Hello everyone, and apologies for the lack of a recent update. Jason is currently halfway through his second set of exams and I’ve been finishing up school and finalizing plans for the summer. Fortunately, we’ve got an excellent post on the intersections of religious studies and fandom studies by Dr. Andrew Crome, a professor at the University of Manchester and fellow brony academic, that we are able to share. Check it out below the break!
Faith and Fandom
The study of religion and popular culture is often viewed with suspicion, both by those within the academic world and fans of the texts which are studied. To be fair, this is entirely understandable. When Religious Studies scholars have looked at pop culture texts, we’ve often tried to “baptise” them – looking for biblical or other faith-related parallels which prove the continued relevance of our discipline or personal faith. Often, these attempts simply result in people scratching their heads in confusion. When scholars of religion have turned to fandom, the results have often been even more problematic. A number of studies (for instance, Erika Doss’s work on Elvis fans or Michael Jindra’s study of Star Trek fan culture) suggest that fandom represents a kind of surrogate religion or postmodern faith community. Unsurprisingly, this is often highly offensive both to those fans who don’t identify with any particular belief system, and to those who already have a faith of their own.
It would be easy to use the sort of logic in these studies to draw basic comparisons between the claims of “life changes” that people have experienced after coming into contact with MLP:FiM in the Brony community and religious conversion. But there is also a crucial difference between fandom and religion – whatever transformative experience an individual has had in relation to MLP, it would be very unlikely that they would believe that in any sense that Equestria was a real place or bow down to worship Princess Celestia. Bronies might take MLP seriously, but it would be silly to ignore the sense of playfulness and fun that’s such a crucial part of the fandom in order to make it into some sort of surrogate religion.
Having said that, I (obviously!) believe that Religious Studies has something useful to offer to Fan Studies. This is both in helping us to understand the appeal of certain texts and the worlds they create, and in thinking about how fans of particular faith traditions integrate their faith (or lack of it) with their fandom. I don’t pretend to offer any firm answers in this post – just some preliminary thoughts on these two areas and the role of MLP in my research.
Take the sort of world building that producers (and subsequently, fans) have engaged in with Equestria. On the surface this is a world that it is apparently devoid of religion – the ponies certainly have no equivalent of a Church, Mosque, or Synagogue, and the concept of an afterlife is never discussed (Applejack might compare Fluttershy’s singing to “a slice of heaven” on occasions, but that probably doesn’t count). Yet there are certainly spaces in the text which might invite religious speculation. At times Celestia assumes a God-like role in her seeming immortality, guidance, protection and sustenance of Equestria. Celestia’s own mythology makes use of a postmodern mash-up of religious themes – for example, the very start of “Friendship is Magic, Part 1” places Celestia and Luna as contrasting parts of a Ying-Yang symbol. This then merges with Christian concepts in Luna/Nightmare Moon’s thousand year exile, subsequent release for “a short time” and ultimate defeat – a (direct?) mirroring of the “millennium” found in Satan’s thousand year binding, release, and defeat in the twentieth chapter of the Book of Revelation.
Alternatively, we might look at the range of festivals celebrated by pony society. These festivals appear, on the surface at least, to fit into the sort of explanations of ritual popularised in Mircea Eliade’s work, in which participants reconnect to a sense of primeval, sacred time by re-enacting their core myths. So Ponyville’s “Winter Wrap Up” both recreates the actions of the town’s earth pony founders, and provides a way of regulating the seasons by providing a functional transition point between winter and spring. “Hearth’s Warming Eve”, meanwhile, literally invites viewers and participants in its various pageants to re-experience the founding of Equestria and enter its foundation myth as the initial adversary between Earth Ponies, Unicorns and Pegasi is overcome; the Crystal Fair serves a similar function for the ponies of the Crystal Empire, as they gather around a sacred artefact to reconstitute their community. Meanwhile, Luna’s realisation that the appeal of “Nightmare Night” lies in the fact that ponies are drawn to her mythical persona as “Nightmare Moon”, while at the same time experiencing a kind of uncanny terror, nicely illustrates Rudolf Otto’s idea that religious experience can be described as that which simultaneously fascinates and terrifies us.
Of course, this sort of thought is speculative, and certainly a long way from the thinking of producers. But this kind of speculation is common in all sorts of fandoms – deepening and expanding the text by thinking through the mythology, sociology, and ethnography of its imagined world. My thoughts about faith in Equestria are at best flippant (at worst, ridiculous) and open to question at any number of levels. At the same time they show how Equestria can be used as an abstract space in which we can think through the role of religion in society. They suggest the way in which pop culture texts such as MLP can operate as what Michael Saler has called “public spheres of the imagination” – in which the pop cultural spaces we explore as fans become safe arenas in which to discuss contentious issues. Given that Bronies often emphasise the importance of diversity and acceptance within their fandom, it is possible that texts such as MLP offer a particularly fruitful space to discuss these sorts of issues.
In terms of fandom itself, what is much more interesting to me than the question of whether or not fandom represents a new type of secularised faith, is the question of how fans use their pre-existing faith traditions in tandem with the object of their fandom. In Western fandoms, this is predominantly (though not exclusively) Christianity. For MLP, this includes pictures of favourite ponies placed next to Bible verses which are said to reflect their characteristics; fanfics in which the Mane 6 deal with heresy, questions of biblical interpretation, and how to evangelise; and fan art which plays with or critiques religious ideas. None of these are necessarily unique to MLP fandom, but there are elements of Brony culture which make it particularly interesting in terms of its relationship with emerging trends in American Christianity.
Churches, particularly traditional or fundamentalist groups with an inherited suspicion of popular culture, have often looked down on fandom. One of the major reasons for this is the committed and emotional nature of fan engagements with the object of their fandom: from the outside, popular culture fandom has often been construed (wrongly, I would argue) as a type of rival faith to Christianity. Because of this, Christian fans have sometimes followed the lead of scholars of religion in finding analogies between their favourite franchise and faith. This usually includes locating the moral centre of a show and demonstrating the way in which it fits with the central Christian message. For MLP, for example, it is difficult to argue against the overall ethos of the show from the point of view of Christian morality. The Elements of Harmony are largely synonymous with the traditional Christian virtues (with the possible exception of magic!); each show ends with a clear and highly positive moral message; and sex, violence, and gore are nowhere to be found. Villains are generally redeemed, rather than destroyed.
Yet the same issues that face Bronies in wider culture – questions of gender, age appropriateness, and supposed “obsession” over a TV show designed to sell toys to young girls – are magnified in some Christian circles. Outside of the fringe apocalypticism which connects unicorns in MLP to the coming of Antichrist (Alicorns, alas, are left unmentioned), these relate to important issues in the churches. One of the most notable things about American Evangelical Christianity in the last twenty years has been what sociologist Callum Brown described as a shift away from femininity. An emphasis on firmly differentiated gender roles and “true” masculinity has emerged as a reaction to what has often been perceived as an overly-feminised belief system in many churches. To publicly embrace MLP fandom in some conservative Christian circles might be seen as a disavowal of masculinity, or (wrongly) as a proclamation of homosexuality or psychological immaturity. American Conservatives often quote St. Paul’s warning against immaturity in 1 Corinthians 13 (out of context) to address the supposedly “infantile” nature of much of popular culture: “When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”. MLP seems to some to be the epitome of “childishness”.
Paul, of course, never imagined that his words would be used in a debate over whether or not adults should be watching the adventures of candy coloured ponies. Neither, I suppose, did he think that he find his words being quoted by Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy in various fanfics or pasted next to pictures of Rarity in a giant hat. Yet were he to survey the ways in which his writings have been used over the past two thousand years, these sorts of contexts would hardly be the most bizarre adaptations of his biblical writings. Part of the appeal of studying religion in its various historical and cultural contexts is to see the way in which believers, non-believers, and interested parties use and transform it through their lived experiences. And that can include (believe it or not) interpreting it through MLP.
 Mircea Eliade. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (San Diego and London: Harcourt) , pp.68-113.  See Rudolf Otto. 1950 . The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.12-30.  Michael Saler. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.97-104.  Cutting Edge. Undated. “TV/Toys Conditioning Our Children”, http://www.cuttingedge.org/ce1021.html  See Callum Brown. 2012. Religion and the Demographic Revolution (Woodbridge: Boydell).