I’ve recently been binge-watching Fringe for the first time. It’s a series about the “Fringe” division of the FBI, where Agent Olivia Dunham and her team investigate strange and paranormal events, visit parallel universes, and save the day by being smart and badass. I honestly can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get into a show that’s three parts X-Files and one part NCIS. I found myself most intrigued by a strange one-off episode during Season 2 that was actually filmed in Season 1, but aired out of order on a different night for boring, time constraints reasons. Fans aren’t even certain exactly where it fits in the show’s timeline. It’s called “Unearthed,” and was panned by a lot of critics.
But this rather bad episode succeeds at one thing: giving its audience portrayal of a real religion that isn’t wildly offensive or inaccurate. It does a great job giving us a small window into what Catholicism looks like today. Catholicism pops up all the time in science fiction, maybe because its trappings are easily identifiable for audiences. I’m happy to see a show get a lot of the details right, even though it’s tucked away in an episode no one really cares about. The most shocking thing to me is that the narrative doesn’t make these characters into perfectly good Catholics, either. They’re much more real than what I’m used to seeing.
Most of the time, geeky media does a pretty poor job of utilizing religious ideas. So I was shocked when I watched the fourth season premiere of The Flash and found that amid the somewhat clunky storytelling, there was actually a pretty decent portrayal of faith. This episode can show us a bit about how Christians understand how faith works, even though religion-flavored faith had almost no role to play in the episode.
Welcome to Night Vale constantly amazes me with how unique it is, especially when it comes to religion. It manages to take real religious ideas and weave something entirely new and different from the thing that originally inspired them. The Smiling God, the beagle puppy, and the angels are inspired by Abrahamic religions, but while it’s clear that Huntokar and the other gods are definitely at least inspired by real deities, the creators of Night Vale have managed to create their own unique pantheon.
Several episodes ago, we learned that the god Huntokar, who has been mentioned in passing throughout the show, is the god of Night Vale and has been protecting the people of Night Vale since the very beginning. However, we came to discover that her protection also nearly doomed Night Vale by causing the multiple versions of the town in different universes to collapse in on themselves. In this episode, Huntokar mentions that she is one of four old gods that include the Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL), the Woman from Italy, and the Distant Prince.
Writers tend to take two different routes when it comes to adding deities to their stories. They either use gods of real religions, or they invent their own. Creating your own deities has the major advantage that you aren’t taking the risk of portraying another religion’s deities in a potentially harmful way. However, we cannot escape the fact that we are affected by what we know about religions and their deities and inevitably the audience may realize that these “fake gods” are inspired by real ones. It’s fine to be inspired by real deities, but it’s important to still develop them in such a way as to make them their own unique god, otherwise the portrayal could still end up seeming problematic. And that is exactly what the creators of Welcome to Night Vale were able to do. Their deities are clearly inspired by different real gods, but are written in such a way that they become their own unique god and are not simply a copy of another deity.
Spoilers for Welcome to Night Vale for up to Episode 113.
A few weeks ago we reviewedOrphan Black for the last time. Religion played an important role in Orphan Black‘s worldbuilding, but the writers never truly moved beyond offensive religious stereotypes. In a show about bioethics, identity, and power, religion should have played a major role in creating diverse characters and showcasing different perspectives. After all, the show’s ultimate thesis was about women having the freedom to pursue their own definition of happiness and fulfillment through self-determination. Different versions of Christian religion and philosophy make an appearance in the show, but they’re never a good thing. In fact, religion ends up being a minor antagonist throughout the show.
During these troubling times, I like to go to my safe space for a while so that I can process things, and for me that often means diving into comics. Recently I was thinking about the 2017 Wonder Woman movie, which I loved, but also had some troubling religious aspects. We talked previously about how Wonder Woman was heavily Christianized, with Ares acting more like the Christian devil and less like the God of War, putting Wonder Woman in the Christ/savior role. But today I want to focus on the lack of goddess figures in Wonder Woman, excluding Wonder Woman herself, of course. Why, in a society of just women, was there so much focus on Zeus as the main god they followed, especially when previous comic incarnations of the Amazons did have them worshiping the Greek goddesses over the gods?
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale and the story’s frightening relevance in Trump’s America has led to a resurgence of interest in the original book. I read it back in high school, but watching a couple episodes of the show rekindled my interest in reading it again. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to listen to a copy of the audio book. Atwood’s magnificent prose delivers a chilling, timely tale of a world where women have lost all control over their own lives and bodies. Despite its 1985 publication date, the book engages with numerous issues that remain relevant today, especially in light of current events.
Warning for discussions of slavery and rape below. And, of course, spoilers through the very end of The Handmaid’s Tale novel.
The second season of Lucifer recently ended and I have to say that it was amazing. However, there was one episode in particular that I both loved and was frustrated with called “God Johnson”. In this episode, Lucifer and Chloe head to a mental institution where a man has been murdered. The main suspect in the case is God—or, well, a man who thinks he is God, and who even legally changed his name to God Johnson. Lucifer confronts Johnson to tell him that the real God is an asshole, but he stops shorts when Johnson calls him by his angelic name, Samael. Thisprompts Lucifer to believe Johnson really is God. Later Lucifer admits himself into the same institution and sees Johnson heal a human, again causing him to truly believe this is really God. I was so excited about this! After the show introduced God’s wife, I was hoping we would eventually get to meet God himself and explore the relationship between God and Lucifer in a more real way. Sadly, though, this episode doesn’t take the direction that I would have hoped. God’s character is not engaged with in the same way that Lucifer’s is. God remains just this impassive, omnipotent, but never present figure. Despite how our media loves to play with religion in its shows, movies, etc., the Abrahamic God appears to be off limits in terms of real character exploration.
Spoilers for theLucifer episode “God Johnson” below.
If you haven’t yet seen the new Wonder Woman movie… seriously, why haven’t you? It’s fabulous. After we gushed about its awesomeness while coming out of the theater, I mentioned to my group that Diana Prince seems like an awesome unconventional Christ figure. They were a little confused, because (spoiler alert) Wonder Woman isn’t crucified, and she’s certainly not a man. I couldn’t really explain it well then, but I can now.
Wonder Woman might be the most famous female superhero. While her story makes references to Greek myths, it doesn’t seem like her creators were Greek, and her writers didn’t really bother for accuracy when it comes to those myths. On the other hand, Christianity is so influential to Western culture and its history that Christ figures show up all over the place in our stories. We’ve already talked about how Disney’sHercules draws from Greek myths but still turns Hercules into a Christ figure. Nearly all fictional Christ figures are male. So while making Wonder Woman into a Christ figure doesn’t do much for Greek mythology, it breaks new ground in the way we can understand what a Christ figure can be.
Comics and religion don’t often mix, and that’s why it was so surprising when the new Ms. Marvel burst onto the scene and became such a smash hit. Kamala Khan (i.e., the current Ms. Marvel) and her Muslim family and friends provide a respectful, realistic portrayal of a family of faith that anyone from a religious background—especially one grounded in a strong family and ethnic tradition—can relate to. Of course such a story could have been written about any religious family, because the same thing could have come across if the Khans had been Greek Orthodox Christians like my family, or Polish Catholics, or Orthodox Jews, or Indian Hindus, etc. etc. But it’s extremely important that the series instead chooses to normalize a family of darker-skinned Muslims, as they have been such a persecuted group in the Western world lately. Realizing that a group different from your own is, in fact, simply human Just Like You is the first step in encouraging empathy and in changing attitudes, and Ms. Marvel does a great job with that. Now, I’m not Muslim, nor do I know an awful lot about Islam. I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a priest for a father, and I grew up hearing some very Islamophobic opinions from him. It took me a long time to get over that, but it wasn’t until reading Ms. Marvel that I realized that Orthodox Christians and Muslims might actually have a lot more in common than I thought. It’s also just lovely to have representation of a religious character in comics, in which faith is organically woven into the story without being preachy or just surface-level!
Note that I’ve only read through the latest trade paperback of the series (Volume 6, up to issue #12 of the current run). But Saika tells me these points still hold for the latest issues. Mild spoilers up to my current stopping point below!
So, while the creators have been saying it since day one, it was still startling that The Leftovers ended last week without definitively explaining the Great Departure. The event was the show’s central mystery: in an instant, two percent of the world’s population vanished without a trace. Since much of the series was about the struggle to understand the Departure and find meaning in a world where such things can happen, it was a bold choice to, shall we say, let the mystery be.
This is significant, not only in light of the show’s thematic work around doubt and anxiety, but also in the current era of television, where audiences endlessly focus on solving riddles and then angrily demand answers for ambiguous moments.