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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What Would Steve Rogers Do?

On December 20, 1940, Captain America #1 went on sale, and the world learned the name Steve Rogers. The United States was nearly a year away from declaring war on Nazi Germany, but famously, Steve Rogers debuted with a right hook to Hitler’s jaw.


Despite the star-spangled costume and the hyper-patriotic code name, Steve never falls into the traps of American jingoism. He resiliently stands for the better angels of our nature, and for the highest ideals of the American experiment.

Last Friday night, a terrible crime was committed in Paris. As frightened citizens and visitors sought shelter, Parisians responded with the social media hashtag #PorteOuverte—open door—offering their homes to anyone who needed to get off the streets during that dark night. But an ocean away, twenty-six American governors gave in to the opposite urge, closing their doors to refugees fleeing the same evil.

In this world, in this America, Steve Rogers will return to theaters with Captain America: Civil Warstanding tall as a frightened world demands registration and monitoring of super heroes. And as cowardice and bigotry threaten fundamental American values, it’s time again to turn to the Star-Spangled Man.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Rick, Morty, God, and the Devil

gif via reddit

gif via reddit

Rick and Morty has quickly become one of my favorite geeky TV shows. Considering some of the more nihilistic inspirations and the atheist beliefs of most (if not all) of the characters, you would think that there wouldn’t be much to talk about in the way of religion. Actually, though, there are several episodes that very clearly address the idea of religion. Obviously all of them are extremely critical of religion and of religious people, but never in a way that comes off to me (as a religious person) as offensive. Furthermore, the show deals with the very real question that I think a lot of people eventually ask themselves: does God exist? Rick does use science and reason to often disprove what people believe to be God or some other form of mystical power, but Rick himself also actively knows that things like the devil and curses exist, and while he doesn’t seem open to God necessarily, he does seem to be open to learning about things beyond his original understanding.

Spoilers for Rick and Morty through the end of Season 2 below.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Nightmare Before Religious Syncretism

nightmare before ChristmasOne of my favorite Halloween movies is The Nightmare Before Christmas. I’m a sucker for Tim Burton and the music of Danny Elfman, and when you combine it with Christmas cheer and Halloween gothic macabre, you basically get the best Christmas/Halloween crossover extravaganza ever. But because over-analyzing things is my third-favorite hobby (next to soul-harvesting and baking), I got to thinking: could there be something more behind our stop-motion miniatures? I think there might be. The Nightmare Before Christmas is rich with lore and depth, and can serve as a cautionary tale against religious syncretism.

Religious syncretism is different from cultural appropriation. Usually cultural appropriation involves a “dominant” culture borrowing important or sacred elements from an oppressed culture for frivolous reasons. A non-Native American wearing a war bonnet as a costume or fashion accessory is a kind of cultural appropriation, because war bonnets are important spiritual and political objects worn by Native American men in tribes from the Plains region. The non-Native wearer doesn’t understand or care to understand the significance of the object. Religious syncretism involves the successful or unsuccessful melding of two belief systems, and is intimately connected with meaning. It’s precisely Jack’s search for meaning that moves him from cultural appropriation to attempting religious syncretism.

Spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas below, of course.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: The Leftovers Season 2

I first came aboard this blog, oh so many moons ago, with The Leftovers, HBO’s enigmatic drama about life after the rapture-like Departure. Somehow, we’re just now getting to Season 2.

You’re probably not watching this show. Most people are not watching this show. But you should be watching this show. Yes, the name makes it hard to find on Tumblr, unless you’re equally interested in tips on spicing up last night’s dinner.


I am!

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Bonus: the Ninth Doctor is in it! Remember how we all used to love that show with that guy?

Season 2 uproots the cast from suburban New York to the small town of Jarden, Texas—the only place on Earth where not a single person was taken away. The Leftovers shares a creator with Lost, and both shows are famously stingy with the solutions to their riddles. So there are no answers to be found one episode into season two, but there are an awful lot of mysteries, with the same dark, Biblical imagery that powered the first season.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy, & Christianity

One thing in our culture that has always bothered me was this idea that sexual repression and Christianity go hand in hand. This idea states that if you are a Christian, you aren’t allowed to express your sexuality in a healthy way. Typically this means that you can only be a married heterosexual couple who only have sex in the missionary position. So if someone ever convinces someone who was (or in some cases still is) a strong Christian to start having sex, they’ll unleash a wild, sexually deviant person because of all that desire the Christian had to repress for so long. There are so many problems with this notion. It simultaneously makes both people who want to stay virgins and people who enjoy certain fetishes into “weird unhealthy people”, neither of which is the case.

Rocky HorrrorYou can see a very clear example of this in one of my favorite musicals: Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie certainly isn’t entirely bad or evil or anything; I love Rocky Horror Picture Show and I watch it all the time during Halloween. But it’s definitely highly problematic because the show really exemplifies the virgin-whore dichotomy.

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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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