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Stories and counterculture: Star Wars, Vikings, and Gaiman’s Neverwhere

I have had three recent encounters with aspects of contemporary culture or perhaps counter-culture from which we can garner clues about the great challenge of evangelism in our post-modern and post-Christian, Euro-American setting.

The first encounter was the public frenzy over Star Wars. It was fascinating to see the long lines of people waiting to get into the opening. The nightly news repeatedly showed people camping out and large crowds lining up to get a good seat. Many of these people wore elaborate costumes depicting one of the characters in the Star Wars saga. There was a story about a man dressed as a Jedi proposing to his beloved dressed as Princess Leia. One couple had a full dress Star Wars wedding complete with an arch of crossed light sabers to welcome the new couple into married life. The appearance of this movie has been a major cultural event.

The second encounter was a documentary that I happened upon about a young man in Texas who quit his job and adjusted his lifestyle downward so that he could devote himself full-time to his passion for Viking culture. All over the world (including, apparently, in Texas) there are people who spend hours and hours immersing themselves in classical Viking culture. They make elaborate and, to some degree, authentic Viking costumes by hand, including armor and weapons, and they gather on a routine basis for Viking encampments complete with mock battles that aim at accuracy in terms of strategy, tactics, and the martial skills the Vikings developed. These battles stop short of actual bloodshed, although they are physically very, very demanding and inherently dangerous. There are hundreds of people in the United States that participate in this subculture, but the real epicenter is in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and also in the countries that used to lie behind the Iron Curtain. Every summer in Europe there are Viking encampments that last for weeks and involve thousands of people and absolutely huge mock battles that are refereed with the precision of military war games.

The third encounter was a fantasy novel that was given to me by my adult son. The novel is called Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, the best-selling graphic and fantasy novel writer. Millions of copies of Neverwhere have been sold, and it has recently been made into a radio series by the BBC. Neverwhere is about an alternative world beneath the streets of London. This world is a reality unto itself and can only be entered through doors that are very rare, hard to find, and harder to open. One of the characters in this novel has the ability to find and to open these doors. She can even make a door appear where before there was none. At first, London below appears to be a hellish reality. The novel actually opens with what can only be described as two demons discussing how they are going to murder one of the central characters in the book. A young man who is a stockbroker with a good job, apartment, and attractive girlfriend falls by chance into the hellish world below London. After spending a great part of the novel trying to escape the violent, nightmarish and fantastic world that he has fallen into, the young man realizes that he prefers the real and authentic life that he has found in the underworld to the comfortable but meaningless life that he lives in the London above.

Each of these examples comes from popular culture but each have an element of counter-culture about them. If one of the characteristics of high postmodern culture is the dismissal of metanarrative then each one of these instances of pop-culture is countercultural. They all represent the rebellion of the human heart against a world in which there is no plot, no meaning, and no story that can inspire and produce loyalty and heroism.

In the Star Wars saga there is a master story that is hidden behind ordinary reality; it takes faith to believe in and understand it, but that faith also gives hope, meaning, and purpose. Spiritual good and evil are real. You must choose between these, and upon your choice hangs your fate and the fate of others. Your choice has implications that are cosmic in their significance. The moment of temptation and trial is coming and in order to be able to prevail in that day it is necessary now to engage in a life of commitment and discipline. Evil seems an insurmountable force but is vulnerable to the disciplined few who have embraced the good.

It makes perfect sense to me that large numbers of people would line up to lose themselves in that great story. I can quite understand why they would want to so immerse themselves in that narrative that they would literally clothe themselves with it and even bring the most precious and tender moments of their life within its orbit. It makes sense for a knight to pledge his undying love to a princess. But in the postmodern twilight where all is gray and there is no future and no hope such promises make no sense.

What struck me about the young man who had so invested his life in learning Viking culture was how arduous it was for him to learn all the necessary skills to be able to participate in the Viking encampments. He spent hours upon hours in heavy physical training to build up his bodily strength and be able to wield the Viking weapons. He regards the ability to use Viking weapons in mock battles as a skill that will demand constant practice and refinement for the rest of his life. He is constantly perfecting his Viking kit and learning and practicing Viking visual arts so that he can authentically embellish his presentation. One of the things that the young Texan reported was how powerful his experience of community was with his fellow Viking impersonators. He said over and over that these people were really his family and that he had a camaraderie with them that could only otherwise be found on actual battlefields.

The Neil Gaiman novel also describes a world in which real challenges create real adventures, and it narrates the friendship, loyalty, and heroism that only emerge when character is thus tested. The Gaiman novel is interesting in that the world which is so described is a world that could not really happen. The Viking world is a world that has happened, and Star Wars is proposed as a world that could happen or perhaps has happened, however fantastic it is. But Neverwhere is written in such a way that it is clear that the world Gaiman describes is a world that could not in fact happen. And yet one of the characters literally cuts his way out of our reality in order to return to this world of fantasy, which is yet more real than the world we live in.

For most of my ministry the church that I have served has been trying to figure out how it can accommodate itself to the reigning culture. If the immense longing of the human heart that these three artifacts of pop culture embody is any clue, then the church should abandon any attempt to fit its story into the story of (or abandonment of story in) the dominant culture. We should be forthright that we describe an alternative world with an alternative plot in which there is real spiritual good and real spiritual evil and in which real choices are made with real consequences, which result in real adventures, which give the opportunity for genuine heroism and deep and profound community. We should be unapologetic about the finest and most exacting details of the Church’s liturgy and art and music, which give density and depth to the Church’s culture. We should be unapologetic about the discipline and apprenticeship that will be necessary to learn this culture and authentically practice this way of life. We should find ways to connect with and befriend people who are trying to cut their way out of a reality which promises to be heaven but is more like hell and invite them into a reality that may be unbelievable in the terms of the dominant culture but is far more real and worthy than the life they are living.

Other posts by Leander Harding may be found here. The Force Awakens poster is used here under fair use. 


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