Fantasy Literature: A Hagiography for the Modern World
Presentation at the 2021 AAR-SBL Conference on the Hagiology Seminar panel, "Constructing (and Deconstructing) the Holy" (delayed from 2020 AAR-SBL Conference due to COVID-19)
Recipient of one of AAR 2021's Annual Meeting Travel Grants
The saints and their stories play an important role in mediating humanity’s relationship with God and guiding how we orient our lives to others. The saints’ ability to carry out this function relies on their position as liminal figures and the rituals that surround them. During the Protestant Reformation, however, a large group of Christians began to move away from rituals and engaging with the saints. As a result, the Modern world entered an age of what Weber called Disenchantment, where the world became a place of purely profane space and time. In an attempt to Recover a sense of the sacred in the world and in other people—a re-Enchantment—J. R. R. Tolkien turned to the power of the Fairy-Story, which led him to write The Lord of the Rings as a new epic to sacralize our world. Following Tolkien’s and Lewis’s success, Fantasy and Science Fiction exploded in popularity as seen in writers like Ursula Le Guin and Rick Riordan. Existing in the ritual space of reading, Fantasy heroes have a liminality that places them in a role to affect how we understand our relationship with the divine and those around us. Thus, they have become the saints of the modern world.
The Cult of Fantasy Heroes: The Religious Community of Fandom
Presentation at the 2021 SAMLA 93 Conference (South Atlantic Modern Language Association) on the Networked Non-Fiction Panel
With the realization that Peter Berger's Secularization Hypothesis has proved false, scholars have sought to explain the many ways that religion and spirituality have continued to be a cultural force, despite the rise in secularization. One sphere scholars have explored is the way that fantasy literature has engaged the religious imagination and gained a cult-like following. This paper seeks to enter that conversation and poses fandom as a modern religious community resembling devotees to the Cult of the Saints in Christianity. In this framework, texts bring groups together in designated spaces (including virtual spaces), using a saintly or fantasy figure to articulate a communal dynamic. There is a sense in which the central figure and the group participate with one another, defining and being defined in the relationship. This creates a sense of the real presence even of fictional characters. Part of this movement also comes from the sense of exile some people feel in relation to more institutional religions, causing them to create their own religious communities around texts that help orient their movement through the world. Understanding these communities as resembling devotion to the Cult of the Saints, however, proposes that these groups are not necessarily separate religious traditions, but rather can also be a way for people to create a space for themselves in relation to organized religion. Thus, there is an exchange back-and-forth between these fandom cults and religions like Christianity.
The Deaths of Fantasy Characters as Sites of Collective Healing
Presentation at the 2021 SECSOR Conference (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) on the joint Religions of Asia and Religion, Culture, and the Arts Panel, "Collective Healing through Media"
In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler asks the questions “what lives are real?” and “what constitutes a grievable life?”. Butler’s questions push us to consider the connection between real lives and our ability to grieve them. While she was originally thinking about the murdered Iraqi children during the Gulf War, this connection also has important implications for how we understand characters in literature, an especially fantasy literature. For all intents-and-purposes, fantasy characters are not real people in the sense that they exist in an imaginary world cut off from our own. At the same time, however, their fictional deaths are often grieved by fans of the series, which according to Butler’s questions may mean that these characters are real after all. In fact, in an uncomfortable way, they may be more real for people than the lives of the Iraqi children Butler is considering in her original writing. What is important about the realness of these characters is that they become sites for our public mourning. In Precarious Life, Butler also proposes that we are a culture that fears to grieve, but that if we allow ourselves to sit with our grief, then we may be reminded of our responsibility to other people once again. She even suggests that in our shared grief we are reminded of our collective vulnerability, and therefore our responsibility to care for those vulnerabilities. As such, if by Butler’s definition, fantasy characters are real, then their fictional deaths may have a power to create moments of collective grief where we are reminded of our responsibility to one another. This, in turn, highlights the importance of fantasy literature as a site for collective mourning and, through that mourning, as a site for collective healing.
C. S. Lewis’s Reimagining of the Judas Scene in The Voyage of St. Brendan
Presentation at the 2020 SAMLA 92 Conference (South Atlantic Modern Language Association) on the Medieval English Panel
Recipient of one of SAMLA 2020's George Mills Harper Graduate Student Travel Fund Awards
Several scholars have noted the connections existing between C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” and the early Celtic hagiographic account of The Voyage of St. Brendan. Such connections are easy to make given Lewis’s interest in Celtic mythology and Christian hagiography, overlaps in the imagery employed in both accounts, and the various types of islands the heroes in each tale visit. Such overwhelming connections highlights moments where Lewis makes clear breaks from the earlier Voyage of St. Brendan. Most notable of those breaks is Lewis’s re-envisioning of Brendan’s famous Judas Iscariot scene, in which Christ gives Judas a period of rest from his punishments in hell on certain holy days. In The Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint prays for additional rest for the infamous traitor and prevents the demons from returning him to hell for an extra night of rest. Lewis, however, breaks from this imagery of hell and the relief of Judas in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Instead, he pictures a dark island of storms in which all the dreams of those who enter begin to come true. Additionally, the traitor of the Narnia series, Edmund, is not punished on a rock, but is rather onboard the “Dawn Treader” sailing to Paradise while another man is saved from these dark shores. This leaves us to ask how Lewis is re-interpreting the meaning of hell and the place of the Judas-figure.
The Exorcism of Mary Magdalene and the Power of Former Demoniacs
Presentation at the 2020 SECSOR Conference (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) on a New Testament Panel
Scholarship has begun to recognize and to explore the important and powerful roles women played in the Early and Medieval Church, including as abbesses, deaconesses, and occasionally even as bishops. What remains, however, is to begin explaining how women were able to hold such important roles in a world which, until recently, scholarship assumed were closed off to them. Attempts to explain the influence some women wielded during this time have often drawn on the idea of intersectionality, looking at the wealth, virtue, or citizenship of women to explain their influence over large groups of people, including men. In this paper, I would like to explore another aspect of intersectionality to explain the influence of certain women, namely the importance of exorcism. By this, I intend to explore how a former female demoniac—namely Mary Magdalene—gains power within her community due to her role as a former demoniac who God has chosen to heal through the power of Jesus. This is possible as the exorcism follows Van Gennep’s understanding of a rite of passage in which through her healing, Mary Magdalene leaves the stage of separation from the community and enters into a new relationship with a new role. This passage effects not only the community’s understanding of the former demoniac as no longer possessed, but also as a person blessed by God, and thus a person of power and influence. This blessing is another element of intersectionality, just as wealth, gender, or citizenship which can place a woman in a position of power that we would not normally expect in the Greco-Roman world.
Bede's Use of Hagiography in the Development of an English Identity
Presentation at the 2019 SAMLA 91 Conference (South Atlantic Modern Language Association) on the Medieval English Panel
There is no more prominent a figure in the development of the English Church than the Venerable Bede. Despite living several centuries after Augustine of Canterbury’s arrival and the initial mission to the English, Bede stands out as a leading figure among the early English Christians especially within the monastic movement. Despite a large corpus of works—including a work on the reckoning of time and several biblical commentaries—Bede today is most known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (EH), detailing the work of bishops, saints, and rulers among the English since the first century CE. This paper will explore how Bede uses hagiography in the EH to shape English identity in connection with the Church in Rome. We will begin with a quick definition of collective memory before turning to the connection between hagiography and theology. Following this, we will quickly look at how the hagiography of Bede’s EH plays a role in shaping England in connection with Rome. We will see that in writing the EH, Bede utilizes hagiographical sections to claim that Roman Nicene Christianity is the only true and virtuous expression of Christianity. As he does this, he writes a collective memory of English history in answer to the sociological break in England caused by the religious and political upheaval in the preceding centuries. This memory shows the English people as engaging with the Church in Rome as they move towards a more unified group, firmly establishing English identity in this tradition.