By the time this posts, I’ll have spent two full days at a workshop learning how to more effectively navigate people through the rather detailed stages of Christian Initiation in the Catholic Church. There are so many moving parts: say these things here, do these actions here, meet the bishop here, pour water and oil there… it’s enough to make a theologian’s head spin. Today’s Catholic Initiation can be pretty simple or pretty complicated. But it got me thinking about how much simpler initiation experiences seem in some of my favorite geeky stories. Often we’re treated to a single coming of age ceremony or experience that makes a character an adult or a full member of their community. But these ceremonies still serve an important role in our characters’ lives, and we can see parallels between them and the kinds of things religious people do to mark the stages of initiation into their community.
Of course, initiation ceremonies aren’t just limited to Christianity or even to religion. From Masonry to fraternities and sororities to clubs to professional organizations, rituals and oaths are how we mark that someone is “one of us”. Christianity is the religion with which I’m most familiar, so I’ll use it as a lens to view some examples of coming of age and initiatory experiences in geek culture. I’d certainly be interested to see a similar treatment from a different (particularly non-Western) religion’s perspective. So let’s dive in.
Some spoilers for Dune, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Giver, and Doctor Who below.
Some stories give us examples of initiation, but in a limited context. Usually we see these as an initiation into adulthood, or near-adulthood, with a “coming of age” experience. The native Fremen in Dune become adults when they can catch, ride, and steer a sandworm in the desert on their own. Though he’s not born into the Fremen, Paul Atreides still participates in the ritual so he can be seen as a man in the eyes of his adoptive people. By completing the ritual, Paul shows the community that he’s brave and that he won’t be a liability.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sokka is disappointed that he never got to experience “ice-dodging” and so become a man in the eyes of his tribe. With the help of his family and friends, he’s able to recreate the experience by navigating a boat through a field of rocks instead of ice. Ice-dodging is both a symbolic experience and a practical skill. It demonstrates that not only can Sokka do the work of navigating a ship with a crew safely (a part of everyday life in the Water Tribe), but also displays Sokka’s responsibility, leadership, and good judgement. Throughout his travels with his friends, Sokka had already demonstrated these qualities to some degree, but he still wanted the pseudo-ritual experience. Both of these rituals have to do with becoming a more complete member of the community, and demonstrate the candidate’s maturity.
In the novel The Giver, Jonas participates in the Ceremony of Twelve, when he is assigned his career in service to his community and begins an apprenticeship in it. Jonas is given the special job of being Receiver of Memory, the one person in the community who is designated to hold all of the deep memories of the past. Instead of ingraining him into the community, his coming of age experience actually sets him further apart than ever before. As he receives more and more memories from the elderly Giver, his mentor, Jonas actually begins to question the norms of his community. Together with the Giver, Jonas decides that the community has totally lost its way and that the secret memories they harbor need to be returned to the community. Jonas’ initiation didn’t just make him a complete member of the community, they empowered him to challenge the community’s status quo.
Doctor Who gives us elements of a full initiation ceremony with meaning beyond a coming of age. Under the Tenth Doctor’s run (“The Sound of Drums”/”The End of Time”) we’re shown that when Time Lords are eight years old they must gaze into the heart of the Untempered Schism, a mysterious space-time phenomena that gives Time Lords (and Time Ladies) their power. The Untempered Schism is a gap or tear in the “fabric” of reality, where Time Lords can see the whole, raw Time Vortex. For the first time, they’re able to witness eternity. This is experience is part of their initiation into the Time Academy, where students learn to be responsible Time Lords. We discover that Time Lords react differently to this experience. We’re told many are inspired, though others have a deeply unsettling experience. The Doctor says he turned and ran, and never stopped “running”. The Master, on the other hand, goes “mad”. We don’t know much else about Time Lord initiation, other than a line from a Fourth Doctor television story about a particular oath Time Lords make:
“I swear to protect the ancient Law of Gallifrey with all my might and brain. I will to the end of my days, with justice and with honour temper my actions and my thoughts.” (x)
While the information we have about Time Lord initiation is rather sparse, it does draw on two important themes. First, the young Time Lords are given an experience that is overwhelming, even spiritual. Second, Time Lords make a promise to uphold the ways of their people. It’s more than a promise; it’s a serious oath. Even though it’s never mentioned in New Who, one of the most prominent themes connecting each new series and new incarnation of the Doctor is whether or not he’s going to follow the rules of his people. This tells us that the Doctor doesn’t just struggle with the old laws of his people simply because he wants to honor the memory of his family and friends, he also struggles because he made a vow to do so. The vow is his choice, and that choice must be so critical to his identity. No wonder he keeps coming back to the question of “who am I, really?” over and over again.
Time Lord initiation into the Time Academy has strong parallels to religious experiences of initiation. In the early Christian community, non-Christians were not allowed to worship with Christians. Christians would gather in secret (until the emperor Constantine legalized it in about 314) at someone’s house to pray, collect donations for the needs of the poor, read letters and holy texts from great leaders in the Church, and have a special “agape meal” in remembrance of Jesus Christ’s Last Supper. The agape meal (or “divine love feast”) was the first communion service, and depending on which scholars you ask, many believed it to be the spiritual body and blood of Christ. Many of these things constituted the “holy mysteries” of the Church, and were kept secret. Justin Martyr wrote a letter to civil authorities explaining what happened during these gatherings, because the truth had been kept secret and rumors of human sacrifice and cannibalism (among other things) were rampant.
When someone was interested in becoming Christian, after a period of study and prayer, they were admitted to sacraments, rituals that change a person and give them strength to live a holy life. Often they wouldn’t have been told about what to expect, they’d experience it for themselves and have to “unpack” the experience later. They’d make oaths professing to believe certain teachings and promising to live a life in accordance with Christian morality. Time Lord initiation gives us an oath, and gives us an experience. It seems that the experience of looking into the mysterious Time Vortex was so powerful that in some ways, it’s a lot like an experience of the divine, like a sacrament.
Fast forward to modern Christianity, and you’ll still see elements of early Christian initiation in many communities. Many denominations will ask initiates to make a statement of belief or an oath, and many have initiates undergo various sacred rituals. Communities often consider Confirmation a coming-of-age sacrament (regardless of whether or not official theological thought backs up that idea). Teens affirm promises that were made at their first stage of initiation (baptism), and are given a special blessing and anointing with sacred oil as a sign of spiritual strengthening and empowerment. In many communities, once teens are confirmed, they’re allowed to participate in many of the ministries more completely. This sometimes includes even getting to take on special roles during worship services. In other Christian communities, baptism alone suffices for full initiation. Either way, one is empowered to be a leader and demonstrates spiritual maturity, as in Dune or Avatar. In some cases, they’re given more authority to act, and like in The Giver, can challenge the status quo through inspiration from the Holy Spirit.
These experiences, fictional or not, share in the idea that initiation means you become something more in the eyes of your community. Paul, Sokka, and Jonas all became something more when they go through their coming of age or initiatory experiences. Paul and Sokka not only become men after their experience, but others around them recognize in them inherent qualities, virtues, that command more respect from their peers (Paul more explicitly than Sokka). Jonas is empowered as a person set apart, everyone treats him differently after he’s given his job. For Catholics, the sacraments tied to initiation really change who you are as a human being. Theologically they place a special “seal” on your soul and marks an outpouring of grace (spiritual power) that empowers the individual to live more virtuously. You don’t just get to participate in more things in the community, you become a new person.
Acts of initiation in geek culture share many common elements with religious ceremonies. Even simple coming of age rituals and experiences also have much in common with religious rites. These rites have bled over into the secular world in secular organizations with little-to-no explicitly religious component. This tells me that we like our ceremonies and our vows. They mark important moments in a person’s life, and shape who they are for the rest of their lives. In our stories, they mark periods of great change in a character, or catalyze important storylines. Understanding connections between these and religious experiences can help us bring a greater depth of meaning to our storytelling.