Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Power of Belief

world-religionBelief is a funny thing. When most people talk about belief, they’re usually taking about believing in things that are intangible; things like religion, a cause, or a greater good. Belief is often closely tied to faith. It’s a bit strange to talk about belief in terms of something we can touch or measure, because that kind of belief requires a simple glance over the evidence staring us in the face. It doesn’t really take any effort on our part to agree that something is true when a scientist or other expert has done all the work for us. The more interesting kind of belief requires some component of faith. A large part of faith is believing in something greater than oneself. This sort of belief is crucial to some of the most popular stories in fantasy and science fiction, from Peter Pan to Doctor Who to Serenity to The Hunger Games. It’s this kind of faith in something greater than oneself that gives true power to the characters in these works.

Spoilers for all three Hunger Games books, Doctor Who, and Serenity below.

tinkerbellThe Tinker Bell Effect demonstrates the real power of belief. At one point in the original play of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell the fairy drinks some poison in order to save Peter’s life. While she’s on the brink of death, Peter implores the audience to demonstrate their belief in fairies by clapping their hands. The power of the audience’s belief actually brings Tinker Bell back to full strength. This effect tends to blur the line between measurable belief and faith belief. On one hand, we see the real world effects of the audience believing hard enough. But on the other, fairies are fantastical creatures, so it’d take a bit of convincing to really believe that they exist, even if one was sitting in front of you.

The Tinker Bell Effect also pops up in Doctor Who. In “The Sound of Drums” and “The Last of the Time Lords”, the Doctor is trapped in a cage by the Master and forcibly aged. Martha Jones spends a year wandering the Earth, telling people about the Doctor. At a predetermined moment, everyone on Earth thinks about the Doctor, and the collective “psychic energy” actually restores the Doctor’s youth. As with Tinker Bell, the belief of a group of people has a measurable impact on the story’s characters. While we’re given some kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo explanation for why it all worked, the idea is the same. Belief can be so powerful that it can literally restore someone’s life.

malcolm reynoldsIn these two examples we have a group of people believing in order for one person to regain power. But this also works when the character needing the power believes. Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly and Serenity is a good example of how this works. When we first meet Captain Reynolds in Firefly, he’s leading a small group of soldiers in the Battle of Serenity Valley. Trying to inspire courage, he makes clear references to God and faith. He suffers a brutal defeat, and six years later we see that Malcolm has become a man of no belief whatsoever. In the movie Serenity, Malcolm and his crew go to Haven to plan their next move against the assassin known as the Operative. They land, only to find the settlement massacred, and Mal rushes to the side of a dying friend, the preacher Shepard Book. Book speaks his dying words to Mal:

I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.

While it’s implied in the series that Book and Mal often butted heads on the topic of religion, I don’t think this is Book making a statement about all religions being equally valid. Instead, I think this is Book trying to teach Mal about the power of believing in something greater than oneself. At that moment, Mal was truly in the “belly of the whale”, at his lowest point. What he needed was the power to fight back. Book reminded Mal that belief can supply that power. Mal’s belief in bringing the government to justice for its crimes propels him (and inspires his crew) to embark on a mission to expose the government’s atrocities to all its citizens.

We also see the power of belief in the Operative’s actions. Mal’s primary antagonist in Serenity is a zealously religious assassin. The Operative’s belief in a “world without sin” gives him the power to take down Mal by any means necessary. The Operative’s scorched-earth tactics are practically unstoppable. He seems to believe equally in both a Christian religion and the inherent goodness of the government. Mal is only able to defeat him by literally (and forcibly) sitting him down and making him watch a video uncovering the government’s evils. It’s only when Mal destroys the Operative’s belief in the government that the Operative is finally defeated. Belief is what gives both heroes and villains the power to act.

Katniss-Everdeen-the-hunger-games-fan-club-30601998-530-725However, belief only seems to give a character power when that belief is in something greater and external to oneself. A good example of this is in Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series. Throughout the books, Katniss spends most of her time wishing that she could live a quiet, peaceful life with her family, free from true hardship. Her desires, while virtuous, are ultimately self-centered. Most of the time she couldn’t care less about the political turmoil in her nation; she’s far more concerned with her personal safety and well-being. And it’s during these times when she puts these desires first that she becomes a pawn for whichever powerful group wants to manipulate her. Katniss is forced into the Hunger Games because she can’t bear the thought of her little sister having to compete. It’s only when Katniss decides that she would rather die than give the Capitol the satisfaction of a victor that she is able to finally defy the Game Makers and survive. Her belief in the injustice of the games becomes so powerful that it actually helps her accomplish her goal—it motivates the actions that allow her to survive.

Katniss’s defiant moment of agency sets off a chain reaction of political turmoil in her nation. She spends the next book being manipulated right and left. The Capitol manipulates the rules to force Katniss back into the Games, and the rebels manipulate her behavior by keeping her in the dark about their plan to escape. Katniss keeps being manipulated into being a poster child for the revolution through most of the third book. Katniss is only manipulated when her primary belief is in her right to a peaceful life. When Katniss starts believing more in things external to her own existence, she starts to take back her agency. This comes to a head in the final book, when Katniss’s belief in the evil of the Games prompts her to kill President Coin, the new leader of the new government, rather than President Snow, the leader of the old, corrupt government. President Coin was spearheading an initiative to have one final Hunger Games, with the children of high-ranking people from the Capitol. In effect, it’d perpetuate the cycle of murder and resentment that incited the revolution in the first place. Once again, Katniss’s belief in something greater than herself motivated her actions and creates a meaningful, lasting impact.

So how does religious belief fit into all of this? We most often see religious belief used as a powerful motivator for a villain. That’s because it works; when you’ve got a strong belief in a great afterlife awaiting you, death doesn’t scare you. And if death doesn’t scare you, not much else does. This is why the Operative in Serenity can be so ruthless and take all the risks he wants. But more often than not, when religious belief is assigned to a villain, we end up with stereotypical, flat characters. Doctor Who loves to play fast and loose with the religious bad guy, contrasting with the Doctor (the good, agnostic man of science). We could avoid that by treating religious belief as a positive thing. That way, adding religious belief to a villain would automatically transform them from a two-dimensional baddie to a complex, morally ambiguous character. It would give the audience another way to empathize with the villain.

book of eliHeroes could use religious belief as the reason why they act virtuously or pursue a virtuous goal. The film The Book of Eli gives us a good example of this. In a post-apocalyptic world, Eli travels to the west coast on foot, carrying with him the last copy of the Bible. He clearly believes he is on some kind of mission from God, and his actions are motivated by his religious beliefs. Eli kills only when he feels it’s necessary (though in true Hollywood style, probably more often than some Christians would like), and saves a young woman from an attack. Eli is a very faith-filled person, and his faith seems to give him this superhuman ability to fight bad guys along the road. Religious belief gives meaning to Eli’s life while everyone else struggles to find it in the wasteland.

Belief is a powerful thing. Believing in something often has a big impact on a character’s ability to act in his or her story. In Doctor Who and Peter Pan, we see that belief can truly make an impact on the characters. Serenity takes this one step further, and shows us that belief is a powerful motivator and actions taken because of strong belief have more influence on the story than actions taken for other reasons. The Hunger Games shows us that belief in something greater than oneself can give a character more agency and power. Religious belief can give a character all of the benefits of having powerful belief. Religion gives a person a reason to believe in a greater good or a cause greater than oneself. A strong religious conviction can make a character much more dynamic, both personally and in terms of impact on the story. Religious belief personifies the exact kind of belief that gives characters in both fantasy and science fiction their ability to be powerful.

2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Power of Belief

  1. Pingback: Writing, French TV, Dragon Age: Redemption and Links (Religion, Feminism, Writing) | Natacha Guyot

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