Doctor Who is one of those shows that has a complicated relationship with religion. New Who seems to be written by people who are either mostly ignorant of religion or hostile to it (or both). After all, the Doctor is the great modern champion of science and reason. He’s the enemy of ignorant assimilation, and what better manifestation of ignorant assimilation is there than organized (read: Christian) religion? It’s offensive to religious people, sure, but the science vs faith trope is too juicy for most sci-fi to pass up. So it’s no wonder that when Doctor Who does decide to play with religious ideas, things go haywire. For example, take the idea of a soul. Lots of religions and philosophies have different ideas about what a soul is, and yet instead of sticking to just one, Doctor Who just uses the vaguest idea of what it might mean, whenever it’s convenient.
Last week, Lady Geek Girl asked whether it was ethical to keep droids as servants, in the Star Wars universe. Her answer centers around the idea of souls, and whether droids might qualify as soul-bearing beings. Ultimately, she concluded, it doesn’t matter if they have souls, these machines need to be treated with dignity and respect.
I’d like to expand on the idea, because it’s a good one. If we assume souls exist and are part of what makes us fully human, then we have to deal with the question of non-human beings that exhibit traits that philosophers like to assign to souls. Our favorite geeky genres are a great place to experiment with a lot of these ideas, with all sorts of beasts and beings with all kinds of abilities. So if you’ll indulge me for a few moments, I’d like to take a look at how droids are basically the Harry Potter house-elves of the Star Wars universe, and what that could mean about their place in their own universe.
Not long ago I asked the question of whether or not robots and androids have souls by primarily focusing on Avengers: Age of Ultron. But after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a different questioned popped into my mind: is it ethical to use droids as servants? For this question, we will have to discuss the subject of souls once again, as well as some other interesting factors. From a religious perspective, this has certain consequences and could paint our heroes to some extent as extremely problematic.
Who has a soul? The question seems pretty simple when we first think about it, but can get complicated very quickly. Do animals have souls? Unborn fetuses? Plants? The soul is a tricky thing to discuss, largely because there is no way for us to truly quantify or fully understand the soul. People who are religious tend to think of the soul from everything as the spirit that lives on after your death to that spark of God that truly makes you you. Most people will say that living things have souls. But what about your computer? Does it have a soul? This is a question that sci-fi authors have asked about robots and/or androids over the years. Can something man-made have a soul in a similar way that a human does? Is it something more than an inanimate object or more like a human being? Age of Ultron is one recent movie that gives us a glimpse of this issue.
Spoilers after the jump.
Selling your soul in exchange for something is a plot trope older than the story of Johann Faust. In pop culture it’s primarily conceived of in Christian terms—sell your soul to the devil, and you’ll never get to heaven but you’ll have something you want on earth, whether that’s fame, talent, love, money, or some other fifth option.
People’s motivations in selling their souls are tremendously varied. Although we usually conceive of the sellers in these transactions as selfish and impatient (why wait for a potential eternal reward when you can get what you want now), but in reality a lot of the stories about these demonic bargains have their roots in tales as varied as revenge, romance, filial love, and desperation.
So let’s look at some of these situations, starting with Supernatural. Although I know we consistently beat this poor show to death nearly weekly in OMPCJ, it’s really the show’s own fault for being such a wealth of religious themes. Anyway, in Supernatural souls are hot currency. These exchanges are usually made at a crossroads, but any demon can make a deal, and the Winchesters are really, really bad at avoiding them. Over the course of the show John’s sold his soul to bring back Dean, Dean’s sold his soul to bring back Sam, Sam tried and failed to get a refund for that, Bobby ‘pawned’ his soul to find Death and get his legs back, Mary unknowingly sold off Sam to bring back John… A big antagonist/sometime ally in the show is Crowley, a demon who is King of the Crossroads, and a masterful dealer when it comes to getting what he wants in the fine print. Supernatural soul-selling is a value-neutral transaction—people from all walks of life can and do sell their souls for any and all reasons, but when the main characters knowingly do so, it tends to be last-act-of-a-desperate-man stuff, seized upon when there are no other viable options left. And collecting on these deals is unpleasant: once whatever terms you and your demon financier agreed upon have been fulfilled, if your soul’s in the balance, you’re dragged to hell for eternity by hellhounds. Fun.
Next let’s diverge from our usual pop-culture fare and look at a musical. A soul-based transaction is at the heart of the conflict in the show Once on this Island. A peasant girl named Ti Moune discovers a wounded nobleman who has crashed his car in a storm. She falls in love with him, and bargains her life against his to keep Papa Ge, the god of death, from claiming his soul. Ti Moune also dies at the end, but the force of her love so impresses Papa Ge and the other gods that they treat her kindly in death and let her legacy of love live on. This is an interesting take on the demon-deal trope, as it’s not set in a primarily Judeo-Christian mythos.
Finally, let’s look at the manga that inspired me to choose this topic: Black Butler. This story focuses on Earl Ciel Phantomhive, a sharp and proud young boy who was sold into slavery after his parents were mysteriously murdered. He makes a deal with the demon Sebastian Michaelis to gain the power to seek revenge on his parents’ murderer: Sebastian will serve him as a butler and help him achieve his vengeance, and then Sebastian gets to consume Ciel’s soul. This story is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, the way the story is told, we as an audience support Ciel’s decision to make the deal and root for him to fulfill his mission (which of course will end in his death and damnation). Secondly, the terms of the deal are interesting as well; in this story, the demon is totally willing to be subservient to Ciel for as long as it takes, and he is faultlessly loyal to his master, staying by his side for the duration of their agreement. There is no fine print or loopholes in their deal from out of which Sebastian tries to sneak.
What other soul-selling storylines exist in pop culture? A fiddle of gold against your soul you’ll tell me in the comments 😉
That’s all for this week’s Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus! Tune in next time and get some religion!