CENTRAL to all the truly immersive, fandom-generating, imaginative universes of popular culture — Doctor Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Marvel superheroes — is, to borrow a concept from Tolkien, their promise of fellowship. No doubt because of the social isolation that is so much of the experience of modern life, we now like our entertainment to show us that life can be lived as part of an ensemble. Even such rugged individualists as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are surrounded by webs of familiar and beloved supporting players.
Alongside this re-emergence of community in our theatres and on our television screens has come a new appreciation of conversation, of humour, banter, and in-jokes as the vehicles by which a shared ethos can be conveyed to an audience, and through which individual members of a fandom can connect with one another.
In other words, popular culture today doesn’t just depict a community on screen: it’s all about forming a community among those watching their screens. The world of “fans” is the only context I know in which “proselytising” is not a dirty word.
In one way or another, these fellowships usually end up celebrating a process by which isolated misfits find themselves welded into a larger community, while still preserving their individual identity. Within explicitly Christian literature, I am irresistibly reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and the intricate cocktail of symbolism, philosophy, and personality which Chesterton concocts for each of his six main characters.
Chesterton’s paradoxical assertion that the garments in which God clothes us do not conceal but reveal our distinct characters was to make a great impression on C. S. Lewis, who employs the idea again and again, most explicitly in That Hideous Strength and The Great Divorce, and, more subtly, in the different gifts bestowed on the Pevensie children by Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
This sort of particularity walks hand in hand with a sense of connection: a differentiation of gifts calls for co-operation. No one ever enters Narnia alone; the experience is always necessarily refracted through multiple perspectives. In Tolkien, the same idea is so deep as to be foundational, not only in The Lord of the Rings but, even more poignantly, in Leaf by Niggle.
Rowan Williams has repeatedly argued, most recently in The Edge of Words, that our individual consciousnesses each contain a distinct pathway to God — a way “in” — that is somehow uniquely ours. The creative use of language is, of course, part of this, but the idea also embraces people whose brains work differently, the disabled, and the silenced.
An intrinsic part of the nature of Christian community — the assumption underlying both our humility and our courtesy — must be recognising and honouring that capacity in one another. In that, we encounter the promise of Christ: that the Holy Spirit is there among us, flowing around and beneath this web of human relationships; not dominating or controlling, but making the conversation possible.
Dr Hannah Matis is Assistant Professor of Church History at Virginia Theological Seminary.