I confess, I have not watched one episode of “Game of Thrones.” Not one. But I have seen most of the Marvel Super Hero movies, including the recent “Avengers End Game.” What these blockbuster shows have in common is what I think attracts so many fans to them. Both are fantasies. So, why are fantasies so popular in our culture?
Stories of fantasy have always had an important place in our lives. Supernatural events, creatures, miracles, magic, they were the stuff that allowed us to make sense of the world and the events that seemed to control our everyday living. This worldview existed until the rise of modernity, which began with the Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment, and its resulting secularization of thought offered a worldview where political discourse and reason replaced belief in things like miracles and magic. But the stories remained, raising questions whether this transition was permanent or reversible, that we might be thrown back into the premodern world.
And despite our best efforts to have some control in our lives, we live with the uncertainty of changes in our climate, the needless gun violence that pervades everyday living, and has now entered into our sanctuaries, and the general sense of the need to belong. Things have become relative, uncertain. All this is to say we live in a pretty anxious time. We didn’t go back to a pre-modern era, we entered the post-modern era. Enter the superhero.
There is a direct correlation between our anxiety about the future, and the rise in popularity of stories about super heroes and fantasy.
I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if there really was a Justice League or Avengers that protected us all from evil and harm? Wouldn’t it be great if, after years of betrayal, war, killing, and palace intrigue, people came to the realization that peace is achieved only through democracy? (I haven’t seen a GoT episode, but I have read a lot about the concluding two episodes)
And wouldn’t it be great if we could elect someone who would single handedly solve all of our problems?
I believe one of the failures of Christianity in the last 80 years or so is the shift from inviting people into communities of compassion, to simply offering a personal escape vehicle in the form of a confession to Jesus that earns a ticket to heaven.
In the invitation to community people are challenged to live together, self interest is replaced with a concern for the other, and “I” receives its identity through the “we.” A “ticket to heaven” mentality has led to how the church in general often talks about God as “out there” somewhere, always judging our behavior, rewarding the “good” people and “punishing” the bad people.
But, according to scripture, God is not “out there.” And God’s desire is not to punish people. To the contrary, God’s revelation through Jesus is that God’s judgment is a judgment of love. And that the greatest act of love is forgiveness.
Entering the world of fantasy through books and movies, and comic books can be a much-needed break, but it is the work of community building, building communities of compassion that will give meaning to our lives. In fact, if you have seen the Avengers movie you might have noticed that most of the film was about the relationships of the people that mattered, the sense of family that mattered, the sacrificial love that lent meaning to what it is to be fully human.
Within the community Jesus creates we are offered what he calls an abundant life. It is a life centered in having compassion for others. These communities do exist although we don’t hear much about them.
But they are no fantasy.
The Rev. Ron Griffen is lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in El Centro.