra on the other hand seek glory, praise, and points, ambivalent to the mortal lives they are playing with to win a literal game.  In perhaps the story’s most emotional scene, Thor cradles the body of a child, infected with and killed by a plague Sharra and K’ythri created to win more points, while she begs for all this to end.

Thor and the Divine 29

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Thor protects the churches of Sharra and K’ythri as they try to burn them down, giving Sharra and K’ythri more points.  Reaching the end of her patience, Thor returns to their throne room to tell the Shi’ar gods it’s over.  Thor promises to destroy them herself if they refuse to stop harming innocents.  As she demands and end to this contest, Cul arrives with the rest of the Asgardian forces.  They stand united before  the Shi’ar gods as Sharra and K’ythri want to unleash the Ultimate Judgment.

Thor and the Divine 26

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Cul – “Stand aside!  My axe thirsts for god blood!

Thor – “Nay!  There will be no killing.  Yield, Sharra and K’ythri.”

Sharra – “Yield?  To the likes of you?  Never.  We will fight until the –”

Shadrak – “Enough!  No more fighting!  I am Shadrak, God of Peace and Persimmons!  And by the power vested in me by Omnipotence City, I command you to lay down your arms!  Sharra and K’ythri, holy deities of the Shi’ar, you requested a Challenge of the Gods.  The challenge was answered, with all due formality, and has herby been concluded, in accordance with divine law.  There has been a victor.

K’ythri – “Ha.  Yes, before we slaughter you all, Thor can face the humiliation of her complete failure as a god.”

Sharra – “Tell her, scorekeeper.  Tell her that the two greatest gods in all creation stand before her now.”

Shadrak – “The final scores have been tabulated.  And a winning total has been reached.  The winner…the winner is Thor.

K’ythri – “What?!”

Thor – “What?”

Sharra – “Impossible!  That is utterly inconceivable!  We were trouncing her like the insect she is!  You scored it wrong you four-eyed imbecile!”

Shadrak – “The scroll does not lie, my lady.  It’s true, Thor failed miserably in many challenges.  But extra points were given here at the end, for something the Record Keepers of Omnipotence City have never recorded in all their many eons of challenges.  Thor inspired other gods to fight in her defense, gods who crossed the cosmos to wage war in her name.”

Cul – “We did not fight for –”

Sif – “Shut it or you’ll eat my sword.”

Shadrak – “Such inspiration…is unparalleled in the Annals of Divinity.  And was handsomely rewarded.”

Thor and the Divine 18

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

What then makes Thor the greatest of the gods?  Thor protects the innocent.  She values human lives over tribute, homage, and pride.  She inspires and unites others around her.  That is the nature of Thor.  This is exactly why Mjölnir called to Jane Foster when no one else was worthy.  With Thor winning the Challenge of the Gods the comic also asserts that this is the nature of God.  Thor gives her life to and uses her power for justice, humility, and the service of others.  In so doing, she is a worthy god.

Since God is transcendent we need fictional (or rather, mythic) characters like Thor to give us a way to contemplate God’s nature.  Not just any incarnation of Thor could serve to teach us these lessons either.  Jane Foster, as a mortal woman wrapped in the body and power of a god, illustrates one of religion’s highest callings.  Religion is meant to urge humanity to try our best to be like God.  “Be [fill-in-the-blank], just as your heavenly Father is [fill-in-the-blank,” is the constant refrain of Leviticus’ law codes.  God is the standard we are meant to aspire to.  The reality that Jane Foster is a woman is central as well.  Every religious tradition has its own version of the Divine Feminine.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition specifically, God’s Wisdom is personified as Sophia.  Thor is nothing if not wise as we compare her to the other gods, and she shows us we can be too.  We need Jane Foster, a mortal woman, as Thor to ground this narrative’s lesson.

Thor and the Divine 15

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

How we answer for ourselves the question of the nature of God has tremendous implications.  We strive to do what God wants, to live our lives in harmony with the will of the Divine.  This is one of the most fundamental aspects of any religious tradition, showing us the way to this harmony.  How we understand God then (and how we understand God’s will) will shape how we live and move in the world.  We must be cautious to never presume we know God with perfect totality.[7]  We can’t and to think otherwise opens the dangerous door of totemism (making God in our image).  The great postmodern religious scholar John D. Caputo writes, “The several religions, in the plural, are unique and irreducible repositories of their distinctive ethical practices and religious narratives, representing so many different ways to love God, but without laying claim to an exclusive possession of ‘The Truth.’  In the Confessions Augustine said that the Scriptures may have many meanings, so long as all of them are true.  That I would say also goes for religion.”[8]

As readers of The Mighty Thor, especially in “The Asgard/Shi’ar War,” we are called to contemplate the nature of the Divine.  In Thor, we are offered an image of a god that is worthy.  The reasons for Thor’s worthiness exemplifies the nature of God as expressed in religions operating purely.  “[A]t its most basic, religion is about the love of God, a love that is beyond human measure and that breaks free from all human constraints.  The love of God is a love without category or, better, a love that exceeds all categorization–whether religious or secular, whether theist or atheist, and whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish etc.”[9]  If this is the God we aspire to know and to love, this is the love we are called to aspire to live.  When reading The Mighty Thor it is possible to simply lose ourselves in Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson’s pages while Jason Aaron’s narrative takes us on an incredibly exciting journey.  But for those open to it, that all-important call to live in love and compassionate justice rings loud and clear.

Thor and the Divine 4

Oh yeah, Thor and Odinson TOTALLY FIGHT THE PHOENIX in this story too.  Why is it there?!  Why are the fighting it?!  What happens in the battle?!  Well you’ll just have to read this fantastic story arc to find out.  You didn’t think I’d go and spoil the ending did you??  I didn’t even touch what happens in the final issue in this piece.  Enjoy it! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

 

___________________________________

[1] Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.  (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 56-57.

[2] Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009),  9.

[3] Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (New York, Ballantine Books, 1993), xix.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), 274.

[6] Ibid., 275.

[7] Armstrong, Case, ix.

[8] John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge, 2001), 110.

[9] John D. Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 18.

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6 thoughts on “The Mighty Thor and the Nature of God

  1. Hi Michael,

    Great topic. Getting the real issues if the nature of God is society today is huge. I pray it does paint the compassion, intimacy, and the character of who He is. There are people in Marvel and D.C. who have some right on issues to spur people’s faith. I hope you are able to keep finding and sharing them.

    Thanks,

    Gary

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Whoa, HEIMDALL’S EYES!!
    What BETTER way to nestle back into the awesomeness THAT IS THIS SITE with Thor! Joseph Campbell! Karen Armstrong! Ya sure do know how to press th right buttons, bro!
    Plenty of intriguing points to conjure w here (shld keep me quiet for a while)
    Reminds me to get on and prepare my own analysis of Norse mythology
    My only gripe: most of th books u cite are difficult to find
    “Send a raven…”

    Like

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