Religion and LARPing (Can We Tell the Difference?)

In this series, we began with a humorous look at the similarities between religion and nerd culture.  On the way to a more serious analysis of this similarity, we’ve looked at how the Western world gradually became “disenchanted”.  The ancient pagans lived in a world that was alive, filled with a dizzying array of gods, demigods, spirits, and demons.  Christianity gradually pushed these to the margins, though many remained in new forms–angels, demons, fairies, elves, and so on.  The Enlightenment saw the rise of reason over all, and gradually completed the process whereby Westerners went from viewing the cosmos as a living organism to seeing it as a dead machine, while at the same time traditional religion went into gradual, and now steep decline.  Finally, we saw the rise of pop culture and fandom, whereby fascination with fictional worlds gradually developed into obsession, then into a mainstream lifestyle choice.  In this post, I’d like to try to tie it all together, as far as possible with such complex phenomena.

I’ll start with the image at the top of this post.  Someone unfamiliar with pop culture and Catholic religious orders might think that the two sides of the picture were more or less variants on the same theme.  In fact, as I imagine most readers of this blog will have immediately noticed, the left is a group of Jedi.  No, it’s not a scene from a movie, and it’s not necessarily cosplay.  There is an actual, real-life movement in some countries to have “Jedi” or “Jediism” registered as an official religion.  How “seriously” this is intended is something we’ll come back to.  Meanwhile, in addition to these efforts, there are organizations for “real” Jedi.  That is to say, they take the principles and practices, either explicitly stated or implied, of the Jedi Order of the Star Wars franchise and try, as far as possible, to use those principles and practices as guidelines for living their lives.  Their real, actual lives in the real, actual world.  They do this by a combination of aphorisms derived from the Star Wars franchise (movies and extended universe), martial arts training, meditation practices, and so on.  They often, as can be seen, dress in attire based on that of the cinematic Jedi.  The right-hand part of the image above, by the way, is a group of Franciscan friars*.  Their expressions seem a bit surly–maybe it’s because they don’t get to carry light sabers….

“Jediism” (“Jedism”?  How do you spell it?) is a bit of an outlier, but I think it demonstrates what I’m getting at here.  My basic thesis is that humans need some kind of meaning beyond themselves, beyond the mere needs of getting by from day to day.  This might be referred to, depending on one’s reference point, as a quest for God, a search for ultimate meaning, the need for spirituality, or an innate tendency in humans to think in religious categories.  Psychological research has indicated that young children, no matter what the belief system of their parents, seem to have “theories of mind” in which they often attribute agency to animals and (sometimes) to inanimate objects.  They also tend to believe in some sort of persistence of personality–of the “soul”, if you will–after physical death.  Certain areas of the brain have been correlated with mystical experiences.  Spirituality, in short, seems to be “built in” to human nature.

Of course, like any other human trait, this will vary from individual to individual.  In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud famously described religious feelings as a kind of “oceanic feeling”, felt by some but totally impenetrable to him.  There are many people who are not prone to mystical or religious experience at all, nor to the less-rarefied aspects of religion such as faith or practice.  One might say that the “religion module” was not installed at the factory, so to speak, and religious experience remains opaque to such people.  Most of us probably have some such “module” not “installed” in our personality, be it the appreciation of sports (I sure don’t have that one), the religious impulse, or whatever.  I hasten to say that this is descriptive, not a value judgement.  If I have a religious experience, that doesn’t automatically mean I’m right and a non-believer is wrong.  Likewise, the non-believer’s lack of religious experience doesn’t make her right and a religious person wrong.  My point here is not who’s “right” or “wrong”–neither side can be proved conclusively.  My point, rather, is that in general people have a tendency to seek beyond the normal, here-and-now material realm for meaning and fulfillment.  If one avenue for such fulfillment is closed or ceases to be viable, humans, creative creatures that they are, will find other avenues.

Some, then, will be satisfied with a completely secular, materialistic, this-worldly view of the cosmos–a view in which you make the best you can of the life you have now, without worrying overmuch about the inevitability of death, and then ultimately you die, content with what you’ve had.  Just so I’m perfectly clear, while I disagree (strongly, in fact) with this perspective, I am in no way disrespecting or denigrating it–or at least, those who hold it–as such.  I have friends and relatives whom I love and respect who hold such views; and I certainly would never intend anything negative in regard to them.  Not everyone, though, would find that viewpoint satisfactory.  Such people would respond–and have responded–to the need for the transcendent in the face of the lack of credibility of traditional religion in different ways.  Those more adventurous, individualistic souls have tended towards one of two paths.  Those who are farthest to the individualistic end of the spectrum–those who are not “joiners”–have tended to forge their own paths.  These are the people who tend to describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious“.  They may take a variety of practices from various religious (or non-religious) traditions, without ever committing to any particular paths.

Others, perhaps slightly less likely to “free-form” it, would be the followers of the various Neopagan religions, or other non-standard religious groups.  Such practitioners would encompass a wide range, from relatively highly organized to having little organization at all.  Some might be completely “freelance”, doing their own thing without identifying or affiliating with any group or organization.  They could also be found within many different traditions of various degrees of organization:  various flavors of Wicca, Ásatrú, Kemetic Orthodoxy, and so on, as well as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and various forms of the New Age movement.  These people, while not willing completely to go it alone, are still quite willing to stake out a formal religious identity very much different from the mainstream.

There are some people, though, who, for whatever personal or temperamental reasons, are unwilling either to accept a completely secular perspective (though if asked, they may describe themselves as secular) or to join an unconventional religious group.  They may be unwilling–perhaps adamantly  unwilling–to affiliate with a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or other religious organization.  On the other hand, they may feel–strongly feel, perhaps–the pull of spirituality, the gnawing feeling that there is something more than the here and now, something beyond rationality, beyond the realm of ordinary experience.  This, I think, is at the heart of much lifestyle fantasy.  Immersion in one’s favorite fandom, to the point of living one’s life in accordance with it, at least to an extent, enables one to escape the dreariness of daily life.  It also, to a certain extent, fulfills some of the functions that have traditionally been provided by religion:  giving a framework of meaning to the world, providing a community of like-minded people (other fans, in this case), and even providing a source of ethics (think of the Jedi Code, for example.   Alan Moore once said that everything he learned about morality came from reading Superman comics).  Some might ridicule this.  On the other hand, we are hardwired to seek meaning, to need it.  In an age as complex, confusing, disjointed, and seemingly devoid of meaning as ours, people find meaning where they can; and I, for one, am not going to begrudge them that.

There is a flip side to this, too.  For some people, LARPing (live action role-playing) may be a substitute for religion; but for others, religion may be a form of LARPing. In the second installment of this series, I drew attention to David Klinghoffer’s post on an American member of Al-Qaeda, and how that young man uses rhetoric reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien.  Klinghoffer notes, my emphasis:

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.

I think Klinghoffer gets it exactly right on this.  For many moderns, the experience of religious conversion is different than would have been the case in the past.  Throughout most of history, the average person would live and die in the faith in which he’d been raised.  With the rise of missionary religions, such as Buddhism in the far East, and Christianity and Islam in the West, conversion became an option; but usually only once.  Christianity and Islam, unlike previous religious traditions in the West, tended to view themselves as the One True Religion, to leave which was to condemn oneself to eternal damnation.  Heretics and apostates were treated poorly by both faiths, with apostasy being officially a capital crime in the Islamic tradition.  Furthermore, religion came to be seen as part of one’s identity.  A Greek Orthodox layman might not be particularly pious, and might even have his doubts about the faith; but he would never convert to Islam, since this would be selling out his own people and allying with the hated Turks.  For many–perhaps most–tribalism was as strong a motivation as religious belief.  Thus, though the occasional conversion from Muslim to Christian or Christian to Muslim or either to a heretical sub-sect did occur, such conversions were relatively rare.

In the modern context, though, especially in America, the first country founded explicitly without a state religion, things are much different.  Everyone, those raised in a faith and those raised in none, are keenly aware that they always have a choice.  You may be raised Methodist or Unitarian or Assembly of God; but no one’s forcing you to stay there.  There may be pressure from families or the pull of one’s heritage; but one is free to join whatever religion one wants.  In fact, half of Americans change denominations at least once in their lives, and twenty-eight percent change from one religion to another.  Religious flux seems to be as American as apple pie.

Conversion has traditionally been associated with changes in outlook, personal crises, and various other factors.  William James has written quite well on conversion in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience.  In modern times, though, other factors–the kind of things we’ve been looking at throughout this series–have come into play.  I don’t assert that people join religions purely out of shallow motivations, that they don’t have serious reasons, or that religion and role-playing are varieties of the same thing.  I do think, though, that “the chance to pretend to be someone else, a person much more exotic, interesting, and powerful” than one actually is (or perceives oneself to be) is at play, even if subliminally, in many people who convert to another religion.  I think this is especially true of religions that are perceived as being venerable and ancient, exotic, or somehow otherworldly.  Attending a small rural church where the pastor has a day job and dresses in a suit and tie, expounds upon the Bible reading for the day, and where the congregation has a fellowship meal afterwards, while perfectly commendable, is not going to appeal to the imagination that much.  But a Catholic or Orthodox parish, with statues and icons, a priest in fascinating vestments, incense, chanting, sacraments, claims to descend unchanged from antiquity, and (in Latin-Mass Catholic parishes and some Orthodox parishes) use of a mysterious foreign language?  Or Islam, in which one prays in Arabic, many dress in Middle Eastern garments, and one must master the complexities of the five-times-a-day prayers?  Or the rich, complex, and exotic practices of Tibetan Buddhism?  Sign me up!

Once more, I’m not impugning the sincerity of someone who becomes Catholic or Orthodox or Muslim or Buddhist–far from it.  Still, I think that in such cases, for many people–especially for those who are middle-class, well-read, and with fanboy/fangirl tendencies, there is a certain LARPishness operative.  I’ll be brutally honest:  I am a convert to Catholicism at the age of twenty-six.  All through my youth and young adulthood, I was pretty much a fanboy–you could have checked off the boxes on me.  Comic buff?  Check.  Science fiction?  Check.  Fantasy?  Check.  Loved the Middle Ages?  Check.  Even thought about joining the Society for Creative Anachronism once.  CHECK!  In thinking, “Wow, I’m participating in a liturgy THOUSANDS of years old!  This is just like being in the Middle Ages!  How cool to wear an alb and serve altar!” and such, was I being a bit of a religious role-player?  Yes.  Yes, I was.

Now of course, it’s not as simple as that.  Here and here I have explained some aspects of my religious journey, and there were a lot of serious issues and questions that I dealt with.  While I make no claims to be a particularly “good” Catholic, or a model of  holiness, I’ve stuck with it for over twenty-eight years by now, and expect to die as a loyal, if imperfect, son of the Church.  Still, I will not deny that much of what drew me to the Church in the beginning was not really enormously different in kind from that which draws someone to join a Jedi order or to be a lifestyle fantasist.  There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.  As I said before, in this world you have to take what you can get and find meaning as best you can.  The main caveat I’d point out is that you have to move beyond the LARPy aspects of your choice and bring depth to it as you go along.  Mere LARP appeal won’t sustain you.  If the coolness of emulating the Medievals and being an older-than-average altar boy had been all there was to my Catholicism, I’d have long since been out the door.  For a Jedi, there has to be more to it than just dressing in robes and emulating Obi-Wan Kenobi.  With one of the “brand-name” religions, as Jack Kornfield calls them–i.e. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and so on–there are centuries’ worth of spiritual writings, examples of holy men and women, and formal practices of various sorts which are available for deepening one’s spirituality and maintaining it for the long haul.  For new religions and other forms of non-standard spirituality, the practitioner is on her own.  That’s not necessarily a problem, according to Kornfield.  One merely has to know oneself enough to know how much personal effort one is willing and able to put into the spiritual quest, and to understand the level of responsibility needed for one’s chosen path, be it Catholicism, Jediism, or anything else.  It may begin in role-playing, but it can’t end there.

On a more somber note, LARPiness sometimes goes beyond religious conversion into fanaticism.  I referred earlier to the American Al-Qaeda member of whom Klinghoffer wrote.  In the same post in which I linked to Klinghoffer’s article, I also linked to this story on the Islamic State, which discusses Daesh’s notion of a restored Caliphate as a particular example of the quasi-religious myth of the return of the ancient hero.  This somewhat disturbing article is worth quoting at length, my emphasis:

The desire to see the sleeping hero wake and return in a blaze of undeniable authority is not simply a childish reverie. It is no mere reactionary filigree in 20th-century literary fantasies. The ghost of transcendent personal legitimacy still stalks the modern world. It lingers in the background of every democratic attempt at a political dynasty. It can even attach to impersonal forces. A movement of scholars and advocates in the US characterises the Constitution itself as being ‘in exile’, awaiting restoration through devoted judicial activism.

This ghost can haunt the highest of high culture. In his longest poem, ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ (written in 1875-6), Gerard Manley Hopkins imagines a renewal of Catholic England. It’s a vision that reflects his own process of conversion, his plea to God to ‘Wring thy rebel, dogged in den/Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.’ He prays that Christ would return to England – ‘Kind, but royally reclaiming his own’:

Remember us in the roads, the heaven-haven of the Reward:

Our King back, oh, upon English souls!

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east,

More brightening her, rare-dear Britain, as his reign rolls,

Pride, rose, prince, hero of us, high-priest,

Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.

This prayer is, of course, very different from the sadistic ambitions of ISIS. There is no wave of purifying violence envisioned here. Even judged as verse, the poem is not reactionary; when Hopkins wrote it, it was too innovative in its rhythm and rhetoric for the editor of Britain’s Jesuit magazine. It wouldn’t see publication until 1918, decades after the poet’s death.

But then, as ever, the hypermodern form and the ancient fantasy combine with a persuasive force no mere nostalgia can attain. The king, the hero, the long-absent lord summons, personally and authoritatively, the louche, riotous knights of English minds to chivalry and greatness. The land has suffered the absence of Christ’s true Church for three centuries. It has endured pretenders – stewards, emirs – who have lacked pedigree, rectitude, or both. It has been subject to what Wood, explaining the appeal of ISIS in The Atlantic, calls ‘life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies’, its slow drift toward shallow belief and low stakes. I’m neither English nor Catholic, but every time I read that stanza I share in its shudder of expectation.

The foreign fighters of ISIS ‘believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives’, says Wood, ‘and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege’. We might view such motivations as a pathology, or as a revulsion against modernity fuelled by poverty and oppression. But we can do this only if we overlook their prominence in stories that root much closer to home.

This is very sobering.  Our atomized, fractured age in which meaning seems so elusive has led some of us not only to seek meaning in unusual or non-conventional ways, but to seek a meaning that comes through the destruction of the current order.  This is disheartening and horrendous; and yet it is not completely incomprehensible.  The same spiritual needs and yearnings that lead one to become a science fiction and fantasy buff, or another to join a Jedi organization, or yet another to enter a church full of “bells and smells”, can lead some down darker paths, into Islamic extremism, hate groups, or suicide cults, among other possibilities. Thus, while we enjoy a freedom of religion and expression that our ancestors could never imagine, the negative side of this freedom is that we sometimes use it in nasty and unpleasant ways.

This post has ended up going in a more somber direction than the other posts in this series, somewhat against my intentions.  Nevertheless, I don’t see LARPing and lifestyle fantasy as negative things as such.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to see them as transitional.  As I’ve pointed out before, such a phenomenon is really only possible in a relatively affluent society with a high degree of literacy and interconnectedness.  As time goes on, old religions will die, or change into new forms; new ones will rise; and forms of spirituality we cannot even dream of may come into being.  LARPing and lifestyle fantasy may be part of that process; but I suspect it will eventually develop into something we might not even recognize.  Maybe Jediism will become a fully “real” religion.  Maybe religion, role-playing, and reality will come to interact in ways we can’t anticipate or even imagine right now.  Whether that will be for good or ill, on the whole, we have no way of knowing.  In the meantime, let us pursue meaning and seek for hope where we can, while repudiating violence and fanaticism of all kinds.  No matter what our faiths or practices, may we all respect each other.  As a closing benediction, live long and prosper, may the Force be with you, salām alaykum, pax et bonum, and peace and happiness to all!

*This is a bit off-topic, but since I didn’t really know what “friar” even meant until I was almost thirty, and even a lot of cradle Catholics are equally clueless, let alone non-Catholics, I’ll put in a quick definition here.  “Friar” is not quite the same thing as “monk”.  In Catholic terminology, in the strictest sense of the word, a “monk” is a member of a men’s religious order who lives with other monks in a monastery.  Monks usually take a vow of stability–that is, not to leave the monastery without need, such as medical attention or business with the outside world.  Monks are thus contemplatives–they spend most of their time in prayer and study, and the remaining time working at upkeep and support of the monastery.

“Friar” comes from the French “frère“, which simply means “brother”.  In the 13th Century, men such as Francesco Bernardone (St. Francis of Assisi), Domingo Guzmán (St. Dominic), and others began to form a new type of religious life.  Instead of living out their lives in prayer in a monastery, they would wander from place to place with no fixed home, while living out a mission to society at large:  to exemplify the life of Christ (Francis), to preach (Dominic), and so forth.  The men who took to heart this new paradigm of religious life were called mendicants (literally, “beggars”, since the first mendicants literally begged for food on their travels).  St. Francis insisted that he and his followers have no grander a title than just “little brothers”.  This is fratres minores in Latin, and became, via French, “friars minor” in English.  Thus, the official title, in English, of the original Franciscan Order (of which there are many later branches), is the Order of Friars Minor (abbreviated OFM).

With the Franciscans as a model, all members of mendicant orders (the Dominicans, Augustinians, Servites, and others) came to be known as “friars” in English.  Thus, it is incorrect to call a member of one of these orders a “monk”.  “Friar” is the correct term.  Later on, other orders came into being which were not strictly monastic–they performed functions such as teaching, nursing, and so on–but which were also not traditional friars.  Examples would be the Christian Brothers or the Alexians.  These men are properly referred to as “brothers”.  Thus, a member of a monastic order, such as a Benedictine or a Trappist is referred to as a “monk”; a member of a mendicant order, such as a Franciscan or Dominican, is referred to as a “friar”; and a member of any other male religious order, such as the Christian Brothers or Alexians, is referred to as a “brother”.  In direct address–speaking to such a man–one (somewhat confusingly) says “brother” no matter what the order.  Thus, John Doe, OFM, would be referred to as Friar John, but addressed as “Brother John”.  In the case of a male religious who is also a priest (not all are, as I explained here), one addresses him as “Father” regardless of his order.

As to nuns and sisters, to give the ladies their due, there is no feminine equivalent to “friar” in English.  Thus, members of monastic orders–Benedictines or Cistercians, for example–are properly referred to as “nuns”, and are exactly analogous to monks.  Both members of mendicant orders (Franciscans, Dominicans, or others) and members of other non-monastic, non-mendicant orders (any of the various branches of the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and so on) are referred to as “sisters”.  In addressing any female religious, one says “sister” regardless of order (or “Mother”, if speaking to the superior of a convent or religious establishment).

Finally, in the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, religious life never altered from the original monastic pattern–thus all male religious are “monks” and all female religious are “nuns” in these traditions.  The form of address differs, though.  Monks address each other as “brother” and nuns address each other as “sister”, unless speaking to the abbot or abbess, or (in the case of monks) to an ordained brother, in which case they say “father” or “mother”, respectively.  By contrast, laity address all monks as “father” and all nuns as “mother”.

Part of the series “Religion, Role-playing, and Reality

Posted on 03/08/2018, in religion, social commentary, society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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