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.
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.
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.