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religion and fandom

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

Ann turned me on to a delightful essay that I highly recommend:

A Believer in Fandom: Can Geek and Christian Mix, by Caroline Simcox

Caroline (a Church of England priest, husband to a sci-fi writer, and a long-time geek in her own right) writes about the way people in both the church and in fandom have reacted with surprise to the way she feels at home in both ways, and she talks about why she thinks this might be the case. Also, of course, why she thinks it doesn’t have to be the case. It’s really very interesting if you want to understand more of what people get out of religion, fandom, or both.

Her basic point is that the Christian church, at least in the UK where she lives, has a reputation for maintaining the status quo. Often this reputation is deserved, though she points out (and I agree) that Christianity started out as an outsider religion and at its best should be about challenging the powerful and comfortable. But the reputation is there and it’s easy to see where it came from. Fandom, on the other hand, can be a real refuge for outcasts, folks who don’t fit in with the status quo. It’s like C.S. Lewis wrote: Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.” That “I thought I was the only one,” the relief that you aren’t – for so many people, that’s the real draw of fandom. That we can be ourselves without being by ourselves. (And yes, the irony that this is Lewis, Christian apologist and Narnia author all rolled into one, is not lost on me.)


I think Caroline is on to something here. Fannish people think of themselves as happening froods, often defiantly on the outside of mainstream, very different from those “squares” with the suits and the mortgages (even though fans are just as likely to have both). And churches just aren’t home to those non-froods; they can also seem downright hostile to people who don’t accept the status quo. In particular (and this is my point, not Caroline’s), people in fandom have adopted a real live and let live attitude in our non-fannish life. It’s a bit counterintuitive given the arguments we can get into about whether balrogs have wings or not – we are a fractious bunch in our own way – but at least in our non-fannish lives, we are usually very careful to not pass judgment. Christians have a reputation these days for being judgmental as all get-out. This is often the first thing people think of when they think of “Christian.” It’s not always true, but I completely understand why people have this impression. And telling gay people (or whomever) their lifestyle is sinful flies in the face of that live-and-let-live approach you see so often in fandom.

She also points to the questioning nature of fandom, which again can seem at odds with so much of contemporary religion, although (again I think Caroline has it right) it doesn’t have to be that way, and really shouldn’t be. A big part of what draws me to reliion is the awareness that not all questions have answers that can be easily grasped. I believe there’s a reality greater than what my human mind is capable of wrapping itself around. That doesn’t mean I should stop asking questions; quite the contrary, it means that if my answers seem too simple, too pat, they probably are. It should encourage me to grow comfortable with not knowing, not in the sense that I should grow lazy and accept ignorance but in the sense that mysteries and unanswered questions should fill us with wonder rather than dread – we should really mourn a loss if all the questions worth asking were answered. And again, this is the same point so many of our fandoms drive us to. As one of my favorite Tolkien poems puts it:

Still around the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run,
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
Apple, thorn and nut and sloe
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!

I think that my ideal kind of Christianity, the type of Christian I try very hard to be, embraces this hope for unexplored places and ideas. I think some Christians live out this ideal, to a degree at least. But I also realize there are a lot of people who claim the label Christian and don’t live out the ideal. People on the outside, heck even a lot of people n the inside of the church walls, could easily be forgiven for thinking that Christianity is about rattling off pat answers. Fandom most definitely isn’t, particularly sci fi and fantasy fandoms and double-particularly those of us who write fanfic, like ourselves. It’s a whole community built upon what-ifs, and when someone floats a bizarre possibility (what if Gandalf was really Dumbledore who had been kidnapped by Doctor Who, dragged back in time in a TARDIS, had that Men in Black doohicky wipe his memory, and landed outside Cirdan’s fortress with no real idea where he came from?) – my response isn’t that’s ridiciulous, it’s convince me. Preferably in fic form.

In my own case, I’ve always found my religion fit quite well in my chosen fandom. I’ve heard of other Christian fans who have had a harder go of it, particularly in fandoms like Hitchhikers, Star Trek, and comic book fandoms. Maybe it’s that Tolkien is notably Christian, and that at a time when a lot of evangelical Christianity was opposed to Harry Potter, Tolkien provided another big-name fantasy franchise that was more acceptable in the church. Again, the irony is not lost on me: Deathly Hallows is probably the most explicitly Christian novel written in my lifetime, whereas Tolkien famously denied Lord of the Rings was an allegory for any story, Christian or otherwise. Tolkien’s novels do have a God and archangels that are very much a reality, even though organized religion is usually absent or connected to the corruption of this reality. (I actually discussed some of those aspects of Tolkien’s writings in a fan-essay, Finding God(s) in Middle-earth.“)

As a religious person, this made it a good deal easier to bring my religion together with my fannish passion. And because I’m not a natural proselytizer and am more drawn to relate to other people on our shared ground as much as possible, even my non-religious friends seemed to respect that my religion was a part of what made me me. I like to think I came close to that ideal of a faith-inspired wonder and curiosity I was talking about, rather than the dogmatism that shuts down questions and turns the world into us-versus-them. I also like to think my fannish friends have accepted that part of me. It’s never been a stumbling block I was aware of, in any case.

All of that said, I do think there are two ways this article didn’t touch on that also might feed into this situation. These are probably specifically American problems, so I’m not criticizing Caroline for leaving them off; they may not be part of her experience in the U.K.! Consider this an add-on. :-)

First, a lot of science-fiction shows aren’t just about science but about humanism, this idea that through giving up religion for a full reliance on reason we can fix all that ails humanity. Star Trek is a great example. As my ThinkChristian editor Josh Larsen recently noted at that site,

From the early episodes, created by Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s, to Star Trek Into Darkness, the newest film in the franchise, the series has sold a world in which advanced technology, human intellect and a reliance on reason have resulted in unprecedented cooperation – an interstellar United Federation of Planets, no less.

[...]

This may be why I’ve mostly found the Star Trek films to be dissatisfying. (It could also be that, with a few exceptions, they’re incredibly boring.) Dry space lectures on the supremacy of reason, they rarely worked, either as movies or worldviews. Despite the pictures’ hope for human improvement, dark forces always arose in opposition – be it in the form of Klingons or Cumberbatch’s terrorist. No matter how far they go or how boldly, the Star Trek films have been unable to find their utopia. That’s because it doesn’t exist in another world, but in the next.

I’m not sure if Josh’s words here characterize all religious people. I’m not even sure it characterizes all Star Trek incarnations! As I said in my comment on that post, the later series, in particular DS9 do see a role for spirituality and what we might call the supernatural (though they’re actually natural aliens who simply don’t perceive time the way we do). And VOY gives us a world where principles must be tempered by pragmatism, where pure reason and technology will only get you so far. This is a far cry from the humanism of Picard and and Kirk, where religion is a mark of primitivism and must be fought against. Anyone remember “Who Watches the Watchers?” That’s the only case I can recall offhand where Picard violates the prime directive, and it’s to keep the Mintakans from sliding back into supernaturalism. But it’s also not the whole of what Trek came to represent in its later incarnations.

I do think Josh is on to something significant here, though, in that religious people are skeptical about how far science can take us. Some religious people — usually the ones who get the most attention — are decidedly skeptical of established science. I’m thinking about creationists and global warming deniers, that kind of thing. Most religious people are more accepting of scientific fact, and outside of fundamentalism most people agree that if you want to know a scientific fact, you turn to a science text rather than the Bible. But even these more pro-science Christians are skeptical of the humanism you see on display in the early Star Trek series. Science may greatly improve our lives (indeed, it already has) but among many Christians there’s a sense that it can only take us so far – that there are some basic defects in human nature that science isn’t able to cure. There’s definitely an assumption that Christians and religious folk in general think this way, even more than they actually do. So I can see why people would think Chrsitains and science fiction fans are coming at this from two very different angles.

Even more fundamentally, some Christians are unsure of just how much progress we can make correcting the world. Taken to the extreme you end up with folks like Mark Driscoll, who caused a stir recently when he told a room full of conerence-goers, “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” More commonly, Christians make what progress they can (young evangelicals are increasingly eco-conscious, for instance) but there is skepticism over whether we can reach some kind of utopia. Standard Christian eschatology teaches either that Christians will eventually be whisked off to a new world where there will be no more hunger, war, tears, etc. Or, depending how you read the theology (I count myself in this second group), that God will return and radically transform the world into Eden rebuilt. Compare that to the standard fantasy fare where a hero goes on a great quest and ultimately saves the world. The non-Christian — heck, even most Sunday morning Christians — could be forgiven for looking at this picture of a person struggling against impossible odds and winning, comparing that to the Biblical view that it takes God to radically transform the world, and thinking the two don’t quite fit together.

Only things aren’t quite that simple. For one things, Christians aren’t nearly this fatalistic, or they shouldn’t be. Even if you believe ultimate peace or ultimate no-hunger and no-tears or whatever depends on God, there’s still a lot of room to make good progress in the mean time. The best fantasy stories don’t promise an ultimate victory; at best, they achieve “peace in our time,” and quite often this relies on things like Harry Potter’s prophecy and all that involves regarding fate, or Gandalf’s “forces at work in this world” that guided Bilbo to pick up the Ring. So even if Christians shouldn’t hope for some kind of utopia in this world, fantasy literature doesn’t demand nearly so much of them.

Bottom line? I think I get why some people don’t think of Christianity and fandom as mixing all that well. I think this is a shame, because the TV shows and books and movies that develop fandoms typically have something about them that speaks deeply to human nature. Including religious peoples’ human nature. It’s really not so hard to mesh religion with those great themes as it might seem like at first.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
lindahoyland
Jun. 5th, 2013 02:19 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing this. Most of my friends at church know about my stories and accept them. I did lose one church friend,though, when she attacked my stories as "Disgusting and disgraceful" and me as eccentric!
dreamflower02
Jun. 5th, 2013 02:46 am (UTC)
I did lose one church friend,though, when she attacked my stories as "Disgusting and disgraceful" and me as eccentric!

Good heavens, Linda! Did she ever bother to read your stories? They are about as far from "disgusting and disgraceful" as you can get! Or did she merely make the assumption based on poor media reports that ALL fanfic is porn? (Because apparently a lot of people believe that.)

Now eccentricity is different--for some reason writing stories for free is definitely considered more eccentric than spending a fortune on old postage stamps or catching and killing butterflies...
lindahoyland
Jun. 6th, 2013 04:13 am (UTC)
A mutual friend gave her a chapter of "A Time to Reap" where she mistook horseplay between Aragorn and Faramir for porn of some sort!She thought me eccentric for not being bothered about housework and instead writing stories and keeping cats.
dreamflower02
Jun. 6th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
Oh horrors! You mean to say that keeping your house spotless is not your TOP PRIORITY? And you have CATS? *sheesh* You are right, it does say more about her than about you!
marta_bee
Jun. 5th, 2013 03:10 am (UTC)
disgusting and disgraceful

??? Really? I'm with Barbara - that is so not your stories. Mine, maybe - some of mine go to places I'm fairly sure Tolkien wouldn't be on board with, and some might question how "Christian" they are. I think they're Christian but I write about hard enough topics, I can see how someone could react that way to me. But your stories? Always a thrill.
lindahoyland
Jun. 6th, 2013 04:17 am (UTC)
Thank you. I was very upset at the time but afterwards thought it might say more about her than my story.It was a chapter where Aragorn and Faramir could not resist tickling each other with long grasses and had a mock battle she found so objectionable.I could not resist tickling a friend myself when we walked through some long grass, and nothing was further from my mind than lust!It was simply chilling out and being a bit silly, in life as in the story.
dreamflower02
Jun. 5th, 2013 02:41 am (UTC)
I certainly have never seen any reason Christianity and fandom can't go together, obviously I'm one example. For some fandoms (such as Tolkien or Lewis) the origins of the source material originated in a Christian mind that left its mark upon that material--some more subtle than others. JRRT and JKR were a good deal more subtle than CSL!

I know the trend you speak of with ST. It's very clear from TOS through the reboots that the franchise has a humanistic basis, and even in DS9 the spirituality is very ambiguous and not necessarily a Good Thing. All too often the presence of the mystical or godlike has an explanation in These Are Simply Scientific Explanations We Have Yet to Understand. The subtext is that religion is a quaint practice of the past, or something that has only a cultural significance rather than some truth to be encountered.

Then there are other sci-fi and fantasy fandoms that embrace a more spiritual view of things, although at times they appear to be drastically un-Christian (even when using Christian concepts). For example, Supernatural or Buffy the Vampire Slayer use the idea of demons and angels as plot devices, but the theology is very often pop theology that bears little to no resemblance to orthodox Christianity. A cross may repel a vampire, but there's no explanation of why that symbol would work. And yet I know of a certain Christian fanfic writer in that fandom who's managed to put a more accurate theological spin on her stories.

Other fandoms have their own "religions": in Star Wars there are the Jedi and the Force, for example.

But I think the sci-fi fandom that was the most successful in showing that expanding beyond our own world does not necessarily mean leaving religion behind was Babylon 5. We've been rewatching the series lately on Netflix, and I love the way the various human religions still thrive--characters are Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, there are new religions mentioned, and the people of other worlds take their religions seriously as well--sometimes a clash of religions and beliefs would be at the heart of an episode.

And many fandoms these days don't have that sci-fi/fantasy thing. Many of them are set in our "own" contemporary or historical world, and having religion as a part of those would seem to be a natural thing--yet so far as I know, most of those ignore faith even more!

Oh and re: this: "(what if Gandalf was really Dumbledore who had been kidnapped by Doctor Who, dragged back in time in a TARDIS, had that Men in Black doohicky wipe his memory, and landed outside Cirdan’s fortress with no real idea where he came from?)"

Is that a real fic? If so, I would love to have the link--and if not, SOMEONE should WRITE it! (But not me--I want to READ it, not write it!)

marta_bee
Jun. 5th, 2013 03:08 am (UTC)
, I would love to have the link--and if not, SOMEONE should WRITE it! (But not me--I want to READ it, not write it!)

I wish! That was solely the product of my own warped mind. I have seen a few crossovers where characters from Middle-earth somehow ended up teaching at Hogwarts or meeting the staff in the modern world, and Werecat wrote an absolutely hilarious piece where Morgoth and Voldemort meet in the Void. But I'd love to see someone write that fic.

Thanks for the run-down of different fandoms and their religious potential. I really should check out some of those sometime. Babylon 5 in particular sounds promising. I actually wasn't trying to say you couldn't be religious and in fandom. I mean, all three of us are, to say nothing of Linaewen and Celeritas, and I'm sure many, many others besid. And those are just the people who seem to draw great inspiration and strength from Christianity, that I've seen and can remember offhand. I don't doubt there are others. Tolkien in particular seems very friendly to religious people working with specifically religious, Christian themes.

But I do get why people in sci-fi fandoms might be a little confused by that. My point was to sketch some of the reasons I thought that author left off, but I ran out of steam a bit and mainly just got through the problems without working through the solutions so much. I still thought the post was worth sharing. :-)
dreamflower02
Jun. 5th, 2013 12:56 pm (UTC)
I love the concept--and I think I also recall that Morgoth and Voldemort story! It was truly hilarious! I've read one recently in which we discover that it was Doctor Who that gave Gandalf a ride back to Zirakzigil after he was re-embodied that was quite funny, and one of the best crossovers I can recall is one between the Silm and HP, in which Finrod accidentally ends up at Hogwarts after he was fatally injured in the Silm and is nursed back to health by Lupin...

Babylon 5, I think, was one of the best of the sci-fi series. It was the first to start with a real story arc planned out for an entire 5 seasons, and was wonderfully done.

I actually wasn't trying to say you couldn't be religious and in fandom. I did know that! But you are right on one thing:

Some people do seem to feel that fandom and Christianity don't mix, but honestly I don't understand why. It's like saying fandom and politics don't mix or fandom and cooking don't mix, or whatever. One has very little to do with the other. And the people who feel that way are often Christians, but also sometimes are fans who are not.

(The latter makes more sense to me than the former. Christians ought to know better. Non-Christians sometimes have some odd ideas of what Christians believe...such as "people turn into angels when they die"...)

aearwen2
Jun. 5th, 2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
I think fully half of the reason that most folks don't consider Christianity and fandom mixing well is because of the nature of the stereotypical "Christian" currently accepted. That person is small-minded, fundamentalistic in his/her approach to religion, is a Bibliolater who worships the Bible as the font of all knowledge both scientific and spiritual, is determined that everybody else either conform to their flavor of spiritual belief or else they will "burn in Hell" (a belief they are more than willing to gleefully pronounce everytime someone disagrees with them,) is a fan of apologetics who dismisses questions that challenge their beliefs as "hogwash", etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.

Babylon 5 really was the best sci-fi show as far as demonstrating that religion/spirituality can comfortably live side by side with science and reason. Of course, a good part of the reason for that is because the man who wrote it has studied World Religions extensively, but is an atheist with no dog in the fight whatsoever - so no subtle subliminal messages promoting this belief or that one is there, not even one espousing humanism or atheism. You really should watch it, Marta - I'd love to get into a discussion with you afterwards about it.

For the most part, the majority of Christians (and not the ones I know of in fandom - you in particular - obviously) simply aren't open-minded enough to entertain the "what ifs" that is the bread and butter of fandom. I believe this is because those "what ifs" really are very powerful threats to a belief system that has been unexamined and untested, and the person in question prefers that it remain so. Face it, facing a spiritual quandry is an uncomfortable, distressing process - with no easily defined end to it. And when something is seen as a threat, the person who perceives it as such tends to become defensive and lash out. It's a normal, very human response - unfortunate, but quite understandable.

This could be said of a lot of faiths - even Humanism. Those who have decided that reality consists solely of what can be weighed and measured in some material manner are wearing much the same kind of blinkers as those who refuse to contemplate anything outside the defined borders of their religious scriptures. Star Trek, in many ways, falls into that category: deifying reason and science, and portraying as "primitive" or "superstitious" any belief system that deals with the unknowables of Life in any tangible sort of way.

I think the Lord of the Rings fandom, out of all of the others, brings us closest to examining articles of faith due to the blatant and brilliant inclusion of the "divine" and the "semi-divine" as canon characters. Through stories about Morgoth and Sauron, we can take a good look at "Evil". Through stories about the Valar and their dealings with the Elves, we can examine the interactions of The Divine with The Created. Through stories about Elves working with Men, we can examine the issues of death, immortality, grief, hope, and so on. LOTR begs the question of beliefs on so many levels, that we can peel back layers without directly challenging our own beliefs too blatantly - and sometimes bring about an examination of our faith without the painful, distressing part of the process so many want to avoid.

I have become more open about my writing fan fiction as well as original fantasy fiction, and have even shared my one story that dealt directly with spirituality (Along Came A Spider) with one of my more spiritual friends. I'd like to think as fan fiction in general becomes better known and understood by the masses, some of the hesitation in participating in fandom may ease. But if it doesn't, that's okay too. Fans will still find each other one way or another, and fandom relationships are just as valid friendships as over-the-fence neighborly friendships are.

Edited at 2013-06-05 06:23 pm (UTC)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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