An Open Letter to Fanboys

Dear Fanboys,

I know you’re upset over the apparent “robbery” of “your” characters: the loss of your Doctors and Thors to women, your white Peter Parker “usurped” by Afro-Hispanic Miles Morales, your straight Hal Jordan “taken over” by queer Alan Parker, your blonde Captain Marvel flying out so Pakistani Muslim Khamala Khan can soar in.

How dare they touch your precious characters, you cry. And all in the name of something as ridiculous as “politically correct” culture.

You cry out to the geekdom gods: “Why have you forsaken me?”

Oh, my dears.

Just stop.

Seriously.

 

This is exactly what you sound like. Do you really want to be Dudley Dursley?

 

Enough with the cries of “P.C. culture is ruining geekdom” and “the canon says this character has to be THIS way,” as if those characters don’t already break accepted laws of physics and science.

 

If a time-traveling, regenerating alien hanging out with their past form makes more sense to you than that same alien regenerating into a woman, you’re being a little choosy with how you apply your logic.

You’re not being persecuted. You’re not losing your stories.

What you’re experiencing is a thing called “change.”

The world and culture are shifting around you. And as such, the representation of that world is going to change.

Straight, cis, able-bodied, white men aren’t the only people calling all of the shots anymore. Not only are more women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled people finally getting the right to tell their stories; they have also been reading, watching, and loving the same characters and worlds you have.

All we are asking is that those heroes look like us once in a while.

But why not make an original character, though, you ask. Why must you “steal” one of ours? Go get your own, you demand!

Ah, yes, why didn’t we think of that? It’s easy, right? After all, your characters seemed to spring up out of nowhere with such frequency, we should be able to do the same.

If only it were the case that movies and shows with diverse casts of characters made by people who aren’t straight, male, or white didn’t take longer to make because producers don’t trust the characters will be likeable or even “articulate.” If only these projects weren’t desperately underfunded to the point that the production companies attempt to bribe their creators with more money if they just cast a white lead. 

Not to mention the frequency with which these beloved, well-rounded shows with this type of casting are dropped.

 

I guess they gotta make way for more episodes of Iron Fist, The Ranch, and whatever else Adam Sandler can cough up.

 

Why aren’t more women and people of color trying to tell their own stories, you ask. Why aren’t they working hard to get in the director’s seat or behind the writing desk?

Here’s the short answer: They are.

They’re working their asses off.

They’re also being met with microagressions like “I’m pleasantly surprised you knew what you were doing,” are blamed for a variety of minor issues for the sake of being a “minority,” and fearing that if they drop any “ethnic” dialogue or bring up too many “issues,” they’ll lose the project for good.

 

Not to mention the legitimate and very threatening harassment they receive online for critiquing video games while having vaginas and posting selfies with their fellow artists. 

These add up real quick and make pursuing a passion that much more exhausting and even dangerous. And it takes a special kind of strength to be willing to pursue what you love when all of that is coming at you every day.

When we get excited over a female Doctor, a woman of color being the main character in the new Star Trek, and actual Muslim women writing the story of an actual Muslim superhero, it’s not because we want to “steal” your characters for the sake of being “P.C.” We are excited, because just like you got David Tennant and 11 other men as the Doctor, and you had Captains Kirk and Picard (take your pick), we get Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor and First Officer Burnham. We get people who are like us telling stories about heroes who are like us. We have icons to admire and exonerate, whom we aspire to be one day, just as you always have.

 

It looks like a sun is collapsing behind her, and she’s still taking time to pose all stoically for the camera. How badass is that?!

 

When only one-third of speaking characters are female, despite the fact that women represent just over half the population in America, when just 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue are from non-white racial/ethnic groups, though such groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, and when only two percent of speaking characters are identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual, we will line up in huge numbers for Wonder Woman’s release and binge watch The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, and Transparent.

When negative mass media portrayals of black men shape public views of and attitudes toward men of color, which can result in self-demoralization and a reduction of self-esteem for people of color and enable judges to hand out harsher sentences and the police to shoot indiscriminately, we will rejoice when Idris Elba heads The Dark Tower, John Boyega is a lead in Star Wars, and A Wrinkle in Time is driven by Storm Reid with Ava Duvernay at the helm.

So instead of complaining, please support us. We have good stories to tell. Heck, we even have universal stories to share, believe it or not.

Support us because you want more people to love fandom and geek culture.

Support us because stories are sacred and affect all of us in sacred ways.

Support us because we’re all a bunch of geeks who are into some crazy, weird, phenomenal stories, so we might as well enjoy them together while the rest of the world casts their judgmental looks upon our weirdness.

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Church Runaways, Meet Marvel’s Runaways

Runaways

WordPress

This year, I didn’t go to church on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday.

Instead, I binge-read 3 volumes of Marvel’s Runaways, the comic series about “a group of young teens [who] find out their parents are actually supervillains and do the rebellious thing…they become superheroes.” (Read the whole article if you’re a new fan to graphic novels and comics, while you’re at it!)

The group consists of 6 individuals: Chase Stein, the oldest and a stereotypical jock (with a penchant for lasers and vehicles) despite having mad genius parents; Alex Wilder, a lonely MMORPG lover with firm but loving parents who is considered the brains of the group; Nico Minoru, the daughter of two sorcerers who wields the Staff of One, a magical device which can do any spell but only once; Karolina Dean, a Majesdanian alien whose parents hid and suppressed her powers for her whole life; Gertrude “Gert” Yorkes, whose time-traveling parents gifted her a dinosaur with whom she shares a telepathic link; and young Molly Hayes, a precocious pre-teen mutant with the power to lift all the big things.

The series sees the teens coming to terms with their parents true selves, the motives behind their actions, familial and fraternal betrayal, coming of age without the parental guidance they expected to receive, and living with and leading each other through these difficult and new days.

It’s the perfect read for people struggling with the Church, those who have left the Church, those who are thankful they left, and those who still feel remorse over leaving.

There’s Molly Hayes, the youngest Runaway, who is perhaps the most confused over her situation. She is still in that stage of life where adults can still be trusted. She doesn’t have her house, her bed, or her parents, and while she knows they did something wrong, she never witnessed it herself, because the older kids didn’t think she could handle seeing it. She is a runaway, but a reluctant one.

There’s Chase Stein, who rather willingly abandoned his abusive household and came into his own as a member of the Runaways, providing them with a hideout (albeit it literally unstable), fighting baddies with his parents’ technology, and piloting their Leapfrog ship. Being a runaway, in some ways, saves him, and he finds a true family with the rest of the gang.

There’s Nico, Gert, and Karolina, who are aware of their families villainous ways and know they have no choice but to flee them, yet they continue to be haunted by the lives and legacies from which they left behind.

And there’s Alex, the group’s leader, who seems to easily leave his family and lead the Runaways but refuses to cast off his familial identity indefinitely, hoping instead to redeem them.

We’ve seen Big Church, the Christian Machine, act in ways they believe will save us but harm us more. And we’ve become runaways as a result.

But it’s not an easy decision to make, even if it’s a necessary one.

It’s not easy to leave our church homes, our comfy beds of unquestioning faith, the warm hugs from the Christians we love and who love us but suddenly become cold and false, the routine traditions. Sometimes, even after we’ve been gone a while, we still dream of those “good ol’ days” and want them back. Even when we understand that staying would have meant falsehood or even death, returning to business as usual is appealing. At least it meant a home was involved.

Runaway status isn’t always fun. Not having one place to call “home” can wear on you after a while. Rootlessness isn’t the safest way to live. We are creatures of habit and security, and while having nowhere to settle gives greater freedom to make nests in other places, there really is nothing or no place like home.

But Runaways reminds me that realizing the home you once loved is no longer there, and perhaps never was, can be the Good Friday which eventually moves into the Easter of finding family in the ones who have also fled.

Running away is sacred and scary. It can involve putting down roots for a time only to yank them up again. It is being honest with the beauty and the brokenness of our upbringing and figuring out what’s left to salvage. It is dropping our nets and leaving our tax collector booths like Jesus’ disciples and following the One who calls us into a new way of life, one more risky and more fantastic than we care to imagine.

Most of all, running away can remind us we are the Church, and we make home wherever we go, on the run or otherwise.

To the runaways, take comfort and know you are in good company, and even though some may say you’ve fled God, God is with you through the wilderness and in the homestead.

Also, may you find out you have an 87th-century dinosaur with whom you share a telekinetic bond. Because that would be freakin’ awesome.

Why Ms. Marvel and Muslim Representation are Important

marvel

marvel.wikia.com

When I first walked into a comic book store two and a half years ago, I went straight for the Marvel section to grab Ms. Marvel Issue 1 (2014).

I knew nothing about Carol Danvers. I barely knew anything about Kree or Inhumans.

But I knew about Kamala Khan, the second-generation, Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager who carried the title of the super-heroine Ms. Marvel.

Kamala’s run as Ms. Marvel, previously portrayed as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Carol Danvers, began in February 2014. While she isn’t the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe, she is the first to have get her own solo title and story.

When I found this out, I wanted to read her story, which sounded interesting and exciting on its own.

But I also had a bigger reason.

It’s no mystery that post-9/11 America has not been the kindest or safest place for Muslims. Pastors burn Qurans, men rip hijabs off of women, and people demand that incoming refugees and immigrants take religious tests in order to prove whether or not they are Muslims and, therefore, terrorists. Anti-Muslim sentiments and hate crimes have only increased in the month after the election.

Thankfully, I’ve also heard many in my own Christian circle strive to be more open to, inclusive of, and engaged with those they call “our Muslim brothers and sisters.” I appreciate and affirm these efforts and encourage all of my Christian friends to continue them.

But the term “our Muslim brothers and sisters” is not just a phrase to me or a call to go out of my way to interact with this group as if I can avoid them.

Muslims are my actual brother, sister, father, stepmom, and half of my extended family. They are my flesh and blood.

And that is why Ms. Marvel is so important to me.

This is a female American Muslim who is a person, not a token or a poster child. She is a teenager who goes to school, fights with her parents and brother, attends the mosque, quotes the Quran in the name of justice, and is obsessed with the Avengers. She also messes up often: she falls for a boy who hurts her, takes her best friend for granted, and is betrayed by her idol. She is a character whose ethnicity and religion is incorporated into “the larger, more holistic representation of what it is to be a person.”

Kamala isn’t just a girl who happens to be Muslim AND a superhero. Her identity and ideas about justice flow from her religious faith and family heritage. She rebukes the stereotype of Muslim women being oppressed and passive. Instead, she is physically, mentally, and emotionally strong with similar limits as other superheroes. Her religion does not hold her back. It pushes her forward.

Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel is an important icon in an age when people are calling out inherent racism in our media, from movements like #OscarsSoWhite and backlash against whitewashing characters who should be portrayed by people of color. She is a breath of fresh air in a storm of common negative media narratives surrounding Muslim Americans, including, but not limited to, threats of ISIS within and outside US; the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, and Pulse Nightclub attacks; and Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest for building a clock his teacher suspected of being a bomb. She is someone that can represent my siblings, parents, and family well, someone to remind them that they are good, beautiful, whole people just as they are, with their dark, curly hair, large brown eyes, and olive skin. They are not tokens or terrorists. They are people with stories similar to and different from Kamala’s, and their stories are worth telling and upholding. This is what Ms. Marvel’s story says to my family and other Muslim Americans.

When people of color and from minority groups demand better representation, it isn’t a whiny demand from brats who just “want everything their way.” It’s a call to acknowledge a broad range of people as complete, complex human beings in the same way so many white, hetero, cis, Christian, and able-bodied people already are. It is a plea to notice and honor the divine humanity of brown, black, and Muslim (among other people groups) in realistic, well-rounded, and accurate ways.

In short, it is a cry for justice.

So broaden your horizons. Not all of the media you consume should be headlined by people who look like and have similar backgrounds and lifestyles as you. If you’re Christian, find some stories from Muslim, Hindu, or even atheist perspectives. If you’re white, read the stories of black and brown characters (even better, get stories like those written BY people of color). If you’re able-bodied, seek the stories of people with disabilities. The point is, don’t limit your stories. Seek all of them from as many perspectives as possible. Recognize the divine humanity in each diverse story. If you’re a creator, make sure if your characters are people of color or different religions that you do your homework well in bringing them to life. Make sure they are real people whose ethnicity and religious beliefs add to their character instead of forcing them into a stereotype.

This is important, holy work, friends, and it is hard work. We won’t always say the right things or portray people as well as we could. We will blunder. I know I have many times.

But know that this is work for justice. This work of honoring stories honors the beautiful humanity  within each person, including my own family. And we need this work to be done now more than ever.

Why This Story?

As I’ve shared before, there have been times in which participating in the Church is difficult. There have been times in which I am less engaged due to everything from boredom to fear of being and expressing myself. But through engagement with theater, TV shows, and comic books, I’ve discovered my desire for a connection with God and others through story.

An instrumental story in this process is The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

sandman

http://comicsalliance.com/

In September 2014, I began reading The Sandman at the recommendation of a fellow comic lover and survivor of the Bridgewater College Philosophy and Religion department. I bought the first issue online and lost myself in the world of Morpheus, the lord of dreaming.

One of my favorite Sandman stories is in issue 4. After an occult leader imprisons him for 70 years (as depicted in issue #1), Morpheus/Dream escapes and begins searching the world for his lost totems of power. One of these totems is a helmet, which a demon is Hell withholds from him. Dream enters hell and finds the demon, and the demon agrees to hand over the helmet only if Dream defeats him in a battle of wits, or what they call the “oldest game.” They start with small forms (hunter defeats wolf, hunter defeated by horsefly which harms his horse, etc.) and begin building until the demon declares himself as the form Anti-Life, “the dark at the end of everything.”

Everyone in hell thinks Dream is beaten. After all, what can defeat the Beast of Judgment, “the end of universes, gods, worlds…of everything?”

After a brief pause, in which all the demons of hell wait with baited breath, Dream replies, “I am hope.”

And the demon has no retort.

Dream leaves Hell with his helmet and a little more power, and I move on with the flicker of faith within me burning a bit stronger than before.

This small line has saved my faith more times than I can count. I am anxious and pessimistic about the world around me and the Church to which I pledge my allegiance. It is easy for me to look at world and Church and lose hope in them. In these times, I tell myself to look into the Story which I  say I am a part of, but all I see are stories retold so often and in such dry ways that I see little life remaining in them.

Yet this one line, this tiny sentence, written by a man who many in the Body of Christ would claim is not “one of us,” is sometimes the spark which keeps my faith alive.

Why, when I claim to be part of the Greatest Story Ever, is this story the one which keeps me going? What has happened to our Story, and how can it come back to life?

 

Why I Spend More Time on Netflix than in Bible Study

I give more time to my Netflix queue than to Bible study. My comic book collection has exceeded my devotional one. I still tear through Harry Potter books with an appetite that I’ve never had for the Bible.

Even though I attend a local congregation and am in seminary to become a pastor, I still struggle to practice spiritual disciplines and read my Bible regularly. When I open my Bible, I still think of the past Bible studies I attended in which everyone arrived at the same neat, non-debatable answers. When I sit down to meditate, my brain races with thoughts I think I “should” be thinking and ones I actually am thinking.

But I don’t feel this conflict when reading my books and comics or watching my favorite TV shows. Instead, I feel free to imagine, interpret, and enjoy the story in front of me, free from the boundaries of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy. These stories don’t demand that I come to a certain conclusion; instead, they invite me along with the characters to see something new.

I don’t feel the same way about the Bible, or at least how I’ve been taught how to read it. For so long, Bible study has contained a number of unspoken rules: Don’t stray from orthodoxy or the theology of our group. Any new insight must conform to what we already believe. Use your imagination, but don’t be too imaginative. This is what the text definitely means, and this is what it will never mean.

This type of reading drives me nuts. I love a good story. A good story allows for plenty of different interpretations. A good story doesn’t settle for a comfortable ending, but challenges the reader to look at the world in a completely different way than they did before. I want to find something in the story I didn’t notice before, like seeing a part in a movie I’ve seen several times but didn’t notice until this particular viewing. If I can read the Bible like that, it will seem bigger and less safe, but it will keep me coming back to it instead of repelling me.

This is why, while I love tradition, I find it problematic when we use this same gift t0 ignore storytelling. And I get very worried about the future of the Church every time I hear someone say or imply, “We’ve always done/thought of things this way, and therefore it is always right.”

The stories I’ve loved, from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, from Ms. Marvel to Sandman, have taken me to a world I never knew existed. They taught me about the pain and beauty of this world in a way more honest than I’d ever heard it described in the Church. When the Church insisted on teaching me about a dreamworld of black-and-white perfection, these stories put me face-to-face with complicated, colorful reality. When the Church only seemed to offer hope in a “world to come,” these stories gave me hope that was tangible and present in the world today. These stories both took me away from my world and kept my feet grounded in reality.

I love The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman. I love mythological tales of beings with a lot of power who sometimes look out for humanity yet also make some less than right choices. But more importantly, these comics showed me how to have hope in life when all hope seems lost. When I couldn’t see that hope in the biblical story, Neil Gaiman showed it to me in a whole new context that resonated powerfully with me.

Neil-Gaiman-Sandman-Fear-of-Falling

I love Fahrenheit 451, not only because I love dystopian novels that end with revolution, but because I love hearing about truth that will not be kept in the dark. The prophets proclaimed a word that was fire in their bones and couldn’t be kept shut up. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that couldn’t be killed. Guy Montag risked his life to read more books instead of burn them. This is the Gospel to me.

451

I love Harry Potter, because I would love it if I lived in a world where Hogwarts was I real school, but only if I wasn’t a Muggle. More importantly even than that, though, I love the story of a child who is both a very human friend and the savior of his people. It is a tale of sacrifice, love, community, and resurrection.

hermione

I love my favorite books, movies, and shows, not in spite of my love of the Bible, but because of it. The messages from the stories of the Bible are alive and present to me in the stories I love today.

The Church needs to remember that this collection of stories which we call the Bible is extremely powerful and more full of color and paradox than we will ever realize. The Bible cannot be completely bound by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s theology; it is both too big and too small for that. It is the Word of God but not God. It is inspired yet very, very human. It offers guidance, but the Spirit makes this Word alive.

And for that, I am thankful, because its origins remind me of my own humanity. The Bible, and the stories it has inspired, remind me of the truth that, as a human, I am both very significant and very small. Everything in God’s Creation can testify to that truth, so why should we stand in its way? Why should we say that it is only present in one medium, and how can we say that the truth we find in the Bible can’t be found in other tales?

Someday soon, I hope I find that life, not just in the Bible, and not just outside of the Bible, but in the eyes of the God who looks at me and reminds me, through these and other stories, that I am both so significant and so small.