PZ Myers (biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota) recently pointed out on his blog Pharyngula that Star Wars sucked. What is it about sucky movies and TV shows (like Star Trek) that gather a cult following? It’s an interesting question which, due to its relevance in my research, I will attempt to answer in this post. On the one hand, not everybody will agree that they suck – some people are devoted to them on the cultic level. They “suck”, presumingly, according to how irrational they are, how poor their plot twists, dialogue, impossibility. But fans will criticize this condescension as an overly academic focus on the details. Skepticism and critical questions will ruin the story, ignoring the grander meaning and purpose.
This, then, is the true secret of cultic success: a suspension of the intellect is required. Most modern TV shows strive to present a compelling but logically plausible story because viewers have grown more discerning; hence they are enjoyed, but fail to achieve cult status. This is because they don’t require a huge suspension of the logical brain.
In contrast, stories which rely too heavily on deus ex machina, or impossibly lucky things happening over and over again at the last minute with no explanation, cause our rational brain to shut down. Every time such an event happens, we have small choices to make: “Do I accept this? Is this reasonable? Am I going to permit this to be the case, unquestioned?” As we know we are watching a fiction – a “bad” movie – we will usually ignore the miracle and continue watching. But our subconscious doesn’t distinguish between fact and fiction so readily. We are in effect allowing ourselves to believe in miracles, destiny and good luck.
Bad movies are cultic because they require the viewer’s participation. They don’t fill in all the holes. They give you the outlines of a story, which is moving and complex but ultimately unlikely in the extreme, and need your acceptance to exist at all. You are part of the meaning-producing apparatus that creates enjoyment of the story; this is why myths are so powerful, and the same is true for religious myths. The Bible “sucks”. The Koran “sucks”. They suck in the literal sense of being incomplete in themselves without faith in their reality. They are the void that requires your acquiesce.
The Meaning Constitutive Choice and the Cult of Harry Potter
In Pascal’s Wager and the Red Pill I pointed out that belief in the historical Jesus is a self-constituting subjective reality: that making the decision to believe in Jesus – necessarily a completely free choice due to the absolute lack of evidence – is a meaning producing mechanism. True understanding of the Christ-Event cannot be found in proof or rational argument but through a leap of faith, which itself gives the grounds for perceiving Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, this kind of theory only allows a truth which is utterly impossible.
But why should this feature of impossibility-induced-truth be limited to Christianity? Why couldn’t I form a new religion around Harry Potter, whereby salvation is guaranteed by believing (against all logic) that Harry Potter is a real, historical figure, who actually performed miracles and defeated the Lord of Darkness (through his selfless sacrifice) for my salvation and the salvation of the whole world? If I insist upon this Truth, despite the absolute impossibility and foolishness of the idea and the fact that it conflicts with all known evidence about Harry Potter, couldn’t I hope to achieve the same kind of “justification of meaning”? Could I set up a ritual of death and rebirth, where I die to my lower self and am reborn as Harry Potter myself; symbolized by marking Harry’s symbol on my forehead? Could I create a ritual to rejoin with Ginny or Hermoine in the sacred Wedding Chamber, becoming “whole” again and so immortal? Could I claim powers over snakes and dragons, symbolizing death, and the power to cast out demons? Would the title “Dumbledore” be given to the hierophant, who would guide initiates slowly into a full revelation of truth without revealing too much?
It may seem difficult to think this way so soon after the creation of the Harry Potter story, but what if the books were re-discovered in 100 years? How different is J.K. Rowling’s fable, really, from the myths that have inspired religions since the beginning of time? Not surprisingly, a “Cult of Harry” may already exist. According to Yahoo contributor Mark Mielke, the circumstances of Harry Potter are believed true by followers of a new movement who accept Rowling’s fictional world at face value. These followers claim that there really is a sub-sector of society that uses magic, and that Rowling was only pretending to write fiction, while actually writing about reality:
In the extensive interview with the Harry Potter cultist, whom I will call a “follower” to avoid any offense, I learned a great deal about a secret world that exists under our own, remarkably like the world painted by the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling. The views of the following say that J.K. Rowling somehow found out about a secret underworld filled with people who have magical powers and proceeded to write a fictional story about it, believing that if she couldn’t convince the world of its existence, then she would at least open our minds to it. Members of the following believe very strongly in this world, and my contact claims that J.K. Rowling herself is a member of the Following[D1] .
How long will it be before dressing up as Harry Potter and waving wands at each other moves from being a nerdy, overly fanatic hobby into an established cultic ritual protected by the right to religious freedom? How long before the episodes and objects of the novels are used to justify spiritual rituals – the sorting hat; the wand choosing the wizard; the tri-wizard cup; the mirror of Erised; the Deathly Hallows. Not only is this exceedingly likely, it has already begun: both “Harry Potter is a Cult” and “The Cult of Harry Potter” have Facebook pages (although one is being facetious and the other critical – the “Cult of Emma Watson” has twice as much fans as both combined).
Rather than attempting to distinguish Jesus Christ from Harry Potter by referring to the non-proof that Jesus was real, a more profitable enterprise might be to analyze the two characters as literary influences and ask, which is better. In other words, in light of the discovery that claims of historicity cannot separate the literature of Jesus from Harry, the important thing to analyze is how the stories make people feel and act.
As a living spirit that is believed to be real and omnipresent, Jesus provides comfort and inspiration. He can also motivate his followers to great acts of charity and self-sacrifice. At the same time, as a “historical” savior, he creates dissension and conflict between various cultures and ideologies. Christ teaches suffering, meekness and humility; renounce this life and look forward to the next one; Harry says fight for this one. Jesus says anything that happens is God’s will: God is in control, not me. Harry takes full responsibility for this world. God (Dumbledore) is dead, and there is no one else to stop the evil in the world except us. Also, while Jesus knew he would come back, and then live forever, Harry had no such hope; hence his sacrifice was much grander.
Religion provides comfort to get us through suffering, endure this life in hopes of a better afterlife. Literature like Harry Potter inspires us to stand up and fight against injustice. Jesus, as son of God, divine being, represents a level we can never reach. He is perfect, but we are sinners. He is not an example that we can model; he is the sun that makes us feel ashamed of our shadows. Harry, in contrast, is fully human; he doubts, sins, expresses emotions, makes poor decisions, and he eventually makes the ultimate sacrifice – which importantly he had no desire to make. By his example we can compare ourselves, and through his mistakes we can recognize our own. His determination is an inspiration to us, through which we can learn that justice means taking action without guarantee, without a promise of salvation, without the support of a supernatural being that promises redemption. True ethics is not following law, but guessing and being willing to act regardless of the consequences.
Most importantly, Harry Potter is popular; in a way that Jesus is not. Harry Potter’s movies have made billions, while Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) was disturbing, bloody and ultimately unsatisfying, riddled with the unresolved complexities in a system where the all powerful and all knowing God has to trick or deceive his creation, Satan. Harry’s popularity is crucial; he is the myth of our time, the best selling story. Yes he is a repacking of Jesus Christ, but one that eclipses him completely. While we can sift through Harry and trace back to Jesus, why would we? Harry is much more humane, in depth, vibrant character than the Jesus of the gospels, infinitely easier to identify with, champion, and even love.