Pagan themes have been a ready source of inspiration for popular culture for decades, providing mythic heroes, sinister occultists, and enduring symbols in every genre of entertainment. But rarely has any inspiration been so widely used and so widely misunderstood. Join us for thoughts, criticism, and commentary on the intersection of Paganism and popular culture.
"How was Asgard?" "It was Asgard."
You can blame my girlfriend for this post.
Although I was an early adopter of Facebook - way back in the days of legend, when one needed to be a student at an approved college and we spelled Facebook with a The - I had managed to avoid the time sucking vortex of Facebook games for many years. They were, after all, Skinner boxes, one and all, designed to slowly but persistently separate dollars and time from those gullible enough to fall into their traps. In terms of sophistication, Facebook games are little better than the puzzle in the polar bear cage on LOST, except Facebook games don't even have the courtesy to reward you with a fish biscuit.
...and then my girlfriend started playing Marvel Avengers Alliance, which is a Skinner box abomination like all the rest, except clad in the bright spandex of my beloved superheroes.
You want to know how far I've sunk? I finally bought myself a domain name, but only because it was cheaper than buying game currency outright.
(INCIDENTAL NOTE: Why do all of these games still use the D&D-esque "gold" for currency? In order for my Avengers Alliance SHIELD agent to purchase new equipment, he has to fork over Fort Knox-style bricks of gold. Is Nick Fury secretly a Ron Paul supporter who will not accept debased fiat currencies?)
Anyway, enough about my plight - if you play Facebook games at all, I'm sure you have a similar experience. What brings this to mind is a conversation that occurs in the game that has some interesting theology underneath it.
Being that the game is based on Marvel Comics, the playable characters are all Marvel superheroes. Many are big name characters whom everyone knows - Captain America, Spider-Man, Wolverine, and so on - but the game has a remarkable depth of obscure characters, too. Among them is the Norse goddess Sif in her comics form - black hair, silver armor, and not actually married to Thor.
Scattered throughout the main Final Fantasy style combat missions are "deploys," where you have the option to send your characters out to do something or other. There is no true game mechanic here; you simply trade not being able to use the character for a certain number of fights for a crack at a prize roulette and some extra points. But there are little bits of conversation between the characters during these deploys. One of them features Iron Man and Sif having the following exchange:
IRON MAN: We need to get our Asgardian allies up to speed. Sif, do you mind going across the Rainbow Bridge to tell them?
SIF: I would rather stay in battle.
IRON MAN: I know. And if the Asgardians were really gods, they would already know whatever we're going to tell them. But go anyway.
I can't help but feel like Tony Stark is a maniac in that conversation - what my buddies at TV Tropes would call a "Nay-Theist." He is talking to a goddess, asking her to go to the god-place and ask the other gods for help. He has seen Mjolnir summon the lightning and the storm. Half of the missions in the game revolve around fighting Loki or the ice giants. He has literal confirmation of every piece of Norse mythology right in front of him!
"But if you were really gods..."
Now, it would be easy enough to say that this is a consolation to both Christianity and to atheism - Tony Stark, being a scientist-engineer, can hew to his materialistic philosophy and deny divinity in general, and Pagan divinity in particular, without the game having to directly tackle the questions of more politically powerful religions in the game. The atheist sees that Tony refuses to concede the existence of gods in general and is happy, and the Christian sees that Tony refuses to grant legitimacy to Heathen gods and is satisfied. As an explanation for why this exchange was included in the game, I can buy it.
But I find myself thinking of what such a mindset says about the world of these characters - and perhaps our world, too. As it stands, all religious belief requires an acceptance of something unknowable, willingness to, as we say, take things on faith. As a Heathen, I'm willing to say that I worship Thor, but I have little hope of convincing anyone else of his existence. My vision of Thor is a personal one, something that nobody else can ever completely share. The Thor in my head is not the Thor in your head, even if you are also one of his adherents.
But that's not the case in the Marvel Universe, is it? There, Thor is at once completely undeniable and strikingly mundane. Every myth is true (more or less - as any puritan of either Asatru or comics will tell you, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn't worry too much about fidelity to the details of the mythology when they first wrote the comic), but every myth is explainable, too. There is no longer any mystery to the gods; they are known quantities. Perhaps in being known, they cannot be easily seen as objects of worship. Respect, yes, veneration, perhaps, but not worship.
At the end of that deployment, Sif and Iron Man have a debriefing:
IRON MAN: How was Asgard?
SIF: It was Asgard.
IRON MAN: Right. Everyone up there still on board?
SIF: Same as they were. You still do not believe, do you?
IRON MAN: I don't have to. As long as you're fighting on our side, you can have whatever story you want.
If we could prove that gods were real, could we still believe in gods?
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