The Religiosity of Fandom
Pop culture is dominated by fandoms. For better or worse, the entertainment industry caters to the expansive communities that unite around popular franchises or intellectual properties, from Marvel to Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings to Disney, and beyond.
Christians tend to attribute “religion” to almost everything. Thus, atheism becomes a religion; the shopping mall becomes a sacred site; and entertainment fandoms become religious communities. This mindset, while not wholly off base, is a bit too cute. When everything is a religion, religion is cheapened. If religion is a fundamental orientation or framework for understanding the world, then being a superfan of a particular comic-book franchise, for example, is something different. Further, many religious people are also a part of one or more of these fandoms.
While it may be an overstatement to label fandoms “religions” in any meaningful sense, the current allure of fandoms certainly reflects religious elements. As society drifts away from religion, it’s perhaps unsurprising that many religious tendencies have manifested themselves in other areas, such as pop-culture fandom. In a sense, fandoms serve as a mirror reflecting both the best and worst of our religious tendencies.
The Need for Community
God declared, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). There is a deep human longing for community. Culture has changed, but this communal need has not. In this digital age when social isolation is more convenient than ever and technology has chewed away at many traditional social gatherings (such as shopping centers and movie theaters), the need for community is as strong as ever.
One example of our desire for community is evident in the current debate about the “binging” model of TV streaming versus the old-fashioned staggered-release framework. At the onset of streaming, binging was a viewer’s paradise. The idea of gorging oneself on hours and hours of on-demand viewing without commercials seemed almost too good to be true. Several years later, the realization has set in that part of what makes shows enjoyable is the communal experience of watching them and the subsequent discussions that happen every week around the digital water cooler. In other words, the communal experience and interaction of fandom.
There’s a prevalent belief that the younger generations are staunchly individualistic and that technology fosters an isolated existence. While that view contains some truth, many young adults use technology to connect with communities and fandoms. There is a reason for the immense popularity of YouTube “reaction” videos, in which viewers watch someone else watch a new movie trailer or video. Society has a deep desire to share communal experiences in a digital world.
The younger generations are flocking away from the church en masse, leading some Christians to have a cynical attitude toward fandoms (“If only these kids would be as excited about worshiping God as they are about watching superheroes in spandex…”). Yet, the popularity of these massive fandoms is also a positive. It indicates that the digital world has not—cannot—erase our God-created need for fellowship and community. A need that the church can satisfy.
The Need for Unity
The appeal of fandoms is not just that they provide community in the sense of large masses of people. It’s more specifically about the yearning for a unified community. The allure of events like San Diego’s Comic-Con or Star Wars Celebration is that a diverse community has a shared affection for something. Representation in its best, non-propagandistic form is driven by this desire for fandoms to be a place where everyone can find belonging.
Unification is another longing Christianity satisfies. The apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). When the Christian movement exploded in the first century, it was initially driven largely by those on the fringes of society (women, slaves, the poor, etc.). The gospel was the great unifier. It’s still the great unifier. The Christian church should reflect the idealistic dream of fandoms, in which every type and variety of person is united in Christ.
Need for Order and Control
Fandoms often reflect the better aspects of religion. Unfortunately, they frequently resemble the worst as well. It rarely takes long for a large community to establish a rigid, legalistic orthodoxy. In fandom, this tendency leads to ridiculous pop-culture conversations like, “Real fans know that…” or crusades against the heresy of the Disney-era Star Wars stories or Amazon’s Lord of the Rings (“You seriously claim to be a fan of Lord of the Rings, but you don’t even know the difference between the Ainulinadalë and the Akallabêth? SMH”). Buzz words like “gatekeeping” or “toxic” are now frequently volleyed around within fandom.
The worst of fandoms inevitably devolve into the worst of religion because they are driven by the same selfish, sinful tendency: a holier-than-thou pharisaical pride that elevates us at the expense of others. It’s unfortunate when pop-culture fandoms are polluted by these flaws, but it’s far more tragic when the church is. The Christian community is called to be better: “Now may the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you harmony with one another in Christ Jesus, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15: 5-6). As many pop-culture fandoms become increasingly toxic, may the church be a welcoming and united community where diversity is united under the banner of Christ.