Prologue: Religion, LARPing, and Comic Books
Before I get on with the points I want to make in this new series, I want to point to a couple of essays that set the stage.
The first is from the old Beliefnet blog, “Kingdom of Priests”, by author and (ugh) supporter of Intelligent Design, David Klinghoffer. I disagree with him on many points, Intelligent Design being but one, but his comparison of a convert to radical Islam and a fantasy fan is interesting. An excerpt:
An item by Marissa Brostoff at Tablet directs our attention to a fascinating and very thorough profile of the former Adam Pearlman [the young man who converted and joined Al-Qaeda] in The New Yorker, which in turns notes the peculiarly elaborate and archaic rhetorical style of Gadahn’s work as an Al-Qaeda spokesman: ”Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from the Lord of the Rings.”
The Tolkien allusion caught my attention. I hadn’t previously given much thought to young Mr. Pearlman’s spiritual journey — born in Oregon, raised on a goat farm in Southern California, shy teenager, converted to Islam at age 17 — but that line about the Lord of the Rings struck me as telling. Did you ever notice the way with some converts, not just converts to any given religion but to all kinds of thought systems, ideologies, and other enthusiasms, there’s often a heavy element of fantasy role playing?
When I was a Southern California youth myself, we’d play Dungeons & Dragons, and everyone got to pick his Tolkienesque fantasy identity — wizard, warrior, hobbit, elf, whatever you like. Nerdy kids, or momma’s boys like me (there is a difference!), reveled in the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful. It sure strikes me that young Pearlman has been on such a trip of his own these past 13 years or more. The rest of the New Yorker profile bears this out. Fantasy role playing ran in the family.
Relatedly, in this essay Julian Sanchez theorizes about the mindset of many believers:
Fundamentalists of every sect are, pretty much by definition, strongly committed to the literal truth of all of their scripture. But the garden variety “believer,” I suspect, may often be more accurately thought of as a “suspension-of-disbeliever.”
When you think about the actual functions that religious narratives serve in people’s lives, literal truth or falsity is often rather beside the point, and yet suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of immersion in the story. On this view, Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out that all the ways superhero physics don’t really make sense. (Wouldn’t characters with “super strength” would really need super speed as well to do stuff like punching through concrete? Shouldn’t Cyclops be propelled backwards when he unleashes those concussive eye beams?”) It’s not annoying because we literally believed the stories, but because our enjoyment depends on our not attending too explicitly to their unreality. People can, on one level, be powerfully committed to the idea that Han Solo shot first, dammit—while on another being perfectly aware that, really, nobody shot anybody, and it’s actually just Harrison Ford and a dude in a green rubber suit with some laser effects added in post production.
Fanboys, of course, know their cherished fantasy worlds are fantasy, and will admit as much readily if you press them. For many ordinary believers, I suspect the situation is closer to what I think my initial view of Sherlock Holmes probably was: I knew that Watson “was” Holmes’ faithful sidekick, and that Moriarty “was” his archenemy, but if you asked me whether I meant this “was” in the sense of a historical truth claim or only as a “truth” about a fictional narrative, I suspect I would have initially been surprised by the question, because nothing about my relationship to the narrative or my reasons for enjoying it turned essentially on whether the events it depicted had really happened.
Now as a religious person myself, I don’t think these insights invalidate religion in general or specific religions in particular. I do think they make valid points, though, and often cut closer to home than many of us would like to think. In the next post I want to look at cultural factors that set the stage for this, and then I want to look at ramifications. And by the way, Han did shoot first!
Update: A fascinating if disturbing article along much the same lines I’m discussing.
Posted on 27/04/2014, in comics, pop culture, religion and tagged Beliefnet, comics, David Klinghoffer, geek culture, Julian Sanchez, LARP, nerd culture, pop culture, religion, role-plyaing, society. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.