Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. There be spoilers ahead, so beware!
Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” John 3:3-4 (NRSV)
Are you “born again?” In Christian circles, this concept is the crux on which the entire religion balances. To be “born again” can mean different things. For many Christians, it means to “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” For other Christians, it means to simply convert from an unhealthy lifestyle to one that is more healthy. For some, it means repenting of sins and turning toward living like Jesus. Being “born again” has a baptismal image associated with it, as we all come into the world through the water of our mother’s womb, so too are people “reborn” through the waters of baptism. “Born again” connotes the idea of changing from one thing to another, being resurrected in this life, but also gaining entrance into the heavenly realm in the afterlife. There is an element of salvific redemption associated with the term. For fundamentalist Christians, being “born again” is the litmus for whether you are “in” or “out.” Either you are “born again” which means you are going to heaven, or you’re not and you’re going to hell.
As with many of the kinds of notions that Christians seem to take for granted, I want to press the idea a little. In order to do so, I want to look at Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s seminal Daredevil story Daredevil: Born Again from issues #227-231 of Volume 1. Daredevil is an interesting character to associate with religious imagery, but he has been for quite a while. Despite his red devil costume, Matt Murdock has been a faithful Roman Catholic throughout his history, and perhaps no story focuses on this faith more than Born Again.
A bit of a summary of the story for those who haven’t read it (but should!): The story opens on Matt’s ex-girlfriend Karen Page, who has devolved into a drug-addicted prostitute. In order to get her next fix, she sells Matt’s secret identity as Daredevil. This secret trickles back to Daredevil’s arch-enemy Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of crime. Instead of exposing Daredevil, the Kingpin decides instead to destroy Matt from the inside out, taking away his livelihood as a lawyer, blowing up his home, and driving him insane. Matt is sent to the edge of his own humanity through the actions of the Kingpin, hitting complete rock bottom throughout the course of the story. He loses everything all because of his life as a costumed hero, and he questions his own faith in himself as he spirals downward.
Miller and Mazzuchelli are master storytellers, and this story is an example of that. From the individual story titles – “Apocalypse,” “Purgatory,” “Pariah!,” “Born Again,” and “Saved” – we get the entirety of the journey Matt takes. We also get a sense of what the concept of being “born again” really means. Each splash page of the story centers on a view of Matt from above, in a sleeping or lying position depending on where he is in his journey through the story, as if we are God looking down on him in his situation. In the beginning, he is asleep in his posh New York apartment before the descent into hell that he takes at the hands of the Kingpin. Next, we see him in the fetal position in a crummy rented room that he can barely afford. Later, he is found curled in the trash of a filthy alleyway with the rest of the city’s homeless. But then redemption comes as he is found by a nun (who may or may not be his own biological mother) who cleans him up in a shelter. Even in Mazzuchelli’s art in these panels, Matt looks like he is “born again” in the womb of his own tragic circumstances.
And perhaps that’s what being “born again” is really about. What Jesus tries to communicate in the Gospel of John to the religious figure of Nicodemus, is that it’s not just what we believe that makes us “born again.” Nicodemus believed all the right things. He was a faithful Jew in his time. He followed the Law exactly as he had been taught. He worshiped in the Temple and did acts of kindness. He even goes against the leaders of his religion and secretly meets with Jesus in the cover of night. Nicodemus, in his day, was perfectly religious. Yet Jesus gives him this poignant metaphor of being “born from above,” which undoubtedly means more than just “believing the right things,” but walking the road of suffering, pain, ridicule, self-sacrifice, servanthood, and forgiveness in order to be “born again.”
Matt Murdock walks this very road. The Kingpin thinks that by taking away everything Matt deems important, he will destroy his greatest enemy. Instead, the reverse occurs due to Matt’s perseverance and ultimate faith. What doesn’t kill him indeed makes him stronger. By doing these things to Matt, the Kingpin creates an even more powerful enemy in Daredevil, because it allows Daredevil to be recreated anew. Matt has to go through the loss of his life in order to gain it. He has to sacrifice his friendships and his career in order to gain them again. He eventually even forgives Karen, who is the very one who got him into the mess to begin with.
The last thing I’ll say about being “born again” is that it’s not just a one-time thing. Over the course of Daredevil’s history, he has been re-imagined and “born again” many times. Most recently, he was “reborn” in Mark Waid’s Daredevil #1. That’s the great thing about comics. Different writers get to reinvent classic characters, yet also bear the weight of keeping their history intact. The best “reinventions” of comic characters are the ones that keep continuity intact, while at the same time taking the character into new territory. The same is true of us. We may find ourselves “born again” from time to time. For those of us who are the faithful ilk, faith is a continual process of being reborn again and again. Just saying we’re “born again” should never allow us to assume that we’re perfect or “better.” Tragedies still happen to people of faith, we all still sin and make bad choices, and we all go through hell like Matt Murdock does. But if we can hang in there and come out on the other side “reborn,” our characters develop as well.