Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror, and 'Reel' Spirituality

I still remember one night in the 1970s when my dad gave my younger brother and I the option of watching The Wonderful World of Disney on television as part of our regular family habit, or a horror film on another channel. The curiosity of youth being what it was, we chose the horror film, and our first exposure to the genre through The Creature From the Black Lagoon began a love affair with not only horror, but science fiction and fantasy as well.

Given evangelicalism's frequent connection of horror with "the occult," after my conversion to Christianity I though such passions had to be jettisoned as part of my new life. Much to my surprise and joy, I discovered that other Christians were also interested in these genres, and that they did not find them incompatible with the Christian life. In my research in the area of emerging spiritualities and popular culture years later, I discovered that these genres of entertainment were important aspects of emerging culture, and ones that the evangelical world needs to consider if it wishes to be relevant to post-modern culture. In this post I will pass along a few thoughts that have come to mind recently after some posts at Matt Stone's Blog Eclectic Itchings.

Evangelicals have tended to either react confrontationally to aspects of popular culture, or to downplay its significance as opposed to "high culture." Scholars now recognize the significance of popular culture o aspects of broader culture and spirituality in the shaping of western plausibility structures. The secularization of the West has resulted in the desire for a re-enchantment of the world, and this is being explored in a number of ways in popular culture. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror in literature and film have been used as vehicles to both express and explore aspects of new religions and emerging spiritualities, and as mythic resources with which to shape new spiritualities for a post-modern age.

In the area of the exploration of spirituality for new religions, Mormonism has great sympathies with science fiction. It has served well as a genre to creatively express aspects of their cosmology. LDS author Orson Scott Card has incorporated aspects of LDS cosmology in his novels, and it is well known that the original Battlestar Galactica series of the 1970s incorporated modified versions of LDS cosmology, although there is less emphasis on it in the current Sci Fi Channel version of the program.

Fantasy has long been drawn upon to express and explore spirituality, from Tolkien and C. S. Lewis incorporating or expressing elements from Christianity, to Paganism and Wicca in more recent authors.

But not only are these genres serving as vehicles to express spirituality, we are also seeing emerging spiritualities that are drawing upon these genres as both mythic sources by which to create new spiritualities, as well as to express and explore them. Australian scholar Adam Possamai provides several examples including The Church of Satan, and the Church of All World, as well as other exotic new spiritualities, such as The Temple of the Vampyre drawing upon vampire fiction, Jediism drawing up the Star Wars films, and Matrixism based upon The Matrix film trilogy.

A few years ago when the Lord of the Rings film trilogy was still unfolding, TIME magazine wrote a story on the phenomenal success of the films that included an interesting sidebar. It discussed the increasing popularity of fantasy films and the apparent decline in popularity of science fiction. This got me to thinking and I'll pass along a few thoughts for consideration. Science fiction has served well as a forum for expressing ideas related more to materialist philosophies. With Mormonism's emphasis on materialism, where even spirit itself is another form of the material, Mormon cosmology fit in well with the science fiction genre's materialist leanings. Science fiction literature and films continue to be popular, but with the cultural shift toward re-enchantment fantasy films (and horror that includes a supernatural element) will likely continue to find a ready audience in the Western world. Those who may disagree with this idea given the popularity of the Star Wars films since the 1970s might take note that although Lucas' films are expressed in the garb of sci fi they are more properly classified as a space fantasy.

While evangelicals may express incredulity in response to such new spiritualities and the pop culture sources behind them, nevertheless, they represent serious spiritual and social phenomena that are proving increasingly attractive to those in the West, particularly younger people. Christopher Partridge notes that these literary and cinematic sources serve as popular sacred narratives that represent "connections between the occult and arts-based culture, particular literature, film and video games..."

I wonder whether it might be possible (from the above it would surely be profitable) for evangelicals to spend less time fighting expressions of emerging spiritualities in popular culture and instead spend more time as students of popular culture so that we might understand the contemporary spiritual milieu, and where Western culture is spiritually "itching," in order that we might actually scratch them where they itch rather than where we think they should itch. And while some of us are complaining about the popularity of J. K. Rowling with the Potter books, how about writing a series of books, or producing some films that draw upon fantasy, horror, and science fiction to creatively and subtly explore Christian spirituality?

Just a few thoughts.

Suggested Reading

Tom Beaudoin, Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X (Jossey-Bass, 1998).

Michael R. Collings, "The Rational and Relevatory in the Science Fiction of Orson Scott Card," Sunsone 11, no. 3 (May 1987): 7-11.

Christopher Partridge, The Re-Enchantment of the West, vol. 1 (T & T Clark International, 2004). See his discussion of secularization and re-enchantment, as well as popular occulture in literature and film.

Adam Possamai, Religion and Popular Culture (P.I.E.-Peter Lang, 2005).

Sandy and Joe Straubhaar, "Science Fiction and Mormonism," Sunstone 6, no. 4 (July/August 1981): 52-56.

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