My family and I recently attended one of those big fandom conventions that dot the American cultural scene. I actually study fandom and fan cultures (yeah, I love my job), and the experience definitely left a strong impression. This was my second big con. The first time I was just blown away by the experience. This time, I saw connections with larger American and European culture that I think could be helpful for Christians to consider.
I love going to cons. They are, first of all, visually stunning: so many nerds, so much color, so much creativity and imagination on display. Everywhere you look, there’s a sea of fans walking around in zombie Stormtrooper or steampunk Daenerys Targaryen costumes. But it struck me that all of this creativity and imagination focuses ultimately on desire: the desire to display, to be seen, to ogle and be ogled, to assert loyalty to one or more media franchises, as well as the desire to get close to greatness (look at the lines for the celebrity panels!), and the desire to acquire (look at the lines in the vendor halls!). Coming into the land of the nerds means wandering the landscape of desire.Nerd culture is about desire, and that has implications for the Church’s mission.
This impression intensified when I attended a panel discussion entitled “Fanfic: Beyond PWP.” “Fanfic” refers to works of fiction written by fans who use characters and settings from established fiction or media franchises and reimagines them according to the wishes of the fan authors. And for the uninitiated, PWP stands for “Porn Without Plot,” or “Plot? What Plot?” The panel’s title, though, turned out to be false advertising: the discussion didn’t really move much past PWP.
Some would have found the discussion disturbing (and parts were), but I found it utterly fascinating. The audience was comprised mostly of white women, with a few scattered males and women of color. On the panel sat three white women in their 20s or early 30s who were either fan experts or worked in the fandom industry in some way. I didn’t record the discussion (which is just as well, because people were sharing some very personal details), and I was too engrossed to take notes.
But here is what I recall as important: First, two of the three panelists admitted to having been sexually abused, and I would guess that the percentage of the audience who had suffered some type of sexual trauma was higher than the 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 rate typically cited (in her study of early Star Trek fandom Enterprising Women, cultural anthropologist Camille Bacon-Smith noted that women who were drawn to homoerotic or “slash” fanfiction often did so to work through the fears stemming from bad experiences with men, being disempowered by men, etc.). The discussion overall was very interesting, at least to a pop culture geek like me. They spent some time, for instance, talking about the economics of fanfic, how 50 Shades of Grey isn’t an anomaly (yes, 50 Shades started out as Twilight fanfic). As it turns out, there’s actually an established practice of self-publishing fanfiction that simply renames the characters and promotes it as original fiction. And established publishers know who the popular fanfic writers are, and they want to cash in. So expect more Shade-ish pieces of fiction in the future, folks.
But the conversation mostly dealt with different sexual pairings in fanfiction: slash (male-male), femslash (female-female), bondage, and beyond (I remember incest slash between the two brothers in Supernatural got a good bit of discussion). And then one of the panelists, a woman who had earlier admitted to having been sexually abused, talked about why she loved reading fanfiction: “I just read until something hits me, and I’m either bawling my eyes out, or I say, ‘Oooooh! Hmmmmm, I need to read more of this.’ And that tells me something about me.” In other words, one reads fanfic for the emotional impact, to be touched deeply with sorrow or longing or lust or whatever.
Fanfic, then, is an arena for exploring personal desire. Fanfic helped this woman discover she was demisexual (only sexually attracted to those with whom she shared a deep emotional bond). She didn’t even know it was a thing until she read about it in fanfiction. Fanfic is, for these women (and the few men there), a laboratory for testing the desiring self, a jungle safari for hacking away at weeds until they discover the hidden temple of their own desires. It is all about eros, all about desire. That’s what gives fanfic texts their peculiar power: they are paramount examples of the way imaginative works can change and express the landscape of desire. For these fans, alternative sexualities were treasured because they were different expressions of this desiring self. The only thing that was forbidden was the suggestion that perhaps desire was broken, distorted, disfigured, wrong. The overwhelming sentiment was: “Hey, I feel what I feel, and I want what I want, and who the hell are you to tell me I shouldn’t?”
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think these fanfic readers/writers are that different from all the other nerds milling about in the hotel lobbies, or from Western society in general. Take the nerds at the con: granted, not all of them had histories of sexual abuse, but I know that many share a consciousness of marginalization and victimization (at least among those I’ve interviewed). Many of these people were the ones who were isolated, teased, and beat up in high school. Some bear deep scars. And granted, not all of them are into alternative sexualities, but they all share the conviction that a person should be able to want whatever and however he/she wants. It’s sort of a mantra at fan conventions: We don’t love the same things, but we all affirm the right to love whatever lights us up inside. This is a kingdom where desire rules with an absolute sway. (And media companies know it. For as much as fans complain about media companies ruining their franchises, etc., they also buy a ton of stuff from them).
And what about the non-nerds, the jocks and the “normal” kids who seemed cool on the outside, but who we know were quivering blobs of teenage angst and insecurity on the inside? Are they so different than the nerds? In this combination of victimization and the rule of desire, non-nerds are just like nerds. In the West, and in America especially, we have grown up into a system that prizes desire above all. We all, nerd and non-nerd alike, live in our separate landscapes of desire. And we all have stories to tell, stories of scars and damage. It’s a hallmark of the contemporary West that we all feel like victims, we all feel broken. And we are broken, but we also want what we want, and who the hell are you to tell me I’m wrong?
Here is where the Christian church needs to be aware of the deep disconnect between what we subscribe to and what the desiring West will put up with. The Christian faith is well aware of human brokenness. It speaks into brokenness and heals it, primarily through reforming desire (if you doubt this, read Thomas Chalmers’ “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”). That’s what Christians mean by “being made new in Christ.” Christians, enabled by the Spirit, want to become different from the inside out, people whose inner desires reflect the heart of Jesus, people who desire in their heart of hearts to please the Father, despite their ongoing struggles with their own rebellion and brokenness. This insistence on the reformation of desire is precisely what makes Christianity so annoying and threatening to many in the West. It’s not just about whether Christianity is true – many don’t want it to be true because that would mean change at the level of deepest desire (and who the hell is your God to tell me I can’t want what I want? I’d rather not believe in a God like that). Thus the Christian faith is sent off with a red card and excluded from consideration before it even gets a chance to present its case. Call it the pre-emptive strike of unbelief.
That’s the challenge facing those who want to share their faith today. And I’m not sure that Christians have really wrapped their heads around this fact. I am an apologist by training and (God help me) by temperament, but it’s clear to me that in this case, challenging discussions about worldviews are just not going to make much headway here. We’re not engaging with faulty intellects, but with strong unconditional commitments to whatever configuration of desire a person feels, no matter how distorted. Whatever tells someone that his or her desires are wrong (or that anyone’s desire is wrong) isn’t worth believing in and is ruled out from the get-go.
So what’s the solution? For starters, we need to realize that many of the non-Christians we meet don’t need worldview argumentation. They don’t need to be preached at. Many are not in a place where they can hear, let alone understand, the gospel. Rather, those who are trapped by desire need to be loved faithfully in a long-lasting relationship. They need someone to listen, to hear their stories, to offer healing where it is wanted.
But they also need to be shown an imaginative vision of healthy desire, desire made whole. This is the role of the artist in a deeply post-Christian culture. I remember reading in Christ and Pop Culture a piece on how Tolkien’s works imaginatively recast nature as something inherently good, something worth delighting in and protecting. We need Christian creatives who can do the same for desire and sexuality. I would venture to say that the church has not done a good job here. Just saying “We believe in traditional marriage and traditional values” is not going to bear that load. We need artists who are able to roll out a renewed landscape of desire, one that arouses the passions, one that makes people believe that such a reformation of desire is possible…and beautiful.
I’ll state for the record that I’m not that guy; I don’t have those gifts or that kind of imagination. Consider this piece sending up a flare, a want ad looking for those who can.
So calling all lovers of the messed-up, all creatives who can spell out healthy, holy desire in all its facets through varied media: you’re needed on deck, milling around in hotel lobbies with nerds like us.