by Theo Poward
There are a lot of similarities between religious people and nerds. This is elegantly highlighted by a short video that you might need to watch as background for this piece.
Despite the oversimplification, particularly in referring to a religious tradition as a “franchise,” there is a lot of truth to this video. The problem that is being addressed is also nothing new in the history of theology. It’s called Idolatry, and in this article I’m going to go through why it is important when approaching the issue of Art, Culture, and Religion.
The similarities that the video highlights are largely cosmetic, and its the key weakness of the video that it doesn’t explore these things further. Although admittedly, that should not be the main purpose of a 2-minute comedy sketch.
The visible and behavioral aspects of fandom, can be understood as Zeal. This is the name for when somebody treats something in their lives as more important than others might think, to a level that it no-longer makes sense from the outside. The thing in question can be anything. The change is when it starts making up part of that person’s identity. With pieces of art, you can see the change when the thing transforms from being ‘just a show’ or ‘just a book’ to being fundamental to who somebody is. How they feel about themselves. The point where they will argue that ‘It is NOT just a show.’
There are two things that can bring about this change. The first is genuine agreement or enjoyment with the message or presentation of a certain piece of art. The second is the feeling of community that comes from belonging to a group of fan’s for that art. I shouldn’t have to give examples of this taking place; I will just ask you to consider any group that is built around a particular piece of work and see for yourself whether this holds true.
Forming groups and even defining ourselves in terms of pieces of work that we love and/or communities that we belong to as a result of that love is in no way a bad thing. There is little more pleasant or healthy than belonging to a community built around sound teachings presented in an enjoyable way.
Nerd culture and Religious communities both contribute to positive identity building. They make it possible for us to define ourselves in positive statements; what we believe, what we love, who we are loyal to. This is over and above negative constructions; I am A because I am not B. For example, it is healthier to say ‘I’m English because I like tea and playing cricket’, rather than ‘I’m English because I’m not French.’
The Danger of Idolatry
As with all things, we require balance and moderation. Idolatry is best understood as a disordering; devoting ourselves too much to things that don’t deserve our attention and neglecting things that do. There is a real danger here when people begin to see their identity as indistinguishable from the art that they are fans of. In this situation criticism and difference becomes an existential threat. This feeling of existential threat is the source of violence.
Idolatry, as described above is certainly less common among ‘regular nerds,’ as opposed to ‘religious nerds’. But it is not unheard of, as these horrific stories of child neglect and murder show us. Idolatry is obviously going to be more common when the object of veneration has no claim on the meaning and direction of life, like every theological tradition explicitly does claim. The Abrahamic theological tradition place central importance on warning about Idolatry. It is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of these religious traditions.
How to protect against It
As discussed, an Idolater is someone who sees a criticism or attack on the ideas and things that they believe or enjoy most as an existential threat. This is linked with concerns about purity. There are three main things that signify Idolatry that we should look out for in ourselves and others:
- The thing that I am dedicated to is the only legitimate thing for people to dedicate themselves to.
- We see this in theology when people argue strongly against any difference of opinion.
- We see it in general culture when nerds argue about which fandom is the best.
- An attack on my art is an attack on me.
- We see this in theology when people who believe differently are seen as dangerous; heretics, apostates, non-believers.
- We see this in general culture when people become upset that others do not enjoy the same things as them.
- The only community and friendships that I feel to be a part of are based upon a shared love of a certain piece of art.
- We see this in theology when people only feel comfortable engaging with people from the same theological background as them. The worst possible version of this can be sen in any Cult.
- We see this in general culture when people find it difficult relating or engaging with people who they do not share their interests.
These problems are part of humanity, and they aren’t restricted to religious communities or fandoms. Everybody suffers from these things to varying levels. It is not bad to have a certain amount of zeal for an idea, a book, a tv show. It is bad to let that zeal alone define who you are as a person in a way that closes you off from other things. Purity is a real issue here and a demand or desire for purity especially on these matters should always be treated with caution.
We should respect that to certain people certain shows and books are not ‘just shows’ or ‘just books’. We need to build ourselves up in positive ways. It doesn’t matter how trivial things are, community is important. We also need to encourage, in ourselves and others the appreciation that however important to us something is, it is not going to be the same for others, nor should it be.
We do this by exposing ourselves to art that is outside our comfort zone, maintaining and building friendships with people with whom we do not share love for the same type of art, or share the same identity markers. Art asks us to empathize, good art makes us empathize. This is an important tool in combating the narrow-mindedness that defines extremism and Idolatry.
Above all we should be weary of calls for purity and never limit ourselves exclusively to just one book, TV show, artwork, or idea.
As Thomas Aquinas said “I fear the man of a single book.”
Photo/Video Credit – College Humor