Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Christian Initiation and Geeky Coming of Age



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.

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Checking in with the Doctor: Series 9 Midseason Review

doctor who season 9You need to start watching Doctor Who again.

Okay, I never stopped. But I get it. I was skeptical too. I fell in love with the show when the Ninth Doctor told Rose that he could feel the turn of the Earth. Puns and camp and coincidence are all excusable when the Tenth Doctor is basically Jesus and the recurring theme is the wonder of the world and the value of humanity. Eleven even told us, with a cold fury, “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” And then somewhere along the line, the show stopped being about that. Characters changed personalities depending on who was writing the episode, coincidence got us out of trouble instead of into it, and it was hard to care when the world was ending, again, but the Doctor just had to push the reset button, again, to save the day. In Series 7 it was clear to me that when it came to Clara’s personality, none of the writers were on the same page. In rewatches of Series 8, I felt like the show was almost contemptuous of its audience, as if it couldn’t care less if I gave a damn about it. Or maybe that was just the vibe I got from Capaldi’s Doctor.

But for Series 9, things are changing. I’m seeing some glimmers of the show I loved so much. So if you’ve stayed away, let me show you what you’ve missed, and why it’s a good time to give it another chance.

Lots of spoilers for Doctor Who, Series 9, through Episode 7 and hints for later on.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Hermeneutic of Geek Culture

bible light

Say you’ve begun a new religion. Congratulations! Now you need followers. You could stand on a street corner and shout at people. You could serve the poor and provide for those in need, attracting people with your kindness and generosity. If you’re powerful, you could compel them by law to convert. But those aren’t very effective ways of getting your religion to spread far and wide and really stick. I know what you need: a religious text! Yes, a holy book is exactly what you need to reach people out of shouting range and to make sure people don’t garble your message in our great divine game of telephone.

Most actual, real-world religions have some kind of holy text, but it’d be a mistake to think that they all treat their text the same way, or that members of the same faith treat their same book the same way. Scholars call the way people interpret a text a “hermeneutic” (her-man-OO-tic). If you’re going to understand a religion that has a text, you’ve got to understand the different kinds of hermeneutics you might run into. To do that, I’m going to show you how similar hermeneutics pop up in our geeky fiction.

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Motherhood in Geekery

goodmorningcronoThis post is quite obviously two days late; Mother’s Day has come and gone. I’m-a apologize for that, but it kind of goes to point I want to make: mothers and motherhood get remarkably short shrift in pop culture in general and geek culture in particular.

For the most part, moms just don’t exist. Where they do, they’re either saintly and loving, or creepy and weird. Archetypes without full characterization. Which is all to say, it’s time we do better.

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Sexualized Saturdays: Childbearing and Womanhood

Baby-having. It’s traditionally one of the societal markers of womanhood—women are supposed to have uteruses, and men aren’t, and if you’re a woman and fail to successfully grow a baby, for whatever reason, that makes you a failure at your gender.

I’m a cis woman, and society has told me from the get-go that one day I’ll be giving birth to the next generation. I spent the first eighteen or so years of my life plotting out elaborate (and often fandom-based) names for my future kids, and now today, when I tell people I don’t really know that I want children after all, I have to qualify it with a reassurance that I might change my mind—before they assure me that I will.

What this boils down to is gender essentialism. This method of thinking boils women down to what thousands of years of society says is woman’s defining trait, and sets that above everything else. Women who can’t have children are referred to as “barren”, a negatively connotated word which calls up desolate fields in which nothing living grows. (There’s no equally negatively connotated word for men—“sterile” just suggests cleanliness.)

Steven Moffat is so, so guilty of this.

Steven Moffat is so, so guilty of this.

It also moralizes the existence of women without uteruses or without the ability to bear children, making sterility into an issue of good and bad rather than just an apolitical medical condition. Trans women exist; they can’t bear children. Cis women who have had hysterectomies for personal or health reasons, or who are infertile for other reasons, can’t bear children. They are not any less worthwhile, or any less women, for this. Unfortunately, pop culture seems to disagree.

Spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron, Orphan Black, and Series 7 of Doctor Who below the jump.

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Doctor Who’s Tin Dog Problem

series-8-title-sequence-logoBits and pieces of news about Doctor Who Series 9 have been starting to emerge over the past few weeks, not least of which that Arya Stark herself, Maisie Williams, would be starring in an episode. While the show has certainly had its ups and downs in quality over the last few years, I’ve noticed a distressing trend, and one I can’t really even blame solely on Moffat (even if I’d like to).

Look at it this way: you’re watching Doctor Who. This season’s companion has a Black boyfriend, and the Doctor treats him disrespectfully and refuses to acknowledge his identity by constantly misidentifying him. Which Doctor am I talking about?

Trick question—it could be Mickey or Danny. This forces me to point out a very unsettling pattern in Doctor Who: the Doctor’s behavior toward the men of color in his companions’ lives is pretty dang racist.

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One Pill, Two Pill, Red Pill, Blue Pill

MatrixBluePillRedPillYou all remember that iconic Red Pill/Blue Pill scene from The Matrix, right? Just in case you don’t, let me recap it for you. Our protagonist Neo, who is slowly discovering that his perception of reality is an illusion, is offered the choice between taking a red pill or a blue pill. A man named Morpheus explains to Neo that the illusion they’re in is called the Matrix, and serves to stop humans from discovering that they’re nothing but slaves. The blue pill allows Neo to go back to his normal life, while the red pill would allow him to fully wake up from the illusion and begin a quest for truth. Morpheus sums it up nicely:

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

We see this Red Pill/Blue Pill symbolism all over the place in pop culture, especially geek culture. Sometimes pills are involved, other times it’s simple amnesia, or some kind of device to plop the hero back into their pre-story life. Why is it so popular? I think it’s because it speaks to a deep part of the human spirit.

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