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.
Catholicism has a long history of belief in exorcisms, and while many people today may not believe in exorcism, for other Catholics, it is still a very real thing. Exorcisms are also a favorite trope of Hollywood horror films and TV shows, especially during the month of October. However, exorcisms have some issues in regards to ableism and sexism, and the movies rarely seem to want to explore those issues.
Trigger warning for discussions of ableism and disability below.
If any of you have followed my posts in this Sunday column for a while, you’ve probably noticed that one of my favorite subjects to harp on is that by and large, science fiction does an absolutely atrocious job of authentically representing religion. Most of us have come to expect that if religion even shows up at all in a story, it’s likely an evil strawman of some kind of Christianity: really a parody of 1950s Roman Catholicism. If we’re lucky enough to deviate from that, we get a generic “Eastern Religion”. It’s even less common to read science fiction that takes faith-based issues and conflicts seriously. Take theodicy, for example. It’s a tricky topic but in short, it’s the theological discipline that attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. In many ways theodicy attempts to address some of the most serious objections to faith in a loving, powerful God. So when a priest recommended I read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, I was happy to not only find an authentic representation of religious belief, but a deeply moving treatment of the problem of evil and divine providence in a faith-based context.
Spoilers for The Sparrow and triggers for rape, cannibalism, sexual slavery, body horror, and disturbing content below.
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.
A few years ago I came across the comic Sky Doll. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish it because it was overtly sexual, and that’s not really my cup of tea, but the story and the characters were interesting so I read it all anyway. One of the most fascinating topics the comic addressed was the religious war between the two female popes (papesses), Agape and Lodovica. They were both meant to represent aspects of religion, yet they didn’t unite people together. Their church tried separating the spiritual side of religion from the carnal side, and it caused pandemonium and chaos for everyone on their planet. Sky Doll shows what happens when people misinterpret the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law (and vice versa).
Spoilers ahead! Also trigger warning for blood and nudity.
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.
Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of the most popular films of the Disney Renaissance. It’s famously dark, and Judge Claude Frollo might be the most evil Disney Villain of all time. And that makes sense: Victor Hugo’s original gothic novel makes the Disney film look like a heartwarming bedtime story. One of the things I love most about the movie is its complex portrayal of religion. My fellow authors point out how it contains both positive and negative portrayals of religious beliefs and people. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame contains more just a few Catholic characters; we also see some relatively faithful portrayals of Romani beliefs, too.
Here is a question that you’ve probably never thought about (and probably don’t want to know the answer to): What would the Catholic Church say about sex between humans and sentient non-humans? Aliens, faeries, werewolves; in much of sci-fi/fantasy/horror, humans are getting busy with some non-human being. And while that is all well and good, I always kind of wonder: if this were real, what would my church have to say about it?