Thursday, October 9, 2014

How Mormonism is like Supernatural Fandom

In honor of this week's tenth season premiere of Supernatural, I finally finished a post I've been kicking around for a while.

I'm a big fan of Supernatural. I don't cosplay or go to comic-con panels or anything, but I consider myself a loyal follower.  I've bought all the available seasons on DVD despite the fact that I can watch them anytime on Netflix.  I've watched each season several times and then forced my girlfriend to watch them with me again.  I stream new episodes to stay caught up and I participate in online discussions of the show.

And I've noticed some similarities between my Supernatural fandom and my former Mormon fandom.

(...spoiler alert...)

1.  I cheer for the arrival of my favorite recurring guest stars.
"You chuckleheads tried to kill me last time."
The return of the Trickster was a great moment.  He's not one of the central characters of the show, but he has such panache and he's always fun to watch.  His contributions shake up the usual rhythms of the Supernatural mythos in refreshing ways.  Whenever he appears in an episode (which, sadly, isn't as often as I'd like), I get pretty excited about whatever is about to happen.

That moment is not unlike this one:
*person in twenty-fourth row coughs loudly*
A member of the Quorum of the Twelve is leaving the podium during General Conference.  Who's walking up next?  Could it be my sister's old mission president, who despite being only a Seventy, has a positive attitude and a cool accent?  He's spoken in General Conference several times now, and I used to hope he'd speak when I watched as a faithful member of the church.  Sure, he's not one of the Big Fifteen, but his delivery of important doctrines is a refreshing break from the measured intonations of Richard G. Scott and the authoritative firmness of Dallin H. Oaks.

2.  I love seeing outside sources verify the awesomeness that I know to be awesome.
Kurt Fuller as Zachariah, Mark Pellegrino as Lucifer, Mark Sheppard as Crowley, Felicia Day as Charlie and DJ Qualls as Garth
Over the course of its nine seasons, Supernatural has been graced with many quality guest stars, but the ones that feel most rewarding are the actors I'm already familiar with.  A show with this many awesome supporting actors must be doing something right.  It's a testament to the awesomeness of Supernatural that actors from Firefly and Dexter and Battlestar Galactica and Leverage and so many other great shows just seem to pour in.  Sure, they could have just signed on for the paycheck, but the sheer number of cool actors being involved can't be a coincidence.  Right?

In very much the same way, every time I heard a non-Mormon speak well of the Mormons, I felt validated.  Sure, that guy may be a Methodist, but his acknowledgement that he knows a Mormon lady who seems nice is every bit as fulfilling as Felicia Day returning to portray Charlie Bradbury despite the demands of her other work. If even non-Mormons have good things to say about us, then we must be really great.  Right?  Remember how cool it was when you realized that Jimmy Freaking Stewart starred in the LDS film, Mr. Krueger's Christmas?  He probably knew the church had something special and that's why he wanted to be involved.

It's silly in both contexts, of course, but somehow, outside sources contributing to the quality or enhancing the image of the object of your devotion is oddly gratifying.

3.  I'm duped by the seeming purity of self-sacrifice.
When Sam died and Dean sold his soul to bring him back to life, I was impressed by how easily he forfeited his own wellbeing for the benefit of his brother.  He would have only one year to live before spending an eternity in Hell just so Sammy could have another chance for a long and happy life.  Eventually I realized that Dean's actions were selfish and even somewhat pitiful, stemming from a deep-seated sense of worthlessness and an inability to cope with a life without his brothereven though he was about to force Sam to live alone.

In Mormonism, I was raised to be in awe of Joseph Smith, Abinadi, the righteous of Ammonihah, and so many other Mormon figures who sacrificed their personal safety or their lives for the things they believed in. But that was before I realized that Joseph was armed and shot some of his attackers, Abinadi was fictional and the deaths in Ammonihah depict a vicious, merciless God.

They're practically the same guy.
None of these sacrifices was as pure or as selfless or as poignant as I originally thought.  In each case I felt silly for blindly buying into the first representation of it and not discovering the underlying impurities sooner.

4.  It's supposed to be about the story, but sometimes I forget and worship the founder.
The important things about Supernatural are its substancethe themes of family and loyalty and friendship and trust, the characters' struggles, the constant battle between black-and-white morality and the blurring line between good and evil, the on-screen chemistry, the comedic timing, the classic rock and the self-indulgent metafictional weirdness.  But sometimes, as fans, we decide that it's more important to discuss how much of a supposed genius Eric Kripke is.  As the show's creator and showrunner for the first five seasons, Kripke introduced us to the characters we love and led them on an epic journey which culminated in a battle against Lucifer himself.  In various online communities dedicated to Supernatural, there are occasional jokes made about Eric Kripke being God, both inside and outside of his fictional universe.
Yes...that is Eric Kripke's face on God's body.
Similarly, the church is supposed to be about the atonement and the family and achieving celestial glory.  But sometimes, Sunday School lessons are all about how fantabulous Joseph Smith was.  We're taught that he did more for the salvation of mankind than anyone (other than Jesus, of course).  We study his life and make movies about him and do everything possible to make him sound (and look) better than he actually was.  We ignore or downplay his polygamy, gloss over his brushes with the law, and glorify him as a tragic, defenseless martyr.
dat glow of righteousness tho
But that's not really what's supposed to be important, is it?

5.  I take obvious missteps on faith. 
Exhibit A:  hot and awesome Ruby.  Exhibit B:  still hot, but with artificially sweetened caffeine-free awesome.
Ruby, a demon introduced in season 3, returned in season 4but she was played by a different actress that wasn't nearly as popular with the viewers.  The bitchy attitude and the sense of danger and in-your-face risk-taking wasn't quite right in the new portrayal.  Season 6 struggled without a big villain that could rival the previous season's climax and fell flat because Sam Winchester's character was completely gutted.  Despite these flaws, I continued watching faithfully.  Most of the core elements I loved had been preserved, so Supernatural was still the best show ever, right?

Through all the time I spent in the church, I never understood the supposed rationale behind polygamy.  And no matter which way I looked at it, the priesthood ban always seemed fishy to me too.  But I didn't learn of those things right away.  I was raised on a simple but steady diet of "Jesus loves us," "Joseph Smith was a prophet," and "the Book of Mormon is true."  And those easily digestible core beliefs were still being taught, so the church was still true, right?
Why the church used to apparently be racist is not an important question,
therefore, the church is still true!

6.  I get really angry with critics, whether they spit on one small piece or the entirety.
While the show has had its ups and downs, some people have reacted to the less awesome parts a little worse than others.  I've seen a few posts on Reddit from people who loved the first few seasons but have nothing but hatred and vitriol to dispense about the recent ones.  And, of course, I've had a few people think I was weird for liking Supernatural because they thought it was just a cheesy horror show with plenty of eye candy for the ladies.  These kinds of comments make me want to rage because, even if they're accurate or only a matter of opinion, they simplify and devalue the things I hold dear.  
Some reactions to criticism are a little less advisable than others.
When it came to dealing with criticism of Mormonism, I was even more thin-skinned.  I had a friend who used to occasionally tease me for believing in such far-fetched things (he particularly liked to say something about a rock in a hat, which of course he was just making up).  I found it difficult to shrug his mockery off.  Luckily, he never used the big C-word, because I discovered later how much someone labeling the church as a cult would set me off.  
Say cult again...I dare you.
When polygamy was discussed outside of a church setting, I tended to get kind of riled up.  It was a source of endless frustration to me that, after more than a hundred years of a zero-tolerance policy on polygamy, it was still the first thing people associated with Mormonism.  When people would talk about it like it was the stupidest thing a church could teach, I'd want to scream at them, "But you're ignoring all the great stuff about Mormons!  Eternal families?  Come on, who doesn't want that!"  I got very tired of people simplifying my religion and dismissing it as foolish.  After a while, the slightest less-than-positive comment would make my blood boil.

7.  I make the mythology hold continuity because I need the mythology to hold continuity.
In the fourth season, there's an episode in which the Winchester brothers (and their angel friend, Castiel) investigate the murders of several angels.  In the climax of the episode, as the angel Uriel prepares to destroy Castiel, he reveals that only angels are capable of killing angels.  Lending credence to his claim, the angel Anna shows up and kills Uriel, saving Castiel.  It was all very dramatic and exciting.  Except that in season five, Dean, a mere human, kills the angel Zachariah by stabbing him through the jaw.  That shouldn't have been possible, right?

"The only thing that can kill an another angel."
I quickly reasoned that, to do the deed, Dean had used one of the special blades that angels carry.  Which was true.  But you'd think Uriel would have said "the only thing that can kill an angel is an angel's blade."  (Although that would have been discredited later, too.)  With a little bit of circuitous reasoning and mental gymnastics, I decided that since Uriel was such a self-assured and arrogant character with little respect or regard for humankind, perhaps it never would have occurred to him that a human would be able to get his hands on an angel blade, let alone use it to deliver a fatal blow to a heavenly being.  So that's why he phrased it that way and that's why it wasn't a continuity error when Dean killed Zachariah.

With nine full seasons of detailed mythology and complicated back stories, this kind of thing has to happen from time to time (although some seasons are better at avoiding it than others).  I don't want to see perceived plot holes as flaws because I've been so loyal to this show for so long, so I do what I have to do to convince myself that it all lines up perfectly.

When I was eighteen and starting to realize that I'd have to go on a mission soon, I decided I couldn't bear to spend two years preaching about something I wasn't one hundred percent sure of.  So I put Moroni's promise to the test and prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true.  After all, I'd been taught in many church lessons that I could receive a personal witness of its truthfulness with the simple act of kneeling down in earnest prayer.  So I prayed.  And I prayed.  And I prayed some more.

*Not all prayers may qualify.  Subject to credit approval.
Do not use the power of the Holy Ghost if you are nursing, pregnant, or may become pregnant.
After several days of trying and receiving no answer, I wondered how that could possibly be.  I quickly reasoned that my answer from God was that I didn't need an answer.  By ignoring my supplication, he was telling me that I already knew the Book of Mormon was true.  That made perfect sense, I decided.  That's why I didn't get an answer and that's why Moroni chapter ten wasn't lying to me.  

With almost two hundred years of doctrines and prophets, this kind of thing had to happen from time to time (although some topics required much less of it than others).  I didn't want to see failings of the gospel as flaws because I'd spent my whole life in the church and invested so much of myself in it, so I did what I had to do to convince myself that it all lined up perfectly.

If it all lines up so well, why do I still have this knot in my stomach?

When I look back, that's what being a devoted Mormon felt like.  Fandom.  Fanaticism.  Obsession.  An avid follower of a TV show or a brand or a sports team or a religion can get so wrapped up in their love and their loyalty for the object of their obsession that they lose a certain amount of objectivity.  We can lie to ourselves, lose focus on things of central importance when it suits us, ignore troublesome fringe issues when we want to, and get caught up in the experience rather than assessing the value that experience has.

When I finally managed to step back and assess the value and the validity of Mormonism, I knew I wanted nothing to do with it.  I can only hope that Supernatural doesn't let me down as catastrophically as the church did.

I say these things in the name of Eric Kripke, amen.

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