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.
After Harry Potter, I’d guess that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the second most controversial series of books, at least where the religious right is concerned. And with good reason: the two child protagonists ultimately set out to destroy God. The trilogy is commonly understood to be the anti-Narnia. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are a very clear Christian allegory, with heavy-handed Christian symbols and parallels to sacraments. But where Lewis created an obvious allegory, Pullman gives us something more akin to a philosophical position paper in story form. How good of a job does his trilogy do in tackling the problem of God?
Spoilers for His Dark Materials herein.
Lately I’ve noticed a lot more of those Native American memes as I scroll through my various web feeds (maybe it’s because Thanksgiving is coming up?). You know what I’m talking about—pretty little pictures of serene and wise (and sad) Native Americans with some kind of superimposed message about listening to your elders and/or being one with the Earth. For some reason, a significant number of people really love spreading those around (I’m looking at you, elderly relatives). I’m not really sure why—maybe it’s something to do with looking for meaning in an increasingly post-Christian world. There are so many problems with those little memes; I won’t go into them all here. But some filmmakers have taken on a similar attitude. How do film versions of Native American religious beliefs match up to the real thing?
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.
Most of you know (or have probably guessed) that I’m a practicing Catholic, studying theology, and hope to find gainful employment
harvesting the souls of the unwashed masses educating people in the Catholic Church. But as an intellectually honest Catholic, I admit that I don’t always suck down the slurry of “truth” cooked up by every person who deigns himself (or herself, but let’s be honest, it’s usually himself) an Authoritative Person™. My first real memory of this happened when I was fifteen, at a super famous brand of Catholic youth conference. The Authoritative Person™ was supposed to be talking about distractions that take away from your spiritual life. Instead, he spent a half hour talking about how Harry Potter is evil.
Naturally, my young, naïve self was shocked, scandalized, appalled… you get the idea. How dare he say that something that brought so much love and joy to my life was evil? Harry is a Christ figure, can’t he see that? So from then on I made it a personal crusade to show Catholics how Harry Potter is the opposite of harmful to our religious beliefs. Fast forward to today, where I’ve just finished my last class for my Master’s in Theology (barring a few papers, of course). This class was on canon law, and I’m going to show you how Harry Potter can explain one of the more potentially-confusing bits of canon law.