Our Father, Who Art in… Comic-Con? How Fandoms — and Religions— Create Communities
Jordanna Max Brodsky
What’s your idea of a sacred Sunday activity? Going to church with your family… or watching Game of Thrones with them? Those may sound like two diametrically opposite choices. They’re not. These days, their purpose is strikingly similar.
For true believers who seek out religion as a way to connect with a supreme being, I admit that sci-fi/fantasy fandom is likely a poor substitute. But for the many people who don’t identify with an organized faith, yet want a way to create community, transcend their everyday lives, and enforce a moral code, fandom has become a new sort of faith, inspiring a devotion that borders on zealotry.
Although it shares some characteristics with contemporary religions, fandom best resembles a modern-day version of an ancient Greco-Roman “mystery cult,” complete with rituals, myths, secret languages, and pious acolytes. The word “cult” carries a negative connotation, summoning images of violent or even suicidal secret societies that prey on the weak or gullible. We tend to either think of the Moonies or Indiana Jones getting his heart cut out by a skull-bedecked priest in Temple of Doom. But in ancient Greece and Rome, “cult” meant merely a religious sect — not that different from a Christian denomination. Cults usually centered on complicated rituals and sacrifices dedicated to a particular god or hero, such as Dionysus, Heracles, or Athena.
“Mystery” cults were characterized by their secrecy; only the initiated could participate in their most sacred rites. Revealing the secret rites was punishable by death, so we still don’t know exactly what went on (although that hasn’t stopped me from theorizing in my Olymbus Bound series). For two thousand years, even after Christianity took hold, the cult continued to attract hundreds of thousands of worshipers in ancient Greece. That’s the sort of staying power that even Star Trek can’t boast.
Megafans also share language, rituals, and experiences known only to the “initiated.” In the Star Wars universe, it is the Force that surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together — but in my universe, it’s Star Wars itself. I can forge a friendship with a total stranger simply by discussing the relative merits of the new “canon” books versus the old Expanded Universe. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about…then you’re not part of my cult. If you do understand the lingo, did you just get a little thrill? A little desire to jump into the conversation? A sense of belonging? Welcome to life in a modern-day mystery cult.
Such cults are defined by exclusivity. Rather than limiting the cult’s appeal, the exclusivity only makes it more attractive. After all, it’s the club with the rope line that we most want to enter. But as fandom broadens and “geek culture” goes mainstream, will the most devoted acolytes lose their sense of exceptionalism? Will the cult of Star Wars face the same dwindling membership as mainline Protestantism? Perhaps. Surely I’m not the only one who still feels a prickle of resentment when Game of Thrones TV fans claim ownership of the story without ever having read the original sacred texts. (I, for one, have been waiting for winter to hurry up and come since I first found myself singing A Song of Ice and Fire in 2001.)
But fandoms have a major advantage over modern religions in this regard: they’re flexible. We may hold our foundational movies or novels holy, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t psyched for a sequel. In the case of comic book cults, we’re used to reboots and reincarnations. In this sense, fandom cults share more with Mormonism than with other major religions: they aren’t afraid to add new books to their Bibles.
Rather than watering down their faiths, I contend that such expansions (assuming they’re more Rae than Jar-Jar) only strengthen them, allowing the stories to evolve and modernize. In the twenty-first century, Star Wars gets a female Jedi and a black stormtrooper. Wolverine’s daughter can kick more ass than he does. We need only to look at the newest Wonder Woman movie to see how old stories can be made new again, attracting new initiates to the cult along the way. On the other hand, religions that refuse to reinterpret or amend their texts can feel sclerotic. I’d like to say we’ll get a female Jesus in some new version of the Bible…but I’m not holding my breath.
I know what you’re thinking. Exactly what sort of “religion” do these new cults of fandom promote? Religion is supposed to preach peace, love, and community, while Game of Thrones preaches war, magic, and betrayal — not to mention dragons. But the Bible could give George R. R. Martin a run for his money on all counts: Remember the Israelites’ Old Testament battles, the miracles of Aaron and Moses, and Judas’s kiss? As for dragons, how about Saint George? Sure, the Bible manages to teach morality alongside its action, warfare, politics, and drama. But so does Game of Thrones. At its heart, the fantasy epic is about the struggle to preserve your morality in the face of impossible choices. It’s about heroism, family, love, sacrifice, and the eternal quest — so far fruitless — for peace in a world of war. There are moral lessons to be learned in Ned Stark’s loyalty and Daenerys’s generosity, even if those lessons are more suited to the Book of Job than the Book of John.
I believe it’s no coincidence that Star Trek enjoys one of fandom’s most devoted followings: it offers the most obvious moral rubric to its initiates. Each episode provides a lesson in the value of friendship, tolerance, diversity, honesty, perseverance, or some other virtue. Trekkies have more than just costumes to wear and alien languages to learn — they have an entire moral code to live by. Morality also lies at the heart of Star Wars. Dark side versus light. Hate and fear versus love and tranquility. To me, the Force is just another way of looking at what the Transcendentalists called the Oversoul. “God” by another name… but without the baggage of a few thousands years of organized religion weighing it down.
So go ahead, everyone. Embrace your fandom. Join your cult. Because when a Trekkie sews his own uniform or writes a slash-fiction story about Kirk and Spock, he’s following in the footsteps of the great Renaissance artists who took old religious stories — both Biblical and Classical — and transformed them into new art for a new age. When a Wonder Woman devotee shows up at Comic Con in full regalia, she’s engaging in a rite not unlike that of the ancient Athenians, who processed en masse to the Parthenon to dress their patron goddess’s statue in newly woven robes. And when my family and I gather on July 16th to watch the long-awaited return of Game of Thrones, and sit for hours afterward discussing the episode, we’re holding our very own little Bible study group. We just use a different text and pray with a different liturgy.
As for the rest of you, who think all this sounds just a little bit nuts, don’t worry. The development of these new cults shouldn’t be viewed with alarm — or disdain. Megafans are simply creating a community that provides meaning, mythology, and mystery in a world increasingly lacking in all three. The desire is as old as human civilization; the gods are just a little newer.
Jordanna Max Brodsky hails from Virginia, where she spent four years at a science and technology high school pretending it was a theater conservatory. She holds a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. When she’s not wandering the forests of Maine, she lives in Manhattan with her husband. She often sees goddesses in Central Park and wishes she were one.
She is the author of The Immortals, Winter of the Gods, and the forthcoming Olympus Bound (February 2018).