Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

Throughout season four of True Blood, my constant refrain was, “This has to be offensive to Wiccans.” From what I know of Wicca, necromancy and murder aren’t high on the list of healthy pastimes.

More prayin’, less slayin’!

Now that season five has rolled around, though, my refrain is, “Whoa, this is super-offensive to Christians!” The vampires worship Lilith and call the “vampire bible” the true sacred text? Yikes.

It’s gotten me thinking about the treatment of religion in works of urban fantasy. Most universes with demons, ghosts, or witches tend to look toward Judeo-Christian mythology and either corrupt it or use it to ‘preach’ to the audience. On the other side of the coin, we have worlds like the ‘Buffy-verse,’ where Wicca is synonymous with the practice of actual magic and there’s very little worship involved. Religion seems to inform these universes by adding a vocabulary and a mythology rather than shaping them with any remnant of accuracy. And that may not be acceptable to viewers with strong religious belief, of any creed or pantheon.

While we can’t treat religion with kid gloves, we should ask: how far is too far?

Note: this blog post will deal mostly with Christian and Neopagan traditions, only because those are the religions with which I am most familiar. Please, if you can think of additional shows with treatments of additional faiths, leave a comment!

Let’s look at a few portrayal of religion in televised urban fantasy (and/or sci-fi):

Operating within the Judeo-Christian mythology, the Winchesters fight demons, ghosts, pagan gods (who inevitably eat humans), witches (who deal with demons), and even angels. Season five deals with the battle between Michael and Lucifer (yep, that Michael and that Lucifer), who want Dean and Sam respectively as their “vessels.” The boys end up locking both Michael and Lucifer into “the cage,” some trap in hell from which even an archangel can’t escape.

That’s dancing on the line of what may be offensive to some viewers, Christian and Neopagan, but the real rub comes from the show’s treatment of God: he’s missing. Portrayed as an absentee father who never appears in the show and causes endless speculation among viewers, God has washed his hands of the whole race and no longer acts even in the capacity of a deistic “divine mover.” And Jesus? The elephant in the room, so to speak, is never even mentioned.

Angels are not soft and fluffy.

True Blood
As mentioned above, we had a season in which Wiccans appear as harmless Goddess-worshippers and quickly fall under the management of a true witch who wields the power of necromancy and harbors a serious vendetta against vampires. Now we’re learning that the Vampire Authority is split between those who worship Lilith by rote and “terrorists” who fight in Lilith’s name to institute the factory-farming of humans. They quote scripture, too.

Characters frequently pray and ask for God’s protection against the supernatural, but we rarely see truly “good Christian” behavior. Our only experience with a pastor is a man who has an affair with a main character’s mother and later performs an exorcism. That’s… not very inspiring.

It seems that True Blood is an equal opportunity offender.

One believer tortures another.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy exists primarily in a dualistic, secular-humanistic universe. There is a First Evil, but the power of Good and the power of Evil are accessible to humans. The Powers That Be employ and equip champions like Buffy and Angel to fight Evil, but other humans are perfectly capable of fighting against evil without supernatural powers. I’m down with that—I really enjoy system built from the ground up, and this one is such that most dualist believers can place their personal mythology around the show’s framework, while non-believers can watch without offense.

But then there’s the whole sticky wicket of Willow’s “Wicca” and subsequent addiction to magic, which I’ve written about before. The conflation of Wicca and “Powers of Darkness” probably isn’t appreciated by practitioners of a religion that aims to harm none and live in harmony with nature.

Willow prepares to sacrifice a lamb as part of a spell to resurrect Buffy.

Confession: I’m not a Charmed fan. I never watched it as a teen, and when I tried to watch it as an adult, it just didn’t click for me. (I believe the words “sooooo cheesy” came out of my mouth repeatedly.) The show uses Wicca/witchcraft and Wiccan/witch synonymously, even though the characters operate within a Christian framework. Angst follows when a protagonist who identifies herself as Christian discovers that she’s a witch—even though she’s a witch that fights demons.

The show jams Christian mythology and dualism together with so-called Wicca (which is duotheist, not dualistic) and witchcraft, and the resulting blend tastes a little sour to me. The internet is rife with diatribes from both religions, complaining about how the show is Satanic or just plain inaccurate. (Aside: if you like Charmed, please tell me why. I’m always willing to be convinced.)

I’m not sure how they end up reconciling witchcraft to a Christian outlook.

The X-Files
This show spans way too many episodes and monsters-of-the-week for me to discuss them all, but a recurring theme is Scully’s semi-devout Catholicism at war with the things she sees in the show. The show takes that juxtaposition seriously, and it deals with the ongoing battle of how people explain the presence of great good and great evil in the world.

Although the show portrays witchcraft as a “black art” at times, it also presents a villain from Orthodox Jewish mythology: perhaps, like True Blood it offends across the board. That said, I believe that the show portrays supernatural or religious power as good or bad, depending on what the user makes of it. In this universe, Christians are just as likely to do evil as witches.

Mulder and Scully continually debate the merits of belief in a higher power.

Doctor Who
The X-Files‘s stance brings us to our final example, the classic British sci-fi show that perpetually looks askance at religion. Religion is forbidden on shuttle platforms, along with weapons and teleportation. The universe’s Big Bad, the Daleks, are the ones who kill because of belief and blasphemy. The Doctor himself treats religion with disdain, attributing to it more death and woe than many other human practices. While a discussion of religion in Doctor Who could run textbook length, I think it’s sufficient to say that religion occupies a fraught position in that war-torn universe.

The Doctor mocks the “impure” Daleks, whose own technology does not recognize them.

That’s just a sampling of portrayals of religion in urban fantasy and/or sci-fi, and it doesn’t even include books. What do you think, readers? How well does religion stand up in a world of magic and mayhem? What other shows treat faith with finesse or with brutality?

20 thoughts on “Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy

  1. Well, now, you know I can’t comment on any particular paranormal television series, but when it comes to books, I’m on firmer ground. In my mind, one of the most interesting series to integrate religion into the paranormal are the Anita Blake books by Laurell K Hamilton. She utilizes just about everything – witches/Wiccan, ancient pagan, and most consistently Christianity – in her stories. Anita is a Christian, and no matter how crazy things get (and they do get crazy) she filters her experiences through that worldview. It’s how she defines right and wrong, and her journey of self-discovery involves figuring out how to reconcile her understanding of God with how she feels about her own actions. Like, she had to kill that guy because he was threatening someone she’d promised to protect, or, it’s okay to be in a loving relationship with eight men at the same time because God is love, right?
    I like reading Laurell K because it is such a different perspective on faith. Her heart is in the right place, although I’m doubtful most mainstream religious authorities would agree with her interpretation.

    • Yes, I desperately want to write about books, too–this topic may become a series of its own!

      Hamilton as an example is fascinating! I’ve never read the Anita Blake series, and now I’m quite curious. That’s a really nuanced portrayal of religion, because it is the character’s worldview that matters most. I’m sure it would ‘offend’ plenty of folks, but that’s how many religious people, fictional or otherwise, live their lives — interpreting as they’re going along rather than slavishly sticking to the rules. Not church-approved, necessarily, but certainly the way it is, because no one can completely abide by an outside governance’s guidelines.

      Thanks for sharing — that’s a great example, and one that’s gotten me thinking as a writer as well as a reader/viewer.

  2. While reading along, I was thinking about people being offended by shows and books. I do think that many people are offended, but it made me think of an argument from my own uber-Christian time of life and it took me a minute to put my finger on.

    What irritates me about responses to shows in which religion is portrayed poorly (any religion) is that it’s almost inevitable that the responders take on the “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy when they try to defend their religion against whatever perceived abuses exist in the medium that so offended them.

    No true Wiccan would do X,Y,Z. No true Christian would do X,Y,Z. No true Muslim would do X,Y,Z. No true Jew would do X,Y,Z.

    History proves that wrong over and over and over and over. Religion and faith are not qualities that are prohibitive of abhorrent behavior in humans, and indeed many abhorrent behaviors have manifested in direct correlation to religious views taken to extremes. The inverse, of course, is also true.

    Religion is a sticky subject with me personally, due in part to my experience in the extreme Christian right where many of my peers held a deep-seated belief that the majority of the world was going to hell and that the Left Behind series was the most accurate existing portrayal of the coming End Times. What I concluded was that ultimately people don’t have a right to not be offended, and while apologetics can be futile and people aren’t responsible for the behavior of others, groups can (and ought to) at least acknowledge when their members have committed atrocities and take responsibility for exemplifying the opposite.

    I don’t even know if I think most shows and books portray religion in a poor light — I think in many cases (in The X-Files certainly), the shows make an effort to portray the struggle of faith as it applies to real people. I always found Scully’s difficulties to be encouraging and relatable, because I believe that if you don’t have trouble reconciling some aspects of your faith with the world around you, you’re probably not asking enough questions.

    I think writing and art have every right to question religion, and that they don’t have an obligation to tread lightly around that subject any more than they ought to dance around sexual orientation, portrayal of women, or politics. They’re always going to offend someone. If they write in the mind of trying to please everyone, they’ll lose every viewer they have.

    One example I enjoyed in literature is David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon series. In that mythology, there was a pantheon of seven gods and their father UL who presided over the world. Each god had different values that he (sadly, they were all male gods, though reference was made to the all-powerful Universe as being the female entity that made creation possible) instilled in his followers. One was a tyrannical, power-hungry narcissist who demanded human sacrifice, and through the books it’s made clear that Torak’s existence was a cosmic mistake, and that another god was supposed to be in his place. A kinder, gentler god. I thought it was interesting because there’s a nation in the stories that doesn’t have its own god — so it just worships all of them. Which is rather practical (that particular nation’s primary attribute).

    Anyway…long comment! Tough subject. Great post. 🙂

    • Amen, sistah! You made some great points–and some points I would’ve made if this post hadn’t turned into a 1100-word monster just with analysis of television shows!

      I have to leave for work in a couple of minutes, but I just want to highlight one thing that you mentioned in passing: the notion of responsibility for one’s religion, personally and as a group, and also for one’s reactions to others’ perceptions. (What a mouthful.) I firmly believe that art, even if it’s just some show on the CW, has the right and even the responsibility to question dogma and shake us up, though the should do it as fairly as they can — hence my comfort with the notion of “equal opportunity offender” and my admiration of The X-Files for treating religious questions with the same weight as the perceived answers. But viewers must take responsibility for their reactions: instead of b*tiching about some offensive episode, live a life that shows why you feel it’s wrong. A rant online doesn’t solve anything, but measured discussion does.

      That’s probably a topic for another post right there.

      And speaking of more posts, I desperately want to talk about religion in EPIC fantasy, but that’s such an broad topic that I may have to take it one book at a time. Thanks for sharing about Eddings’ work. I’m not familiar with his books, and I do love to hear a fantastical religion I haven’t heard about.

      • If you haven’t read the Belgariad and the Malloreon, you ought to. That’s the series that got me to love epic fantasy. The characters are snarky and gritty and real, and I love everything about those books. 🙂 Except the first prologue.

        • Well, all the prologues really. I’ve read them ( and the The Elenium serieses ) … tried to sell them to K, but to no luck. Since you recommend them, she may actually read them :-p.

          I’m going to do a post back on your original talking about the gods in that series, but, one thing about them ( and all of Eddings’ books, despite his wife’s involvement ) is that the main characters are all so sexist.

          Look at Belgareth and his giving the 14-16 y/o ( by appearance ) dryads candy for *massive airquotes* kisses */massive airquotes*. [pedobear approves]

          And his daughter / surrogate wife ( who cleans his clothes, and beard, and cooks his meals even after a 1000 years ) just rolls her eyes with her hands on her hips, and says ‘it’s disgusting but oh, boys will be boys.’

          It just seems that in the series anytime three men get together it’s to talk about their wives/girlfriends/bar-wenches and how unreasonable women are, but what are you going to do … they make the babies. “But Garion, you should always respect women, because you won’t have a calm marriage (*cough* they won’t sleep with you *cough*) if you don’t. And buy them shiny things occasionally … they love that shit.”

          It’s sort of the back-handed sexism from the Dresden files, where Harry makes a point of opening doors for the (hot) women. “Because that’s what a gentleman does goddamn it, and I don’t care if the world is too *pc* to accept that.”

          Christ, Eddings’ series were probably the first non-children’s section series I read, so I’ve had far too long to dissect it.

          Gods post to follow.

    • It was interesting that in the Eddings’ series, all of the gods were male, and the high priests ( with the notable exception of Salmissra the snake lady ) were all men as well. And Salmissra was in a constant state of drug fueled hornyness.

      What can I say, it’s a boy book.

      It’s an odd depiction of polytheism, as each culture has it’s own main god ( with the exception of the practical Selvendians? wikipedia is letting me down ), with no real worship of the others. It lacks the animistic feeling I get when I read Indo-european myths. It might be better called Polygamous Monotheism ( again excepting the Sendarians ).

      Now I just want to launch into a skreed about the whole random insertion of quantum mechanics ( ‘a particular star went nova when it shouldn’t have, creating the two branches of prophecy, both of which are true until the observer observes an event’ ), but that’d be thread jacking.

      In any case, I assert that it’s a very very odd example of paganism, and like Charmed, I hope nobody bases any understanding of modern paganism or the ancients based on it.

      *pant pant pant* ok, I’m done talking fast.

      • Actually, the more I think about the main female characters in the books, the more I’m thinking there are some good examples of strong women. Taiba, the slave woman who maintains her dignity in spite of having been forced into sexual slavery — she manages to stay herself even in the face of her hyper-religious love interest Relg.

        And Ce’Nedra — she rallies an army. And while she’s described as flighty, Garion is often described as being none too bright.

        I’ve read bits and pieces of Eddings’ remarks on the religious aspects of the book, and from what I can garner from those articles, he was quite a secular man and didn’t really base his polytheistic religious construct on any particular belief system.

        • agreed ( again the back handed quantum mechanics / Necessity being the highest God points to secularism ).

          For the sexism … I just can’t ever decide for it. Is the work sexist, or are the characters ( appropriately for who they are ) sexist? Again Samarissa and the Dryads spring to mind, and Ce’Nedra’s making a point about getting a breast plate that has a little extra in breast dept than she needs ‘strictly speaking.’

          I’ve read the whole thing more times than I’d like to admit, so I’m certainly not offended, and for strong women don’t forget Silk’s aunt who runs the whole intelligence show, but if one were the sort of person to get offended, you wouldn’t have to look very far to find something to postal over.

  3. I think exploring religion in non-urban fantasy is really interesting, because you can push the boundaries and question everything. I particularly like what Guy Gavriel Kay did in The Lions of Al-Rassan (one of my all time favourite novels), which is an intentional exploration of how religion has a lot to answer for. I might save any further thoughts for your subsequent posts on ‘epic’ fantasy 🙂

    I hadn’t really considered relgion from an urban fantasy point of view though, probably because I’m not religious myself. Nor do I know enough about religions other than Christianity to pick up whether there’s any disrespect. Interesting.

  4. Pingback: Freudian Friday: Religion in Urban Fantasy | Vampire Occult Society

  5. Great topic. I actually think we should separate our beliefs from the fiction we watch and read. There are tons of things I’ve come across in fiction, from religion to political and social views, that I disagree with. I still enjoy the story for what it is, a story. I don’t think writers should restrict their imagination in the fields of religion and such just to avoid offending people. We are going to offend someone with our writing no matter how we do it. We just need to be true to the story. That goes for movies, shows, books, and any such form of entertainment. It is creativity and imagination, not reality. Plenty of people might be trying to make some point with what they write, some might be trying to offend, but a lot, I believe, are just chasing that crazy idea they came up with and seeing where it leads them. 🙂

    Happy writing!

  6. Pingback: One More Step Along the Way « Grey Wren's Flight

  7. Pingback: Anita Blake, Christian Warrior? | Liv Rancourt

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