Fan orthodoxy

We believe in one God the Father all powerful, maker of all things both seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten begotten from the Father, that is from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made , consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came to be, both those in heaven and those in earth; for us humans and for our salvation he came down and became incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead. And in the holy Spirit.

And those who say

“there once was when he was not”, and “before he was begotten he was not”, and that he came to be from things that were not, or from another hypostasis or substance,
affirming that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.

I imagine that some of my readers do not recognize this text.  Others may find this text familiar, but not in this form.   This, is the text of the original creed propagated at Council of Nicaea in 325, which addressed the question of the nature of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  I read the original text of the Nicene Creed for the first time in my medieval history class.  My professor pointed out that the key word in the creed is consubstantial, ie of the same substance.  This settled a debate going on among Christians as to the nature of Christ.  She also pointed out that creeds were weapons.  They weren’t simply written up to pass time or as an intellectual exercise.  They were written to keep certain ideas, and people, out of Christianity.

Now, I don’t actually want to give an in depth discussion about the history of Christianity or religion in general.  I actually want to talk about the Star Trek and Star Wars fandom, particularly the tendency of nerds to determine orthodoxy (right belief) vs heresy, as well as who is a true fan, and who is not.  But I actually think that the best lens to understand fandom is through the lens of religion.

This is hardly a new idea.

Indeed, I am not even the first person to use the Council of Nicaea as a way of understanding fandom and gate-keeping within it.  I was so mad when I saw this.  He beat me to the punch!


But even though he talks about the Council of Nicaea and how we can use Christian history to understand the nature of fandom today, he misses a crucial point, and a point that I think is crucial to understanding what is happening within them.

College Humor points out that nerds and religious people have a lot in common.  Trekspertise argues that the arguments over the correct hermenuetic (interpretive lens)  over material is similar to the various different interpretive groups within Christian history.  He is also correct that as a group grows, diverging ideas will emerge and schisms will ensue.

But Trekspertise misses an important element of nerds debate over orthodoxy and who is anathematized.  It is not simply about defining the correct interpretation of the subject matter or who is a legitimate fan of the subject matter.  It is about determining who has the power to determine orthodoxy and who belongs in the fandom.

This was true during the days of early Christianity.  As Elaine Pagels writes in her book The Gnostic Gospels,

I suggest that here again we cannot fully answer this question [why gnostic Christians were condemned as heretics for questioning monotheism] as long as we consider this debate exclusively in terms of religious and philosophical arguments.  But when we investigate how the doctrine of God actually functions in gnostic and orthodox writings, we can see how this religious question also involves social and political issues.  Specifically, by the latter part of the second century, when the orthodox insisted upon “one God,” they simultaneously validated the system of governance in which the church is ruled by “one bishop.”  Gnostic modification of monotheism was taken – and perhaps intended – as an attack upon the system.  For when gnostic and orthodox Christian discussed the nature of God, they were at the same time defending the issue of spiritual authority [emphasis in original].

Pagels, pages 33-34

I think that her interpretation is essential to understand what is going on in Star Trek and Star Wars fandom.

In the case of Star Wars, Lucasfilm was purchased by Disney.  They quickly declared that the expanded universe books were now no longer canon.  (Note the word canon.  It is often used to describe the contents of Scripture.)  They then made choices in the characterization of the three original leads, especially Luke, that enraged many of the hardcore fans.

The question is not simply “What is the true nature of Luke’s character?” but “Who has the power to determine the true nature of Luke’s character?”

Lucasfilm is arguing that they essentially are the bishops of Star Wars.  As the bishops, they have the authority to determine what is canon and what is not.  They also have the authority to determine the hermeneutic that fans must use to interpret Star Wars, and they have the authority to determine who is in and who is out.  Lucasfilm has a strong argument.  They literally control the source material, and without their money and resources, no new films could be made.  Lucasfilm expects that the fans will serve the position of the laity, buying merchandise, going to movies, and accepting their judgments, ie pay, pray, obey.

The fans, on the other hand, are frustrated because they feel that they should be the ultimate authority on Star Wars.  For many years, that was true.  George Lucas was not creating new films.  In the absence of bishops, the fans developed their own orthodoxies and anathematized heretics.  They also contribute financially to Lucasfilm by paying money by purchasing money and merchandise.  Because of this, they view the movies not as art, but as a product that the filmmakers should make to meet the desire of the consumers.

The fans and studio are engaged in a struggle for control.

Now, this dynamic has been going on in Star Trek for far longer.  I would date it as going back to 2009, when J.J. Abrams made the new Star Trek franchise.  His films pretty much abandoned everything that fans loved about Star Trek in favor of attempting to appeal to a wider audience (and Star Wars fans) and the fans revolted.  Shortly after its release, a fan convention selected Star Trek Into Darkness as the worst Star Trek film ever created.  (With good reason).

This has continued with the creation of Star Trek Discovery, which has divided the fans.  Some fans complain about the diversity in the show (I don’t consider those people to be real Star Trek fans).  Far more serious are the charges that Star Trek Discovery destroys the Star Trek chronology and violates the spirit and philosophy of Star Trek.  I haven’t watched Star Trek Discovery (I am NOT signing up for CBS all access!) but if the descriptions of it by Red Letter Media and Sci Fi Debris are accurate, I definitely agree with those charges.

But here’s what makes the Star Trek fandom more interesting, and this brings it back around to Elaine Pagels again.

Last year, Seth McFarlane convinced Fox to allow him to make his own Star Trek fan fiction called The Orville.  I saw the first episode a couple of months ago online, and I loved it.  It definitely feels like Star Trek, even with the comedy, since they solve problems with smarts and talking.  Which is very, very Star Trek.  Very.

What does this have to do with religion?

Seth McFarlane is essentially setting himself up as an alternate bishop/pope/patriarch dispensing the truth (new content).  He is challenging the authority of the bishops at CBS, declaring himself a bishop and appointing new bishops.  In some ways, it is remarkably similar to the early years of Christianity that Elaine Pagels describe, with many different competing Christianities each with their own leaders.  The bishops in what would eventually become the Catholic/Orthodox church recognized that what was at stake was not merely the correct version of the religion, but their own authority to interpret their religion.

More interestingly, many Star Trek fans are embracing Seth McFarlane’s vision of Star Trek.  (Including me).  I saw a video of an interview that he gave at Google.  One of the young men at Google declared that the Orville is the best Star Trek show he has seen in a long time.  Many fans are rejecting the authority of the CBS bishops to determine what is authentic Star Trek.

In religion, we would cause this a schism.




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