Geek culture really has a thing for nuns. Specifically, Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) women who have made vows to live in community with one another in order to pray and do good works while living a chaste, simple lifestyle. But geek culture doesn’t like nuns for the right reasons. Whenever nuns pop up in geek media, they almost always function as some kind of trope-filled plot device. They look more like the writer’s idea of what a nun is, and less like real nuns. If nuns were depicted accurately, they’d be a great source for feminist characters and plotlines.
Contributors to this blog have generally been pretty excited about the BBC America show Orphan Black, which returns for its second season this month. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Orphan Black follows the lives of several human clones, all born under mysterious circumstances and secretly monitored their whole lives for the sake of science—until they become aware and start fighting back. I loved the first season just as other writers here did, but I think the religious extremist and antagonist, Helena, needs some deeper exploration. Spoilers below.
Belief is a funny thing. When most people talk about belief, they’re usually taking about believing in things that are intangible; things like religion, a cause, or a greater good. Belief is often closely tied to faith. It’s a bit strange to talk about belief in terms of something we can touch or measure, because that kind of belief requires a simple glance over the evidence staring us in the face. It doesn’t really take any effort on our part to agree that something is true when a scientist or other expert has done all the work for us. The more interesting kind of belief requires some component of faith. A large part of faith is believing in something greater than oneself. This sort of belief is crucial to some of the most popular stories in fantasy and science fiction, from Peter Pan to Doctor Who to Serenity to The Hunger Games. It’s this kind of faith in something greater than oneself that gives true power to the characters in these works.
Spoilers for all three Hunger Games books, Doctor Who, and Serenity below.
Since the Divergent movie came out this weekend (Luce reviewed the trailer here), I figured now would be a good time to discuss the trilogy’s religious implications. And no, I’m not going to go on about how the main character Tris is a Christ figure, because once again, that’s too obvious. But it’s well-known that Divergent trilogy author Veronica Roth is a Christian, and her beliefs come through in her books more clearly than they do for a lot of other authors. Specifically, while reading the second book Insurgent, I found a lot of references that sounded Protestant to me. Let’s take a look at how the whole trilogy holds up against a specific Protestant framework, the Five Points of Calvinism. Spoilers for the entire Divergent trilogy after the jump.
Many of you who used to read my Supernatural reviews know that I am no longer watching the show because I could no longer handle its rampant racism, sexism, and constant queerbaiting. But as always, Supernatural finds ways to drag me back in, and it started when I saw this gifset and realized that Supernatural made Cain the good guy and Abel the bad guy in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Now, even in a very secular society, I think most people know this isn’t how the story of Cain and Abel goes. I know it works better with Supernatural’s mythology and I suppose that the writers assumed that they were being clever by revealing the Biblical character everyone thinks is evil as good, but actually following the original Biblical narrative would have been more profound.
Let me explain.
It’s that time of year again—that time when people put up trees in their houses, visit relatives we don’t plan on seeing for at least another year, and gather ’round the television for the plethora of Christmas specials invading our regularly scheduled programming. Most of these specials have a common theme: the true meaning of Christmas. But the thing is, we can’t seem to agree on what that meaning really is.
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.
So not too long ago, I was watching The Colbert Report and was treated to something awesome: an interview with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is the current head of the United States Catholic Council of Bishops (USCCB). Colbert and Dolan seem to actually be pretty good friends and did a talk at Fordham University called The Cardinal and Colbert: Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life. This has nothing to do with anything geeky, so why am I bringing it up? Stephen Colbert hasn’t hidden the fact that he’s a devout and proud Catholic. And, in my opinion, he is one of the most positive examples of a Catholic on TV today.
We have talked before about shows like Supernatural blending religions together in a way that usually ends up being incredibly offensive to any religion that isn’t Christianity. In Supernatural, the most notable episode depicting this poor blending of religions is “Hammer of the Gods.” In this episode, all the gods from every other religion are not only shown as being less powerful than the Christian God, but also less powerful than even the Christian angels. At the end of the episode, viewers are treated to Lucifer murdering all the other gods. This blending and combining of often dissimilar beliefs into one belief is called syncretism. When shows like Supernatural attempt to blend religions together, they are attempting syncretism, though the writers don’t often do it well.
Syncretism mainly happens in three different ways. In the case of religion, it can be used to recognize your own beliefs and hold them to be true while still recognizing another person’s beliefs to be true. In the ancient world, this was shown in the way that each city and/or country believed in and worshiped its own god(s), but another country could have their own god(s). The people of each country were devoted to
their own gods, but they still believed that other countries’ gods existed. It was often believed that if two countries went to war, their gods would fight each other to prove which country was more powerful. In fact, followers of ancient Judaism did not believe their God was the only god until about five hundred years before Jesus was born. This use of syncretism allowed people to keep believing in their own gods while still accepting that others may be devoted to different, but no less real, gods—though ancient people also often believed their god was better than another person’s. So although different people were allowed to believe in different gods, this was not a harmonious system as the various gods and beliefs were often in conflict with each other for supremacy. The second form of syncretism is the fusion of religions. This is best shown in the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Christians combined their own beliefs with the beliefs of pagans in order to make Christianity and paganism more compatible and attractive to converts, but also to eventually erase paganism. Christians put holidays like Christmas and Easter during the same times as holidays like Yule and the Spring Equinox. All Saints Day notably almost replaced All Hallows Eve (Halloween) in Europe for a time. Catholic and Orthodox saints were used to replace many pagan pantheons as well. Obviously, Christians didn’t entirely erase paganism by doing this, but after years of syncretism in certain areas, pagan beliefs began to fade away and were replaced by Christianity.
And finally there is the syncretism that is employed by many Wiccans, Pagans, and Neo-Pagans. While some pagans are devoted to one particular pantheon, some believe that all gods and goddesses are different aspects of the God and Goddess. This is more harmonious than the first form of syncretism that I described, because it does not put all the gods in conflict with each other and allows for an easier blending of beliefs. There are also religious pluralists who believe that all religions have some element of the truth, but not the whole truth. In this way, they believe similarly that all gods reflect something of the true god(s).
So what does this have to do pop culture? Well, like in Supernatural, many TV shows, movies, books, and other forms of pop culture try to write about religion by using syncretism, but they don’t really do it right. But boy, do they try.
The horror genre really doesn’t get enough credit. But then, it’s also pretty hard to produce something that is genuinely scary for an audience over the age of twelve. It seems like most horror films have gone the gore route, manufacturing reactions of shock and revulsion to explicit violence. Others go for the “jump” scare, named for how it makes the audiences literally jump in their seats when the trope works. Older horror movies usually go the suspense route, slowly building up to a big reveal, where the monster is mostly in the mind of the audience. Usually the best horror movies use a combination of tactics to get that scare.
But on a more fundamental level, a large part of what makes a horror film or television show or book horrifying is an inversion. You take something meant to be good or happy or safe and you make it evil or sad or dangerous. Clowns causing fear and destruction. Dead people or animals coming back to life and not being fully alive. Sweet and innocent children turned serial killers. Horror ultimately makes us feel unsettled, makes us say that something is wrong, that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
Reversing religion is one of the more common and effective horror tropes. Religion is a group of beliefs and practices that are supposed to bring the believer comfort, assurance, and peace in the face of suffering and death. It’s the ultimate “good thing” for the believer, against the ultimate “bad thing.” Usually Supernatural is my go-to “horror” and “religious elements” show, but it doesn’t really work to illustrate my point about religious reversals. Religion is part of the setting, a tool to be used to “gank demons” and other nasty monsters that go bump in the night. In later seasons, angels and demons of varying shapes, sizes, and choirs become regular characters. Heaven and Hell and Purgatory are places in the Supernatural universe. In Supernatural, religion doesn’t function chiefly as religion; it functions as part of the universe itself. So instead, I’m going to look at two new shows: Orphan Black and Hannibal.