by Ryan Harper
It was a regularly televised conversion. Adam holds aloft the mystical Power Sword and exclaims, “by the power of Grayskull….” The sword draws fire from heaven, and it enters Adam—blowing his clothes off and transforming him into He-Man. Before the scene ends, the bare-chested hero lowers the sword, holds it horizontally, and finishes the sentence in a reverberating voice: “…I have the power!” The conversion was always sudden, and it was usually late.
I watched He-Man and the Masters of the Universe religiously as a boy. It was one in a series of after-school cartoons that provided the content for my young imagination: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Voltron, Thundercats. My parents and grandparents furnished me with the action figures, even Mattel’s playset masterpiece, Castle Grayskull. In addition to playing with the toys, I started dramatizing He-Man episodes. After constructing a passable replica of the Power Sword using my erector set, I—Adam, He-Man’s Clark Kent—would run wildly around the house, as if I were being chased by He-Man’s arch nemesis Skeletor and his henchmen. Then, finally cornered by the imaginary adversaries, I would stop, settle myself, and rehearse the moment when Adam put away his old self: By the power of Grayskull…quickly dropping the sword, removing my shirt, picking up the sword again…I have the power! Shit was about to get real.
My mother stayed at home during my formative years, so she bore witness to this spectacle. One day, after hearing me perform this incantation the fourth or fifth time, she took me aside and gently informed me that she did not want me saying those words. She then smiled as she suggested what she obviously regarded as a plausible alternative: “Why don’t you say, ‘by the power of Jesus?’”
I knew enough to tilt my head and nod reflectively, as if her suggestion seemed plausible to me. It was not. I was embarrassed, horrified, and a little bewildered at her proposal.
This was not because I did not believe in the power of Jesus. I was a good young evangelical. I already had been “saved”—prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior. I spent most of my weekends traveling to revivals and church homecomings, singing and playing drums in my family’s southern gospel singing group. Rather, I felt uneasy about my mother’s suggestion because, it seemed obvious to me, He-Man’s world, Eternia, did not include Jesus as a character. Eternia was make-believe. A different set of powers and principalities were in play there—“good” and “evil” forces that I recognized as having analogues in the real world, but fictional forces nonetheless. To introduce Jesus into the drama—who was made and remade real for me at every weekend Pentecostal revival, every dinner conversation, every moment lived in a region in which even the profane citizens lived inside the broad shadow of the evangelical cross—would have been like introducing my grandpa or my dentist. Giving Jesus an explicit role in Eternia, I thought, made him less real.
My mother did not share my view towards fictional realms of play. She had a radically holistic view of the Gospel’s reach. For her, the spirit of Christ was at work in even the seemingly innocuous, recreational aspects of life—including the imagination and its products. Naming Jesus in Eternia was simply identifying he who had been active, anonymously, the whole time, like Paul revealing to the Athenians the true identity of their unknown god. We were conservative evangelical Christians—not fundamentalists, who shunned all worldly entertainments, whose households would not have contained Mattel’s Castle Grayskull. As such, we did what believers had been doing since Constantine, if not Paul: we converted the accoutrements of paganism into Christian icons. My mother responded to my dabbling in the black arts of Grayskull by transforming Grayskull into Golgotha.
Of course, the transformation only was worth undertaking if the paganism in question had some usable features. It certainly was important for a young evangelical male to have manly heroes. He-Man became a mass-market sensation in the early 1980s, which Reagan had wrested from Carter. For most evangelicals, a warrior of dubious religiosity seemed preferable to a pious but soft patriarch. A year before my He-Man controversy, I requested a Cabbage Patch Kid for Christmas. My father, who refused to let me have a “girl’s toy,” compromised and selected for me a doll from the feline section of the Cabbage Patch—a “Koosa” whom I named Prince, after a secular musician about whom I knew nothing, on whom I could lavish a fictive love more akin to a pet owner’s than a mother’s. No one in my family had the equipment to understand that the bob-haired, hot-pants-wearing hero of Grayskull and his various life partners (characters with names like Man-At-Arms, Man-E-Faces, and…sweet Jesus…Ram-Man) undermined evangelical gender norms much more seriously (and, I now see, much more hilariously) than did Xavier Roberts’s homely creations. Having supplied me with the action figures and the playset, my parents obviously thought that, with a slight rewrite, the man from Eternia was a serviceable evangelical hero for a boy.
But as soon as my mother suggested her rewrite, by the power of Jesus, it was clear to me that I would no longer play He-Man out loud in the house. The prospect of saying “by the power of Jesus” inside Eternia, even when I was playing alone there, sent an embarrassed shudder through me—that sort of shame over an unrealized iteration that occurs when you think some horrible thought during a job interview and realize how easy it would be to open your mouth and let the thought pass into a world in which it does not belong, thus spoiling entire realms of possibilities, irreparably. I disassembled my Power Sword and summoned Prince from my shelf.
I was miffed at having to reroute my playtime, but I never harbored resentment toward my mother. She and I have gone over this episode in my adulthood, and she now laughs at her excessive, if well-meaning, parental policing. I am now the age my mother was when the episode occurred. It occurs to me how easily my late-thirties self—now equipped with one graduate degree in theological studies, one more in religious studies—could offer a much richer, more systematic, and consequently more joy-killing gloss on He-Man than she did. She taught me well. Was not Adam’s animated transformation, with Grayskull in the background, suggestive of the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice on Golgotha, available to all who would call on its power? Was not Adam transformed by the power of Golgotha into the new Adam? Was not He-Man’s turning of the Power Sword from its vertical to its horizontal position emblematic of justification and sanctification: a Christian is made well by power from above, and then is called to use that power to lead a holy life “horizontally,” in this world? Was not Adam’s decision to share his superhero identity only with a select few akin to the Gospel of Mark’s Jesus, who instructed his few open-eyed followers to tell no one he was the Messiah? Imagine a boy being subject to such a parental disquisition!
I would not state these cases to my child because I no longer think such matters are all that important. But I do think some matters are just that important. I may no longer be an evangelical, but I retain my old evangelical disposition to read, interpret, and criticize all aspects of my culture. I retain that sense that whatsoever all of us do (and take in) constitutes us as moral beings—even, perhaps especially, the quotidian endeavors. I am a writer. I still believe words possess concrete and concretizing power; I might believe this more expansively, if less metaphysically, than I did as a child. I’d like to think that growing up in an evangelical universe equipped me to detect hard-to-see patterns of injustice in the world and its various tongues. I can imagine harboring my own misgivings over a child watching a show like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe—the thirty-minute toy advertisement, the Anglo-Saxon heroes pitted against animalian or dark-skinned villains, the equation of muscle with virtue. How much more obnoxious would I be than my mother was, in my attempt to route the fantasies of a life under my charge?
I hope I would not be obnoxious. But I hope I would care, as my mother did, about how inner and outer worlds converge. I hope I am sensible to what arrives in a life, to how a life arrives, to the processes of arrival.
Or perhaps I am still an evangelical. For all their Damascus Road rhetoric—their altar calls, their singular born-again moments, their rejoicing at the tales of sudden deathbed conversions—evangelicals do not play fast and loose with dramatic denouement. I was brought up to understand the sanctified life as a long slog. My evangelicalism had an Emersonian edge: the soul becomes. My favorite boyhood cartoons, animated at the height of American mass consumerism, the age of immediate fulfillment and quick, short-term gains, suggested the opposite. Although his individual might was never enough to vanquish his foes, Lion-O, protagonist of The Thundercats, always summoned the rest of the Thundercats when he was cornered, late in the game, with great fanfare and sudden success. Although individually the heroic robotic lions in Voltron were never a match for their antagonist du jour, the lions only merged, to form the super-robot Voltron, in the episode’s final minutes—again, with great fanfare and success. It was the same with Adam, who typically conjured Grayskull’s power when the enemy was right at the gate. I suspect that if you did the tally, you’d find that Adam spent a lot more time as Adam than he did as He-Man in those cartoons.
On some level, the arc of those stories must have grated against my mother’s sensibilities, even as she found usable features in them. In imagination and in reality, there is something profane about coming intentionally late to the fullness of your power, about thinking you can postpone the achievement of your higher self until a sudden, final moment. By the power of Grayskull—my mother was right—I would be raised better.
Ryan Harper is a visiting assistant professor in New York University’s Religious Studies Program. Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming at Kestrel, Mississippi Review, Appalachian Heritage, Berkeley Poetry Review, Killing the Buddha, Urban Farmhouse Press, and elsewhere. Ryan’s ethnography of contemporary southern gospel music will appear via the University Press of Mississippi in late 2016 and his poetry chapbook Memphis Left at Cairo is available through Finishing Line Press. He lives in New York City.