Happy Easter to all my Christian sisters and brothers! Today’s post is not going to be about anything involving Easter. Other than the Christ figures, there isn’t much Easter-oriented material in geek culture. There are probably a couple reasons as to why that is, but we aren’t going to get into that today.
Instead, we are going to discuss Christian ethics in geek culture. Particularly, we will be discussing issues of simplicity and voluntary poverty.
Recently, I have been thinking about taking on the challenge of living a life of voluntary poverty. Voluntary poverty is an old idea going back to the monastics and hermits in the early Catholic traditions. The idea of lay (non-clergy) Catholics embracing the idea of voluntary poverty was made popular through the Catholic Worker movement, started by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day. Living a life of voluntary poverty means to live as simply as possible, rarely buying possessions, and worrying less about making and obtaining money in order to dedicate one’s life to service and prayer. It’s a tough sell for many people, but it can also be very freeing. For most people, living a life of voluntary poverty does not seem to be an option. However, all Catholics are called to live a life of simplicity, not to be consumed with possessions or material wealth. I realized as I tried to realign my life in order to live more simply that I had a major problem. I’m a geek. And being an avid fan of all things geeky actually seems to be an exact opposite lifestyle to a simplistic Christian one.
In my apartment there are tons of posters depicting various super heroes or fantasy characters. I own a TARDIS cookie jar, Adventure Time costumes, an uncountable amount of geeky movies, video games, and TV shows, boxes upon boxes of sci-fi and fantasy books, an ungodly amount of comic books, and of course over half of my closet is filled with geeky T-shirts. I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just say I have a lot of really geeky shit. And I have an Amazon wish list full of more geeky shit that I want. That I want, but in no way really need, and I think that’s the problem. I certainly don’t own anywhere near as much as some of my fellow geeks.There was one man who boasted to me about his two-bedroom apartment and how he uses the larger of the two rooms to store his comic books. Various geeky documentaries about fans show people who spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on action figures, costumes, and other geeky paraphernalia.
Even at the less extreme end, just buying comics or movies all the time can end up being pretty expensive, and while I love and enjoy these things, they aren’t exactly conducive to living a more simplistic Christian lifestyle. For geeks, consumerism is a big part of being a fan and in our haste to buy all our favorite things, we might not realize how much money, energy, resources, and time we end up using.
Now, I am not saying you can’t be a geek and a good Christian, and certainly not everyone is called to something as extreme as voluntary poverty. Even living simply is difficult, whether you are a geek or not. But I think part of the problem tends to be that geeks, in a lot of ways, are expected and even required to have a lot of geeky items as identity markers to show that they are a “real” geek. For example, someone who really likes The Avengers, but doesn’t own any of the comics, T-shirts, action figures, or other items may be said to be a fan of the movie, but not a geek for The Avengers.
Geek gatekeeping is never a good thing. In just the same way that quizzing girls about Batman to “prove that they’re a real fan” is idiotic, so is judging if someone is a real fan based on how much geeky stuff they own. First of all, there are a variety of reasons that someone may not own a ton of geeky things. One reason could be income: actual poverty instead of voluntary poverty. By insisting someone needs to have a bunch of geeky products to be a “real” geek, we are actually being quite classist. Secondly, there are more reasons to avoid constant consumerism than just religious reasons. Someone who is serious about helping the environment may wish to avoid consumerism in order to cut back on using our already limited resources. No matter what the reason I choose to spend or not spend money, whether religious or not, that is no reason to claim I am not a “real” geek.
The point is, geek gatekeeping is never okay. No matter what, geek gatekeeping comes off as sexist, classist, anti-religious, or general weirdly insisting on knowing all details of a person’s life and how exactly they “geek”. No one should ever have to prove they’re a geek. If they identify as a geek, then they are one. Furthermore, I think geeks are so much more than just consumers of geeky products. Felicia Day discusses this in one of her videos for Geek and Sundry and calls for a redefining of the word geek.
I think one of the reason that it’s so difficult for geeks in particular to live a Christian path of voluntary poverty is because geeks, like all groups, use identity markers to signify that they are part of a specific group. I could have a ton of knowledge about Harry Potter, but without any identity markers like T-shirts or accessories, then people are uncertain of my geek status and thus less inclined to believe that I am a geek. There is a PBS Idea Channel episode that discusses that this is one of the reasons that people hate hipsters: because they wear identity markers that don’t belong to them. This same issue comes up with geeky Christians who want to live a life of simplicity. Not having those identity markers defines you either as a non-geek, or not a real geek.
Furthermore, not buying certain geeky things can label you a bad geek to fans. For example, fans are told to preorder comics to show support for them. And if you are a feminist and a comic book lover, you know that not buying comics about or created by ladies could have a negative affect on gaining more representation. So if I engage in voluntary poverty and stop buying those comics, it’s possible that my fellow feminist geeks would say I was being a bad fan (I hope not!). Basically, in some ways, it is choosing between showing that you have “faith” in the geeky things you love and trying to express your Christian faith through voluntary poverty.
Obviously geek gatekeeping is not the only thing that makes it difficult to be a geek and a Christian trying to live simply. Our society is generally a consumerist culture that is constantly trying to tell us that we need more stuff to be happy. Being a geek is not really what is out of sync from living a Christian lifestyle; it’s our overall culture that is. The idea that consumption is bad is extremely counterculture to our current society, and following a lifestyle of simplicity or voluntary poverty is hard enough without having to deal with things like geek gatekeeping. I think it is also important to realize that geeks can consume a geeky culture or product without necessarily being materialistic. The writer CompGeekDavid from the site Comparative Geeks also has discussed this issue of consumerism and geek culture, though from a more environmental perspective than I am doing. He makes, I think, an important distinction between consumption and giving into materialism. He writes:
However, while consumerism and materialism often go hand-in-hand, they are not synonymous. And here we get to the heart of the point I was trying to make. Geeks consume the culture – watch it, read it, play it, share it, blog on it, cosplay it, whatever – but they are involved in the consumption of cultural artifacts. However, they are also a group that might be alright without the materialistic side of consumption.
Think about geeks – they are the sort to, these days, be making the decision to go with Netflix and Hulu instead of buying movies and TV shows. The sort to go to libraries for books. The sort to digitally download movies and TV to watch them, to have Kindles and other readers that they are now getting books on.
Geeks seem to, more and more, be okay with these new and alternative means of consuming the culture. Means where maybe they don’t own the product but are renting or borrowing it, means where they have a lower material impact on the things they consume.
This might not help those Christian geeks attempting to live a life of voluntary poverty, but it’s a start toward living more simply while still enjoying all the geeky things we love. People are geeks because they enjoy certain things and express their deep love for those things without apology. That does not mean that one has to express that love by buying stuff, especially an excess of stuff. People read comics, watch movies, or play video games for enjoyment, and simply being able to express that joy should be enough to show that someone is a geek. Christian geeks, like myself, can take heart in the fact that we can experience and enjoy geek culture by defining geek as something more than being avid consumers of certain products. We experience geekdom and can enjoy being geeks in ways that don’t require money. From borrowing comic books at a library to reading fanfiction, there are many ways to be a geek and to participate in geekdom.