Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Monergistic vs. Synergistic Election in Geek Media—Chosen One or Choosing One?

Hello there, good readers! I am back to the blog after a whole year hiatus; much has happened in my life, but in summary the two most important forces to have influenced my new life are Prozac and Protestantism (I’ve always had a thing for alliteration, I guess). I’m jumping right back in with a good ol’ OMPCR. One of the most hotly debated topics in Protestant Christianity (indeed, all Christianity) is the idea of predestination—in particular in relation to “chosen-ness”. The two biggest names in the Protestant Reformation in fact came to their own interpretations of predestination via studying the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo, revered by Catholics as one of the greatest teachers of the faith: however, as usual, Luther and Calvin could not reach a common consensus (Luther went for single predestination, whereas Calvin advocated for double predestination). As Western Christianity celebrates Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, today, I thought it a great time to look at the idea of a Chosen One embracing their destiny—today the Western churches proclaim Jesus entering into Jerusalem to begin the culmination of his destiny as Messiah through the trials of Holy Week leading to the resurrection of Easter. Let’s look at some other Chosen Folk and see how they are both chosen and choosing.


SO chosen. (via softpedia)


These guys can’t agree on anything! (via Wikimedia Commons)

First things first, for a great post on predestination and free will, check out Stinekey’s article about how these work in the Potterverse. She does an excellent job explaining some of the important views on predestination from various historic Christian thinkers. Here I’ll be looking most closely at the tension between the Calvinist and Arminian views, what could be termed monergistic and synergistic. For Calvin and his intellectual descendants (bearing names like Reformed or Presbyterian), election to salvation is monergistic—God alone is the agent in the choosing of the Chosen, the Elect have absolutely no say in the matter. Arminius and those he influenced (in contemporary Protestantism, most notably the Methodists) believed that election to salvation is synergistic—the idea that man worked together with God’s plan for salvation. While it is God’s plan to save whomever God chooses, it is up to the individual to freely choose to cooperate with this.

Now, election to salvation is not typically within the purview of focus of geekly media, but there is very often an element of election or “chosen-ness” in regards to some special status of our protagonist. To just briefly touch on the Harry Potter example, J.K. Rowling seems to support the idea that Harry was not irrefutably chosen by some higher power to his special status, but rather a so-called “prophecy” influenced people to behave in ways that led to the circumstances in the books. Curiously, Harry himself was not involved in the choosing the actions that fulfilled the prophecy; in this way, his agency is nullified in a manner resembling monergistic election—“I have no choice in the matter”—but it is Voldemort’s choosing that sets things in motion, rather than God or the Universe or what have you.

For a much more in-depth look at Harry’s situation, read Stinekey’s article that I linked to earlier. Let’s take a look at some other examples, starting with the Chosen One nearest and dearest to my heart in all the land: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The chosen-ness of the Slayer in the Buffyverse is definitely monergistic; in fact, she is always doubly monergistically chosen—first as a potential Slayer, then as the Slayer, neither of which she has any say in. This total lack of agency in her special status can at times lead to a bit of emo-angst that is very commonly a feature in which the Chosen One laments their lack of choice in having the weight of the world rest on their shoulders. A fair point, to be sure; it’s not a dissimilar opinion to that expressed by Christians who oppose a doctrine of monergistic election. The idea of having the burdens of living a saintly life in a broken world or having the damnation awaiting the reprobate without any say in the matter whatsoever has struck many as inherently unjust.

Potential Slayers

All the Potential Slayers, now put your hands in! (via Buffyverse Wiki)

Whatever force is choosing the Slayers is so impersonal it’s hardly what one might call an intelligent agent; it is more like a force of physics than the God associated with election, whether monergistic or synergistic. In fact, when Buffy “technically” died for a few minutes due to drowning, the next Slayer, Kendra, was automatically called. This has all the finesse of a crashing line of dominoes, not a Supreme Author of the Universe. However, this was all turned on its head in the final season, when the Slayerettes got their hands on the Super Special Magical Plot Device Scythe, which when magicked up by Willow, was able to “activate” all the potential Slayers. A definitive shift from Chosen One to Choosing Ones.

Another show that dealt intimately with themes of chosen-ness is Charmed. The Charmed Ones (really just a new and fun way of saying Chosen Ones) coming into their destiny was always much more synergistic—their fate was put in place by being of the bloodline of Melinda Warren, but the sisters had to actually choose to accept their destiny in order to receive their powers. Well, one of them did: technically Phoebe made the choice for all of them by reciting an incantation in the pilot episode. Close enough! Interestingly, the Charmed Ones actually got to go through this twice: after Prue’s death, the Power of Three had to be reconstituted by Paige, who had to actively choose to join them. She could have said no to her special status in a way Buffy never could.


But don’t worry, she said yes. #CharmedAgain (via Charmed Wiki)

Questions of free will and fate, predestination and personal agency have boggled some of the great minds in philosophy and theology, and it’s neat to see how these ideas play out in modern geek media. The tension between choosing and being chosen is a fascinating concept to ponder in media often populated by Chosen Ones. Free will is typically a huge value in the minds of the individualistic society of the West; on the other hand, destiny or fate is a prime plot feature in fantasy/sci-fi/geek media. A monergistic Chosen One completely squashes the role of free will in ascending to superhero. This can lead to an overly brooding, “woe is me” protagonist, but also emphasizes the sovereignty of Fate or The Powers That Be or whatever is doing the choosing: if this power is benevolent, we can marvel at its wisdom and omnipotence, but if the power is malevolent or even just neutral, it’s all too easy to head straight down a road of nihilistic fatalism. On the other hand, the idea of synergism allows for a balance that can be more appealing to an audience that places emphasis on personal freedom—the character agrees or consents in some way to the destiny placed before them. This adds a layer of personal responsibility and volition that (hopefully!) leads to less brooding, and a protag with overall more sense of agency. No longer slaves to fate, our characters can now make a choice to work with their destiny. And that’s good for everybody!

Follow Lady Geek Girl and Friends on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook!