When a website treads water in the vast ocean of the internet for several months with no rescue of new content in sight, it is only natural that its visitor traffic will suffer and sink to an almost nonexistent level, even for a fairly historically-popular site like mine. The Sandwich has surely suffered significant loss of readership during its recent malaise, but hopefully it has been presently retooled and refocused for the better. The question is whether or not anyone will stick around long enough to make that assessment. Bottom line, I’m glad you are here.
Many looky-loos hoping for a good laugh, including my faithful followers, are no doubt wondering about the move away from humor, and the sudden furrowing of my brow in lieu of the usual satirical fare. Is “Angus” in hospital still recovering from an emergency funnybonectomy, perhaps? Or something more sinister?
Alas, the sudden change in tone wasn’t an easy choice for me to make. I have been a cartoonist and humor writer since grade school where I first cut my teeth on the funny papers of my youth: copying by freehand the artwork of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, or Alley Oop, Blondie, Little Orphan Annie, Mutt and Jeff, etc. for the amusement of my friends and family. In high school, I was an award-winning editorial cartoonist for my school’s newspaper. I drew cartoons for my college paper, and in later years for The Parsons Sun and The Kansas City Star. I was even a freelance gag writer for Hallmark Cards for a very short stint.
The Sacred Sandwich gave me the creative outlet and personal ministry I desired as a newborn Christian around the turn of the 21st century. It helped me to more fully articulate my faith and my various concerns about the seeker-sensitive movement, emerging/Emergent/postmodern church beliefs, and the overall biblical health of the Christian community over the last two decades.
During that heady time I freely interacted with the contemporary American scene, using popular books, movies, and other hip cultural references as a jumping-off point for presenting a humorous critique of the latest trends in Christian thought and practice. In my personal life, I was the typical creative geek and especially a lover of the cinema, enjoying horror and sci-fi movies, classic silent movies, and screwball comedies. My pedigree in pretentiousness was solidified with my specific interest in the silent films of German Expressionism from the 1920s. I mean, come on, who can’t appreciate the tyrannical symbolism of the subconcious demand, “Du Musst Caligari Werden!”— am I right? …Anyone? …Oh, well.
As Christian parents, my wife and I raised our daughter with a very deliberate biblical education within our home and at our church home, but we also encouraged her to enjoy those hobbies and cultural interests that we as parents enjoyed ourselves. We let her drink from the well of Disney entertainment, feeling it was friendly to both traditional family values and our Christian sensibilities. We encouraged her to read those classic children’s books that we believed reflected a moral or Christian worldview, especially the writings of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Over time, she added books to her own reading list that met our tacit approval, but we had little concern that her less-than-perfect choices could ever undermine her faith as long as she studied her Bible and attended Sunday worship.
Later on, after my daughter left home for college and then onto married adult life, I began to wonder if my family and I had become too immersed in, and affected by, the culture. I saw some early warning signs as my daughter’s biblical focus began to incrementally drift away as she entered adulthood, but I also sensed a general drift among other professing Christians, both near and far. And what about me? Had I, the cartoonist, become a caricature of myself, the type of “carnal Christian” at whom I used to poke fun?
At first I resigned myself to the possibility that my conscience was overreacting and becoming a tad legalistic. After all, so many of my Christian friends seemed at ease with their level of engagement with the world and all its seemingly-neutral trappings. Their example of nonchalance tamped down most of my concerns and I spent several months just going with the flow of my peers.
Then something extraordinary happened in the spring of 2016 that challenged the status quo. I came across the published doctoral thesis of Markus Altena Davidsen, titled The Spiritual Tolkien Milieu: A Study of Fiction‐based Religion, a work for which he later received the Gerardus van der Leeuw PhD Dissertation Award for the best dissertation in the study of religion at a Dutch university in 2016. Davidsen, currently an Assistant Professor at Leiden University, was one of the first academics in religious studies to develop a theory of fiction-based religion. In his dissertation, Davidsen offered a comprehensive analysis of “Tolkien spirituality” and found that the supernatural agents in the fictional narratives of J. R. R. Tolkien were written in such a complex way as to cause some readers to believe that these supernatural agents were actually real, and thus presented these readers with a “religious affordance” (or an inviting religious path) to a new paganistic identity outside of the traditional, historically-established religions — like Christianity.
Needless to say, my mind was blown. Hello, paradigm shift.
Think about it. I mean, really contemplate this. What Davidsen, and other pioneering researchers like Adam Possamai and Carole Cusack, had discovered was a “smoking gun” of sorts to verify what some wary Christians had always suspected: products of creative human imagination in the realm of science fiction/fantasy fiction and movies can (and do) create the illusion of reality and truth with enough mythic power to bring about tragic spiritual consequences for the reader or viewer. In fact, not only did Davidsen and others identify Tolkien’s literary mythology as suitable fodder for different branches of neo-paganism, but they also uncovered the emergence of other fiction-based religions, such as Jediism, based on George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, and the Church of All Worlds which was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
In one of his later articles titled The Religious Affordance of Fiction: A Sembiotic Approach, Davidsen gave a frightening, heartbreaking synopsis of one of the end results of this emerging Tolkien spirituality. Speaking about these new spiritual children of Tolkien, Davidsen wrote:
“In ritual, practitioners seek to communicate with the superhuman characters of Tolkien’s literary mythology, including the wizard Gandalf and the Valar (gods); in addition, some members self-identify as Elves.”
Perhaps you find this depiction laughable and easy to dismiss as the behavior of a few crackpots, but this has deadly serious implications for a confused postmodern culture like ours. We are currently grappling with rabid social activism that promotes transgenderism and other alternative self-identities (LGBT, transracialism, trans-species practitioners, the higher Self, etc.) as enlightened understanding. Mark Zuckerberg, in fact, just announced that Facebook “wants to get a billion people in virtual reality,” which will certainly fuel further interest in transcending one’s corporeality. Never mind that a recent study showed that the use of VR technology produces a dissociative effect afterwards and a state of detachment from one’s self, often referred to as a “VR existential hangover.” Oh well; no big deal. Reality, it seems, is the only real problem these days (pun intended).
On the religious front, the popularity of Wicca and other neo-pagan religions is sharply on the rise. In one recent estimate, there are hundreds of thousands of neo-pagans out there, and that number seems to be growing. Their followers happily feed upon, and are energized by, the milieu of Tolkien spirituality and other mythopoetic narratives that easily blend with their ritualistic practice of interacting with fairies, elementals, and other spirit-beings. Neo-pagan journalist and witch Sara Lyons happily admits that popular fantasy novels like Lord of The Rings (and Harry Potter) can indeed be a “gateway to the occult.”
Ultimately, this shocking revelation from Davidsen and others sent me on a journey to see if this religious phenomenon concerning Tolkien’s work was just an anomaly or the tip of the iceberg. Bit by bit, what I discovered from extensive ongoing research were many troublesome facts about the hidden, but far-reaching influences of Christian Romanticism, Theosophy, Gnosticism and Jungian Spiritualism, etc. — not only within our own western society, but delicately woven into the very fabric of our country’s visible church body. Sadly, many people raised as Christians in the last few decades have been tossed to and fro by this prevailing paganistic breeze fanned by the sleight of men. Their lights have been dimmed; their savor lost; their earlier testimonies scattered to the winds.
In the weeks (and perhaps months) to come, I hope to expand on this curious, but alarming aspect of late modern religion and the affiliated spiritual philosophies involved, along with a deeper examination of how Christians might want to quickly circumvent this tragic misstep of American Christianity before it brings a charge of culpability and a swift indictment that we cannot defend against. Well we might ask, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14).
This is no longer a matter of one’s Christian liberty and whether it can be practiced with impunity. The sincere question it raises is whether we as Christians should be associating ourselves with entertainment that we might think is compatible with our faith, but in reality is leading a generation away from pure biblical truth and into the muddy waters of pagan myth and imagination. According to the last major survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014, it appears that “the number of Christian adults in the U.S. has shrunk by somewhere between 2.8 million and 7.8 million since 2007. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8% (of the population).”
What spiritual impact is The Force, The Shack, or The Silmarillion having on unbelievers and lukewarm professors alike? Do we as evangelists seriously want to engage the current culture we live in? Perhaps it is time to forgo the typical, never-ending dialectic with those professing believers who wish to defend their pet enjoyments as a way to engage the culture, and instead look at the big picture of how to increase and preserve the strength of our Gospel proclamation as the only legitimate counter to that very culture. If even one poor soul is led astray by this kind of “Religious Affordance,” should we not heed the check in our spirits and look into the matter further?
Archibald G. Brown, the Baptist minister, rightfully asserted, “Different days demand their own special testimony. The watchman who would be faithful to his Lord and the city of God has need to carefully note the signs of the times and emphasize his witness accordingly.” I hope and pray you will join me in that effort as I present my series, “Signal To Noise” in the days and weeks to come.