Black Panther: The Struggle of Faith When God Is Silent

Modern comics tend to focus on shorter, four-to-six issue story arcs.  The ever-present wariness about the mercurial taste of readers, accessibility to potential newbies, as well as the fact each title will be collected and sold as trades two or three times a year shapes how stories are told.  Yet Ta-Nehisi Coates has embraced a longer form of storytelling, with great success, since taking over Black Panther.  His first “season” (as he describes it) was “A Nation Under Our Feet,” a yearlong story exploring the nature of people and politics, what it means to rule and who has the right to do so.  His second season, “Avengers Of The New World,” is another thoughtful, multifaceted yearlong story.  In it Coates eloquently and gracefully depicts the struggle of faith when God is silent.

Black Panther Theology 8

T’Challa faces Ras the Exhorter, Black Panther #171 / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

One of the first lessons I learned with Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther is I need to read his comics slowly and I need to read them a few times.  There are so many layers to what he does.  I feel Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of America’s most important writers.  His voice and vision are essential to understanding where we are as a people and making us better.  No one better captures the American landscape.  He brings the same intellect, nuance, and power to Black Panther.  As a result, I’ve read “A Nation Under Our Feet” many times, taking more from it with each reading.  The same is true for “Avengers Of The New World.”  I had an idea to write about the theology in his second season  reading the first issue.  When I sat down to reread the arc to write this piece I found so much more than I realized was there at first look.

My advice to readers considering picking up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther is to take your time with it.  The stories deserve your slow, focused attention and they will reward you for it.  He simultaneously challenges and nourishes heart, mind, and soul with his work.  Season two proves just as rich as his first.

Black Panther Theology 14

Storm appeared in passing in “A Nation Under Our Feet” features prominently in “Avengers Of The New World.”  So YAY!!!! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

“Avengers Of The New World” picks up where “A Nation Under Our Feet” left off, in the new Wakanda.  The Constitutional Convention is underway and the Dora Milaje are whole once more, the warring faction having ceased hostilities with the Black Panther.  Tetu, who incited the rebellion and fanned the flames of revolution to a destructive height, is in prison while his accomplice, the sorceress Zenzi the Revealer, remains at large.  However, as this new age dawns, the Wakandans struggle with the apparent absence of their gods.

The story opens in Black Panther #13.  T’Challa is with Ororo Munroe, his one-time-wife and the longtime X-Man Storm, in the Imperial Suite of the Hotel Gansevoort in New York City.  When Ororo playfully asks if he’s bored with her already, as he seems distracted, he replies, “I have been dying to ask a question…are you really a goddess?”  She smiles and says, “Hmmm, let’s just say I’ve made my share of believers.”  This is a cute, flirty note to open on and it lets us see one of Marvel’s favorite couples together again :).  But it also lays the foundation for the deep theological issues this story will explore.

Black Panther Theology 9 (2)

Ororo and T’Challa / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

When Ororo presses for the real source of his distraction he confides in her, “Very well.  From time immemorial, the gods of Wakanda – our Orisha – have safeguarded us.  I derive my title from the Panther Goddess Bast.  Others find strength in Kokou  the God of War.  In times of hunger, men beseeched Mujaji, who fed us.  When ignorance descended, Thoth lit the way.  When alloys were needed to break the ground, Ptah the Shaper provided.  And when invaders darkened our doorstep, Bast put the alloy – our precious vibranium – to deadly use.  That is the history of Wakanda.  But it is not the present.  When Tetu’s army pushed Birnin Zana to the brink…it was our ancestors who saved us, not the Orisha.  The questions that arose from this were blasphemy, but I could not escape them.  In the time of troubles, where were the Orisha.  Where were our gods?

Black Panther Theology 1

The god Thoth, the goddess Bast, the god Kokou, the goddess Mujaji , and the god Ptath the Shaper – the Wakandan pantheon / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This is powerful.  This is important.  This is something every person of faith struggles with.  Where is God in our suffering?  Why is God silent when we are in so much need?  Finding a way to faith in the face of the perceived silence of God is such an important issue it framed the ultimate shape of the entire Hebrew Bible.  The Christian Bible reordered the Jewish “Old Testament” for their purpose.  The Christian Bible goes from the Torah (the Law) to the Ketuvim (the books of Wisdom) to the Nevi’im (the Prophets).  The purpose is so a reader goes straight from the prophets to Jesus, who Christians see prefigured in the prophets.  But the Jewish compilers had different end goals in mind, originally setting the Hebrew Bible to read Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim.  Obviously many factors shaped the ordering of these texts but, for our purposes here, it’s suffice to consider one important issue.  Ordered this way the Bible presents readers – and makes us wrestle – with the reality of God’s silence.

As the text progresses, God’s voice becomes more distant and quieter.  In the Torah (the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), God is unmistakable in the lives of the Israelites.  We see God sitting around the fire chatting with Abraham.  We see God breaking Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery.  We see God drafting the Covenant with Moses upon Mount Sinai.  God is present in a literal, physical way in these stories.  Then, in the Nevi’im, we clearly see/feel God’s presence but it is no longer God, God’s Self, speaking.  Instead we hear God’s words on the tongues of the prophets.  Come the Ketuvim, some books don’t even mention God directly.  In a powerful move, the final time God speaks directly in the Hebrew Bible is the closing of the Book of Job (in the Ketuvim).  In grief and frustration Job demands an answer of God for his unjust suffering.  God essentially tells Job there are some things in this universe a finite human mind will never be able to understand.

Black Panther Theology 5

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

It isn’t a denial of God by any means.  But the Hebrew Bible moves towards a world where God doesn’t speak as clearly to us as God does in the Torah, which is the world we live in.  The Bible speaks to this reality.  It assures us of God’s presence, illustrates God’s silence, and reminds us there are some things in life we can never know.

This is the exact issue T’Challa (not to mention all of Wakanda) wrestles with in “A Nation Under Our Feet.”  What do we do when we can’t hear God?  What do we do when we can’t see God?  When trouble comes and we feel so alone, how do we hold onto our faith?  As someone who doesn’t believe because of the world he sees around him yet still values the power of belief, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a perfect voice to explore these issues.

Black Panther Theology 6

Ta-Nehisi Coates / Photo Credit – Paul Marrota, Getty Images

Speaking of his experience growing up in his illuminating memoir Between The World And Me, Coates writes, “I could not retreat, as did so many, into the church and its mysteries.  My parents rejected all dogmas.  We spurned the holidays marketed by the people who wanted to be white.  We would not stand for their anthems.  We would not kneel before their God.  And so I had no sense that any just God was on my side.  ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’ meant nothing to me.  The meek were battered in West Baltimore, stomped out in Walbrook Junction, and raped in the showers of the city jail.”[1]  Yet Coates is not antagonistic towards the ideas of God, church, or faith.

He states this plainly in We Were Eight Years In Power, “I would like to believe in God.  I simply can’t.  The reasons are physical.  When I was nine, some kid beat me up for amusement, and when I came home crying to my father, his answer – Fight that boy or fight me was godless, because it told me that there was no justice in the world, save the justice we dish out with our own hands.  When I was twelve, six boys jumped off the number 28 bus headed to Mondawmin Mall, threw me to the ground, and stomped on my head.  But what struck me most that afternoon was not those boys but the godless, heathen adults walking by.  Down there on the ground, my head literally being kicked in, I understood: No one, not my father, not the cops, and certainly not anyone’s God, was coming to save me.  The world was brutal and to eschew that brutality, to indulge all your boyish softness was to advertise yourself as prey….Life was short, and death undefeated.  So I loved hard, since I would not love for long.  So I loved directly and fixed myself to solid things – my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.”[2]

Black Panther Theology 7

Michael Eric Dyson / Photo Credit – The Washington Post

In an interview for The Washington Post, Michael Eric Dyson tells Coates of the believers he meets who connect with his work despite his unbelief.  Coates replies, “I’m happy to see that.  I don’t know how you grow up black in this country and not have tremendous respect for the church, even though I was raised outside of it.  So even as I articulate my beliefs, I try to be really respectful.  I’m happy that it’s received.  I often wonder what is the place where the two things cross?  Am I drawing some sort of conclusion, or some sort of feeling, that folks get in church anyway, regardless of their belief in Jesus Christ as their savior?  Is there a route that they’re traveling in their religion that leads to a similar place that I go, even with my lack of religion?….I guess there is something in my work that sounds, to a lot of people, like what they hear in church.  And I just don’t mean the fact of politics being discussed in church.  But there’s something else.  And I don’t really have the capability to analyze that.”[3]

Ta-Nehisi Coates sees sees the beauty and value of faith even if he can find no authentic reason to believe living in a world such as ours.  This makes him a powerful (and prophetic) vantage point from which to examine the struggle the silence of God can create.  In T’Challa’s journey in this arc we see Abraham at the altar with Isaac, Job abandoned and persecuted for no cause, and Jesus struggling both in the garden and on the cross with a God he can’t see or understand in those moments.  In Coates hands T’Challa becomes the man of once-unwavering faith who must face doubt he can’t easily strike down.

Black Panther Theology 10

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As floods devastate the nation and ancient creatures stalk the land, the people of Wakanda fear the Orisha have left them because of their rebellion against king and crown.  The Black Panther investigates, finding and battling snake-men, and is unnerved not by their presence but their message: “You cannot stop it, Wakandan.  The Orisha in flight.  The gate unmanned.  The Originators return.”

Ororo – “But that is not all that worries you, is it?”

T’Challa – “No, it is not.  It is not just Mujaji.  I have not communed with Bast in some time.  Ororo, I have had my share of run-ins with the divine and those who would play at such things.  But I am still a man untutored in the ways of the gods.  I thought you might know more.”

Ororo – “It’s not quite like that, my dear.  We don’t hold conventions.

T-Challa – “But you are one of them, right?  A god?”

Ororo – “That is the wrong question.  The real question, the one that haunts you and your country now, is do such beings even exist?

T’Challa – “I have seen Bast with my own eyes.  Do you doubt her?”

Ororo – “I prefer to say that I keep an open mind as to her nature.  And yes, it is true, I was worshipped once.  A religion swirled around me.  And what I remember of that time is that the more people believed, the stronger I grew.  If I was not divine, the strength I drew from their belief made me feel as though I was.  And that is what I know of gods.  Their native powers may be formidable – but it is the faith of others that elevate them beyond the mortal coil.”

T’Challa – “Through black priests, Beyonders, and the end of everything, I have always believed.”

Ororo – “One man does not a religion make, T’Challa.  What of your country?  What do they believe?”

T-Challa – “It has been hard for them, Ororo.  In the time of crisis, they cried out to the Orisha.”

Ororo – “And there were no answers.”

T’Challa – “No.  But I still believe.  I have to.”

Black Panther Theology 16

Shuri, the Aja-Adanna (the “Ancient Future”) or “the bearer of a past so deep it’s not even the past,” summons forces to help face the Originators. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In the second major theological issue addressed here, Ta-Nehisi Coates is talking of the power of our belief.  What we put our faith in, what we believe, we give power to.  So we must be cautious in applying our faith as it has a greater impact than we may understand.  He also develops T’Challa’s struggle with doubt.  He has seen the face of God, felt God’s presence…but he can do so no longer.  His faith is part of who he is but he doesn’t know where to place it now, or who he is without it.  At the risk of speaking presumptuously, this is a problem Ta-Nehisi Coates and I have seen from different sides – he, an atheist who at times wishes he could believe, and myself, a man of faith who has at times looked to God only to find the void staring back.  Whether atheist or believer, you’ve struggled with this reality, something the Jewish compilers of the Hebrew Bible understood well, hence their ordering of the text.

As gates of light continue to open all over Wakanda, the Vanyan (a kind of giant), the Anansi (two-headed beings), and the Simbi (snake-men) flood the country.  These are the Originators, the beings who lived in Wakanda before human beings arrived.  In addition, Councilor Yao of the Kinamasi Region tells T’Challa of Ras the Exhorter, the prophet of a new deity – Sefako, the twice-risen god.  Yao is worried because a faction of the Kinamasi are accepting the words of Ras and swearing their allegiance to this new god.  Yet, when T’Challa reaches out to Ororo for help with all of this, many others throughout Wakandan rejoice in her return as opposed to embracing Sefako.

Black Panther Theology 11

The Wakandans react to Ororo’s return. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Over the thirteen issue course of “Avengers Of The New World,” several characters are given or aspire to places of divinity.  We have Ororo, worshipped as a goddess in her youth with her weather-manipulation powers who the Wakandans still see as their queen and the Hadari Yao, the Walker of Clouds.  Issue #166 brings the return of the Black Panther’s greatest enemy Klaw, who sees himself as “pushing the precipice of divinity” with his sonic powers.  Finally issues #171 and 172 reveal Sefako to be the Adversary, a demon who calls itself a god and wishes to remake the world in its image.

Black Panther Theology 13

Shuri does battle with the Adversary / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

At one point or another, all receive or covet faith and the power it brings.  All are called or refer to themselves as “god” as well.  The second major theological issue is inherent with the question – in what do we place our faith?  It’s clear our answer can have dangerous consequences as we have one of Marvel’s greatest heroes on one hand and two supervillains on the other.  It’s also important to note at no point in the narrative are any of the characters presented as big-G God.  Theologically speaking, we have the ideas of God and god.  In brief, God is the transcendental ground of all being, the source of all existence (God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – with whom you can have a personal relationship; it is Brahman in Hinduism and Tao in Taosim, with which you cannot) and god is a being that controls or influences a part of creation (the deities we associate with the pantheons of pagan cultures).  In presenting small-g gods, Coates is illustrating the power or danger inherent in what we look to for strength and faith when we can find nothing without discussing the nature of big-G God, something we can infer from his Post interview he’d question his ability to accurately analyze, not being a believer himself.  His humility in acknowledging such a distinction is something many believers and nonbelievers alike would do well to model more effectively.

Black Panther Theology 12

Black Panther, Shuri, and Dr. Eliot Franklin (Thunderball) battle the minions of the Adversary. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Knowing Storm is the biggest threat on the field, the Adversary traps her beneath a rockslide, hoping to leave her crippled by her claustrophobia.  With Okoye coordinating, T’Challa and all the people on the battlefield, in Birnin Zana, Alkama, and the Jabari-Lands kneel and pray to Storm.  With the Adversary’s attack intensifying T’Challa wonders, “How does a man, even a king, defeat a god?”  With a bigger god.”  He then, via the coms, tells Ororo, “Ororo, I know you can hear me down there.  The Adversary has imprisoned you.  And he will imprison us all if you do not stop him.  Only you – the Hadari Yao, the Walker of Clouds – are powerful enough to stop him.  I am the King of Wakanda.  I am the nation incarnate.  And on behalf of that nation, I say: Let the faith of all of Wakanda power you.  That faith is more than any mutation.  It is a gift of godhead, passed down from your ancestors.  Claim the gift.  Let this be the hour when gods again stalk the land.  The hour of the STORM.”

Black Panther Theology 4

The power of faith. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Of course Storm blows her way out of the rubble and defeats the Adversary.  This addresses the second major theological issue Coates raises in this story.  We see what can be accomplished when we put our faith in things deserving of it.  It also flirts with answering the first theological issue that grounds the narrative – what do we do when we are faced with God’s inexplicable silence?  Regardless of our ultimate answer to this all-important question, there are things – people, places, ideas – in our mortal life in which we put our faith during both good times and bad.  Yet Coates never completely resolves this issue.  Brilliantly the question of where the Orisha are is never answered.  Nor does he have T’Challa, the character through whose eyes the reader views the story, offer a definitive answer on whether or not we should believe in the God we find silent.

After such an honest story about the struggle of faith in difficult times, a simple homily or resolution would have undercut the story.  Ta-Nehisi Coates leaves his readers with the only truth there can be: we must find our own answers to faith in times of trial.  Through Ororo, Ras, Klaw, and the Adversary, Coates shows us of the potential consequences, positive and negative, with who and what we believe in.  Our faith, our hope, and our love are the most important – and powerful – gifts we can give.  We must offer them with care and wisdom.  But he leaves the larger issue, the silence of God, undefined.  This is the only honest answer he can give.  As scripture shows us, we can have no definitive answers for why God appears silent.  Yet we must strive to build our bridge to God when God appears absent anyway…or we must succumb to the forces that bring us to unbelief.  Each of us must face this trial, again and again, and find the answers that allow us to live a holy and loving life.  While we must answer these questions on our own, we are never alone in this struggle.  It is part of what makes us human.  As we see with “Avengers Of The New World,” even superheroes must face this trial too.

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me, (Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015), 28.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, (One World Publishing, 2017), 109-11.

[3] Michael Eric Dyson, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on education, religion, and Obama,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2017.  Accessed August 10, 2018.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/ta-nehisi-coates-on-education-religion-and-obama/2017/10/13/adc054c6-ae84-11e7-be94-fabb0f1e9ffb_story.html?utm_term=.97edb8576d22

6 thoughts on “Black Panther: The Struggle of Faith When God Is Silent

    1. Thank you. And that’s a great idea! I’m going to look into it, what the cheapest way would be, etc. It would certainly bring some deep thoughts/discussion. And, as a comic, I think it’d be seen as a more “fun” assignment than a novel or text.

      Like

    1. Thank you! The theological side of my analysis has always been something I do, given my educational background and the fact that I now teach theology. But this one got extra nerdy/heavy so I’m happy to hear you appreciated it :). As to your offer, I’m always up for doing guest posts. If you’d like, feel free to drop me an email at mmiller@mpslakers.com at your convenience and we can kick around a few ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s