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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….

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Mass Media and Lifestyle Fantasy

Last time we looked at the effects of the Enlightenment and the final disenchantment of the world, as both organized religion and everything perceived as being “irrational” were banished from polite society; or at least from the worldview of the elite.  The perfectly rational, logical man of the Enlightenment who would shake off the superstitions of his ancestors and move confidently into a Utopian future of reason and humanism never materialized, though.  Human nature being what it is, the loss of the transcendent and the supernatural left a void that needed to be filled.  Nietzsche expressed this poetically in his famous writing about the “death of God” (the quote below is from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science):

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche’s answer–that we must become gods–foreshadows his idea of the Übermensch, the “superman”.  As we’ve seen over the last century and a quarter since Nietzsche’s death, that didn’t work out so well.  The void remained unfilled.  What could fill it?  At this point, we must leave that question hanging for a bit while we look at another of the great societal changes to come out of the Enlightenment.  In the last post, we looked at the religious and philosophical changes brought on by the Enlightenment.  Here I want to look at a change that was partly technological, partly educational, and partly cultural–the rise of mass media.

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