Is Spock’s resurrection on the Genesis Planet an affront to God? Is Gandalf the kind of sorcerer condemned in the Book of Exodus? How can Star Wars happen “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away” if the universe is less than 6,000 years old? Since Data was created by humans, how can he have a soul?
These are the questions that occupy the mind of a young religious geek, leaving you with no choice but to compartmentalize. Then, of course, you grow up and realize that religion might be more complicated than whatever your third-grade teacher says. (Hey, Rabbi Adler!) Still, the best you can hope for is neutrality, right? Battlestar Galactica might not push you away from God, but certainly it can’t bring you closer, right?
So while I never stopped being a fan of genre fiction, that seemed irrelevant to being a rabbi. At most, I might slip in a reference in a sermon (or, much more rarely, in writing), but that was the limit. Who could dare to mix the two?
And then I discovered Geek Fights. I have heard many podcasts over the past decade, and I have made a couple (hundred) myself, but I never spoke as a geek. But this podcast, which sadly is coming to an end in the next few months, welcomed people from all walks of life. Yes, hosts Damon Shaw and Mike Ortiz are in Detroit, but they Skype all over the world, regardless of sex, creed or nationality. What unites the panelists on any given episode is passion about the topic. (You can catch me this week on Episode 158, Best War Movie.)
That’s what defines geeks: the endless analysis of the supernatural, obsession with canon, vigorous arguments about how to appreciate source materials, fiery indignation about the misinterpretation of beloved texts and tales, the voracious desire to ponder utopian and dystopian realms, venerating relics, treasuring icons, making pilgrimages, celebrating festivals with special costumes and accoutrements, the preoccupation with questions of morality, mortality and meaning. Hm, sounds like another group I proudly claim membership in…
Why do I bring this up now? Well, over the past few days, I’ve watched the reaction to the latest article by Britain’s outgoing Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Atheism has failed: only religion can fight the barbarians,” in which he blithely condemns atheists as inherently immoral and fundamentalists as inherently barbaric. Civilization (well, civilisation) can only survive if we embrace his brand of Judeo-Christianity, which brings sanity to the world. Writers as diverse as the University of Chicago’s Dr. Jerry Coyne and Jewish uber-blogger DovBear have pointed out the fallacies with this argument (with somewhat harsher language than I might have chosen), but it did get me thinking: what ultimately “sells” religion in the marketplace of ideas? High medieval theologians were convinced that the proper philosophical argument could prove the existence of God; at the start of the Renaissance times, the Catholic Church believed that science would strengthen belief, although it soon saw scientists such as Galileo as an existential threat. Just as the philosophical and scientific approaches fell by the wayside in the past century or two, the moral and societal argument are now withering on the vine.
However, Larry Alex Taunton’s piece for The Atlantic, “Listening to Young Atheists,” suggests an answer. When one actually talks to intelligent, educated people instead of at them, it becomes clear that overenthusiasm does not scare people away from religion; rather, it is the attempt to prune religion of all of its distinctive characteristics which turns the youth off. If you want to appeal to the next generation, you have to be serious about your faith. Don’t be an aggressive proselytizer, but a passionate adherent. Not dour, not domineering, not dogmatic; instead, be enthusiastic, ecstatic, exultant. Your passion must match your commitment. Embrace fandom rather than fanaticism. In short, geek out about God.
So, thank you, Geek Fighters. In your “intelligent discussion of inane topics,” you actually have some very profound things to say about the human experience. The overriding principle is this: never vote against your heart. Rava put it this way (Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b): “It is because the Holy One, blessed be He, requires the heart.”