Fantastic Faiths and What We Can Learn From Them

October 27, 2021
Fantastic Faiths and What We Can Learn From Them

On the United Kingdom’s 2001 census, 390,000 people identified their religion as “Jediism.” Yup, you heard right. Jediism . . . as in Jedi Knights . . . the fictional peacekeepers from the Star Wars franchise.

As you can imagine, the “Jedi Census phenomenon” caused quite the stir. People wanted to know, was Jediism a “real” religion, or were the census answers, as many suspected, a joke. More on that at the end of this episode. But first...

In the abstract of her article in the Journal of Contemporary Religion, titled “Harry Potter and Contemporary Magic: Fantasy Literature, Popular Culture, and the Representation of Religion,” scholar Laura Feldt writes the following:

“Fantasy literature and other popular culture that represents and mediates religious expressions and phenomena actively contribute to the reconfiguration of, and communication about, religion in contemporary society and are thus of consequence for what we understand ‘religion’ to be in the study of religions.”

Feldt is suggesting that when fantasy media (so film, tv, streaming, etc.) co-opts (or appropriates) “real” religion into some fantastic world, “real” religion—in the real world—is impacted.

This argument is striking. We know that fantasy and sci-fi use religion, but do they change actual religion in the process? Do they impact how we believe, what we believe, and even the nature of belief itself?

Listen to the episode:

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat. In this episode, we’re going to investigate why fantasy and sci-fi stories use religious elements and even create full religions of their own.

Podcast intern Gianna Cacciatore speaks with Harvard Divinity School Professor Charles Stang, who’s also the director of HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions. Professor Stang teaches the bingeworthy Harvard course, “Aliens, Artificial Intelligence, and Apocalypse: Ancient Mythology and Contemporary Film.”

We spoke with Professor Stang to try and make sense of fantasy and sci-fi’s connections to “real world” faiths and to unpack the messages they send. We’ll also examine whether they appropriate or appreciate, respect or denigrate.

But first, we need to talk about Gnosticism. Here’s Gianna.

Gianna Cacciatore: So in your class, it looks like you talk about how many of today's blockbuster science fiction films co-opt this ancient spirituality called Gnosticism. So what is that?

Charles Stang: What is Gnosticism. Well, Gnosticism is a category, an imperfect category that scholars have used to group together ancient religious, texts, traditions, and in some cases, actual practicing groups.

For my purposes, the most important feature of Gnosticism is a distinctive mythology in which it's imagined that we are essentially captured in a world made by an ignorant or malevolent deity that is not the highest god or deity, but some sort of derivative god who has created this world and imprisoned our consciousness in it for his own purposes. And part of the mythology explains how we came into that predicament, which is an elaborate cosmic drama. But also, the mythology includes paths for our awakening, liberation, and resistance to that malevolent or ignorant deity.

GC: OK. Let’s talk about what this looks like in contemporary film, in the classic example. Let’s talk about The Matrix.

CS: One obvious place in The Matrix to go is the scene in which Morpheus presents with the two pills, the red pill and the blue pill. And the red pill promises the truth and, to some degree, liberation. But it's a cruel and challenging truth, which he can't tell Neo beforehand. Neo has to experience it. We know the scene where when Neo takes the red pill, he essentially awakens in this horrific dystopian prison where he's being harvested like a battery, as is all of humanity, to serve the machines, this malevolent technological force.

And he's awakened. And then he's rescued by Morpheus and the others and then becomes part of this insurgent cell whose mission is to bring down the machines and their imprisonment of humanity. So that is, in some sense, the classic Gnostic myth updated for in a science fiction idiom. And I love The Matrix. I think it's a great movie.

But one feature of The Matrix that's interesting and important to note about is a way in which the films depart from the ancient text, is that the machines, not unlike in The Terminator movies, the machines are, of course, our own creation, right? So in a typical Gnostic myth, the humans awaken to realize they're imprisoned by some cosmic warden, the demiurge. In these reboots, humans often come to realize that they are the author of their own demiurge. We created the thing that is now imprisoning us.

And that's a really important innovation in the movies. And it clearly, in my mind, speaks to an anxiety we have today about the powers of our technologies and the ability to create worlds, and worlds in which we may not flourish, but worlds in which we may actually imprison ourselves.

GC: This is a side question, but I'm thinking it seems like all of these films are the '80s and forward. So do you think there's something particular about the '80s that caused these anxieties?

CS: I think it's a great question. I haven't gotten to the bottom of this, myself. But I used Tron as a kind of working—I have working hypothesis is like Tron is the first of these. And I when I think about the '80s I think about the fact that this is the explosion of the computer era, digital worlds, video games. The idea that we've created virtual worlds in which we might lose ourselves, that really lifts off in the '80s. And of course, we're still very much in that anxiety now as our virtual and digital worlds have gotten ever more sophisticated and their means of holding our attention have also become ever more sophisticated.

GC: I want to bring another sci-fi classic into this: Blade Runner. In the classic gnostic myth, you say, we humans are different than the demiurge, aka the malevolent God. But in the famous last scene of Blade Runner, with Deckard and Roy – I interpreted it as a moment of communion. Although the two characters represent the malevolent God (humans, in this story) and humanity (replicants), they realize that they're the same and they want the same things. You know, Roy dramatically lets that dove go free. Then, of course, Deckard and his robo-girlfriend escape, and the film ends on a happy note.

CS: Well, the kind of contest between Deckard and Roy depends a lot on what you think the very last scene of the director's cut means. Because all throughout the movie, you're led to believe that Deckard is a human who is a very successful Blade Runner. He hunts replicants. At the very end of the director's cut, it's suggested that his dream of a unicorn is known. But the other police officer, the other Blade Runner, leaves him an origami unicorn, suggesting that Deckard's dream of a unicorn is an implanted dream, suggesting that he's a replicant.

So if Deckard is a replicant, what that means—and that's, of course, that's the premise for Blade Runner 2049, that Deckard is a replicant. If Deckard's a replicant, then that means humans have not only created replicants to be basically an enslaved population, but then they use replicants to hunt replicants. They use replicants as Blade Runners. But what that changes is how we understand that encounter between Deckard and Roy. Because one possible read there is Roy understands perfectly well the Deckard is a replicant. And he's trying to get Deckard to wake up to the fact that he is one of them, that he is not just a human.

And so the way he torments him, one way to interpret that is he's trying to get Deckard to be conscious of who he is and his source. Now, the thing's that's fascinating – to go back to the demiurge for a moment in Blade Runner – is, of course, we created the replicants. Humans created replicants. But in all ways, these replicants seem to exceed us, except, possibly, their emotional fragility. And humans put these limits on their life so that the replicants don't essentially surpass us.

That seems to me, again, a remix of the classic gnostic idea that the demiurge creates humans, but doesn't realize that, in creating humans, he's creating something that is greater than himself, that the divine spark has passed through him into his creation, and that, essentially, the demiurge is not the center of the story. Humanity is the center of the story, even though we're in a position of imprisonment.

GC: I want to turn to another aspect of gnostic theology that we haven’t talked about yet, and that is the idea of the transcendent God. How does the transcendent God show up in these contemporary gnostic films?

CS: I'm in search of films that are willing to imagine, depict, or even gesture the transcendent. And by the transcendent, I mean the pleroma, the heavenly court or the divine court of beings that surround the divine source. Those seem to have been almost entirely stripped away in most of the movies, with very few exceptions.

GC: Why do you think that is?

CS: This is, I feel like, the million-dollar question here. And I think it has something to do with our anxiety that there is nothing greater than us, and that there are no worlds beyond this materialist world that we have become so adept at manipulating. I don't agree with that. I don't agree that there is nothing greater than us, nor that there is no world beyond our own. But I think the films are, in some sense, operating in a disenchanted metaphysics, which has stripped the transcendent out, which, in some sense, absolutely hamstrings the whole narrative because it's not clear what gnosis or awakening really delivers you into, other than, I now have to fight the forces of imprisonment. But it's not clear what you're fighting them for. It's not clear that where the kinship or the homecoming might happen.

GC: That’s a fairly miserable worldview these films are selling. It makes me think of fantasy series, like The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings, that intentionally put forth a Christian worldview. Does it seem to you that these films are advocating for a particular worldview, or a particular system of belief?

CS: Well, it's a question I pose in the class, to which I don't feel like I have a firm or settled answer. Essentially, what I pose in the class is the question, if popular culture film, television, is actually propagating a mythology and a mythology of a particular spirituality – let's call it Gnostic – then does our widespread viewing of these films, actually, is it inculcating a new spirituality? It's a genuine question. I don't know the answer to it.

In some sense, the question you're asking, and it's the question I have, is, what does popular culture actually do, what does mythology do to us? Are we really significantly shaped by it? Most people, I think, regard the Marvel world as a just sort of entertaining past-time, a diversion.

But when you think about the number of people who have watched it, their investment in the incredibly complicated story-line the characters, the anticipation of the next version, it feels like this might be something in which people are deeply invested and, therefore, might shape them in ways they might not even be aware of. And if these films that I'm talking about are really a kind of canon of a particular kind of mythology, I'm curious, are we being shaped by it, and how? And do we want to embrace that, or do we want to resist that?

CS: What I find fascinating about Dune is Dune is a story line projected far, far into the future at a time when humanity is spread out across the galaxy and has a vague and distant memory of its home on Earth. And yet, as far flung as it is, it's philosophical and religious imaginary is fed by the streams that are familiar to us from our world. So in some sense, it's saying, imagine that humanity still exists thousands and thousands of years from now. What will a religion look like down the road?

No doubt, it will have absorbed elements of Islam. It will have absorbed elements of Christianity. It will have absorbed elements of Roman imperial ideology, Ottoman imperial ideology. Even in some of the later books, some of the Asian religions kind of appear as threads that are still moving through the universe of Dune. So I don't know what to talk about. It's not about imagining cultural appropriation. It's imagining cultural diffusion and recombination moving forward thousands, and thousands, and thousands of years into our future.

It's as if somebody would write a novel from ancient Babylon and say, I wonder what Near Eastern mythology will look like 3,000 years from now? And what you get is something like American Evangelical Christianity or Hasidic Judaism. It's not obvious that would be the result of ancient Near Eastern mythology. But it is a descendant of ancient Near Eastern mythology. We live in it. It's also a descendant of contemporary Christianity as a descendant of, not only Near Eastern mythology, but all these other things that fed into that stream.

Similarly, I feel like Herbert tried to imagine, what would that world be? What would a civilization informed by religion look like thousands and thousands of years from now? And it's pretty thrilling, in my humble opinion.

Jonathan Beasley: So, fantasy co-opts religion, fantasy builds religion, fantasy teaches religion, and fantasy alters religion. Who knew being a nerd was so religiously loaded? As it turns out, a few people have always known. One of them is scholar Kath Filmer, who began her book, Skepticism and Hope in Twentieth Century Fantasy Literature, with the premise that “fantasy speaks religion.”

She writes: “Twentieth century fantasy has emerged from a long tradition of religion and philosophy, and it has adapted itself to provide gods and heroes whom readers might worship and in whom they might transcend themselves . . . fantasy speaks religion . . . it operates in the same space and uses the same devices as the discourse of religion, and does so largely to the same end: the articulation of hope.”

Thank you for listening to the Harvard Religion Beat. I’m Jonathan Beasley. A special thanks to our fantastically talented intern Gianna Cacciatore, who’s since left us for greener communications pastures. Thanks to the fabulous Caroline Cataldo for editing this episode. And a big, BIG thanks to our special guest Professor Charles Stang for his time and insight.

Oh, and as for the “Jedi Census phenomenon” I talked about earlier in this episode, in 2005, the Temple of the Jedi Order was registered in Texas and was granted IRS tax exemption in 2015. But the Charity Commission for England and Wales rejected an application in 2016 to grant charitable organization status to the Order, ruling that the group did not "promote moral or ethical improvement" for charity law purposes. At least they still have the Force.

That’s it for today. Until next time…

Music Credit: InSpectr, After the Border (Free Music Archive).