Film, religion, TV

Shocking similarities between geek culture and religious fundamentalism

What do Superman and God have in common?

Well, I’m sure many have written a dissertation on such a question, but one obvious answer is they both have obsessive fans – geeks and fundamentalists.

As someone who grew up in a pretty fundamentalist Christian background and then went on to become a massive geek, I’ve noticed some pretty startling similarities between the two groups.

Here are a just a few…

 

Bizarre obsession with continuity

Christian fundamentalists often speak of ‘The Bible’ as if it’s one homogeneous text – something can be ‘biblical’ or ‘un-biblical’ depending on ‘what The Bible says.’

Of course, one is likely to think such a thing when you believe all scripture was inspired by God himself, but as we learn more about the context of the many texts of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we understand an obvious truth – each one was written in a specific time and place, with specific intentions.

It’s believed a lot of the Old Testament was written during the Jewish Exile to Babylon, and so the narrative focus on the Israelites being God’s chosen people is understood to be a wonderful story providing a strong image for the Jewish people struggling with a national identity.

Equally, each of the gospels were written at different times for different audiences which explains the varying portrayals of Jesus in each. It is really quite startling to contrast the differences between the human Jesus of Mark who dies on the cross asking ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’, to the God-man striding across the Earth in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, a better way to understand the Bible is not as one book written by one author with one intention, but instead put together (over a much greater period) a bit like Doctor Who. The classic sci-fi TV show began in 1963 in black and white, with a grumpy old Doctor who tried to cave the head of a caveman in during the second episode. But it changed radically across the course of its history, The Doctor becoming a recorder-playing clown, then a suave aikido-practicing gentleman who was trapped on Earth. And all this was before he became the iconic Tom Baker!

Importantly, the mythology kept on evolving. Initially The Doctor was just a wandering alien, perhaps the last of his kind, but then it was revealed he had a species. His first regeneration was explicitly linked to the powers of the TARDIS, but the second regeneration was down to the Time Lords. The Daleks were initially creepy lone survivors on a near-dead planet, before they became all powerful conquerors.

Trying to suggest there’s one consistent mythology to Doctor Who is a fool’s errand – it was written by different writers, for a changing audience over more than 50 years. But this doesn’t stop fans trying, pointing out ‘X contradicts an episode from over 30 years ago.’ In much the same way, it would do the fundamentalist good to acknowledge that contradictions within their Holy Scripture (which can be found not just across books, but also a mere few passages apart, such as how many animals God instructed to be taken on the ark) shouldn’t be explained away, but accepted as the inevitable outcome of an ever-evolving mythology across a library of fascinating texts.

 

Missing the spirit of the text

It is quite amazing how many racist and/or sexist Twitter users have the face of a superhero as their bio pic.  Aren’t superheroes about human decency? It’s extraordinary that any Star Trek fan could complain about a black lead. Isn’t the whole point of Star Trek an absolute egalitarian society? And recently, isn’t it crazy how Doctor Who fans have complained that from Christmas the next Doctor will be played by a woman? Doctor Who, as well as being about compassion and doing the right thing, so often preaches the necessity of change and the dangers of not letting go of the past.

It often seems fans completely miss the point of the characters and shows they idolise.

In much the same way, it is absolutely bizarre than any Christian could support Trump, who aims to make it harder for the poorest in the United States to have access to basic rights like healthcare and education. Wasn’t Jesus’ whole point that we should be reaching out to the poor and outcast in our society, and that the Kingdom of God will be the inversion of today’s reality? Yet Trump had a huge amount of support from Evangelical Christians.

It appears both fundamentalists and geeks could do well to look at the spirit of the texts, shows and characters they dedicate so much time to.

 

Problematic views on women

It’s sad but true that geek culture has some real issues with women. Of course this was shown clearly with the man-babies crying about the casting of a female Doctor (which I have talked about at some length here), but it’s equally manifested in the way fans reacted to the last two Star Wars movies having a female lead.

I remember reading lots of commentators responding to the Rogue One trailer saying ‘ANOTHER female lead.’ I know right, two out of eight movies – CRAZY!

Gaming culture is also particularly bad, with ‘bros’ talking about ‘girl gamers’ not being ‘real gamers’.

Again, this parallels fundamentalists across all the Abrahamic religions, who are often uncomfortable with female leadership. It is absolutely ridiculous that the Church of England is still arguing over female bishops. Why on Earth would a God (who, if he/she exists at all, would almost certainly be genderless) care about what genitals you have? That seems a far more human concern.

The lesson from this one is simple, geeks and fundamentalists both need to grow the fuck up and stop being so sexist.

 

The Golden Age

One of the defining traits of fundamentalism is ‘The Golden Age’ of the religion. This tends to extend both backwards and forwards in time. Once there was a golden age where the religion was practiced perfectly and, soon, there will be a future where the religion is once again practiced perfectly. Only now, at this specific moment, are the hard times.

This thinking is rife across all kinds of geek fandom. Star Wars might seem a slightly unfair example because the originals really were ground-breaking and hugely influential cinema, but the response to the prequels (and, in some circles, the newer movies) was always a bit blinkered, as if the originals were flawless with Shakespearean dialogue and unrivaled acting (they weren’t!)

Clearer still is Doctor Who fans who constantly hate on current showrunner Steven Moffat. They’ll complain endlessly that the Russell T. Davies era was the golden age of the show and it’s never been as good since, often forgetting the times when the Davies era wasn’t all that great (I mean no-one really liked that Daleks in Manhattan two-parter did they?) And, in perfect parallel to the fundamentalists, they project all their hopes on the upcoming showrunner, Chris Chibnall, for a new golden age of Doctor Who. It is inevitable that, within the first two or three weeks of the next series, they’ll be pining for the golden days of Moffat.

 

Silly differences

It’s amazing how religious followers can have so many beliefs in common but still see each other as ‘opposed’. You see it in Catholics and Protestants most obviously, but I’ve been in Evangelical churches who are quick to question whether some other set of Christians are ‘real Christians’ and ask if they are ‘really saved’.

This again is reflected in geek culture.

‘If you like the Star Wars prequels, you’re not a REAL Star Wars fan.’

‘They only liked Doctor Who because they fancied David Tennant.’

Guys, can’t we see what unites us rather than pick up on the smallest of differences?

 

Both geeks and fundamentalists spend too much time thinking about imaginary characters

As both a geek and someone slightly theistic leaning, this one is just me being facetious.

 

Most are nice people

For all the negative similarities, I think it’s worth pointing out the most obvious similarity – both are given a bad reputation by the vocal minority of dumb followers/fans.

Most religious people, even fundamentalists, want to practice their religion in peace without imposing it on the lives of others.

Similarly, most geeks watch these shows and films because they enjoy them, and don’t log-in to internet forums to complain that it’s the ‘worst one ever’ or to vent their anger at the latest bit of casting.

Both groups could benefit from some of their most vocal members just….shutting up…

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Philosophy, religion

Let’s stop calling religions a ‘religion of peace’

Yep, tricky one to write this!

I’ve had a problem with the way various commentators/politicians/theologians have described particular religions as a ‘religion of peace’ for some time, but I never quite conjured up the nerve to write about it.

After all, the whole area is a bit of a minefield, ignorance is rife and even well-intentioned observation can sound very bigoted.

But, what the heck, I thought it was worth the challenge so fingers crossed this doesn’t go terribly wrong!

Why I dislike the term ‘religion of peace’

Let me be clear, this is not about one specific religion in particular. Whilst in recent times it’s usually Islam that is described as a ‘religion of peace’, often in reaction to a terrible incident committed in ‘the name of Islam’, I really do mean to critique the use in regard to all religions, particularly the Abrahamic religions with which I’m most familiar.

Much connected, I equally hate the term ‘True Christianity’ or ‘True Islam’, which is used in the same way ie. ‘That abortion doctor shooting was committed by a lunatic and has nothing to do with ‘True Christianity’.’

Here’s why I hate it. When you say ‘x is a peaceful religion’ you are implying that there is such a thing as ‘True x’ or ‘Pure x’. As if, for example, there really is such a thing as ‘proper Christianity’ which all Christians are practicing with various degrees of success.

In other words, you’re suggesting an almost platonic ideal of these religions which exist separately from how they are practiced or came into being. This I find problematic, and let me use Christianity as an example of why.

 

What is ‘Christianity’?

I was once asked by a well meaning, but ever so frustrating, street evangelist if I was a Christian.

“Yes,” I replied, after a little thought “I suppose I am.”

“Ah,” he said, “but what do you mean by ‘Christian’?”

And that bugs me because he is claiming he understands what a ‘real Christian’ is, as if a certain group has an exclusive right to the word.

But let me show you why I find that idea ultimately incomprehensible by simply asking, ‘What is ‘True Christianity’?’

Is it the teachings of the ‘historical Jesus’ (that being the Jesus who we can establish using the historical method)? That would seem a sound place to me, but it would be difficult to establish too many specifics about what that version of Christianity might be.

Is it, then, the gospels? Are the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John more important to ‘Christianity’ than the teachings of the actual Jesus? Because they certainly aren’t the same thing.

Sure, there’s debate as to how much each gospel accurately reflects the teachings of the ‘historical Jesus’, but even a generous interpretation would still have to admit that each gospel was written for a specific audience and with a specific intention that wasn’t what we would now call ‘history.’

Or perhaps ‘True Christianity’ is what we find in the letters of Paul, which were written before the gospels? There have certainly been some scholars that have concluded that Paul could more accurately be described as the founder of Christianity than Jesus himself. It’s my own observation, not that it counts for much, that Evangelical churches in particular seem to owe more of their understanding of Christianity to the epistles than to the words of Jesus found in the gospels.

Maybe ‘True Christianity’ was that thing that was practiced by the Early Church, although the Early Church certainly did not seem an entirely homogenous body. We can see in the letters of Paul some of the many issues the Church was wrestling with and debating over.

Is ‘True Christianity’ then what we now call the biblical canon? Even if we could accept a unifying interpretation, it seems unlikely. J.L. Houlden sums up perfectly in ‘Ethics and the New Testament’ how bizarre this understanding of canon seems to be and encourages us to see the New Testament as the surviving writings of a much richer literature:

‘Once we have come to read the New Testament in this way, then its authority as canon has to be seen as, in origin, a particular-and from many aspects a deadening and arbitrary-way of treating this selection of early Christian writings, a way which commended itself, for compelling historical reasons (such as the need for fixed authorities to appeal to as standards of orthodoxy in the face of heresy) to the churches of the later second century. No such motives inspired those who wrote or those who first received and then preserved these books: for them they were, initially, simply writings valued on the basis of their contents, then perhaps of special worth as being, at least by repute, the work of venerated apostolic hands. Not for some generations did they, as collection, win the status of scripture…’

I think by now that we should begin to understand that looking for a ‘True Christianity’ is looking for something that simply does not exist. Christianity came into the world in an organic way and developed as such. It began, it is largely agreed, with the teachings of Jesus and gave way to a wide range of interpretations and beliefs.

Even now, where Christianity has been defined in a certain way for some time, there is still mass disagreement about what exactly it is. There are even Anglican priests who don’t believe in God!

If this is true of Christianity, it is surely true of Judaism and of Islam. They are religions that arose organically in a specific context and, from their creation, there have been disagreements about what constitutes the ‘true religion’.

So to say ‘x is a religion of peace’, which is to imply there is a ‘True x’, is ultimately misleading.

 

So, why does it matter?

You might be with me up to this point but think I’m sweating the small stuff. Is it just a linguistic point?

You might even think that the use of the term ‘religion of peace’ is a good thing. After all, it’s probably most used in the modern world to rightfully take a stand against Islamophobia.

I empathise with that to an extent, but I do worry that talk of ‘True Islam’ and ‘True Christianity’ ultimately play into fundamentalist hands.

One of the key defining factors of fundamentalism is its belief in a golden age where the religion was once practiced perfectly, and a dream of a utopia where it’ll be rightfully practiced again.

Does talk of ‘True Islam’ or ‘True Christianity’ reinforce these, ultimately, irrational ideas? Is it not better to understand religions as things that come into being naturally in complex ways that can’t simply be boiled down to one ideal?

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t imagine how terrifying it must feel to be a minority in a country and be, in some unfair way, held accountable for the actions of a few mad men on the other side of the world.

But would it not be better to state the factual claim, namely that most Muslims are peaceful or most Christians are peaceful, rather than reinforce the notion that there is one true way these religions ought to be practiced?

I think that acceptance would be both intellectually honest and, more importantly, quite liberating in how we talk about religion going forward.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts so do leave a message.

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