Back in the early 2000s, I, like many of you, spent many hours on role play or “RP” websites. The RP site served as a platform for people to write stories together. More often than not, these were (and are!) different kinds of fanfiction. Sometimes you wrote from the perspective of a canon character, but I’d spend more time crafting my own characters to populate some author’s universe. For example, I’d create my own unique character and send them to Hogwarts, to get into all kinds of shenanigans with unique characters created by other people. Most websites had written (or at least, unwritten) rules about how these co-authoring relationships work. You couldn’t control another author’s original character without their permission, you couldn’t break the rules of the universe, you were encouraged to match your post’s length to your writing partners’, etc. One of the more popular (and nefarious) rules was “No Mary Sues”.
A “Mary Sue” character is more or less a fictional version of the author. She was a way for the author to insert themselves into the story, usually to steal all the attention. It’s hard to have fun writing when your writing partner’s character has the ultimate tragic backstory, special powers, is the constant center of attention, and usually has some out of the ordinary physical features. Mary Sues are the ultimate idealized versions of the author, inserted into the story. There’s a lot of argument of what really counts as a Mary Sue, and whether or not Mary Sue characters are even all that bad. I don’t think Mary Sues are all that bad. In fact, Mary Sues have been encouraged for centuries. I’m talking about a spiritual practice called Ignatian contemplation or, Mary Sue Spirituality.
Daredevil, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Netflix original series, came out a few weeks ago, and it’s been pretty well received by most people (including me). While no one on this blog has written a straight review of the series yet, I imagine it’s only a matter of time; in the meantime, I’m interested in talking about Matt Murdock and Catholicism.
Comics have been doing a pretty good job lately insofar as realistic representation of religion is concerned. From Kitty Pride talking about dealing with anti-Semitism to Kamala Khan just existing, we have a variety of heroes of different religious backgrounds doing their thing on the printed page. However, this hasn’t yet translated to the MCU; save for Cap’s offhand remark about how God dresses, we haven’t seen a single reference that implies any character follows a certain faith. (Remember, I’m talking about the MCU specifically, not X-Men or other films.) And it wouldn’t be difficult, as I’ve pointed out before; anything from an offhand remark about a Hanukkah gift to a character making the sign of the cross in a stressful situation would do it. It goes without saying, then, that I tuned into Daredevil with some trepidation on the religion front. Matt Murdock is probably one of the most devoutly religious Catholic characters in comics (that I’m familiar with, at least). Would his faith make the jump to the screen?
Thankfully, yes, but in a somewhat imperfect way. Some mild spoilers for the show after the jump!
Many of you probably think of religion and science as always constantly at odds. And while it’s true that religion and science often disagree with each other, many of you probably don’t realize that devoutly religious people have contributed to science. Catholic Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics (a sort of early theory of evolution). Fr. Georges Lemaître was a cosmologist and Catholic priest, and is the father of the Big Bang theory. Of course Catholics aren’t the only religious people to contribute to science. Obviously, Albert Einstein, one of the most famous and influential scientists in history, was Jewish and was agnostic but strongly identified with his Jewish heritage, and Judaism was a major influence on his life. Jonas Salk was devout in his Jewish faith (and often seemed annoyed by the religion vs. science debates) and a medical researcher. He is famous for developing the first polio vaccine. Jābir ibn Hayyān is both Muslim and the father of chemistry. Abdus Salam, another practitioner of Islam, won the Nobel Prize in physics for his electroweak interaction theory. In fact, it’s because of his faith that Salam pursued science. He said:
The Holy Qur’an enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.
So there are a lot of scientists throughout history who contributed greatly to their field and still loved and professed their faith. But you wouldn’t know that if you looked at our pop culture. Almost every science-minded character is an atheist. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of characters be scientists and atheist or agnostics (in fact, it’s important to have characters like that), but I worry that if every science-minded character is an atheist or agnostic, we end up perpetuating the conflict between religion and science.
I was thrilled when I got the chance to read M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing: Theology of the Vampire Narrative in Popular Culture and review this academic treatise for our blog. Just seeing the title itself filled me with nerdy joy and anticipation. This is not the first time I’ve written about vampires and religion for this blog, and I hope it won’t be my last. Such intersections of fantastical genre pop culture media and religious studies/theology perfectly fits in with some of my own dearest interests, as well as the mission of the LGG&F blog, of course. The book does exactly what it says it will, looking at the symbolic value of the vampire in pop culture through a variety of theological lenses, some of which I’d thought of before, but many of which had never crossed my mind. Without further ado, let’s sink our teeth into this review (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist #punsarealwaysintended).
When I was in grad school I had a Biblical Studies instructor who was from Romania. He was a member of the Romanian Orthodox Church, but he seemed tohave a great love of Judaism and was an active advocate against anti-Semitism. I remember him sadly telling us how he was sometimes uncomfortable when he went back to Europe to visit family because he claimed that anti-Semitism was once again on the rise. That was three years ago. Now it seems like I can’t go a day without reading about how anti-Semitism is on the rise not just in Europebut in the U.S. as well. And sadly we can see this attitude reflected in our own geek culture. Today I am going to specifically talk about the anti-Semitism in the X-Men/Marvel Movie Universe.
Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of those books that appears on every serious science fiction lover’s bucket list (or, at least, it should). It’s a winner of both a Hugo award and a Nebula award, and it deeply influenced the whole science fiction genre. I could make a strong argument that without Dune and its two sequels, there would be no Star Wars, though I’ll save that for another time. Yet Dune doesn’t occupy that kind of place in pop culture; we don’t often hear “Herbert” accompanying names like “Asimov” and “Bradbury” (although we should).
Dune is the story of Paul Atreides and his ascendancy to the Messiah-like Muad’Dib during a geopolitical conflict known as the “Arrakis Affair”. That may sound pretty dry; I assure you it’s not. It’s more like dropping Warrior Jesus into A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for you HBO peeps), set on Tattooine. There are many things I can say about Dune. But since today is the day Western Christians celebrate Easter, I want to examine how Paul grows into his role as a Christ figure, limited to the first book of the trilogy. In fact, it’s the ways in which he breaks the stereotype that make Dune so interesting.
When you grow up reading a lot of genre fiction, especially young adult and high fantasy, a major turning point in your emotional growth is realizing that “the dark lord”, as you have come to know this all-too-common character archetype, doesn’t really exist. In reality, evil as an ideal is never made manifest in a single adversary whose sole objective is to destroy and corrupt the goodness in the world. Sure, there are people who are “bad” from your own perspective, and bad qualities like selfishness, prejudice, and lack of empathy are generally culturally agreed upon, but even the worst people are generally heroes in their own minds, people who have not yet been shown the error of their ways. No one sets out to be Sauron or the White Witch or Voldemort, and no matter how much power and influence bad people achieve, I know of no instance where anyone has claimed that their ultimate goal was the advancement of the cause of evil.
Most frameworks of morality grasp this concept pretty well: that good and evil are not absolutes, and that humans inherently have the capacity for both positive and negative behaviors. The major exception seems to be in certain camps of modern Christianity, which assigns a motive and influence to Satan that is very much comparable to the fictional and largely metaphorical presence of Sauron and other prototypical “dark lords”. While in Tolkien’s case, Sauron was a metaphor for industrialization, and in the case of children’s books, morality is artificially externalized and simplified for the sake of young readers, the Christian reading of Satan is—as far as many active faith communities are concerned—neither metaphorical nor exaggerated. Satan is literally a dark wizard.