My first major spiritual crisis occurred when I was five years old. It was the early 1980s, and a local UHF station had started airing a new cartoon called Transformers during my family’s Mass time of choice. As long as we didn’t stop to talk to neighbors on our way home, I’d still be able to catch the last seven minutes of any given episode. Nevertheless, thoughts of mighty toy robots significantly distracted me from the homily to the final blessing. God was vying with Optimus Prime for my attention. Faith was at war with my fan franchise.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Perhaps that is why it occurred to me at a very early age that none of my favorite fictional heroes had any religious obligations. The Sunday scheduling conflicts I had as a child didn’t seem to be a problem for Spike or Snake Eyes or Luke Skywalker. At five, I couldn’t quite distinguish the epistemological differences among dragons, Thundercats, Santa Claus, and Jesus. They were all part of the same magical-realist continuum back then — but what happens when the child consumer grows into an adult fan?
Fandom is a serious industry, and it often derives from an apparent arrested development. Consider the number of live-action movie relaunches of 1980s toy franchises in the last few summers. Not only are these trademarked characters back with a vengeance, they are cashing in on adult fans. The most recent Transformers film was rated PG-13 (while the toys are still labeled ages five and up), and the G. I. Joe Resolute animated micro-series was part of Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” line-up.
Just as theologically sterile as when they targeted youngsters, these franchises are also part of a larger geek culture that is often actively anti-Christian. Whether stemming from religiously skittish marketing teams or the fact that geekdom typically (but not exclusively) aligns itself with science and technology, geek culture often falls victim to a snobbish atheism.
Anti-religious aggression occasionally flares up on some of my usual geek Web haunts. The highly popular BoingBoing.net usually provides fascinating commentary on steampunk, copyright laws, and gadgetry, but it was also one of the first sites to argue that the Vatican was equating pedophilia and the ordination of women when it published its revisions of canon law. This post came shortly after Boing Boing quoted Christian satirist Mike S. Adams out of context as an example of the brute irrationality of religion.
Even when these sites themselves are not directly hostile to religion, their audiences are quick to go on the offensive against Christians. The normally relaxed geek culture blog Topless Robot drew a frenzy of anti-Christian reader comments when it linked to an article about fringe, radical fundamentalists protesting at this summer’s San Diego Comic Con. To be fair, a handful of readers denounced the deranged protestors and defended Christianity in general. Clearly, some geeks see no reason for conflict between their hobbies and faith, but they have less vocal presence on the Internet.
The crisis of faith in geek culture runs deeper, however, due in part to its penchant for science fiction. Classically speaking, science fiction is a genre that tends toward a materialist humanism. Bona fide science fiction is not just spacemen with ray guns (what Harlan Ellison referred to with the diminutive label “sci-fi”). Rather, science fiction proper asks questions about humanity’s relationship to technology and material knowledge, and how these might lead humanity either to progress or suffering. There is little room for genuine spirituality or divine miracles in a world that sees technology as our true salvation.
Perhaps the most well-known example of geek culture’s atheism can be seen in the late Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise. A science-fiction writer at heart, Roddenberry was something of a prophet for materialist humanism. In a recent speech, one of Roddenberry’s executive assistants explained that “Star Trek, like humanism, promoted ethics, social justice and reason, and rejected religious dogma and the supernatural,” and that “Roddenberry was so resolute about religion that he refused suggestions to add a chaplain to the crew of the starship Enterprise.”
But if science fiction is the mind of geek culture, then fantasy might be its heart or soul. Perhaps no literary figure looms larger over that landscape than J. R. R. Tolkien, without whom there would be no modern fantasy genre, no role-playing games, no World of Warcraft. Whatever would a geek do on Friday night if there had been no Tolkien? And yet as integral as fantasy is to geek culture — with its Renaissance Fairs, LARPing, and online games — the spiritual aspects of the genre are either overlooked, dismissed, or — at best — converted into an embarrassing neo-paganism. Tolkien’s fantasy might have been inspired by faith, but it seems to rarely inspire faith.
The late Douglas Adams, the science-fiction humorist and environmentalist who taught us that the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything was the rather innocuous number 42, was at least willing to concede that there could be social benefits to religion beyond mere entertainment. Faith could be more than an opiate of the masses, even if it wasn’t real. Religion, Adams argued, might be an evolutionary tactic that helps the species survive. Even if there isn’t a God, a lot of people behave better when they believe in one. This leads to the rather creepy conclusion that, if controlled, religion could be a useful social phenomena, and that some atheists might be too hasty in their quest to stamp out faith on principle when it could be a tool for social engineering.
But what if geek culture took another turn? There are, obviously, many believers who consume geek culture. What if these same believers — and Catholic ones at that — turned from consumers to producers?
The Catholic blogosphere often raises questions about what happens when you put the adjective “Catholic” in front of a media or genre: What are Catholic novels? Catholic movies? Catholic video games? Could Catholic culture and geek culture find a comfortable compromise in modern art? Can we go to Mass and still watch Transformers?
The most successful hybridization of the two cultures might be found in the work of graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, who neither pushes an agenda nor compromises on faith. Louis Peitzman describes his work in the following terms:
Yang’s breakout book, “American Born Chinese,” was the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz award for young adult literature, and the first to be nominated for a National Book Award. “Prime Baby” is Yang’s newest work — a genre-bending comic that combines family relationships, science fiction and math. Despite its eclectic content, “Prime Baby” was inspired by real life.
A comic book about family, science fiction, and math — what could be geekier? But what Peitzman fails to mention is that Yang’s corpus has also been deeply religious — and not just religious but Catholic. In the afterword to his collection Animal Crackers (containing tales like “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of Geeks” and “”Loyola Chan and the San Peligran Order”), Yang uses his faith to contemplate on his art:
But ultimately, it all comes down to the One Real Question. As someone who subscribes to such traditional Roman Catholic niceties as God and Church and Heaven, I must have that One Real Question answered: Is any of this going to matter in The End?
No doubt this artist’s anxiety in part motivated him to illustrate a comic-book rosary (the cover of which excitedly announces that it includes the Luminous Mysteries). But the question is a serious one for geek culture: Is there a way to convert all that time spent re-watching Star Wars, reading fan fiction, and playing epic video games into something greater than entertainment?
One might say the payoff is really Yang’s American Born Chinese, where Yang captures the genre-bending magic realism of a young Catholic boy’s imagination — an imagination that has been populated with ancient mythological heroes, contemporary Christianity, and real live action figures. It is the story of a boy, Jin Wang, coming to grips with identity and social alienation in the cutthroat world of grade school politics; a boy who believes tales of fantasy and may love Transformers a little too much. He is relegated to the nerd caste at his school, in part because of racism but also because of his geeky tastes in entertainment and friends.
Yang’s ability to blend geekdom and faith is perhaps most pronounced in a subplot retelling the classical Chinese Monkey folktales and hybridizing Chinese legend with Christian iconography. Within the comic’s cosmology, an Eastern-appearing supreme deity has four emissaries — ox, eagle, human, lion. To the casual reader, these seem like mythical beings; to the Catholic reader, they sound suspiciously like the four creatures of Revelation — that is, the Gospels. The graphic novel also foreshadows the end of Monkey’s journey to the West, recasting the 16th-century novelist Wu Cheng’s characters as Matthew’s wise men from the East. Meanwhile, there are still plenty of references to the Transformers, including a transforming monkey robot that becomes the basis of the relationship between the protagonist and his only friend.
With a few-dozen pen strokes, Yang seamlessly merges a geeky love for childhood cartoons, a warm fascination with mythology, and a sincere, earnest desire to make Christ a part of the narrative. It is a bold move, and it’s easy to imagine a publisher or editor pressuring Yang to avoid the theological references in his work so as to expand their market base. But when the Catholic reader realizes what Yang has done in American Born Chinese, the effect is very rewarding. I have no Asian ancestry, but the childhood Yang depicts felt extremely familiar to me — all the more so because it is set in a Catholic world. The sincerity of his imagination brings a depth to the art that would have been lost in a sterile, faithless world, or cheapened by a purely make-believe spiritualism completely ungrounded from theological reality.
In his proposal for The Silmarillion, Tolkien wrote that, despite the references to supernatural entities and lack of explicit Christianity, there was nothing in his book that would be objectionable to a believer in the Holy Trinity. In other words, Tolkien imagined Middle-earth to be a place that could exist without annoying theology geeks. Yang has created a similar universe for his characters. Hopefully, his work will inspire other Catholic artists with a flair for geekery to have the courage to keep the Holy Spirit along for the ride — or at least invent worlds where the reader need not check his personal beliefs at the door.
Image: “Ëarandil the Mariner fights Ancalagon the Black” by Simone G. Des Roches