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.