Monday, August 20, 2012

R is for Reverence: Worship in the Age of Comics

Many modern Pagans envision their gods using the only frame of reference they have - movies, TV and comic books.  They are not alone in this. Few can avoid the pervasive influence of mass media: throughout much of the world the bat-logo and the red S are as quickly recognized as the cross and the crescent.  Consider how action movies have fed our misconceptions about life-threatening injuriesforensic science and body images, among other things. For better or worse we are all creatures of our age: as the Renaissance had oil paint and printing presses, we have HDTV and video editing software.

Nor is this entirely a bad thing. During my tenure at newWitch I was proud to present an excerpt from Christopher Knowles' Our Gods Wear Spandex. Knowles makes a strong argument that comics are the mythology of our day and superheroes our demigods and culture heroes.  In Vodou and other African Traditional Religions imagery from religion and pop culture is frequently folded, blended, and reinterpreted to suit the practitioner's needs.  If a Haitian Houngan can see Baron Samedi in Darth Vader, why can a Lokean not see Breaker of Worlds in the Joker's desire to watch the world burn?

I'm not calling on the devout to unplug their TVs and burn their silver-age Spiderman collection. I recognize that people have been inspired to fruitful spiritual activity by The Matrix series, the Star Wars saga and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  If the Gods are present in all things, they must be present in the modern as well as the ancient.  If we are going to honor Them in our space and apply Their lessons to our time, we must incorporate contemporary imagery and ideas into our veneration. If we are going to follow a living tradition, we must both honor old tales and create new ones. Yet while I accept the mass media as a valid spiritual source, I also have concerns about the way it treats religious expression.

Galina Krasskova often rails against hubris among Heathens.  I agree that many Pagans and Heathens have serious entitlement, privilege and arrogance issues. But I also think there's something deeper and more disturbing going on here.  These people treat the Gods and ancestors disrespectfully because they have no idea what constitutes respect; they are irreverent because they have never been shown what reverence is.  If they know precious little about sacrifice for the community or the greater good, they know nothing at all about sacrifice for the Divine. And I believe our contemporary mythology and our ways of presenting it have a great deal to do with that shallowness.

Mass media characters may be loved and revered, but they're not worshipped. You may admire Superman or seek to emulate Spock's logical grace under pressure: you don't kneel in their presence and acknowledge them as holy. Whatever joy or knowledge you gain from a summer blockbuster or a graphic novel is earned from the safe distance of "just a movie" or "only a book." You can root for the rebels without landing in an imperial dungeon: you can cheer for Aslan without fear of becoming a foot soldier in some Narnian war. There is no emphasis on engagement or commitment. The religion that comes out of this worldview is often a Spectacle (in the Debordian sense of the word) where awe-inspiring is demoted to "totally awesome!" and the holy is replaced by "holy shit!"

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Much of this source material is openly hostile to the idea of reverence and worship. For an example, take a look at the recent Avengers film. Loki demands that Stuttgart bow before him. Cowed by fear, many bystanders kneel: the heroic old man who refuses alludes to a certain 20th century tyrant. Later somebody calls Thor a god, leading Captain America to reply "There's only one God, ma'am. And I'm pretty sure He doesn't dress like that." The climactic scene comes when Loki declares to Hulk "I am a god, you dull creature!" After beating the stuffing out of his opponent, the Hulk sneeringly declares "puny god." (Eric Scott has a great take on this at Killing the Buddha). Similar strains of thought pervade most comics. By demanding worship, comic book gods prove themselves unworthy of receiving it. Their schemes of cosmic domination will inevitably be foiled and they will be reduced to figures of fun.

In this theology the good gods protect Earth with no thought of recompense and only the maddest and most evil of villains demand respect. In this theology personal relationships with your superfriends are the norm: who needs a deity when you can have a drinking buddy? With the advent of fanfic and role playing, it's perfectly acceptable to throw yourself smack into the middle of long-running interdimensional conflicts.  And should things get too challenging you can declare yourself "over" the series and go on to a new fictional universe.  You can discard Kali and take up Kwan Yin the way you might (and should) discard Twilight in favor of Bram Stoker. Given all this, can we be surprised that newcomers have a hard time distinguishing between revelation and fan fiction and between mystical experiences and Mary Sue stories?