A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
My Gods Are Not Characters
My Gods Are Not Characters
My religion is not fan-fiction. For some reason this is actually a thing that people are confused by.
There's been some interesting talks about gods, heroes, and superheroes in the blog-o-sphere in the last week or two. This has brought up several topics that I have long been outspoken on in private discussions and dialoging with the colleagues, friends, and family that I engage with ritually, devotionally, and theologically. I have offended a few close to me with my views (though this was not my intention) and I have been misunderstood by some, agreed with by others, and had others merely roll their eyes because they didn't see the issues I was addressing as being as “big” as I was making them out to be. I am going to use the current rise of these topics to jump in – even if a little late to the show, as I've been caught up in other things for what seems like ages and ages – and share my views, because I do find these topics to be very important. The recently discussed worship of fictional super-heroes in either “hero cultus” style or as actual deities is one that I find alarming – both from a theological/devotional perspective and perhaps also a mental-health one. I'm going to be open about that part of my view right in the beginning: I have concerns that the worship of *fictional* characters is a dangerous avenue of engagement for its inherent and fundamental blurring of lines between credible reality (even spiritual, mystic, and transcendent reality!) and intentional fiction.
I am happy to see this topic coming up and getting some light shed on it. I think that this is long overdue. It is also impossible for this to happen without a huge amount of controversy and hurt and pain and shooting-from-the-hip reactionary reply to those things from all sides and views. That's just sort of how it goes, although it is honestly not my intention to cause hurt or harm to anyone with my writing or with the sharing of my views, as I am fairly certain has been the case with all of the various views shared by all of the various authors and bloggers responding to this topic.
I have long been uncomfortable with the amount of membranous bleed-through between fandom/fanfic and Polytheism, mysticism, and other expressions of minority religion and spiritual engagement. I am not anti-fiction, or anti-fandom – at all– but I feel that these things ought to be prioritized significantly below one's gods/spirits/religious pursuits if they're trying to claim an identity as a serious religionist, priest, or spirit-worker. A good amount of writing has been done about fiction-and-fan-fiction-as-devotional-act (whether the reading of, writing of, or in the case of films and such the viewing of) and I don't really have anything new to add to that topic that hasn't already been said, and honestly it is of almost no interest to me to argue about what is or is not a devotional act. (Not because I don't have opinions, but because.. really? That's what we're fighting over, now?) Rather, I want to redirect to why the whole subject of fictional characters – and the “fictionalization” of gods and heroes – bothers me, and how I see it as damaging to a lived religious tradition.
There is way too much treatment-of-gods-as-"characters" that goes on, and this is troubling. I cringe a bit when I hear people make a statement along the lines of, “Well, MY [insert popular god here] likes it when I do [insert action here]”, even though this is a statement that I have made myself to disclaim a lack of dogmatic “do what I do or die” in my [statement]. I cringe because it sounds a bit too much like a fictionalization of the gods when many people say it, as if they (as devotees) are free to “write” their gods however they see fit, and however makes them most comfortable. Not everyone does this, or uses language like that for this reason, but... the cringe is still there, even as I understand that such language developed largely to diminish flame-wars between devotees with differing experiences of a given deity. Gods are infinitely bigger than we are, however, and at any given time a thousand devotees may connect with the same deity at a thousand different levels of that deity, from a thousand different perspectives or places of earthly standing. Hell, there are also a thousand examples of people (in both modern polytheistic devotion and in classical text!) using the same name to describe different deities. (The Ares of Greek worship is simply not the Ares of Scythian worship (..mentioned by the Greeks), in my experience. I checked.)
I think that this “character”-ization of the gods and the spirits and the sacred overall is a response to two separate (if interrelated) conditions, neither of which are themselves cause for concern, judgment, or anything negative or critical at all.
Firstly, a lot of us in the polytheistic and mystic “camps” of religious and spiritual engagement came up in life engaging with fictional settings, fantasy series, and comic books. Many even found their first glimmers of the “search for higher truth and meaning” in these fictional settings, inspired by tales of wizards and hobbits and mutants and sociopathic vigilantes to reach outside the box of post-modernity for understanding the unfathomable that is creation. Fiction inspired even some of the most inspiring wisdom seekers amongst us to seek wisdom in the first place.
This is the whole damn point of fiction though, by the way: to inspire! To elevate! To motivate the pursuit of SOMETHING. To move. To strangle or cause growth, or kill off stagnant ideas or misdirected views: all of these are good reasons for a story to be told, or written, or sung, or danced, or painted, or sculpted, or screamed, or battered from fist-to-face. So if you're one of the many who came to “serious polytheistic religion” with a background in fandom or fiction or fantasy, do not be discouraged: that just means you were doing it right, when reading those things. Way to go. You got inspired and found yourself some meaning. But that doesn't mean that the stories and the reality of spirits and gods should be conflated as an identical or even similar thing. Stories of all sorts – myths, fictions, legends, fables, etc – have an incredibly vital and in many instances sacred place in our societies, but that doesn't make them devotional nor sacred in the same way that religion and communion is. Why we must try to make “everything” sacred in some equal way is sort of perplexing to me: that avenue of thought seems to simply decay meaning altogether, and damages not only religious engagement but also fiction writing and storycraft and any other damn thing we include in such endeavors, like cabinet making. (Doesn't it hurt the integrity of cabinetmaking if we start calling it “devotional” and “religious” instead of what it actually is? Doesn't this change-up of terms and ideas also necessitate a modification of what one's motive or function is in a given thing?)
The second condition that I see as a common thread here is that in many of these religious pursuits, we do not (as lay practitioners or professional clergical figures) have the benefit of unbroken living lineages or traditions to draw upon; these are either new religions based on old ones, or attempts to reconstruct ancient traditions or religious paradigms in the modern world from our reflective (and/or academic!) understanding of them. Many of us are effectively “authors” of new (or newly returned!) religious patterns of behavior, thought, or engagement. Since we are generally generating these “authored ways” in conjunction with other people, we are doing so in a “shared world” environment not dissimilar from series television script writers, comic-book authors writing for ongoing monthly titles, and so forth. In other words we are not necessarily wrong in noting the (figurative!) similarities between building (or rebuilding) religions and either the professional writing of shared-world fiction settings, or the amateur reading of them. However, many also draw parallels between the religious pursuits and amateur fan-fiction which I find to be erroneous, dangerous, and objectively wrong-headed.
However... let me step away from religion for a moment, and into fan-fiction itself. I'll return shortly...
I am not against writing fiction. I am not against writing fantasy fiction. I am not against reading any sort of fiction. I am very, very, very pro-fiction. (I have written dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories and I have read thousands more of both. My personal fictional library has over three thousand titles in it, speaking strictly of paperback and hardback novels and fiction collections. My comic book collection between my current home in California and the place I grew up in Boston's North Shore has a collection of plastic-and-boarded titles that I am proud of, even if I don't actively collect or read anymore. I don't hide my enjoyment of fiction and fandom like some childish shame, and in fact occasional work as a guest-lecturer at a local university to talk about the socio-mythological place that super-heroes and graphic novels can hold in a given society. But I don't conflate these things with my religious pursuits.)
I am also not remotely against fan-fiction writing or reading. At all. Seriously. I find it to be a fascinating and entertaining – even essential – socio-literary response to the genres so many of us relied on in our secular culture as life-rafts for relevant-to-us teachings of morality, inspiration, worldly engagement and personal triumphs over tragedies (social or intensely internal in nature). I like very much what Dver has to say on this: “The thing with fandoms, when it comes down to it, is that they’re really more about the fans than the art. They are a social phenomenon. ” I don't see the fandom-focused-on-fans as a bad thing, except in the cases where the people involved don't seem to understand this mechanical reality. It's a social thing revolving around a demographic – fans – and their shared interests, rather than on the fiction itself.
This is actually the biggest issue that I have with the way that fan-fiction is engaged and regarded by many, which is totally separate from any subjective views that I may hold: as a genre, the primary function and unspoken nature of fan-fiction is to be FANS first, and FICTION authors second, yet in my experience very few fan-fiction authors or readers seem to understand this. The algorithmic mechanic of engaging as a writer in this genre is less about "writing compelling, moving, meaningful, instructive, or inspiring stories" (see above for how these are important qualities in storycraft!) and more about "communicating one's fondness or FANatic affection for a set of characters, settings, or conceptual structures". Whereas a genre fiction author – mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, etc -- is involved in a pursuit whose core mechanical essentialities are geared toward utilizing a given genre to communicate (hopefully) meaningful stories and contribute to the overall field of writing and storycraft, a fanfic author has no such constraints. Which is fine, for a genre that is fan-focused, rather than writing-focused or writing-craft-focused, or.. anything-else-focused.
The required mechanics (as per my years of observation and mapping) of fanfic are as follows: “A=Be A Fan”, “B=Care Enough To Show It”, “C=Show It Through Letters Strung Together as Words Kind Of Maybe”. A+B+C=FF. Talent, meaning, inspiration, craft, etc, are simply NOT requirements of the fanfic genre. That being said, there are MANY talented and inspiring fanfic authors. Note that I am not saying otherwise, here. (I really am not.) I am merely stating that the genre itself does not require these things; it demands only A+B+C. Certainly sucky authors will be less popular than totally prolific fanfic authors with obscene talent, but that doesn't change the systemic mechanics of the genre.
It isn't so much about quality control (although that's a thing!) or filters/boundaries (that's a thing too!) or copyright/creative-rights concerns (although that's definitely a thing, and Larry Niven agrees, loudly!) but about the core meta-narrative and fundamental ethos of what fanfic is as a system and momentum-gathering movement. As a literary movement, this genre besieges the demand that people think for themselves, engage with their own frontal-lobes creatively (e.g. develop higher levels of executive functioning cognition) in generating their own stories, settings, characters, narratives, and so forth. This is an essential part of the creative and literary process, and it is basically and intrinsically absent from the fanfic “formula”. (Which, again, is not saying that there are not some stupidly creative fanfic authors and creators out there, just that this is not actually an objective demand of the genre.) These are not issues or valid criticisms at all in fan-fiction is assumed to be a social mechanism, rather than a primarily literary one, at which point it is not longer warranting consideration (or critique at all) from the perspective of being a genre of writing. (Not everything written is considered a genre of writing. Cereal boxes, for example, are rarely critiqued from the standpoint of storycraft, as the primary function of the wordforms on those colorful boxes is not the same as a novel or short story.)
Obviously we need authors willing and able to write in these "shared universe" publication mediums – e.g. comic books, television scripts, movie franchises, series fiction, etc – and many of those began as fanfic authors in some form or another. But they also were required to write original things. A lot. When you submit to classical training as an artist (and I am not saying that the only way to be an artist is to do so!) you go through years of studying other people's styles in a given medium, understanding the history and development of the craft, while simultaneously being asked (if in a competent program...) to develop and find your own inner expression as well.
Artistic development as both writer and visual artist (and musical artist, etc!) does not happen in a vacuum, so there is no demand here that "nobody anywhere ever should write/draw/sing things based on others' creations", as that would be both impossible and stupid. Instead, though, there is a demand that people find their own path and expression, and that this should be an inherent DEMAND of any genre, movement, or idea which considers itself artistic in nature. This demand simply does not exist, nor could it ever exist given the popular masturbatory nature of the activity, in fanfic culture. Again, this doesn't mean that there are not talented fanfic authors, or fan-artists, etc, but that the basic objectives of the activity are radically different than in other genres and creative arenas.
So... what does any of this have to do with religion? Well call me crazy, but I think that it is a valuable thing to approach the subject of service to the gods and to a community of people on behalf of the gods with at least as much dedication and “for-serious-ness” as we approach literary engagement, critique and navigation. That is to say, to go forth with integrity and an understanding of the platform of theological engagement. When I write fiction, I am not writing to engage with my fondness for a setting or genre, but rather to tell compelling and necessary (at least to me!) stories which I hope to carry meaning beyond my own arousal at the subject. I don't write fan-fiction, but if I did, it would be to communicate my fondness for characters, my respect for the authors who created them and the overall cohesion of the setting that they are placed within, even if I was deviating from canon with the material. When I engage as a religionist, either in my own personal devotions or as a professional priest and spirit-worker, it is not for the purpose of communicating my fanboy adoration and starry-eyed “weee” for the gods, goddesses, spirits, ancestors, heroes and holy powers that I am relating to or acting on the behalf of with others.
The place that I write ritual from is not the same place that I write fiction from. (When I was a university student, I did not write important psychology papers from the same place that I wrote fiction, even though the fiction I write is just as important – if not ridiculously more important than – the psych stuff. I would not have likely graduated with quite the same marks that I did if I had.) When I pen praise words or prayers to my pantheons it is not for the purpose of showing how much I “totally identify” with being a polytheist or “how neat” I think a given deity might be, but instead because the technologies of my religious traditions require certain “causes” to achieve certain “effects”. My religion is born in the relational space of the transactional cause-and-effect, thereby being active rather than passive, in terms of the effects of engagement. It is not empty faith or prayers written, whispered, sung or screamed until my throat is raw and blood sprays out on breath for the sake of contributing to a literary corpus or club of cool kids who also like some praise poetry; it is a living tradition where I am engaging with real beings, real gods, real spirits, real heroes, and real powers. It is a religion of consequence.
And no matter how important a piece of fiction might be to the author or to the reader, whether it is a professional novel or an amateur piece of fan-fiction, there are no real consequences to deviation or failure, unless your paycheck depends upon “popular response” (in which case such consequence is still largely a passive or incidental one, if nonetheless very daunting and life-altering if that is one's only source of income).
Prayer is an active, causal thing. Ritual is a thing of very real and very tangible consequences. These things can mean the difference between life and death, between health and sickness, between military potency and a limp sprawled soldier that just won't rise to the challenge faced or called. Fiction is vital to culture, to people, to society, to the arts... but it is passive in nature. It always has been and it always will be. This is as true today in 2013 as it was a thousand years before today. That does not diminish the importance of it – or the power that it can have on a given individual writer or reader, or in fact on an entire generation or socio-liteary demographic – but these are still ultimately passive effects which must be engaged with actively to, well, “activate”.
There is far too much writing or ritual crafting that, to my ear and heart, seem to draw from the same places a person writes fan-fiction. Religious literature is not fan-fiction. It cannot be. If you're a fan of the gods, rather than a devotee of the gods or priest of the gods, that's fine: but let's try to call it that, yeah? This isn't an attempt to be all doom-and-gloom and rain on everyone's sparkly parade, but seriously: if you need to fictionalize your gods in order to engage with them, like them, or conceptualize relation with them, maybe you should reconsider why you're calling yourself a devoted follower or would-be clergy.
My views are general and again are not anti-fiction or fandom; they are pro-gods. A student of mine, whose specific spiritual and religious “work” is the writing of stories and fiction and the crafting of artistic expressions, would attest to this. In the six years that I have been a teacher, friend and mentor to him, I have never threatened the sacredness of his creative pursuits, nor challenged their importance. However, he has also never confused what he is doing with the writing of religious text or the crafting of sacred rite. I also praise traditional craftspeople, of wordworking or stoneworking or metalworking as being sacred functionaries of ancient and incredibly important pursuits which are vital not just for their mundane effects but for the spirit of the traditions that they draw from, and to the powers whose realms of influence these cross into. I doubt strongly that a master carpenter would ever get into an argument about whether their calling was the same as what a priest or liturgical engineer or exorcist or shaman does, in terms of the measurements of spiritual and religious engagement. Are they of equal import? Probably. But not from the standpoint of sacred and religious technologies. The best crafted ritual in all of the world religions could never compete with a cabinet made by a master cabinetmaker for the purpose of holding my hand-thrown earthenware mugs... and this reality does not threaten me as a priest or ritual leader.
I am a spiritual and theistic literalist: the gods and spirits I engage with are real, literal beings, not ideas or concepts or archetypes or thought-forms. As a comic-book fan (which I have been for life) I can say that my love of comics, even my deeply personal fondness for (or emotional resonance with) certain storylines or characters, is *completely* different. Are superheroes an expression of modern mythology? Yes, in many ways they are. But they're not religion. They're not real beings. They are fictional constructs penned or penciled to page by talented (or even divinely inspired!) authors, artists, inkers and colorists and editors (we always forget the editors!) who all deserve our praise and our admiration for having crafted the stories and images which for many of us meant the difference between a period of abject misery or loneliness in times of struggle – if not literal death from the weight of despair – and so I praise these Creators, these sacred Makers, whose stories inspired and educated and elevated and comforted in all my times of need. My gods, my blessed dead, my elemental powers and all the other forces I engage with as a priest and a spirit-worker? These are real, authored by no hand, and They will not be compared to the X-Men.)
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