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.


  1. As Tumblr would say: THIIIIIIIIIIIIS. Even now I’m writing a new urban fantasy novel that I hope will convey a sense of wonder and excitement and hope for something greater than your own desire, but I didn’t know how to put it into words until this article. Which I have bookmarked. Which I will memorize and quote at people. Your description of the “pre-emptive strike” against Christianity is EXACTLY the conversation I have been having with my non-Christian, fandom friends for 20 years. And in case you do the math, that includes pre-internet! Thanks for engaging this topic on this level. I believe there are a lot of us in this aspect of the partnership of the gospel!

  2. Fabulous article! There is so much to consider here. I’ve been writing fantasy for a while and struggling with the value of it in the marketplace and my own identity as a Christian author. Lately I’ve had several ideas for romance as well, but felt frustrated with how the secular romance market is full of gratuitous sex and the Christian romance market is preachy, focused mainly on the American frontier of the 1800s. There is a world of creativity missing here! There are infinite stories to tell of love and desire from all walks of life! Where are the authors showing us romance in other cultures, other socioeconomic situations? What about other worlds, steampunk, fantasy, and sci-if? I’m taking this challenge. I have no idea if there’s a market for it, but you’re right. Someone has to lead the way.

    1. You raise a really good point: in a consumer capitalist system, the market is always a consideration. And when the market is being driven by ever-expanding explorations of desire (“50 Shades” made a lot of money), one wonders how an appeal to constrain desire within limits would make money. On the other side, publishing is now as wide-open as it’s ever been. I think if someone could capture a compelling vision of both brokenness and what wholeness would look like, feel like, act like, sound like, if it doesn’t come off as judgmental, but as healing and enticing, there’s no knowing how far such a work would go (if it goes as far as a movie script, please please please don’t let it fall into the hands of cheesy Christian filmmakers!). Thanks for your comments. Very encouraging!

  3. Have you heard of Fans for Christ? They are a pretty large group now and are usually present at the larger and some of the smaller con’s across the country. That’s kind of an aside from your call to action, but thought you might want to check out what they do. Great article, BTW!

    1. I do know of FFC, and I think they do great work. All those guys: Christian Gamers Guild, Gamechurch, all of them. They all deserve props. If I weren’t sunk eyeball deep in teaching in Prague, I’d be sorely tempted to throw in my lot with them. So many nerds, so few nerd-friendly Christians…

  4. This is fascinating, especially since I was just at Salt Lake Comic Con last weekend as a Christian author. I saw all this with my own eyes and sat on a panel about fairy tales where I heard some of these desires in the other panelist’s answers. It is something I’ll be thinking about for a while. Thanks for the article.

  5. One small note: I think it would be helpful to clarify that fanfic is not an inherently sexual genre. It certainly can be sexual, but there are plenty of people out there writing fan fiction simply as a way to spend more time with characters or in a world that they’ve grown to love.

    That said, great piece. As a hobbyist writer I tend to think a lot about what my fiction is portraying about God and the universe even if no one reads it but me. Clarifying our message on sex and sexuality to portray that desires (sexual or otherwise) are ultimately God-given and can be healthy and beautiful in their proper context.

    1. Revynn, you are absolutely right. I did not mean to imply all fanfic is about sexuality. There are plenty of genfic writers out there. What surprised me was how the panel turned out. I went because the sexy-schmexy stuff is what gets all the attention, and I wanted to hear something about fanfic beyond PWP. And then that didn’t happen (one panelist even said at the outset, “Oh, you know we’ll end up just talking about porn…”). And that is in itself fascinating — even when the express intent NOT to go there, they still went there. But you’re right: fanfic is not inherently sexual. Except for those writers for whom it really is.

      And about your 2d paragraph, be warned, my friend: the gap between hobbyist and professional is closing fast. Who knows who’ll be reading your prose in the not-too-distant-future?

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. It was a welcome clarification.

  6. Uh, for one thing though go and ask how many of those same fic writers are married. You’d probably be surprised that many are, or are already in healthy relationships. You’re assuming a lot, I think: in anime especially it’s a bit of a running joke that the female otaku are surprisingly normal compared to the male. I think it’s because women tend to enjoy the social aspects of fandom and the making of connections more, and men tend to like the thing they are a fan of itself, and knowledge of it.

    Not really sure much will be done by selling marriage. The fanfic stuff often is curiously compartmentalized from their real life, and doesn’t always influence it. I think we need more christian geek creatives in general, saying all kinds of things, but its hard.

  7. Hi D.M. Thanks for your comments.

    So, 1.: Yes, I did make a few assumptions, and no, I don’t know the marital status of any of the people who were at that panel. It wouldn’t surprise me if some (or even a majority) were. Bacon-Smith in her study of early Star Trek fanfic writers indicated that many were married (similar to Janice Radway’s study of romance readers in the 80s). But just because someone is in a marriage doesn’t really mean that desire doesn’t get weird and rule in some sense.

    2. I do not doubt that male otaku are warped. You cannot sustain a whole industry of life-sized waifu pillows without a male fan-base that’s got weird desires. But the point was not to stigmatize female fans. I tried really hard not to do that. Instead, my point was that these female fans were just being like the rest of us. So please don’t take the piece as some condemnation of dem crazy female desires. Not what I was saying. And I think you’re right on target that female fans have a deeper appreciation of the social aspect of fandom than guys tend to have.

    3. I’m not sure that I was advocating “selling marriage.” I think I was saying that we need creatives to present convincing and compelling images of desire broken and healed, of what wholeness looks like and why it might be attractive. That’s a lot wider than just pushing the traditional family thing. It’s about getting to the meaning of sex and desire within a Christian perspective, something positive and creative rather than just negative and limiting.

    4. Fans may mentally compartmentalize their lives into fanfic/real life, but that doesn’t mean that fanfic doesn’t have a profound effect on their lives. Patterns of desire always do, even if we think it doesn’t. “Compartmentalization” is a term that is generally evoked when dealing with addiction, and it has always fascinated me how fandom and addiction therapy often share vocab. I think part of the reason is because fandom feeds off of desire in a way that resembles addiction. There’s always an effect in personal life, even if it’s buried. And that effect spills over from the private lives (or imaginations) of fans into the socio-cultural realm once it becomes an object of cultural politics (as it has in recent years as more gay male fanfic writers have tried to claim slash as their own) or when it crosses over into published work (as with 50 Shades). Fanfic may have been the private reserve of a marginalized subculture for decades, but it’s coming out of the shadows and having an impact, for good or ill.

    5. Finally, I totally agree that we need more Christian creative geek types writing/producing/drawing/filming/recording/blogging all sorts of stuff. No argument there. And it is hard. Unfortunately, I think part of why it’s hard is because the church typically doesn’t quite know what to do with geeks. Conservative churches tend to treasure conformity and respectability, and geeks don’t. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is to maybe goad churches into revaluing and reevaluating the geeks in their midst. They may be weird, but they are also denizens of a space that few respectable church-goers would dare to enter. In other words, you wanna do cultural missions: assemble the nerds.

    Sorry to be so wordy, but you raised some substantive points which I think deserve a substantive answer. Thanks so much for your comments.

    1. Yeah it is being mainstreamed, but for now it seems for female fans that they still can form relationships and keep it in two separate spheres. If you like manga, a great example of this is My Girlfriend is a Geek, where a guy falls for a fujoshi girl. I think healthy desire is the corrective for a waifu pillow more than anything, and you’re viewing them like you’d view male fans some. Not that this is bad, but to be honest female fans really are a modern creation.

      I really agree about the reasons you give for creatives being rare among Christians. it’s becoming a point of despair for me, because we only seem to produce critics or people who view geekdom only through the lens of cultural missions. I don’t know why it’s so hard for Christians to actually create works, or enjoy works by Christians.

  8. This article is fantastic. It articulates some things that have been spinning in my head for a while, and actually offers some answers. I believe I may be one of those Christian-creatives, and you may have helped me to realize it.

  9. If I kept track of this sort of thing, this would definitely be in my “top ten articles I’ve read across the web in 2015” list. Educational, respectful, and convicting.

    Before I made the decision to live for Christ, I lived through fandoms, probably more due to my creative mindset but also because, well, you hit on it – unfulfilled desires. Star Wars was my main fix, but I most certainly ventured into others that captured my attention. It wasn’t until I read LOTR that I slowly began to realize that a lot of the stories that I read from these fandoms (fanfic included) didn’t offer what the promise of LOTR offered, as explained by Samwise Gamgee (“Even darkness must pass,” etc.) And while Tolkien indeed didn’t like allegory, Middle Earth stories were ripe with Christianity, and I was picking them off like grapes in a vineyard.

    Since you’re familiar with apologetics (huzzah!) I can sum up my fall from fandom into Christianity by using the Argument From Desire syllogism. While I was a “Christian” by family tradition, I hadn’t quite understood what it meant to be one until I read Mere Christianity, along with other C.S. Lewis nonfiction works. And after reading those (among other apologetic works that soon followed) I finally grasped why I had these unfulfilled desires. Once I realized that there were solid arguments for the God of Christianity, and that it could fill those desires (in ways that Mandalorians, Jedi, and Firefly-class ships couldn’t) it was very hard for me to look back. Yes, I still love stories; yes, I love talking about them – even “geeking out” about them, but it wasn’t until I truly became a Christian that I realized why these stories truly stuck with me, and why I longed for what the worlds and/or these characters offered.

    I’m currently working on a couple of creative works, as I’ve been extremely convicted over the years (and moreso every week) that more Christians do need to step up in the creative arena and give people something more desirable than what’s out there right now. This article has convicted me to do that even more.

    Thanks so much for writing this, and thanks to CAPC for publishing it. I’m pretty sure I’ll finally be hitting that “Click To Become A Member” button this evening. And may I just say that I’m juuuuust a tad bit envious of your job studying fandom and fan cultures? :D

    1. Scott, I’m so grateful for your comments. Very encouraging. And thanks for your support of CaPC – totally worth supporting. About my job, I don’t *just* study fandom. I teach and write as well about culture and religion. But, yeah, I love my job. Godspeed your creative work!

    1. Hi Joel. That’s a really insightful comment. I do think Song of Songs has given a really good pattern for creatives to follow when exploring sexuality. But let’s not forget how “edgy” Song of Songs really is. Jerome wouldn’t let his students read it until they’d mastered Hebrew, and then only when they were 30. And for close to a millennium, it caused Christian scholars so much embarrassment that they slapped on an allegorical interpretation so that it wouldn’t be so earthy. Even today, the most popular evangelical translations obscure the more directly sexual passages. So what I’m trying to say is, “Yeah, you’re right, but if we’re going to follow that pattern, it’s going to be uncomfortable.” I’m looking for Christian creatives who are willing to dive into risky waters to bring Song of Songs-inspired material into the world. Evangelicals are, on the whole, not fond of speaking honestly about bodies and sex. We’re never going to present something good and true and powerful if we can’t do that…like Song of Songs did thousands of years ago. Thanks for your comment.

  10. I think it’s a mistake to say “the reason people disbelieve in God is that they don’t want to compromise their desires.” That may be true for some people; for others, it’s because we genuinely don’t believe God exists and that continuing to act as if he did is a form of gaslighting (pushing people to discount their own lived experiences in favor of what somebody else says they should believe). I don’t think fandom is universally healthy, but I don’t think the solution is more God. To some of us, God is just a version of Star Trek that doesn’t have the benefit of being transparent in its falsehood.

    1. Hi DC. First of all, perhaps you misunderstood. I wasn’t saying “the reason people disbelieve in God is that they don’t want to compromise their desires.” I do not deny that there are people who reject Christianity for other reasons, including intellectual reasons. My point was that too often, a good conversation about reasons and worldviews never gets off the ground *because* this territory of desire is so fiercely and automatically guarded. It’s a reactionary stance that torpedoes conversations before they can begin.

      As for the solution to fandom being more God, let me say two things. First, I’m not blaming fandom. I count myself a fan. But I do find in much of fandom a certain topography of desire that is simply a more pronounced version of what we find in consumer-oriented society at large. Second, I get that you don’t think God is a solution, because you obviously don’t believe in God. I would love to hear why, but not on a comment thread. If you’re ever in Prague, tweet at me. I’d really like to take you out for beer.



  11. Oh, this is good stuff. You hit the nail on the head with “culture of desire”, and how we’ve made it into a god, and any challenge to it is blasphemy. Have you read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”? Part of it talks about how a good fantasy story whets desire and to some extent satisfies it. He presents this as proof that we don’t belong to this world, that we are seeking the “evangelium” beyond the world, and our desires ultimately point to that.

    I wonder if the next stage of our culture will be defined by the revelation that we cannot fulfill our desires. Not completely, not in this life. (But boy are we gonna try!) What will we do then?

    I’d probably add that the creativity of nerd/geek culture is, for some of us, an end in itself. It is for me. If I strike a vein of desire along the way, that’s just icing on the cake.

    1. Hi Andrea. Yeah, I quite enjoyed Tolkien’s “Fairy Stories” as well. Such fertile stuff. And like Tolkien (and a lot of other of Christian authors like Augustine and Lewis), I’m not condemning desire. As you say, it points beyond itself.
      As far as what’s going to develop when desires fail to satisfy, my crystal ball is on the fritz, but here’s my educated guess: In consumer societies (like ours), if there is money to be made in offering more extreme versions of the same thing, it’ll be offered. That’s kind of the story of the last 20 years or so, and I see no reason why it would stop now, unless we reach some sort of impassible limit. I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. If we do hit a wall that desire cannot surpass, then expect reaction and retreat to more homey, basic patterns of desire. But my money is on the first option. In either case, Christians need to be able to speak sensitively and creatively into that situation. There is no other answer but relationship and cultural creativity.
      Lastly, I totally agree: I love the creativity in nerd culture. Hoping that Christians en masse will get there (I know that there are souls out there blazing trails, but the rest of the church has some catching up to do!).
      Thanks for your comments. Very encouraging.

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