Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Trickster Gods and Pop Culture

MCU Loki

Trickster gods may seem like a strange thing to some people. After all, why would you believe in a deity who would mess with you for laughs? Pagan trickster gods may occasionally seem malevolent, but they actually serve an important role. In pop culture, trickster gods are often used to critique the powers that be and question the status quo.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The 100 and That Old-Time Religion

The 100 Clarke looking at PolisThere aren’t many shows on television anymore that I enjoy as much as CW’s The 100. Ace has been following the series here since it began, and I’m only just getting caught up. The 100 offers a kind of teenage/YA dystopian escapism that my preteen self would have obsessed over, plus an imaginary boyfriend to boot (Hello, Nurse Bellamy!). Who cares if we never figure out how the characters maintain their never-ending supply of mascara when we have issues to tackle like turf wars and privilege and racism and sexuality? Among these, I had hoped that religion would be handled thoughtfully, but the result is pretty meh. Nevertheless, The 100 gives us a pretty good example of some typical science fiction religion tropes, and how religion can function in ways that help (and hurt) the quality of the story.

Spoilers for The 100 through Season 3 Episode 8, “Thirteen.”

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Faith-Fueled Gods in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Sandman

Most religious people believe in a god or gods that exist independently of humans, and that do not need anything in particular from humans in order to keep on existing. Some people believe their god or gods predate the existence of sentient life, or even of the universe itself. Neil Gaiman likes to play around with this idea of belief in deities. In particular, in his comic series The Sandman and in his book American Gods, he posits a surprising (to people of faith) scenario: what if gods exist only because people believe in them?

This has some fascinating implications for human (and, in Sandman, other sentient being) agency. It essentially grants superhuman strength to human belief, empowering us to control our own destinies. On the other hand, this premise also opens a whole bunch of cans of worms. It directly contradicts many faiths’ theology and causes issues with causality. Perhaps most chillingly, however, it introduces a degree of moral relativism that could (and in the stories, does) lead to unjust consequences.

Mild spoilers for the Sandman series and American Gods below.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Bad News—The Anti-Gospel of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist

Happy Women’s History Month! I figured what better time to bring up an old, dark current in human history—a question as absurd to our modern sensibilities as it was ubiquitous to earlier generations: Are women evil? Now, I’m not going to attempt to go through an exhaustive historical catalog of theological and philosophical sources that have answered this question (unfortunately, often in the affirmative). But let’s turn to one particular stream of thought: Gnosticism. The religions under the umbrella of Gnosticism are characterized by a dualistic cosmology that pits the physical, material world against the heavenly, spiritual world, the former being seen as profane and corrupt, the latter being seen as good and holy. Unfortunately for women, they were seen as by nature being more closely tied to the passionate, material world, whereas men were seen as being more closely tied to the rational, spiritual world. Can’t sum it up better than this line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

Though Gnosticism never won out as a normative expression of Christianity, some of its dualistic thinking about gender and sexuality continued to inspire later thinkers in church history. For this post, I want to focus on just one iteration of the idea: the haunting, psychosexual nightmare of a film by Danish screenwriter and director Lars von Trier, entitled Antichrist. I remember first reading about the film on some internet click-bait page of “the most shocking horror movies” or something like that; and it is indeed shocking. A quick list of adjectives I’d use to describe the film include: brutal, savage, delirious, perverse. Yet the cinematography has a sinister, aching beauty that makes it a morbid pleasure to watch for fans of artsy horror films. With a cast of just two main actors (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, of all people) in incredibly intense performances, and backed by a research team that includes consultants on subjects from theology, anxiety, and misogyny to “mythology and evil”, horror films, and psychotherapy, it is an unexpected, unforgettable look at the age-old question: Are women evil? Spoilers below.

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A Witch Talks The Witch Part 2

Thomasin witchWelcome back, dear reader. You might be thinking, “That last The Witch post was so long; this guy has more to say?!” I do, in fact. While I tried to walk the reader through the muddled plot of the film in that post, this one will be a more personal, philosophical response to the film. I fear most people will leave the film simply saying to themselves, “That wasn’t scary enough!” and then shrug and forget about it; however, I also think there will be a sizeable portion who will lose sleep trying to ask themselves, “What does it all mean?!” I certainly fall into the second camp, and it is with particular urgency I ask myself that question. As one of the people in the world seeking to claim a connection on some level with the word “witch”, it is important to me to try to decipher as much as I possibly can, to pick the film to the bone for every last scrap of meaning, since the word “witch” is being flashed before the public imagination. It’s important to me to ask what it means that the film goes with the late medieval and early modern conception that witchcraft and Satanism are one and the same. Heck, the film was even endorsed by the Satanic Temple. Is the devil truly inextricably linked to witchcraft? Are witches damned, and if so what does that mean? Let’s take a look.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Shadowhunters, Faith, and Prejudice

The Mortal Instruments ShadowhuntersNothing makes me angrier than when a fantasy story uses religious elements but ignores everything about the faith those elements come from. There is a way that such a thing can be done well, but often fantasy writers seem to cherry pick religious elements and then don’t discuss the religious implications that come with those elements. We see this all the time in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where vampires can be repelled with crosses, but nothing about why that works is ever discussed. Or in shows like Supernatural, where various gods exist all at once, but for reasons that make little sense, the Abrahamic deity and other beings like angels are more powerful than the pagan gods. I am seeing this same thing again in the TV show Shadowhunters. I don’t remember the books very well, but I vaguely remember that they did not do any better with the religious elements either. For example, despite being half angel, Jace claims he doesn’t believe in angels in the books.The TV show doesn’t have this issue when it comes to religious elements, but it does have other problems that need to be addressed. And not addressing the religious baggage that these elements bring to the table actually contradicts the message of the overall story.

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A Witch Talks The Witch Part 1

Gentle reader, if you follow the blog closely enough to be somewhat familiar with the various authors, you might know that I consider myself something of a witch. Though I have at times tried to elucidate my spiritual leanings with descriptors such as “eclectic post-Wiccan shamanic neo-Pagan, with influences from Hinduism to Hellenism”, I find “witch” rolls off the tongue a little easier. Something about the richness of the word “witch”, the dark, damp, fertile history of the word, is one of various things that first brought me to Wicca so many years ago. Though at times I waver closer to or further from the word, I find it difficult to imagine a time when I no longer have any connections whatsoever to this potent word and its associated practices. So when I first saw word of The Witch spreading around the interwebs, my interest was piqued. The Wiccan Boom the 1990s promised me never came to pass, so there’s been a dearth of witchy media since Charmed went off the air, except for the recent fiasco that was Witches of East End. This was the first time I’d seen a movie with such an explicitly witch-themed title getting press and interest since The Craft. On top of that, even Stephen King voiced his approval on Twitter! Of course I had to check it out.

the witch movie posterAnd check it out I did. I was hesitant to write a post about it after my first viewing; it conjured up (pun intended) so many thoughts and feelings, I worried I wouldn’t be able to make anything resembling coherence out of the juices of my mind grapes. But after a couple of days of processing, a second viewing, and hours of bouncing ideas around with my fellow author MikelyWhiplash (including the possibility of whether or not Taylor Swift is a witch), I think I just might be ready to tackle this haunting work of cinema. Did I like it? Hard to say: it is visually a macabre pleasure to watch, and I think it’s important for bringing witches back to the popular imagination. Enter with me the world of The Witch. Verily yon wood be filled with witches, and also spoilers.

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