The Geek Will Inherit the Earth – Religion and Fandom

Church of latter day geeksBy Emmet O’Cuana

If your belief system is “Jedi” then answer as such on the census form. But if you would normally answer Anglican or Jewish or Buddhist or something else to the question “what is your religion?” and for the census you answer “Jedi” then this may impact on social services provision if enough people do the same. The 2001 Census, Religion and the Jedi, ABS.

The word fan has its root in fanatic. It dates from the pulp fiction era of the 1930s and the growth in the popularity of science fiction.

In anticipation of the impending release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with its ecstatic reception by the fan community online, I wondered if fandom was coming to share traits with personal belief. Is fandom a way of finding meaning in the world?

Over the course of interviews for this story, Rev Dr Avril Hannah-Jones and writer Karen Beilharz discussed Star Wars and other fandoms such as Doctor Who, Supernatural, Harry Potter and Buffy, as examples of fictional franchises that are intensely meaningful for their fans. Dr Hannah-Jones describes this process as a form of ‘deep exegesis’, a “willingness to discuss and debate and criticise and celebrate.” Are fandoms and, say, the Uniting Church’s approach to ecumenism, parallel consensus models of discussion?

Dr Hannah-Jones is a Uniting Church minister at Williamstown – Electra St, known for her ‘Church of Latter Day Geeks’ services. She strongly believes that these stories “ask questions about the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, what it means to be human, and whether there is something beyond the physical world”. For her, fandom is a source of community, something that dovetails with traditional religion.

“Every major natural disaster over the past few years has had fan communities raising money for groups like UNICEF. The care I’ve seen in fan communities is as profound as the care I’ve seen in the best of Christian communities.”

Author Karen Beilharz has written a series of comics exploring the theme of depression Kinds of Blue and recently launched her own sci-fi series Eternal Life. She also recognises the existence of fan exegesis in these communities. “Fans, like believers, like to congregate with others who share their passions, forming clubs with regular meetings much in the way that Christians gather in churches on Sundays,” Ms Beilharz said.

Does this represent a shift in values, of people finding in fandom something religion once provided?

“In Australia, at least, the secular alternatives to religion are sport and Anzac Day. Nothing else will ever compete with those two Australian ‘religions’,” Dr Hannah-Jones says, giving short shrift to the viral Jedi protest movement that gave the Australian Bureau of Statistics such a fright in 2001.

“I do think that fandom fills some sort of hole for some people – whether it be that need for community (something that churches used to provide), the need for narrative to explain or explore one’s life, or the need for something to ‘worship’,” Ms Beilharz said. “But it’s still different to religious belief. The function of fandom and the function of religion are still two very different things. Being a fan of Marvel’s Thor and a believer in Thor Norse god of thunder are completely different: the former does not necessarily believe that the object of his adoration is actually real, whereas the latter very much would. That belief would hold profound implications for the ways he lived his life.”

Beilharz insists while franchises like Star Wars, Buffy and Star Trek may touch on different philosophies in their narratives, “the main point is to entertain and transport”.

While George Lucas employed imagery of beatific goodness in a conflict against satanic evil, Star Wars lacks the allegorical substance of say the Narnia books.

“J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis both deliberately used fantasy to explore theological questions,” Dr Hannah-Jones said. She also cited the recent series of Doctor Who as an example of framing the concept of pacifism. “Science fiction is certainly a terrific vehicle for ideas and the exploration of those ideas”, agrees Ms Beilharz, “and Christianity has always questioned the world and why it holds to the things it does.”

Lucas was inspired by pulp science fiction, or as New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael noted he was “hooked on the crap of his childhood”. Now The Force Awakens feeds on the nostalgia of fans for the original films. It is a mythology of itself, a closed set of meaningful symbols. As such, divorced from the real world in a galaxy far, far away, can Star Wars be considered meaningful in a critical sense beyond what it tells us about its own fandom?

The challenge for Christian Churches, and science fiction, therefore is one and the same – to remain engaged in the world.

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