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Religion as Fandom.


In light of certain recent events, a dream I had 20 years ago has become newly interesting to me. What I wrote upon awakening follows verbatim:

Last night, I had a vivid dream (and I think for the first time I remember it being in color). I met a group of born-again people who were into something strange. They had a method of traveling into the future (or at least somewhere very remote) and were fleeing in anticipation of the soon-coming end-time.

They were trying to convince me to come along. They were warm and vivacious people and really seemed to he right! I had that inner pressure of conviction: "Hey, why are you trying to rationalize? You know this is right." I mean, there was this really positive feeling that this was true. But as they explained their conclusions from the Bible, I knew they were mistaken exegetically. I could just see that Hal Lindsey-type prophecy interpretation, etc. And I remember thinking that, even though I hated to do this, since it felt like squelching the Spirit's leading, I'd better follow my brain or common sense and bow out. I sensed then that this was actually the right thing to do--instead of following what seemed like a "leading" or an inner feeling of conviction.

It was really a strong and attractive opportunity to join a "bizarre cult." It didn't even seem wacky at the time--there were altogether reasonable, nice and balanced-seeming people involved, and a lot of conviction-feeling that this was right. But I didn't succumb. I had wondered how straight, sane people could come to the point of hopping into crazy sects. This dream maybe showed me from the inside what that moment of decision is like. But I won.

Bo and Peep, The Two, founders of the suicide cult Heaven's Gate, were not consciously on my mind at the time of the dream, but leaving evangelical pietism was. It is the latter, not the former, that I took to be the subject of the dream. I still do. But, in retrospect, the relevance of my dream on July 19, 1977, to understanding Heaven's Gate is obvious. I think I can empathize with the feelings, cultivated through pietistic subjectivism, that would lead potential recruits to decide "to go where no man has gone before." I can only feel, as Walter Kaufmann wrote in his great book The Faith of a Heretic, "There but for the lack of the grace of God go I." Both my dream and the Heaven's Gate (tragedy? fiasco?), show how, as Kaufmann wrote in the same book, we simply dare not cast reason aside, as the evangelists of various faith-based sects urge us to do, when we are deliberating the most significant (and potentially dangerous) decision we can ever make.


The year 1977 was also marked by the premiere of Star Wars. The film seized my imagination, and I must have seen it more than a score of times that summer. That summer I also dropped out of church, and when I ran into one of my old church pals she told me she heard I had joined a Star Wars cult! The whole idea of such a thing highly amused me, but not as much as the thought that she believed me capable of it! The idea grew somewhat less comical a couple of years later as I came to know a group of Star Wars fans who made me (thank the Force!) look like a piker. Though I was a lifelong fan of comic books, fantasy and science fiction, I had always been, more or less, a loner. The ways of fandom were alien to me. I found it eerier and eerier when these people spent considerable time dressing in Star Wars costumes (something I did, I swear it, only at a couple of costume parties), writing their own Luke Skywalker novels, and so on. The guy I knew best, an accountant and a nerd, specialized in impersonating Han Sol o. Though he would have made a better Jawa, he liked to dress up as Han for conventions and parties. His apartment was festooned with pictures of Solo, a big model of the Millennium Falcon filling the whole coffee table, and his own mock-up of a Star Wars blaster. He told me that on bad days he would almost feel Han Solo telling him to brace up, bucko, and carry on. But he wasn't the worst.

A friend and sometimes girlfriend of his (to hear him tell it, anyway) had started to believe that the whole Star Wars thing was true-in a parallel dimension. This rationalization enabled her to maintain a tenuous grip on sanity, because it allowed her to admit that Luke, Han, and R2 didn't exist-in our world. But there was another world in which they did. Unfortunately she was stuck in the wrong one. So were the crew of Heaven's Gate. Only like E.T, they decided to phone home, and then go.

For most of us, Star Wars, Star Trek, and the like are what is called "escapist fiction." The term denotes that, while we are engrossed in an episode of Trek (or a comic book, soap opera, or a great novel for that matter), we have taken a little vacation from the "real" world, i.e., the public world we share with others most of the time. That world is no less a tissue of fictions, conventions, games, ad hoc rules, etc., which our ancestors agreed to live by, and which we inherit like ever-new generations of baseball players. But it is a set of fictions binding us all in our communal activities and governing the nuts and bolts of everyday life, the economy education, waging war, administering government, etc. (see John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, 1995).

The public world is built on the lowest common denominator. It would be a leaden existence, the instinctive, unthinking existence of a herd of cattle, if we did not individually transcend that public world by means of our various hobbies and entertainments. The people whom fans call "the mundanes" are those who get along pretty well almost all the time within the drop-ceiling confines of the public world. Here is your martini-sipping golfer, your businessman, your Joe Six-pack, your couch potato, your liberal social activist. They are strikingly like the "carnal" and "natural" categories of ancient Gnostic anthropology. Network television thrives on them.

The little vacations we take into the more interesting mini-worlds of the imagination give color to an otherwise dull existence. Someone once asked J.R.R. Tolkien why he wrote mere "escapist" literature. He defended it, saying he didn't know why it should be required of a prisoner that he should never think about anything but his cell. I would suggest that a more natural term than escapist for fantastic literature is "imaginative" fiction. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in The Social Construction of Reality (1966; Searle's book is an admitted sequel to theirs), call these worlds of imagination "finite provinces of meaning." We enter into them, for the duration of the movie, the stage play, the novel, the television episode, by means of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called "the temporary, willing suspension of disbelief."

In the public world we know Scarlett O'Hara, Erika Kane, and Mr. Spock are merely paper characters who have no real historical existence. Yet, when watching them on the screen, we decide to put that knowledge on the shelf for the time being. They become quite real to us. That is how drama can perform the function Aristotle ascribed to it, that of catharsis: the cleansing of the soul of pity and terror by means of pity and terror. In an absorbing scary movie, we sometimes find ourselves desperate to terminate the suspension of disbelief: "Calm down, now; remember it's only a movie!" And when it's over, we're back to accepting that Mr. Spock doesn't really exist (though secretly we think, "Too bad!"). A perfect analogy for our recreational visits to our favorite finite provinces of meaning is the Holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation and later series. You step through the sliding door into a computerized holographic simulation of a historic battle, a detective novel, a pornographic fantasy, whatever. Then , when it's time to go back on duty, all you have to do is say, "Computer, end program!" And leave.


Sometimes some people find life in the public world just too hard to endure. They cannot succeed in it or perhaps, like Seymour Glass in J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Banana Fish" (in his collection Nine Stories), they are too sensitive to live in it. Or they are bored out of their skulls. When a disgusted parent snaps at such a person, "Get a life!," Dad means a life in the public world. But, instead, they decide to abandon the public world for the private. It is just the opposite of the brilliant Next Generation episode "Ship in a Bottle," in which a Holodeck character, Sherlock Holmes's enemy Dr. Moriarty, becomes self-aware and wants to leave the Holodeck for good. Some pathetic individuals want to take up full-time residence inside the sham-world of the Holodeck. Such were the voyagers through Heaven's Gate. They had joined a Star Wars cult. They would not have dismissed the parallel.

An interesting lesson can be learned from all this about conventional religion. Berger and Luckmann were quick to point out that religion, too, is a finite province of meaning. Most religious people in a secular, pluralistic society live in a world of an gels and spirits, miracles and prophecies, only for an hour or two a week. Their religious service is like a stage play or a Star Trek episode. For the duration they have left the public world behind with all of its assumptions. Turning the other cheek seems a good thing to do for an hour or so a week (when you don't have occasion to have to do it). Angels and demons seem likely enough. That the Rapture will come seems as plausible as that April 15 will roll around again.

But, as Rudolf Bultmaun said, "We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament" (New Testament and Mythology, Fortress, 1989, p. 4). When you leave and return to the public world, it will not occur to you to, say, call up an exorcist should you fall seriously ill. You will find it more difficult to take the Rapture seriously and you may feel guilty about it. You don't really expect your prayers to be answered. And you feel embarrassed talking about your religious beliefs with those who do not share them. This is true even of fundamentalists and other propagandists. They may seem pushy to outsiders, but only a tiny minority engage in interpersonal "witnessing," and the rest are constantly berated in church for being "ashamed of the gospel."

But are they ashamed? Or rather do they sense that some things belong in the public world, like politics, and that others, like evangelism, belong to religion's finite province of meaning? Moses had to leave his shoes outside the charmed circle when he entered upon sacred ground. Even most fundamentalists would rather bring "unsaved" friends to sacred ground, like a Billy Graham rally inside the finite province of meaning, than bring evangelism out into the open by witnessing to an office mate who will henceforth consider you a kook. Even when fundamentalists learn to swallow hard and witness to all and sundry you can tell they have had to swallow ordinary rules of civility and resign themselves to appearing nutty to co-workers. That is the price of acceptance and esteem within the smaller, more intimate circle of their church peer-group, their segment of fandom. E.J. Carnell described the situation well: "The fundamentalist's quest for souls is subtly interlarded with a quest for status in the cult, for the soul-winner belongs to a new high-priestly caste" (The Case for Orthodox Theology, Westminster, 1959, p. 122). I am inclined to take a more sympathetic view than Carnell. I am sure no fundamentalist has ever become an aggressive "personal evangelist" without being shamed into it and then making the best of it. But Carnell is right: the witnessing Christian has sacrificed acceptance in the public world for the sake of his peers in the Holodeck.

So much for fundamentalism. A lesson of wider application concerns the obligation most people feel to believe that, e.g., the trinity the resurrection of Jesus, Moses and the Red Sea, are all as real, and in the same factual way as the mundane realities they deal with in the public world throughout the week, which is darn hard to do. The average religious believer knows too well the plaint of the demoniac's father, "Lord, I believe, Help thou mine unbelief!" They feel guilty for having weak faith. But do they? I think they are suffering under a needless burden.

The problem is that they and their leaders fail to understand the essentially dramatic character of religious liturgy, religious services. The spiritual edification one experiences there is a case of dramatic catharsis. One is changed by attending church or synagogue in the same sort of way one is changed by experiencing great theater or film or music. No one would think one needs to believe that Bergman's Antonius Block or Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet actually existed in order to be edified and challenged by their stories. Actors will attest the power of the acting experience as one transforms oneself into an archetypal character. Church services attended and sacramental rituals in which one plays the lead role have the same power and for the same reason. All that is needed in either case, I think, is Coleridge's temporary willing suspension of disbelief. One "believes" Jesus rose from the dead while in church just as one "believes" Spock rose from the dead in Star Trek III. There is simply no call for belie ving in Mr. Spock after you hit "rewind" on the video cassette recorder. There is no reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus the rest of the week, except as a powerful story. This is not to drain the cross and the empty tomb of their power. No, it is precisely to account for their great power. The play's the thing.

You will see my point if you think for a second of those religious believers who do manage to make themselves believe in miracles and spirits all through the week. They are vomiting up demons in "Deliverance Ministry" meetings. They are refusing to go to doctors and throwing out their insulin. They are deciding not to go to college since the Rapture is on its way. They are making intolerable nuisances of themselves witnessing to everybody they meet lest these pass into a Christless eternity Not a pretty picture. They are living on the Holodeck. They are 24-hour-a-day fans. They are knock, knock, knocking on Heaven's Gate.

Robert M. Price is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute and a member of the Jesus Seminar. His most recent book is Deconstructing Jesus (Prometheus Books).
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Author:Price, Robert M.
Publication:Free Inquiry
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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