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!
A while back, I wrote a post on Shiva as presented in the Final Fantasy series. To make a long story short, Final Fantasy isn’t very accurate. Nevertheless, its use of Shiva still got me interested in the original mythology. The same is true for a lot of the other summons, and so I thought it would be fun to look into their source material as well. Shiva has appeared in just about every game I’ve played, but another commonly recurring summon is Ifrit, a demon-like entity with awesome fire powers. Based on Middle Eastern stories, Ifrit’s use is nowhere near as culturally appropriative as Shiva’s, if only because Ifrit is not a deity at the center of a particular faith. Its presentation is still not quite accurate, so let’s delve into the differences between its use in Final Fantasy and Middle Eastern lore.
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.
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.
I can’t remember how I discovered the Millennial Gospel on Tumblr, but now that I have, I don’t know what my life would be like without it. As someone who studied theology and is a feminist active in social justice, it is sometimes difficult for me to find people who feel the way I do when it comes to God. It’s difficult for me to find people who believe Christ would be marching on the streets in Ferguson, telling someone off for slut-shaming, or chastising churches for their hostile attitudes toward the queer community. So imagine my surprise when I found the blogs of two lovely ladies who were embarking on a project to show what the radical nature of God’s love would, or should, look like today. This is exactly what the Millennial Gospel is.
The being was ten feet tall, radiant, so bright against the sunrise that she couldn’t look directly at it at first. When she did she could see that some of its eyes were solid white and others more humanoid. In two of its hands it held – her old backpack, the one she wore to class at the community college, until she was chosen in the Intern Lottery and took a leave of indefinite absence, the one she lent her girlfriend when her girlfriend’s got covered in ectoplasm and needed dry cleaning just before Poetry Week.
The angel knelt so that it could gently place the backpack in front of her. Its face, or what was the best approximation of its face, tilted down so it could meet Dana’s eye level. In a voice that sounded like the most grief-filled rejoicing, or the most joyful of all grieving, it said to her, I was. I’m sorry.
Welcome to Night Vale is definitely one of my favorite fandoms, especially when it comes to fanfiction. This is because while Night Vale already has a diverse cast of characters, fanfiction writers make things even more diverse and intersectional. The above excerpt is from known and be known by raven_aorla, which focuses on interns Dana and Vithya.
Let’s face it: most religions, both in real life and pop culture, seem to be made up of a hierarchy of men leading other men.But mostreligions actually have many important influential and powerful female figures, yet upsettingly, they are often ignored, forgotten, or even rewritten in order to maintainsexist notions about women.
Now you might be thinking, how is geek culture in particular going to incorporate female religious figures? Exactly the same way geek culture interprets male religious figures. Sometimes literal angels or gods are featured in movies or TV shows. Sometimes characters symbolically or allegorically represent one of these figures. There is no reason that female religious figures can’t receive the same treatment as the male ones.
So here are, in no particular order, my top five female religious figures that need to be incorporated more into our pop culture.
You probably heard back in November that a new character was taking on the moniker of “Ms. Marvel.” That character is one Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim superheroine from New Jersey, the creation of two artists/writers who are themselves Muslim (Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson). Kamala made her first appearance in Captain Marvel #14 back in August of last year and is a huge fan of Carol Danvers. In fact, according to Kelly Sue DeConnick, “she is very deliberately placed in a position where she sees Carol protecting civilians from Yon-Rogg.”When Kamala discovers her own powers, she chooses to adopt the Ms. Marvel title in honor of her idol.
Kamala’s first 2014 appearance and her formal debut as Ms. Marvel was in All-New Marvel NOW! Point-One #1, a comic that served as an intro for a number of characters. She now headlines the third volume of Ms. Marvel, which will debut in February. So why am I talking about this? It’s not like she’s the first Muslim superhero on a major imprint, because we’ve had Simon Baz. She’s not even the first Muslim female superhero, if you count Dust, M St. Croix, Faiza Hussain, and others. Again, why am I talking about this?
Because she is so popular. Let me modulate that by saying that she’s popular among the set of people who read Captain Marvel comics, but Captain Marvel #17, in which she is featured, did completely sell out its initial run, inspiring hope for the success of Ms. Marvel Vol. 3. However, there’s a concern to be raised: Does Kamala Khan sell out issues because she’s a sellout? Put another way, is she really the counter to Islamophobia that Muaaz Khan of the Guardian claims her to be?
Earlier this month, the Catholic Church celebrated the Memorial feast of the guardian angels—it’s like a holiday to celebrate that spiffy angelic being given the job of poking you in the direction of Heaven. In honor of it, my mom planned a lesson for her fifth grade Sunday School class about what the Catholic Church thinks about angels, particularly guardian angels. Afterward, she told me that her students had all kinds of weird ideas about who and what angels are, none of which were really drawn from our own faith tradition at all.
You see, most people in America tend to think of angels as cute baby cupids from old, beautiful art, and as beautiful people who fly around, sit on clouds, and play the harp. They also tend to think that nice people turn into angels when they die, so that they can watch over us. But while those first two ideas clearly come from artistic representations of angels throughout history, the idea that humans turn into angels when they die really doesn’t have much religious basis… in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. In the big three Abrahamic religions, angels (and demons, also known as fallen angels) are completely separate created beings. To any of these religions, it’s a bit like saying a dog turns into a human when it dies—it just doesn’t work in any of our cosmologies. And while it’s a nice, comforting idea that angels are beautiful, harp-playing souls of the much-loved departed, at the end of the day it’s a rather boring concept. Comforting, yes, but boring. But why must we stop at boring? Even if we don’t want to get our ideas of angels directly from religious faith, there are plenty of much more interesting examples of angels in pop culture.