JOHN OSTRANDER: My Karma Ran Over My Dogma
In my 25 odd (sometimes very odd) years in comics, I’ve had a chance to be associated with certain books/characters/concepts and produced work of which I’m very proud such as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, The Kents, Wasteland, and others. With some – such as GrimJack and Suicide Squad – I’ve had a chance to go back again recently and re-explore them which offers different challenges, new perspectives, but also familiar pleasures.
One series that I’m not certain I could revisit is The Spectre. At the time, the book was an examination of theological issues, questions of redemption and of punishment, and the concept of God. All along with some truly exemplary and horrific art courtesy of Tom Mandrake. It had a great run and is one of the highest points of my career, in my own opinion, but at the time I wrote it I was still something of a believer. I was a lapsed Catholic (for me, RC meant Recovering Catholic). I didn’t hold with the hierarchy or the theology of the Church but I guess I believed in the general outline – Jesus the Son of God, died for our sins, came back from the dead, and so on. Certainly I believed that sin existed and that redemption was something that was possible. It was from all this that my questioning in Spectre emerged.
These days – well, I’m more of an agnostic. I got my doubts. It began when I asked myself a basic writer’s question – who were the gospels and epistles written for at the time they were written? Who was the anticipated audience? Not us – they were very much written for their age. The Second Coming was expected within the audience’s lifetime.
From there I learned to see the texts in the social and political contexts of their time; these helped shape the writings as much or more than theology. Finally, I came to see that we project on God and or the Devil many of the things that are within us. Above all, I came to understand that the things in which I thought I believed were things that I inherited or that had been drummed into me (sometimes literally) when I was a boy.
Even in grade school, there were some questions. Sister Mary Tabernacle Door Half Open taught us that the Holy Trinity consisted of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a bird. A dove, to be exact. As an image that made no sense to me. Shouldn’t it be Father, Son – and Mother? Didn’t that make more sense? S’ter (all the nuns had their names shortened down to an abbreviation of their rank – S’ter) was not amused and informed me that if I kept up that kind of thinking I was bound for Hell. Worse, I’d get sent home with a note to my mother which was a far more immediate peril and one that I understood on a deeper, primal level. Hell was a concept; my Mother was real. I stifled my heretical ways for a long time.
As a result, I’ve come to be very leery these days of dogma – stated beliefs of an organization or individual, religious or not, that are uttered with an authority that does not invite question or contradiction. It’s where thought processes stop. It is where truth is assumed to be obvious or ordained. I’m right because I say I am. I have either God or logic or something to back it up but there it is. These days, I’m seeing dogma all over the place including some I didn’t expect.
Atheists, for example.
Comedian Bill Maher on his show Real Time is disdainful every time he encounters someone who evinces a faith in a god of some sort. Anglo-American author Christopher Hitchens has written God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything – a screed against the concept of God and the fact of organized religion with which he is now touring America, debating willing clerics as he goes. (OTOH, Hitchens has a belief in the rightness of the invasion of Iraq that I can’t fathom.) Both men are dogmatic in their assumptions.
I myself don’t particularly believe in God these days and certainly not as presented by Organized Religion; however, I am reasonably convinced that I am not God, either. I’m an agnostic but I’m not dogmatic about it. I have also met any number of good people who do have faith, who do believe, who feel they have good cause to believe. I am open to the possibility that, maybe, I could be wrong. I don’t think I am at the moment but I leave open the prospect for further thought and exploration.
My late wife Kim Yale had experiences with ghosts and would readily recount them to any who wanted to hear. One person who I expect was a tad skeptical asked me, after one of Kim’s stories, if I believed in ghosts. My response was that I believed that Kim believed in them and I believed in her. I had never encountered a ghost and so could not speak to it one way or another. Did ghosts exist? I couldn’t say yes but wasn’t going to invalidate Kim’s experiences. And that’s pretty much how I approach the concept of God these days.
It’s not only religion that has dogma – the country is suffering because of political dogma – neo-conservative dogma. The President believes in what he is doing in Iraq and that history will vindicate him. He does not question nor waver in that belief and thus we continue with no clear way out of the Iraq conflict so long as President Bush sits in the White House.
Dogma in political oratory has been tearing this nation apart for years. You want to hear dogma in action? Check out Fox News or talk radio. They are all certain of their truths and if you question them, you are not a true American. Dogma becomes a club with which to bully others.
It’s difficult to fight dogma. Questions are hard; dogma is easy. You don’t have to think, just believe. The answers are right here, pre-thought for you. I would suggest that the damage done to society over the ages that Hitchens et al lay at the feet of the church is actually the result of dogma – and that dogma can come in the shape of such items as Manifest Destiny or Communism (a socio-economic theory elevated to a religion by dogma) or ethnic cleansing.
To doubt is to have questions and, if done right, every answer to those questions produces still more questions. There are things that I hold true, that I believe, but these are the things which I hold true. You may not. Dialogue is useful because, so long as neither side claims infallible wisdom, there exists the possibility of learning a new viewpoint, a way of seeing things that wasn’t there before. Deeper insights lead to wider understanding that may lead to true wisdom. We are all flawed and in that is our humanity and, I think, there is also our salvation. We have the right to be wrong so long as we learn from that wrong. What I believe today may not be what I believe tomorrow. I hope it isn’t; I hope that when I hear or see some new truth, I’m able to listen and to change.
Faith isn’t a series of bricks; it’s a wake in the ocean as we continue our voyage from who we were to who we will become – and that’s always over the horizon.
Or so I believe.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at http://www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/.