Everyone in pop culture seems to come through San Diego's Comic-Con these days. The annual event has grown from a gathering of dedicated comic book fans to an essential stop on the marketing hajj for any major nerd-related media. A fleet of news outlets now invade the convention annually to see exclusive previews and panel discussions covering a broad spectrum of films, television shows, video games—and, yes, comic books.
Last weekend, at least one evangelical pastor joined the press corps at Comic-Con 2010.
Tony Kim, executive pastor of Newsong Church/Irvine, gained special entrée to the event as a blogger for BabbleOn 5, the movie review site that he and a few friends from church manage. Kim, a long-time Comic-Con attendee and a self-proclaimed "Pastor of the Nerds," met some of his pop-culture heroes, such as actor Jeff Bridges (Iron Man, The Big Lebowski, etc.), actor Zachary Levi (NBC's Chuck), and Stan Lee (Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, etc.). He also participated in Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock's latest documentary project, Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope. He spoke with Christianity Today about his double life in fandom and the kingdom.
So how did things go at Comic-Con this year?
This year was phenomenal. This is my fifth year to go, and we had the largest group ever from our community go and experience it, a lot of first-timers. About 15 of us went this year; seven of them were brand-new. They all go to Newsong. I'm fortunate to be in a church that really supports a lot of the pop-culture/nerd arts sort of stuff.
Is there anything you learned about that we should be looking forward to?
Really the biggest thing that people are just starting to hear about will be the documentary that's going to be released next year, spring or summer, that's really going to capture the whole spirit of, "What is Comic-Con? Why do 150,000+ people gather every year to experience this together?" It will be the first major production to actually capture the Comic-Con experience. I was privileged to be a part of it.
As a pastor, do you see any spiritual aspects to this giant pop-culture hajj?
Comic book characters in general are typically people who are misfits or misunderstood in society, who might be caught between two different worlds, feeling like they are made to do something greater than themselves. And a lot of themes of sacrifice, and duty, and honor, and redemption, and justice, and compassion, and advocacy are repeated throughout many comic books. My favorite is Superman and his mythology—there are a lot of parallels with the stories of Jesus Christ.
What I think really draws people to Comic-Con are those core ideas and philosophies of a savior, of redemption, of people who are dying for something that's greater than their own cause.
For the first year, there was a church group that was picketing Comic-Con. Westboro is known for their message of hate toward the gay and lesbian communities, Jews … so I knew going into this that it could really turn into an explosive situation.
So when the day came, I went out there, and there was a huge crowd, 50 to 100 people wearing costumes with signs saying things like, "Nerds are cool." It was the Comic-Con community that, in response to Westboro, came out in full force. There were literally three adults and one child from Westboro.
I started talking to as many people as I could in that area. To my shock, almost across the board, the response was, "We don't hate Westboro. We want to include them. They're welcome to hang out with us, and we want to just show them love. We just want to show them that we're normal people, and we love comics." I was really impressed. It created a great opportunity for me to talk to a lot of people, tell them that I'm a pastor, and tell them a little bit of what I believe. They didn't lump me with that group, and they understood that Westboro represents a small minority, and they were very accepting of me.
How do people at Comic-Con typically react when they find out you're a pastor?
I really didn't have any negative experiences. Everyone who goes to Comic-Con really shares one thing: they share the idea of being a misfit. They've grown up, at some time in their life, being marginalized. And so when you go to Comic-Con, you just meet people from all different backgrounds and all different beliefs. There are people from all around the world.
When I share that I'm a pastor, honestly, they think it's really cool. Almost to a T, they say, "You know, I've never met anyone who's a pastor who's into this stuff." And so to me, it's an honor to break a stereotype … I find that people tend to open up a little bit quicker with me than with the average person, because they know that this is kind of my world. It really helped create some great discussion.
How does your life in fandom inform your work with the church?
What I've found is that if you're someone I barely know, if we can connect on things like superheroes, or maybe the movie TRON that's coming up, or maybe our love for the old Star Wars movies, it really does bring down a lot of walls. When I put my nerd self out there, I find that it's easier for people to relate to and connect with that side of me first, then open themselves to deeper issues.
What do you think of the message by a pastor at last week's African-American Fellowship Conference who said that pastors are more like Spider-Man than Superman?
That's an interesting idea. I like that. I'm a little hesitant to call any pastor a superhero. I think that anyone who is truly made alive to Jesus and is living by the Holy Spirit really can do super heroic acts, as far as super heroic acts of compassion toward the orphans and the widows and the homeless, regardless of whether you have a seminary degree or if you have a church behind you.
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Previous nerd-related stories from Christianity Today include:
Sci-Fi's Brave New World | How the genre draws us to its own views of redemption. (February 6, 2009)
Top Ten Movie Robots of All Time | They walk, they talk, they work on moisture farms, they hunt Sarah Connor. And sometimes they're eerily human-like. Our critic (and robot nerd) compiles his list of favorites. (March 8, 2005)
How Computer Nerds Describe God | The founding editor of Wired magazine explains his mission to talk about faith using the vocabulary and logic of science. (November 1, 2002)