Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

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What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Awakening Forces

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does not disappoint. Many of us who saw the original installment recognized the archetypal image right away. Good versus evil, light and darkness, the quest for the father, and a host of other tropes backed the story in ways that made us believe we were in a galaxy far, far away. As is well known, the mythographer Joseph Campbell was closely consulted on the movie, bringing his own Jungian understanding of myth to the story. We felt that we cared about the outcome of these characters’ lives. Prequels are, of course, a hard sell. Although technically proficient, the Sith episodes I-III dulled the eyes of many original fans. It wasn’t just because the action had to be all “shoot-‘em-up” western style either. There is a logic to mythology, and yes, whether we want to admit it or not, religious imagery. The Force Awakens returns to that religious, archetypal imagery and it shows not only in box office numbers, but in the reviews.

This is one of those movies that kept interrupting my subconscious the night after I saw it, even as a matinee. There was some powerful imagery going on there. Having seen the film only once, I’m sure much of it escaped me, but even based on the trailers people were wondering about the cruciform light saber wielded by Kylo Ren. Naturally, the force does awaken, carrying the mythology further. C-3PO, however, is the one who blurts out “Thank the Maker” when the resistance finally gets a break. What would a robot know of the force? Visions and prophets, the stuff of classical conflicts of good and evil, are fully present and accounted for. Even the marking of Finn’s helmet in the opening scene has elements of the Passover to it.

What stayed with me the most is a concept traditionally associated with the Quakers—the light within. Kylo Ren is struggling to defeat that light. Others are, in effect, praying for him to realize that it is still there. The force pervades every living thing, but humanoids have the light within. Movies that understand this kind of archetypal thinking quickly draw a fan base. Part of what we are seeing on the screen moves beyond entertainment to a kind of religious thinking. The original trilogy led to the growth of an actual religion called Jediism. The tenets are almost Manichean in their duality, and despite an ending that leaves you wondering, those who know the power of mythology have no doubts who, at the end, will be victorious. It is the way of the force.

Jedi Night

Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterIt all began with that trailer. You know, the teaser for the new Star Wars movie. I was among those many small-town boys crowding into theaters in 1977 to have their small-town minds blown with a Luke Skywalker, somehow just like us, getting to go on a galactic adventure and conquering evil. It was a transformative experience. Later I was to learn that noted Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell had advised on the story, helping to produce image after archetypal image that spoke to deep levels of viewers’ psyches. Hungrily we watched, as even through some missteps, the franchise grew to trilogy proportions, creating its own cultural memes (has “I am your father” ever been the same since?). Then somehow I missed The Phantom Menace, or episode one. It could be that work at the time (Nashotah House) was an epic struggle in its own right. With a small child and not sure about baby-sitting options, taking a night out to watch the prequel to a story that had already nicely resolved itself felt kind of pointless. We already knew how it ended. But that trailer. Now it seems, the story will continue.

So it was that my wife and I decided to catch up. Over the weekend we watched The Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d seen clips before. I’d also read the reviews that were less than complementary (Joseph Campbell had died in the meantime and George Lucas couldn’t seem to come up with archetypes on his own). I was curious, but not curious enough to rent the video (as people did in those days). So The Phantom Menace, cast from the same die as episode 4, also has a strong religious resonance. The Jedi (and already the religion of Jediism has begun to appear) filled the backstory with near invincibility, and all the aliens seemed somehow comic, yet we are told remarkably little about the Force. Perhaps episode 4 had said enough. When Darth Vader is introduced as a prescient boy, the audience (at least this audience) finds it hard to believe he is the result of a virgin birth. Indeed, Lucas throws us the midi-chlorians as a sop, but we know that when a woman gives birth with no male intervention we’re in messianic territory. And of course, non-Muppet Yoda tells us straight up that he may be the chosen one.

Introducing the Sith, who are the embodiment of the dark side of the force, we are treated to a devil in only a thin disguise. The red and black greasepaint warn us that when he removes his hood he will have horns. Although we’re not shown, I suspect he has cloven feet as well. So through the movie with its gratuitous cameos of creatures we already know from episode 4, we come to an end that is strangely familiar. We’re back where we started. The Jedi favor earth tones over white, however, and the Sith is neither all red nor all black. The evil of the galactic empire seems to be no more than the very real overtaxation of the poor. And yet for all my disappointment, there’s that trailer we all saw in December, and using my own version of the Force, I foresee an attack of clones in my future.

The Force Re-Awakens

StarWarsMoviePoster1977In a galaxy long ago, in a galaxy far, far away… The year was 1977 and the Joseph Campbell-inspired Star Wars was like nothing we’d ever seen before. The film captured the essence of good versus evil in what, for the time, were realistic scenes in space. Many of us were in awe. Some worshipped. In fact, some six films later, an only quasi-ironic Star Wars religion does exist (Jediism) and its adherents must be buzzing after yesterday’s announcement that a new Star Wars movie will be released next year. What particularly caught my attention was the New York Times article on the event. Peppered with religious language, the trailer review (have we come to this?) by Dave Itzkoff plays on the fact that fans are nothing less than religious about the movies. I have to admit to falling a few movies behind. I’m a lapsed Jediist, I guess.

The new movie, The Force Awakens, will be directed by J. J. Abrams, and that seems to be a prophecy for a positive outcome. It also provides me with a goal; I need to see the episodes I, II, and III that I somehow missed early in the new millennium. Some see, to borrow Itzkoff’s language, the original trilogy as being canonical. The original novelizations—all of which I read as a teenager—were written by various guest writers with names like Glut and Kahn (the latter somewhat prescient for the upcoming Star Trek movies of the time), recording the sacred texts of the nascent religion. Rituals developed, light-sabers were purchased, and imagination became the vehicle for theology.

Behind it all, of course, is the force. This is a deity for a rationalist world. Even today we know that things don’t always turn out the way they should. Juries make the wrong decisions, computers still crash, even even two space shuttles—highly sophisticated though they were—failed and exploded during routine operations. Many find the white-bearded God untenable, but somewhere out there amid the comets and stars, there seems to be a moral force guiding us in the constant struggle of good versus evil. Heaven is still over our heads, although lost in the darkness of space. Less than 90 seconds of film footage have lit up the web with speculation, critique, and yes, reverence. We may have become the consummate secular society, but there is still always room for the force. Indeed, The Force Awakens may contain a not-so-subtle message for those who have ceased to believe that its personified form still exists.

Final Frontier?

Stay away from the dark side. That’s generally good advice. Ironically, new religious movements (NRMs, in the biz) have come up in my conversations quite a bit lately. Some of my friends have suggested that I start a new religion—job security would no longer be an issue. I’ve been studying religions my whole life, and at times I’m sorely, sorely tempted. Meanwhile a friend pointed me to a story on Details.com about Jediism. Yes, there is a religion based on Star Wars—actually, I shouldn’t be too hasty here. There is at least one religion based on Star Wars; likely there are many. The question that is indubitably raised is okay, so do these people actually believe this stuff? Don’t they know Star Wars was written by George Lucas? How can it be a religion? I can only respond with: Have you ever heard of Scientology? Religions do not have to be believable to be believed in. History has shown that time and again.

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Jediism is based on the teachings of saints like Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. What they are teaching is straight Joseph Campbell. Served neat. Good versus evil. A sense that a cosmic force surrounds us. The hero’s journey. The same thing can be found in the Bible. Wrap it up in a Jedi cloak or in a Galilean robe and the end result isn’t much different. I’ve seen bumper stickers suggesting that Obi Wan died for my sins. Just as long as good wins out in the end, who’s to complain? Does it really matter if it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or just away in a manger?

The problem with religion is that we lack a proper definition. Christianity clearly uses the word to describe itself. When looking at those who thought differently (adherents of Judaism, Roman paganism, the great goddess of Syria) early Christians had to call them something. If Christianity is a religion, so must they all be. Some religions, however, are not based on belief, but practice. To be is to do. Some religions are based on historical people, some on fictional people. Some are very serious while others are difficult to tell. Some religions are ancient, but looking at the state of the world it’s hard to say that they’ve been terribly successful. So when a bunch of sci-fi fans think they’ve discovered the truth in the mind of George Lucas, who’s to argue? And I really do mean that about keeping away from the dark side.

The Force

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, or so it seems, I began studying religion not knowing where it would land me.  One of the great things about studying religion is the perpetual refreshing of religious thought that grows with human culture.  Anthropologists and philosophers and sociologists have difficulty defining exactly what religion is.  It is clearly a belief system of some description, but in many parts of the world religion is not so much reflective and reflexive—doing the ancient rituals and getting on with life.  Every great once in a while I learn about a new religion.  Those who don’t spend too much time thinking about it might be surprised to learn that new religions emerge quite frequently, and sometimes with the most unlikely of inspirations.  Consider Scientology.  While reading about new religions recently I discovered Jediism, or Star Wars religion.  Like Scientology, it is based on science fiction.  For those of us alive in another universe in 1977 it is difficult to convey to more recent hominins just how impressive Star Wars was.  Life-changing, in some instances.  Jediism takes the concept of the Force and makes it a central tenet of a belief system for the twenty-first century.
 
Having witnessed the impact of Avatar in even more recent lightyears, perhaps we should not be surprised that fantasy worlds spawn new religions.  After all, although death and suffering pervade even the most pristine of human-concocted galaxies, good ultimately wins over evil in these realms.  It is something worth hoping for.  Maybe even believing in.  Some people question how serious those who call themselves “Jedi” on religious surveys really are.  There are online Jedi sanctuaries, and even humor can be a part of a serious religion—consider the craze of Christian clowns that was going around in the 1980s.  For those of us from long ago, religions just don’t seem authentic without some antiquity to them; they should’ve been started centuries ago by founders who can be mythologized to sainthood or divinity.  We have more facts about the life of Yoda than we do of Jesus.


 
The thin line between fact and fiction grows more effaced every day.  Can religions be based on fictional founders?  Of course they can!  Without any means of determining objectively which religion is right (if any), we are left with only a person’s word about what s/he believes.  If I choose to believe that Sherlock Holmes was a real person what harm does it do?  It may even benefit the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  As Matt Rossano points out in his book Supernatural Selection, religions are about perceived relationships.  Many people have relationships with fictional characters, sometimes falling in love with one or fantasizing about being one.  Basing a religion on a fictional character may be the greatest sign of trust.  After all, we can’t even define religion in a way on which all specialists will agree.  Religion itself may be the ultimate fiction.  May the Force be with you, just in case.