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August 19, 2012
 

Comics Are My Religion: Rituals

Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column.

In his book The Road Less Traveled, psychologist M. Scott Peck stated that all people have a religion:

Since everyone has some understanding–some world view, no matter how limited or primitive or inaccurate–everyone has a religion…We suffer, I believe, from a tendency to define religion too narrowly. We tend to think that religion must include a belief in God or some ritualistic practice or membership in a worshiping group. We are likely to say of someone who does not attend church or believe in a superior being, ‘He or she is not religious.’ I have even heard scholars say such things as: ‘Buddhism in not really a religion’ or ‘Unitarians have excluded religion from their faith’ or ‘Mysticism is more a philosophy than a religion.’ We tend to view religion as something monolithic, cut out of whole cloth, and then, with this simplistic concept, we are puzzled as to how two very different people can both call themselves Christian. Or Jews. Or how an atheist might have a more highly developed sense of Christian morality than a Catholic who routinely attends mass.” (page 185-186).

I happen to agree with Dr. Peck, as someone who lives in the South in a community of rabid football fans. They gather ritually, they chant, they believe a set of rules, they can be fanatical at times. But if we hold to the common definition of “religion” as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, then pretty much everyone has a religion. Peck goes on to describe science as a religion, as well.

Earlier this year, I heard my own bishop, J. Neil Alexander, speak at my church on the role of liturgy in our Christian lives. Bishop Alexander is a liturgical theologian and is soon to become dean at the school of divinity at the University of the South in Sewanee. He talked about ritual wired into our DNA. We all have routine, we all engage in repetitive behavior that shapes us and gives meaning to our lives. Bishop Alexander was relating this to how we Episcopalians worship, and how our liturgy shapes what we believe in our religion, but I think there is a larger concept at work here.

This summer, I worked with a children’s program in which we had representatives from the Mormon, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Episcopal Christian faith traditions come and present a food ritual. Most all the major religions have rituals pertaining to food. Mormons believe in storing food for a year in preparation for the coming of Jesus. Muslims fast regularly, and devote a whole season to abstaining from food during the day to hone their prayer lives during Ramadan. Jews gather in an historical meal of remembrance during the Passover to reclaim their identity as people free from slavery. Hindus offer food to the multiplicity of gods as a sacrifice of humility. Christians gather around a table, sometimes weekly, to be formed by the meal of Holy Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. Food rituals are just one of thousands of repetitive actions that people with “religion” engage in to give their lives meaning.

But even those who espouse no faith engage in rituals. Friends gather weekly over food to discuss life issues. Individuals sit in coffee shops on a daily basis to read or work. Families have routines for getting their kids to soccer practice or preparing for bed each night. Each of these, despite being tied to a belief in God per se, shapes the individual and helps her organize her life and thereby makes sense of her world.

All people have rituals in which they engage. Comic book collectors are no different. In fact, I find that comic book collectors are quite a ritualistic bunch of people. Take for instance, the weekly gathering at the local comic shop. Wednesday is the high holy day for comic book collectors, who will take their lunch breaks or swing by after work to take their weekly offering to the glass altar of a display case. They may stick around and talk with fellow collectors about the importance of the latest comic news, or debate a story point in a new issue.

They usually go to a similar place to read their weekly stack. In an unscientific research attempt on our own Comicattack.net forums, some revealed that they have a big comfy chair in which to read every week, while others read their books on the porcelain throne. Some have to have a cup of coffee or a beer in hand when they read. When they are done, most collectors ritualistically store their comics by either “bagging and boarding” them, scanning them so they can be read digitally, and filing them in a library of long boxes. Some are meticulous about this process, treating each comic as if it was an ancient holy relic, as they put them away, while others toss their books on an ever-growing pile on a shelf or table.

My ritual is that in the week before my new books come out, I read the previous issues, in order to remember and get caught up on the story.

Those who are extremely devout will even make an annual pilgrimage to most holy place a comic collector can go — a Comic Con. Thousands will travel great distances to stand in line for hours to attend a show in San Diego or New York. They may wait even longer to get a comic signed or get a sketch from an artist. They even will dress in the liturgical garb of their favorite characters year after year.

There are those of us who even gather on a weekly basis to discuss comic books and all things related to comic books, record it, and pass it off as a podcast for other comic book fans to ritualistically listen to on their way to work or while they’re mowing their grass.

Ritual is not confined to the obsessive-compulsive, although we anal types tend to engage in it a little bit more. Ritual expresses the belief in the thing for which we are engaging. We believe in comics and storytelling, so we buy, read, and engage in our hobby. We believe in a higher power, so we structure our lives around such a belief and practice the faith tradition with which we most identify. The ritual allows us to engage so that we can remember constantly the order with which we help define our universe. We may not be able to control the universe, but we have the ability to make sense of it as best we can with the tangible things of life. Sometimes that ritual is the only thing we can control, and that gives us a great deal of peace.

When I created the title of this column Comics Are My Religion, I never realized how true that statement is for many of us. Sure, I happen to be a person of faith as well, which takes precedence over my love of comics, but even my comic collecting has benefits that resemble my primary faith. In both, I have a community of people who support that which I love, who respect me even if they disagree with me. We engage in similar rituals that give meaning to our world and bring us life and joy.

So I would agree with Dr. Peck that we all have a religion, whether we espouse a belief in God or not. I would also agree with Bishop Alexander that ritual is a part of who we are at our very core. In a world that rarely seems to make sense, even our comic collecting can be a ritual that gives us peace and helps us make sense of the universe around us.

Well, what do you think? Are comics (one of) your religion(s)?

Jeff Jackson
jeff@comicattack.net
@FrJeffJackson

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