For this episode we looked at the following texts:
Blog post – Harry Potter: “Making Evil Look Innocent”
The Guardian article – JK Rowling confirms that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina episode – Chapter Seventeen: The Missionaries
Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who “Faith in the Whoniverse”
Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post and Other Journeys with Professor Stephanie Paulsell”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield”
Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Faith: The House-Elf Liberation Front”
This is a clean transcript of the episode. If you would prefer the original, unedited version, please let me know!
Welcome to Marginally Fannish, a show where we aim an intersectional lens at some of our favourite media and their fandoms.
My name is Parinita Shetty and you’re listening to the third episode of Marginally Fannish. In this episode, I chat with Anna Milon about the representations of Wicca, paganism, and religion in media. We discuss how Christianity forms the framework of most Western fantasy. As a practising pagan and scholar, Anna outlines how the word witch means different things to different people. We chat about faith as both a religious and a political identity. Anna shares her frustration about the inaccurate representations of Wicca in mainstream media and culture which further marginalises the religion. I learn more about Wicca’s attempts to make the religion more inclusive for diverse groups of people.
We also talk about the different kinds of faith in fantasy and faith inspired by fantasy. We discuss how popular culture stories are replacing religious stories and how this influences the ways in which people make sense of the world. We draw parallels between religion and fandom and discuss the importance of inclusivity and intersectionality in both. We’re excited about how canon – both religious and fannish – is increasingly being interpreted in ways which highlight previously marginalised voices. We love that people are making canon which was written dozens or even thousands of years ago (depending on which canon you’re talking about) more relevant to contemporary social, cultural, and political contexts. Finally, we discuss how fandom offers the space to question the dominant religious framework as well as read a text through multiple spiritual lenses.
Anna Milon is a Russian-born London-bred doctoral researcher who has a tentative hope never to leave academia. She has edited two Tolkien collections – Tolkien the Pagan? Reading Middle-earth through a Spiritual Lens and Poetry and Song in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Her written works have appeared in Beyond Realities 2015, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, and most recently, A Shadow Within: Evil in Fantasy and Science Fiction, all of which have been published by Luna Press. She juggles all this writing, editing, and researching with the not-at-all-unlikely hobby of Medieval Swordsmanship. She will be presenting a paper on were-foxes called “Sexy Fox: Female Sexualisation in Modern Retellings of the East Asian Were-fox Tale” at the upcoming GIFCon i.e. Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations which will take place on the 28th and 29th of May this year at the University of Glasgow. I’ll be there too presenting my paper on intersectionality and fan podcasts, so if you’re nearby, come say hi!
Parinita: Hello! Today with me, I have Anna and we’re going to be talking about religion and faith in fandom and in media and in the real world. So Anna, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about your experiences with religion?
Anna: So I am a second year PhD at the University of Exeter, studying very broadly speaking paganism and pagan representation in fantasy. And I started my application letter with, “As a witch!”
Anna: So I am an eclectic solitary pagan and what that means is I do not have a coven or a group that I regularly work with. I mostly work alone. And rather than being a follower of a specific pagan movement like Wicca or Druidry, I pick and mix. And I’m inspired by a lot of different spiritual movements and a lot of different settings and ways of practicing. So yeah, that’s me.
Parinita: Wow, I didn’t know about this background and I find it really fascinating and I’m so excited to know more about it. Because I knew we were going to be talking about paganism and Wicca but like all religious people, you’d have different experiences as well within paganism, within eclectic paganism, within Wicca. There’s no monolithic experience, right, so I’m really excited to hear about yours. Well, as for me, I’m not really a religious person at all. I went to a Catholic school in India, in Mumbai, and I grew up in a Hindu household. So I’ve been at close quarters with a lot of religion but I don’t really know details about it except what I know through the people in my life and through media and through just conversations, I guess. I’m curious about religion but not because I think I want to find religion for myself, but because I find it really interesting how people engage with religion and how it helps them. And their view of the world through a religious lens. So yeah that’s –
Parinita: That’s my experience or lack of experience with religion, I guess.
Anna: And I guess fantasy and fandom is an excellent space to do that. Because it allows for a lot of speculation and for a lot of expression of both the religion of the author or the content creator, but also of reading the work through a specific religious lens by the reader or the consumer.
Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. And I think growing up in India, there are so many different religions that personally I’ve been acquainted with. And I grew up reading a lot of British literature and some American literature. And I never thought of looking at it in a religious lens, really. Not until – like I know Narnia is now the sort of urtext of Christian parables and allegory. And I only discovered that a few years ago. So when I first read Narnia, I didn’t realise it was supposed to stand for anything. Even though I did grow up in a Catholic school, so I knew the tales and I knew the narratives. But that connection never made itself clear to me, I guess.
Anna: Me too, me too. I remember reading Narnia when I was about eight maybe and just completely missing all of the religious analogies. Even though I come from a non-religious household, but my mother was very invested in a classical education for me. So I did know a lot of the Bible stories, as kind of points of references rather than from a religious perspective. And even so I didn’t notice C. S. Lewis employing them. And the same really with all fandom texts that I’ve encountered. For instance, I wasn’t really aware of Tolkien’s Christianity until I became a teenager, an older teenager. I think I first heard of J. K. Rowling referring to herself as Christian in a documentary and I think it was the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter documentary, so it’s quite recent.
Parinita: So I discovered fandom as a teenager and the first fan space that I discovered was this website called Mugglenet which was this Harry Potter dedicated resource. And I was so excited that there were other people who loved Harry Potter as much as me. And this was before all the books had been out. So I was still a teenager and I think only the four books had been out by then. Four or five. And I remember that there was an interview with J. K. Rowling. And the interviewer wanted to know what religion she followed because I think there were a lot of controversies, as one of the texts that we read outlined, about her books promoting Satanism and Wicca. And so I suppose that’s why the interviewer was curious. And she said that I don’t want to reveal my religion because if I do, then the plot of the final book will be really evident to readers – to really astute readers. It’ll be really clear to them what’s going to happen. Which I thought was very curious because it led to so many theories. You know when you don’t have the canon there, there were so many theories. And everyone had all these sorts of interpretations from all sorts of lenses, including atheism. Now that I’m more familiar with Christian theology and stories and narratives, I know that Harry stood for, like Aslan, stood for Jesus. Yeah so her Christianity was only evident to me through her conversations and not through the text itself. Since I did mention the controversies with Wicca and paganism and Satanism that Harry Potter had, how would you, in your life or your scholarship or whatever, how would you define Wicca? And witches? And paganism?
Anna: The term witch is incredibly loaded. Which makes it very rewarding and also frustrating to study. Where you have people who in the late medieval and early modern period prosecuted as witches for being allied with the devil, for being evil. Then witches as a female, feminist identity that’s reclaiming an independent, self-sufficient and powerful and intelligent woman. You have witches who are Wiccans. Who are followers of one of the first neo-pagan religions promoted by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. And you’ve got witches who are spiritual individuals but who do not necessarily align themselves with Wicca strictly.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: And I find that in Harry Potter, being a witch or a wizard very much doesn’t fit into any of those terms.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: Because you don’t get any sense of pagan leanings within the books at all. In fact, one of J. K. Rowling’s tweets about religious diversity in Hogwarts explicitly mentions how the only religion she didn’t envisage as being part of the Hogwarts student body was Wicca. Which puzzled me at the time. But equally you don’t get a sense that these people who go to Hogwarts are heirs of the persecuted community of historical witches.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: Neither do you get the sense that they have particular leanings towards activism or towards social movements.
Parinita: Or even a sense of community really. Because even within the witches and wizards in Hogwarts, there are so many different social, cultural, all these sorts of hierarchies. Not only within the humans but also you know like house elves, giants and … so even in terms of having a community of like-minded followers or adherents to a particular belief, that doesn’t really seem to be there.
Anna: Yeah so I was very surprised to see that Rowling’s books sparked this controversy around promoting Wicca as a bad thing, promoting Satanism as a bad thing. Because there’s really nothing there, apart from the word witch or wizard and apart from the idea of magic which is condemned by some fundamentalist Christian groups. And in terms of the internal religion of Hogwarts, that’s very, very Christian. They celebrate Christmas, they’ve got very Christian ethics. So not just the external religion in the context of which Rowling writes is Christianity, but also the wizards themselves can be conceived to be Christian.
Parinita: Yeah absolutely. And again, this is something that as someone who’s not familiar with these conversations and these contexts, it comes as such a surprise to me because when I was a kid and even later as a teenager, I knew that in the US, there were these groups that wanted to burn Harry Potter and were banning Harry Potter just because it promoted Wicca. Because of the word witch in it. And all the articles in India were really bemused because it was so alien to us. Of course we have book bannings as well but they’re for not the same reasons. And we would never think of banning Harry Potter for promoting Wicca. And then on your recommendation, I did watch “The Missionaries” episode of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina just this afternoon actually. And how starkly Christianity was shown in opposition to Wicca there – again, that connection between the two was so evident to me only then. Because I’d heard about witch burning and stuff, of course, in the US and I think in the UK and Europe? I’m not sure. But I had heard about it through media, entirely through media. And for me, it had a much more gendered connotation than a religious one. Even though I knew that it was … well I suppose I vaguely knew that it was Christians burning witches as heretics. But because of the media that I consumed, to me it felt like it was because powerful women who live in this society that oppressed women. Which is why people were afraid of witches. Not because of their religious leanings but because of their gender and what they could do to someone who’d been oppressing them all their lives essentially. So yeah just in terms of Christianity versus Wicca, it was really interesting just because it’s something that I’d never thought of. Like in terms of where I’ve grown up.
Anna: Yeah I think there are sort of two things happening here. First of all there’s definitely this uneasy relationship between Christianity today and Wicca today based on the persecution of witches in the past who were not Wiccan because Wicca didn’t exist. But –
Anna: Who are seen as ancestors of modern pagans. And then there is the reclamation of the term witch by second-wave feminists to mean this intelligent woman who’s being oppressed. And there is an interesting movement with the use of the acronym WITCH which expands to Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.
Anna: Created in the late 1960s and for them, their motto is, “You are a witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous and immoral. Immortal, sorry.” So it has very little to do with paganism and a lot to do with female agency.
Anna: And I guess there’s this perception that both things – both paganism and female independence sit uneasily with traditional Christianity.
Parinita: So is Wicca a Western faith tradition then, would you say? Since I watched that episode, that’s really fresh in my mind. I was really interested in how it stands in contrast to other religions. Not just Christianity but other Western and Eastern religions. Because I don’t know, in India we have our own what would I guess be considered pagan. Again, I don’t know a lot of details about religion and I haven’t researched enough. But I suppose from a Western lens, it would be considered pagan or, like you were saying yesterday, indigenous. So you know things that probably, in Christianity, would be considered really not acceptable. So is Wicca then just Western based?
Anna: Yes. I absolutely would agree that Wicca is Western. Ronald Hutton says that Wicca is the only religion that England gave the world.
Anna: Which I think is pretty accurate. Yes, it has grown and developed beyond England but the crux sort of seems to be in the UK. And at the moment, there seems to be a sort of divide between eclectic pagans who very much create new traditions and reimagine the past, and who tend to be Western or Anglo-centric or Euro-centric. And sort of revivalists who are people who are getting back in touch with their native or indigenous faith. They tend to be from colonised countries and cultures that are rediscovering a native faith that has been repressed by either Christian missionaries or by a colonising force. So they are in conversation with one another but they are sort of two poles of a spectrum.
Parinita: So then for a group of Wiccans, or for a group of pagans, would it be then like a political identity as well as a religious one? One of the texts that we looked at this time was the Woke Doctor Who episode of “Faith in the Whoniverse”. And one of the hosts, who’s a black American woman, spoke about how she didn’t recognise herself in Christianity. But she still had faith and she converted, I guess, or found the Orisha tradition from Africa which she really identified with politically as well as religiously because they were nature-based deities who looked like her. And so it was a very actively activist decision on her part.
Anna: I feel that yes, a lot of choices that pagans make are political as well as religious. It seems to be getting more prominent especially in relation to environmental activism and intersectionality. People see paganism as a more viable spirituality for a modern society.
Anna: And as a more accepting spirituality. And indeed it is a lot more malleable than, for instance, Christianity which has just been around for a long period of time and has fossilized somewhat.
Parinita: Right. So we listened to two podcast episodes that dealt with Wicca, very personal interpretations of Wicca. Which was the Witch, Please episode as well as the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode. And that was my first introduction to proper Wicca, I suppose, just proper perspectives from people who were either familiar with it or who were non-practicing Wiccans. And I was unsure whether there was an intersectional analysis in Wicca. Because I know that in one of the episodes, in the Witch, Please one, they did say that the whole focus on menstruation – they didn’t want to make it transphobic, which is why they were trying not to have the focus so much on that. But then as somebody else said, it’s such a personal engagement with the faith that everyone has different engagements with it. So you know there’s no one catchall religion, I guess.
Anna: There is absolutely no one catchall religion. And in a way that’s a good thing because at the moment, since sort of the 90s, there are a lot of conversations around how a lot of the pagan traditions are very gender essentialist because of this view of nature and nature’s fertility as being very much binary with a union of the male and the female principle. And with the main worship deities being the god and the goddess. Which are not just socially masculine and feminine but are also very physically male and female. And as you mentioned, the focus on the female reproductive cycle or the stages of the female life – the triple goddess is represented as the maiden, the mother, and the crone. So where does that put women who are unable to have children or who have chosen not to? Luckily enough, certain Wiccan groups and communities and certain other pagan communities are finding ways to work around that by working with different deities or by viewing the male and female aspects as inherent in every individual.
Anna: And it is the balance of the two or the intersection of the two that creates a harmonious person. As opposed to you representing one or the other.
Parinita: Ah. So another thing that I was thinking of just in terms of intersectionality … I know one of the people on the podcast, I think it was on the Witch, Please podcast, said that in terms of their belief and their perspective of Wicca, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. And I understand that in terms of like they were, I think, talking about frivolousness versus femininity and like all ways of being a woman are acceptable. But then if I analysed it a bit further, it almost seemed to suggest that just by virtue of being a woman, you are … I mean you can’t be a bad woman I suppose. And I was thinking there are hierarchies even within women, right? Like just in terms of class and disability and which part of the world that you come from, what race you are, what … I suppose trans and non-binary folk as well. But like you said the gender essentialism is being countered. But even within the environmentalism movement, just because a lot of the Wiccan and pagan like not a lot – but a group of them do seem to be really actively trying to protect the environment as well. And with the environment movement as well, Extinction Rebellion was something that I was really fascinated with when it first started coming up and I was reading up about them and I was researching them and joined the group and everything. And I started getting this uncomfortable feeling. And then there were more articles about it and critiques about it later that it was very exclusionary to – not actively, they weren’t meaning to be – but they weren’t very inclusive to people who were not middle class, not white, not privileged in some way.
Anna: That’s ooof – there’s a lot to unpack there. Thank you for asking the challenging question. I think with what you said about is there a right and a wrong way of being a woman. I think we can bring that back to fandom and whether there’s a right and a wrong way for being a fan.
Parinita: Yeah that’s a very good point.
Anna: Yeah. We see the core idea be it feminism or being a fan or environmentalism as the defining trait of the people within the community.
Anna: Often overlooking other areas of their beliefs, of their attitudes that might not be as positive or as palatable. And I also feel that we as a society really don’t take kindly to people’s complexity. That you can’t be all good. There will always be, unfortunately, a side of your life where you’re not as educated, not as aware and not as considerate as you perhaps could have been. But that need not condemn you entirely. And especially I feel with Extinction Rebellion, I also am very much interested in their work. But to give an example, their push for civil disobedience and their push for arrests, a lot of people can’t afford to be arrested, especially –
Anna: Ethnic minorities, especially if they’re from less privileged backgrounds. However, this can be slightly flipped on its head by saying well only people who are considered privileged in this society are going to take that risk.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: And those are the voices that we are putting up there and making them heard. The importance here I feel is to give a different platform and a different way of activism to people who are unable to get arrested or uncomfortable doing it.
Parinita: No, I absolutely agree. I think that the conversation is what’s more important than just – first of all the awareness that this is a problem. But I think that awareness is there now and it’s … with everything like with fandom as well. There was a huge conversation in fandom about the race blindness of fandom and the racism within some parts of fandom as well. Which again, people may not, like you were saying, they may not be educated enough or they don’t know enough. For me, it’s an ongoing process of learning and unlearning social conditioning in different aspects of my identity. And also unlearning the colonised brain that I have thanks to growing up in India and consuming largely Western media. But yeah for sure, I think the conversations are important. And do you think these conversations are happening on the Wiccan side as well? Or on the pagan side as well?
Anna: I think they are but there can always be more that’s done.
Anna: And I wish that these conversations had a slightly more far-reaching platform. Because a lot of the times from what I’ve encountered, they happen at conventions and at meetings. But so many pagans don’t have a community and so much interaction happens online.
Anna: And I feel that it’s online in spaces that slip under the radar –
Anna: That you can have a lot of these problematic discourses still circulating.
Anna: And I feel that it’s the same with fandom.
Anna: With things like Comic Con, everyone is lovely for the most part and people try to be considerate and people try to raise awareness. And then you go to a Reddit thread and –
Parinita: [laughs] Yeah.
Anna: It’s a lot of weird creatures.
Parinita: But also I suppose you do have – at least I have the tendency of creating my bubble, like safe space within everywhere that I go online. Because I know that even on places like The Guardian’s Facebook articles, if I go read the comments, I’ll just spiral into this “Why am I doing this to myself?!” Because you would think even with a space like that, it would be fairly okay, but nope! Nope! It’s not okay; you shouldn’t go there unless you want to, I don’t know, fight with random strangers. But fandom is the same. And I guess with religion and faith and Wicca, it would be the same. That you don’t actively seek out negativity, I guess. Or antagonism. And the conversations would be more fruitful if there was, like you were saying, a larger platform for the community.
Anna: It’s difficult to know when your safe space becomes an echo chamber.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: And where that boundary lies. A couple of years back, I pitched a topic for the Tolkien Society Seminar in Leeds. And my topic was Tolkien the Pagan? Question mark. Reading Middle-earth through a spiritual lens. And I was trying to promote a conversation about non-Christian interpretations of Tolkien’s work. Because the Christian view is so prevalent that there seems to be no space for much else and I was trying to create that space. And the Call for Papers was accepted and I was warned whether I was prepared for the consequences
Anna: And I sort of laughed it off at the time.
Parinita: Oh dear.
Anna: And within the first couple of days, on Facebook, that post had over two hundred comments. Most of them very aggressively denouncing the choice of topic saying that Tolkien’s texts are Christian only. That if you are a non-Christian reader, you can’t possibly understand what he is getting at and what Middle-earth is all about.
Anna: Which, to me, was quite jarring. And I was quite taken aback at the vehemence with which these people defended or claimed the texts for a specific group of people. But, on the other hand, if I didn’t encounter that, I wouldn’t have known that such a large percentage of people who consider themselves fans have this sort of reaction.
Parinita: No, absolutely. And it’s just I suppose this perceived assault against – not only in fandom, in religion as well – like when you are the dominant group but there’ll be one lone voice, like in your case your Call for Papers, that offers another interpretation of either the religion or just another religion or a fan theory or whatever. And how this creates this really uncomfortable feeling, I guess, among the dominant group. And it leads to so many different kinds of violence and oppression. In your case, it wasn’t physical violence and it wasn’t oppression I guess; but it was trying to silence any dissent or any interpretation that doesn’t match your own. And it was something that like with Harry Potter and the whole fundamentalist Christian furore against it, it’s the fact that in the US, Christianity forms the structure of a lot of their country and media and culture. And in India, it would be Hinduism. But just like in the US, in other parts of the world, and in India currently, the majority religion is feeling this threat by religions that are so much smaller in their countries. But the way that they’re responding to it is really – that’s what I find really scary. And it’s really dangerous. And in your case luckily there’s been no – I mean you know the two hundred comments I hope were –
Anna: No, I got off lightly.
Parinita: Yeah. Not to diminish the feelings that you must have had. But I’m reading this book about the alt-right culture online and I have a very nice, optimistic view of the internet because that’s been my experience so far. Again, my safe space is very much constructed and deliberate. So I have a really nice experience online. But I know that a lot of women online don’t. And in your case, I wonder if it was … I suppose with the CFP, they wouldn’t know who put out the CFP – the Call for Papers.
Anna: Yeah, luckily they didn’t.
Parinita: Yeah. Because –
Anna: They mostly pinned it on the Society which was that one step removed and that was helpful.
Parinita: Yeah but that’s another thing – it’s not just oppression of one, if you’re a woman, it’s so much worse for everything.
Anna: Yeah. And in fandom, especially, you can see how arbitrary these distinctions and these prejudices sometimes are. Because sometimes people will defend the canon until the cows come home. And sometimes people will defend their own idea of what the show is supposed to be like against the actual showrunners and the cast. And I’m thinking here about the announcement of Jodie Whitaker as the … Thirteenth Doctor? [asks hesitantly]
Parinita: Uh huh yeah. [laughs]
Anna: Got the numbers right.
Anna: And the backlash that she got. Whereas that’s canon. That is a showrunner decision. Therefore, surely all of us canon-loving people should make peace with that as a natural progression of the show. But unfortunately it seems that people are very, very fixed in what they want to be the truth.
Parinita: But also fixed in a very certain way that only privileges their group of people, I guess. So speaking of, just because something that you’d mentioned earlier, the religious diversity in Hogwarts where one of the things that we read was The Guardian article about J. K. Rowling’s tweets about the “very evident”, according to her, religious diversity in Hogwarts. But as she mentioned and as others have mentioned since, Anthony Goldstein, I think, is the only Jewish character. And it’s like his presence doesn’t really – it’s the exception that proves the rule, right? Christianity, as you said, is the framework of Hogwarts too. And Anthony Goldstein’s Jewishness has nothing – there’s no mention of it in the text. It’s like Dumbledore being gay, there’s no mention of that in the text itself. So I feel like there were so many – I suppose not missed opportunities … but there was a lot of room for exploration in terms of the religious diversity in Hogwarts. Which I think fandom could be doing but it’s not something that is evident in the series at all.
Anna: Yeah. Perhaps it’s a bit too late for the series because I feel that the majority of backlash against J. K. Rowling was because she refused to acknowledge that the texts were done and the texts were fallible. But when she wrote them, diversity – whether it be sexual, ethnic or religious diversity – wasn’t really on the forefront of everyone’s minds as it is now. And that’s all right in a way. She could not have written different books being who she was and who she is now.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: But adaptations of the Harry Potter series can be different, can be diverse. And that’s very much the conversation currently happening against the upcoming Lord of the Rings on Prime adaptation where the announced cast is very racially diverse. And the question is how the showrunners are going to deal with that and interpret that. And how will it differ from what we suppose Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth was. Which presumably, based on the time when he was writing, was white and straight. To come back to your question about the lack of exploration of religious diversity in fandom, I’m quite surprised by how little people engage with that as far as I’ve seen. I haven’t really seen a lot of fanfiction or fan art that provides meaningful interpretations of characters as religious. Maybe because of this stigma in some young social groups in some corners of fandom, of religions – any kind of religion – being very oppressive and very anti-fantasy.
Anna: Um so yeah.
Parinita: Which actually that reminds me. I had I think come across a Tumblr post about how Muslim students would celebrate Ramzan in Hogwarts. In terms of when they celebrate Eid, the fasting, and how they’d have to talk to the house elves and you know have arrangements for –
Anna: I’ve seen that. It’s a good post.
Parinita: Yeah, yeah. So you’re right, it’s very limited. But I think in fandom, there is an opportunity – and I haven’t gone looking for religiously diverse texts really. But I just think that the diversity, especially in a text like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings or Doctor Who which has such a global appeal, which has fans from so many different parts of the world and cultures and religions and everything, there is so much more room for exploring diverse aspects. And even in Doctor Who, in the Woke Doctor Who episode, they mentioned that ever since Jodie’s run, there have been more episodes that have focused on different faiths. And they wonder whether it is not only because there’s a diverse cast now, but there’s also more diverse creators in the writing room. And that’s what leads to more diversity. Like the other text that we looked at the interview with the Malaysian British writer Zen Cho, and how she was saying that – which is true and it’s something that I hadn’t really until someone pointed it out, I hadn’t realised it – that a lot of Western fantasy is very Christian and it’s the sort of fantasy that is global now. We all have our brains shaped by Western fantasy traditions. So like Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. And everything else is othered and everything else is exoticised or even denigrated depending on who’s doing the writing. And the fact that there are now more diverse voices – because diversity is so interesting, right? Not just for people from marginalised religions who see their practices there and feel this sense of recognition but also for people from dominant religions who have always been seeing the same kind of texts. And now they have an opportunity to read something different and to learn something different, I guess.
Anna: Yeah. I absolutely agree with you there. And I think that the othering of the non-Judeo-Christian framework is doing more harm than the texts themselves that are written within a dominant Christian context. Because that episode that you’re referring to, it’s Breaking the Glass Slipper non-Western magic episode. And the crux of the discussion there is that the texts even when written through a Christian lens, when written well enough, do offer other ways of interpreting them. Do offer other spiritual reference points that don’t necessarily require an explicit mention of, oh that character is Muslim or creation of an internal magic or spiritual system that actively references a non-Western religion. But we are not used to reading them that way.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: And I think that fandom spaces are a good place to introduce the habit of reading texts through multiple spiritual lenses.
Parinita: No, absolutely. Currently in fandom, a lot of conversation about diversity seems to be focused on race. So currently for me, it’s me unlearning seeing white as normative and trying to see … make my brain more diverse, I guess. Trying to accept more diversity within the characters that I read. But you’re so right in terms of religion as well. Now if I go back to a lot of the media that I watch as well, Christianity is so much the framework. And it’s something that I just took for granted really. I didn’t stop to consider because, like you’re saying, I don’t know how to read it through a different spiritual tradition even though I come from a different religious – not personally religious but culturally, I come from such a different tradition. Another one of the episodes that we were listening to, the Imaginary Worlds episode about “Faith in Fantasy”, featured different religious leaders. So there was a Rabbi, there was a Minister and there was an Alwaez – a Muslim leader. And they talked about how they read similar science fiction and fantasy texts, the really popular ones, based on their own faith traditions. So they read it through a Muslim lens or a Jewish lens or a Christian lens and I found that fascinating. Because I’ve never read anything through a Hindu lens, not really. And is that something you find that you do? Your Call for Papers was about Tolkien and paganism so you did actively look or try to look for paganism in Tolkien. Is that something you find that you have to do or something that comes really easily to you?
Anna: I try to. I think I fail more than I’m comfortable admitting. Because a lot of very Christian concepts that I have internalised, I don’t necessarily recognise as Christian. For instance, I have a very strong sense of sin and virtue as these two opposing forces. And human characters in fantasy are necessarily sinful and the sort of benevolent elves, supernatural creatures, magician characters are necessarily virtuous. Which again, is a very, very Christian divide. But through hard work and self-abasement, you can achieve a modicum of virtue and atone for your sin. And that needs to be challenged as much as the more overt links to Christianity. When trying to read things explicitly through a pagan lens, I often get frustrated because I find a lot of the references that are thought to be pagan are to this witchcraft-light social movement that has very little to do with spirituality and has a fairly little understanding of what being Wiccan or being pagan actually entails. For instance, the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina are an endless fount of frustration for me.
Anna: Because they’re not witches! They’re Satanists!
Parinita: That’s what I –! I mean when I was watching this episode – I’ve had this show on my radar for quite awhile and this episode was quite an episode to begin with, to introduce yourself to, [laughs] because it was very much Christianity versus Satanism. Because they’re following Lucifer, I believe. I don’t know … they called him the Dark Lord. But yeah they’re following Lucifer, and they consider god – the Christian god – to be the false god? Like it’s a very binary opposition. So yeah.
Anna: First of all, I don’t see anything wrong with Satanism. It’s its own thing with interesting ideas.
Anna: But I feel that by calling a religion that is so explicitly against Christianity witchcraft, as they do in the show, they’re promoting some quite entrenched and quite erroneous ideas about what witchcraft, Wicca, paganism actually is. I know people who identify as both pagan and Christian, specifically Roman Catholic. And there seems to be a way to enmesh those two religions. Plus [sighs] really I don’t think I’ve ever met a pagan who was actively dismissive of Christianity as a fake or false religion. Sure as a social structure, it has its own problems but so do all religious and spiritual movements. And also the attributes that the Church of Night in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina uses are often very misogynistic, often very aggressive. No, we do not actually eat children.
Anna: No, there are no blood sacrifices. Just let me hug a tree in the woods somewhere.
Anna: And I understand that it makes for a nice, visually compelling show. But unfortunately it is a very inaccurate representation of paganism as a group of faiths.
Parinita: Again, that’s something I would not have thought of until you just said it. Because it is like not taking Wicca or Wiccans or witches seriously as their own faith and as their own religion. Because like you’re saying, it makes for a good show and it makes for a good story-line. But you would not have Muslims, for example, or Hindus or you know any other non-Western religion or even a Western one. Like Jewish people. You wouldn’t have them the way that Wiccans are presented on the TV show. So it’s almost like you’re using another religion just as set dressing, as just this sort of fun cultural anomaly. For the people who are writing and for the mainstream who’s watching, it’s just fantasy. And it’s not a real religion that a lot of people follow.
Anna: Yes. And it’s interesting where that divide lies between scare quotes “real religions” and “made-up religions”.
Parinita: Um hmm.
Anna: Because fantasy is quite rich in both. And paganism seems to be somewhere in the middle where in Harry Potter you use the language of witchcraft without any kind of spiritual underpinning. They perform spells, they make potions, but there’s no sense that it’s an act of worship or an act of spiritual transaction. And in shows like Supernatural, you have a Christian framework with angels and demons and god is somewhere out there. But I feel it’s a lot less willing to cross certain boundaries. Like you wouldn’t have … Dean and … Sam and Dean, there we go!
Anna: Sam and Dean walk up to heaven and sort of have a chat with god over a beer.
Anna: Because it’s not that kind of show. There are some boundaries there that prevent them from doing that. Whereas I feel that with paganism, because it isn’t counted as a real religion in many cases, there are no boundaries like that. There’s nothing protecting the sacred aspects of paganism.
Parinita: Hmm. And when you said made-up religion, it made me think – I always have this vague … not daydream, I guess, but vague thought. If we have the apocalypse, we have a lot of reasons for that like the climate, religion, I don’t know so many different things. And far into the future, if there are descendants of humans or whoever or aliens or whatever, they find our – whatever texts that they do, and whatever media, paraphernalia whatever – and what will they think that our beliefs and our religions and our worldview was based on what they find? Because currently popular culture seems to have such a grip on a lot of people. In fact in the Imaginary Worlds episode that we listened to, the Rabbi, she did say that popular culture stories almost seem to have replaced religion for a lot of people in terms of the stories that we tell each other. And a lot of mainstream religions that we see today like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, they’re thousands of years old. And they were at some point made up. Like someone did make the texts that we see now. And two thousand years from now, we don’t know what religions are going to survive, what is going to replace the religions that are so mainstream now. Like that fascinating paper that you sent me about Tolkien spirituality which – I’d never heard of it. But when I was reading the paper, there are so many parallels with religion that already exists now in terms of … they have a canon, they have the book that they read, they have a lot of metaphors, they have a lot of faith that they place on some elements and some aspects of the books. And like you were saying, there are some people who believe that their reading of the books is the only correct reading. And everyone who doesn’t follow the religion is not understanding the books correctly. Right?
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And you’ve got things like people being inspired by Tolkien. Especially The Silmarillion and the creation of Middle-earth and the Valar to have their own religious groups. And things like Jedis and people seeing philosophies portrayed in Star Wars as religions. I think that even without these explicit examples of adapting fantasy into faith, we already believe in fantasy much more than we think we do. Firstly because fantasy leads us to faith. If you think about Doctor Who and how much faith his companions – his or her companions place in the Doctor. If you think about the trope of the Chosen One, who is infallible, and we as readers place our faith in that character. Because we know the formula. We know that in the end, they are going to overcome whatever difficulties are thrown their way. Is that enough to supplant more conventional religions? I don’t know. But it’s an interesting question.
Parinita: Yeah for sure. And so Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, it has a lot of engagements with spiritual leaders. So some of the episodes that we listened to, there were Reverends and Rabbis and just even scholars of religious studies. And a lot of the things they were saying, I found so many similarities between religion and fandom. Because for me as a non-religious person, a lot of the things that religious people seem to find in religion, I found in fandom. And just people who like the same things that I do. So that finding that sense of community, and you know even having rituals based around your favourite things and going on pilgrimages as well. It’s something that I never thought of as – I know religious people go on pilgrimages but then if I go to something that’s Harry Potter related or if I go to something that’s related to the movies or something that I like, a TV show, that is a pilgrimage in a way. It is me going there because I love this thing so much. Canon as well. All these debates about what counts as canon. Like in Judaism, Rabbi Scott Perlo I believe, he was talking about how there is a debate between some people what they consider to be canon. So that made me think of fandom as well. The more conservative fans and adherents who think that the original text is the only canon that’s acceptable. And there can be no deviation to it. So like what you said with Lord of the Rings and the Christian interpretation. Or with Doctor Who even with just the white, male Doctor being the only acceptable Doctor. Whereas on the other side, you have the more progressive sort of believers, I guess, who are open to canon being disrupted and expanded and just who like there being more of the thing they love. And have more to look at.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely. And fandom not only functions very much as a spiritual movement, it also inherits a lot of the language of one. You mentioned pilgrimages. A lot of fans will have shrines of their favourite book or show paraphernalia. Canon can also be interpreted as a religious term.
Parinita: Metaphors as well. Like you know in terms of metaphors for real-world social and political issues. So fandom does that with texts, like Harry Potter or Doctor Who. But also with religion, like even though these texts were written two thousand years or more ago, you’re still trying to make it relevant to today’s contexts. Or at least I think at least successful religion, that’s what they should be doing. Like I was telling you about this article that I read about this radical church in the US. And they made social justice the framework of their church. I’m going to link to that in the transcript of this episode. But they just meet together and they read things like Marx and feminist theory and also religion, like extracts from the Bible. And they all connect it together. It’s almost like getting an education, right? For me, that’s what fandom is. Just learning to look at things through different lenses that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Community, just coming together, and meeting people that you wouldn’t otherwise have met and they might not be … like you were saying the echo chamber. It’s a way for me to get out of my echo chamber a bit because we’re coming around a community because we all love this thing. But we’re coming from so many different backgrounds and so many different perspectives. And perhaps even political leanings. And it makes it more interesting, I think.
Anna: Absolutely. And I think it’s very valuable to have a community that is so diverse both nationally, ethnically, religiously but also in terms of education and lifestyle and professional careers. Where those things also greatly impact outlooks on the world and ways we see current knowledge. And fandom is this unifying force that allows us to explore new ways of finding information while also always being able to bring it back to that community, bring it back to that thing that’s familiar and that’s safe and that we love. Which is why it’s so important that we protect the fandom space and maintain it as accessible and as welcoming to everyone.
Parinita: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And I think that that’s what to me currently is most exciting with fandom. So, like I said, I discovered fandom first as a thirteen-year-old with Mugglenet. And I used to read Harry Potter fanfiction and I used to write Harry Potter fanfiction. But now what really excites me is all the critical commentary and the fan works that are around it. In the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode with Reverend Broderick Greer, he said, “Who in our culture is imagined out of stories? And who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?” He was talking about religion but he was also talking about fandom. Because in religion as well, with Christianity, with all religions I think, Hinduism as well. They are written in a very patriarchal way and Hinduism is very upper caste. So a specific group of privileged people. With Christianity I don’t know if it was white men because it was in the Middle East but privileged people nonetheless. Or at least now they’ve gained a sense of status. And now it is mostly white men who are adherents to the religion [Editor’s note: I meant in control]. But it was written to privilege just a certain group of people but there were so many other voices that were not – like of women, of different races, classes, you know even religions. And now there is more of an effort within both religion and within fandom to highlight these marginalised voices and to actively look for these voices so that even if the canon itself has a lot of blind spots and it has a lot of missing gaps, fans and followers are now working to fix these gaps. And I love that.
Anna: Yeah. And this notion of reading certain groups of people back into stories speaks to the idea of re-enchantment of the world that’s been loosely going on since the 70s. And is this drive to see the world as more intersectional, as more holistic, acknowledging that no group of people has primacy over others. That humanity as a species does not have primacy over non-human animals, over the natural world in general. And a more magical view of the world that allows us to maintain our identity while also entertaining all of these other ways of being in the world.
Parinita: Yeah and just even with science fiction and fantasy, I completely agree with you. It allows us to imagine a different world; allows us to question, really, things, the way that they are and allows us then to imagine possibilities as well. Which I think in religion, in fandom, in fantasy, that’s a really good thing for me to take from them.
Anna: Yeah, absolutely.
Parinita: Thank you so much, Anna, for talking to me about your faith and about religion. I have learned so much from our conversation. My brain is so full of ideas and I just want to go back to Harry Potter and now read it through a religious lens and find out all the ways that – maybe I can write more fanfiction now. Maybe I can go back to my thirteen-year-old [laughs] skills and you know write fanfiction from a religious lens.
Anna: Thank you so much. It’s been an incredible pleasure. And good luck with your project!
Parinita: Thank you!
You’ve been listening to our episode on representations of religion in media. You can listen to the first two episodes of Marginally Fannish wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks again Anna for being a part of this project and for expanding my brain in so many different ways. Religion is not something I think about too often and you had such a refreshing and illuminating perspective to share. And thanks as always to Jack for helping me with the editing.
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