by Rev. Kerry Greenhill
This weekend I decided at the last minute to attend the final day of Denver Comic Con, an annual convention celebrating comic books, science fiction, fantasy, and other popular culture, produced by the educational non-profit organization, Pop Culture Classroom.
I was vaguely familiar with Comic Con from friends’ reports, social media, and pop culture depictions such as on The Big Bang Theory. But I wasn’t sure I was truly geeky enough to attend.
Sure, I like Harry Potter and I’ve seen most of the Star Wars movies, but I think of myself as kind of geek-lite, not truly passionate about any one genre or franchise to claim membership in the subculture. It was the discovery that there would be published authors present, including one I’m currently reading, to discuss topics like the role of romance in sci-fi and fantasy, and writing strong female characters, that made me realize that Comic Con might be for me, too.
I was a little nervous as I got ready Sunday morning. I was skipping church (a different kind of subculture and community), because the three panels I was most interested in were all being offered before noon. I was taking my infant son, and riding public transit, both of which require a higher level of preparation than just hopping in the car and driving downtown.
And I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would feel like I fit in, if I would be judged for not knowing the lingo, not being dressed up, or not clearly knowing how I related to the community.
So I am pleased to report that my introductory experience of Comic Con was one of welcome, delight, and enchantment. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations I attended, I was treated kindly by everyone I interacted with, and I was impressed by the diversity and enthusiasm of the participants.
As I reflected more on the experience, I thought of a few things the church could stand to learn from Comic Con.
1. Embrace Your Alter Ego (We’re All Mad Here)
So often, church is a place where people are expected to conform to expectations of speech, behavior, dress, and more. The pressure may not be about keeping up with the Joneses, but about having it all together, presenting yourself or your family as suburban picture-perfect or urban hipster, believing the same as everyone else and never faltering in your performance of “normal.”
But in the words of a greeting card I once found, “Normal” is just a setting on the dryer.
And while “normal” was quite welcome at Comic Con, it was not seen as superior to other ways of being. Participants were encouraged to “express their enthusiasm” by coming in (family-friendly) costume, and I would guess some 30-40% did, in all kinds of wonderful variety from whimsical to extraterrestrial, homemade to professional. And yet there was no shaming, judgment or side-eye for those who simply wore a geek-related t-shirt or, like me, did not dress up at all.
Another thing I loved about the dress code at Comic Con was that those who were in costume were generally delighted to be stopped by other participants and pose for a photo. There was a sense of respect, admiration, appreciation for the creative vision and efforts of others, and a sense of wider community that went beyond specific interests.
So instead of expecting people to look and act “normal,” or encouraging newcomers to fit in with others, churches would do well to embrace each person’s unique identity, however it is expressed. Individually, we find more abundant life when we discover and live our enthusiasm for our deepest and truest identity. Costumed or not, we can be generous with our time and talents when others want to be associated with us.
2. Cosplay Like a Child
Comic Con goers use the language of “cosplay” (costume + role-play) to indicate that they are embracing more than just the clothing of the chosen character, but are open to some level of role-playing while in costume. While I don’t know how many participants seek out intentional role-playing opportunities, I did see some wonderful brief examples of toddler and adult Jedis fighting with light sabers, and teenagers asking for a quest from individuals with exclamation points on their hats.
We might shy away from the idea of role-playing in church, since we are seeking an authentic encounter with the God who created us and knows us at the deepest level. But taking a step back from the discussion of performance vs. authenticity, we might understand cosplay better at the level of simple play.
Wearing a costume is partly about embracing a true or alternate identity, but also about embracing a playfulness that is too often seen as being at odds with the seriousness or solemnity associated with church and religion. Play is understood as the domain of children, something to set aside in adulthood, or reshape into athletics or certain approved hobbies.
When parents brought their young children to Jesus, his disciples tried to shoo them away, protecting the Teacher from the silly, immature demands and needs of tiny humans. But Jesus stopped them, welcoming the children and telling all who could hear that those who would follow him would have to become like a child to enter or receive the reign of God, the Kin’dom of heaven.
Of course, there is a time and place for seriousness and solemnity. But we risk a great loss when we insist on seriousness as the only way to approach God or participate in worship. Where might we give up our fear of looking foolish to embrace a childlike curiosity, wonder, and playfulness in church? Can we put our whole selves into whatever we do for God, and enjoy being silly or strange?
3. Welcome to the Multiverse
Comic Con embraces a wide variety of worlds and characters among its participants: Star Wars and Star Trek, Harry Potter and Outlander, Disney and Doctor Who, comic book superheroes and villains, anime and manga, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, Power Rangers and My Little Pony, and many, many more. Most are related to science fiction, fantasy, or superheroes, but there were plenty of other affinities among the costumes worn and sessions offered.
The beauty of this diversity is that all are equally valid, at least as far as this first-time participant could perceive. I’m sure that cosplayers might have animated discussions (pun intended!) about the relative virtues and value of different franchises, but no one would argue that Star Wars depicts the only valid sci-fi universe. Rather, the possibility of many worlds is conveyed in the term “multiverse.”
Now, different branches of Christianity will have different views on how much divergence from core beliefs is appropriate, but in United Methodism, we attribute to John Wesley words probably spoken centuries earlier: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Today more than ever, we could stand to grow in our trust that there is room for diverse passions and worldviews in our global community. Because when we make time to build relationships with and listen to those who see the world differently from us, the whole community can grow as a result.
4. Find Your Fandom
Of course, within the multiverse are tribes of people passionate about very specific interests. Reference the Force in conversation with a Trekkie, and you may get a glare or a sad shake of the head. Mix up Gandalf and Dumbledore at your own risk when talking to a Potterhead. Some folks embrace a whole genre and hop nimbly from one world to another within it, while others are hardcore fanatics (the origin of the word “fan”) for one author or series only.
We all need a community where we not only are welcomed, but where we identify with others, where we feel understood, can connect with kindred spirits, where we belong. No church can be everything to everyone. We can strive for an atmosphere of welcome and hospitality to all, while cultivating a specific identity and set of values and practices. One church may have a particular ministry with struggling single parents, while another may seek to meet the spiritual needs of retired Baby Boomers.
So it’s okay to find your people, your tribe, the community that geeks out over the same things you do. Without discounting the passions and perspectives of others, commit to that community; invest your time and energy with those people by your side. And then, renewed by the affirmation and encouragement of like-minded people, you can again engage the challenges of a wider world.
5. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Spiderman and Jesus both knew it – the work of heroes is protecting the vulnerable, lifting up the lowly, caring for the outcast, listening to the silenced, and rectifying injustice. From #Con4aCause to Gamers Giving Back, sessions on depictions of Indigenous and LGBTQ people to corruption and rebellion in Harry Potter, Comic Con surprised and delighted me with the breadth and depth of opportunities for conversation, learning, and engagement.
Yes, many churches are involved in work that seeks to make the world a better place; in theological language, to co-create the Kin’dom of God on earth. It is arguably one of the primary identities of the Church: to carry on the work of Jesus as the corporate and physical Body of Christ, relieving suffering and proclaiming good news. And so perhaps the learning here is more about finding new ways to make connections, new frameworks for understanding and occasions for discussion among people of different backgrounds and expertise.
6. We Live in a World of Pure Imagination
In the words of Willy Wonka,
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it.
There is no
life I know
To compare with
I skipped the panel discussion on the value and role of religion in sci-fi and fantasy. Ironically, I think I’m agnostic on the main question posed there of whether (depictions of or basis in) religion enhances those genres or not. Because the genres themselves, whether in literature, television, film, comic books, or other media, deal with some of the same questions as religion: questions of good vs. evil, means and ends, violence and power, corruption and justice, meaning and identity, community and individualism, relationships and growth.
What religion has in common with the arts is imagination. We imagine a world that is different from the one we live in, and then we find ways to make it so. Some of us preach or serve the poor, some write novels, some draw comic books, some act in movies or television shows, some raise children or teach teenagers, some feed the hungry or advocate for the marginalized. And when we come together to make sense of the world we live in, to interpret what others have created, to imagine the possibilities, and to work together for something that is not yet real, we are doing work that is good and holy and true.
And sometimes it’s even fun.
Now, I’m sure that the geek community, like any group of humans, has its own challenges and growing edges. That’s a discussion for another time and writer to take up. I’m not arguing for the superiority of one institution over another; rather, I believe that the church can learn a great deal by paying attention to what is good in the world beyond our own walls.
While I was waiting for the bus home, the woman in line next to me noted my event badge and asked if this was my son’s first Con.
I said yes, but didn’t share with her that it was mine as well.
“Welcome to the family,” she told him.
May those who are first-timers at our churches
find the same level of gracious welcome,
and generous commitment
among those of us who are geeks for Christ.