Religion has often been accused of numbing the minds of its adherents and of enforcing the status quo at the expense of the poor, women, or racial and sexual minorities. Richard Dawkins, acclaimed evolutionary biologist, author and atheist has said of faith and religion, “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of the lack of evidence.” In other words faith and religion is for those not interested in evidence or critical thinking.
The Mass Media and the entertainment industry have had similar allegations leveled against them. Author Jess C. Scott in Literary Heroin (Gluttony): A Twilight Parody states: “People are sheep. TV is the Sheppard.” W.H Auden, considered one of the greatest writers and poets of the 20th century asserted that: “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment, which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.” The consumers of mass media, like religious adherents, are portrayed as uninterested in deep thinking and in simply numbing their minds with the newest entertainment fad.
Both religion and the mass media promote escapism, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”
In many ways I agree with those critical of religion and the mass media. Religious language has been used to justify wars, oppression, and political compliance, and the mass media has been an effective tool used to further religious and political propaganda. Furthermore, extreme forms of escapism can be dangerous. For example, some Christians who believe in an imminent eschatology (meaning that Jesus’ will be returning soon and ushering in the end of the world as we currently know it) maintain that we do not need to worry about climate change, war, or oppression because Jesus’ arrival will make such cares moot. In fact some believe that an increase in wars, natural disasters etc are welcomed signs ushering in Jesus’ arrival. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.” (Mark 13: 7-8)
And of course there are cases of some people who have become so absorbed in the lives of fictional characters that their daily, real life responsibilities, suffer.
Nevertheless, the stories told through religion and the mass media can enable individuals to transcend their current pain and suffering, if only for a little while. And in its less extreme forms such escapism is not necessarily bad. Stories can provide a safe place to hide from trauma and provide the distance needed to begin the process of confronting said trauma.
Biblical stories as escapism
Growing up home wasn’t really a safe place for me. I felt isolated, ignored, belittled. I had to be the adult for a mother who insisted on acting like a child and who often resorted to manipulation to get what she wanted regardless of the consequences. Nevertheless, she could also be really nice and kind, which served to confuse me. I didn’t know if I was supposed to love her or hate her. Especially compared to my sisters’ experiences and the home situation of some of my friends, I felt I did not have the “right” to complain. As a result I often felt alone, yet for awhile, Church and theology provided me with a much needed escape as well as the tools to survive my feelings of loneliness and abandonment. Church provided me not only with the means to physically get out of my house (services and Bible studies were held three times a week) but I was introduced to Biblical stories that would help me through the dark years ahead. It was through the Bible that I learned I was loved. Being informed that I was loved and valuable was a revolutionary concept for someone who grew up feeling as if she were worthless. Numerous characters in the Bible experienced heartache and various forms of abuse yet managed to overcome. Yes, I was also disturbed by some of the violent and viscous stories in the Bible, especially since I was taught that they were literally true, but during that time period in my life, I needed stories that told me I was loved, valuable, and that these dark moments would pass. Those stories provided me with an alternative framework in which to view myself and the world, which prevented me from being completely swallowed up by my depression and unstable home life.
Even now I take comfort from the stories of Job, even while questioning the portrayal of a deity that would allow one of his followers to be tested in such a way. The story of Job reminds me that horrible things happen-often for no explicable or adequate reason and that it is ok to demand to know why. It is ok to stand up to those who say that we somehow deserved the pain and suffering we are going through. The book of Ecclesiastes often mirrors my own feelings about life. There are times when everything seems so meaningless, and it does help to know that people felt the same way thousands of years ago.
The stories in the Bible were a source of strength and inspiration for me, while I was growing up and still figuring out who I was. In fact, without that knowledge that I was loved, without the safe place provided by the stories, my depression and suicidal thoughts would have overwhelmed me.
Doctor Who as escapism
DOCTOR: Does it seem real?
OSWIN: It is real.
DOCTOR [on screen]: It’s a dream, Oswin. You dreamed it for yourself because the truth was too terrible.
In the Asylum of the Daleks, we meet Oswin (later known as Clara Oswald in series 7 part 2) a beautiful girl whose space ship Alaska crashed over a year ago. We see Oswin in a bunker type place, barricading her door against the Daleks, listening to Carmen, and wishing her mother a happy birthday. She cracks jokes with the Doctor, flirts with Rory, and saves the Doctor, Rory and Amy. She has every expectation that the Doctor will return the favor, save her, and take her with him to see the stars.
However, once he reaches her he tells her the horrible truth. She is no longer human, but she has been converted into a Dalek. She had escaped into her own imaginary world in an attempt to deny and suppress the truth. Yet, it was that escape into fantasy that enabled her to preserve her human emotions and not succumb completely to the conversion process.
Throughout the episode, the audience is told that emotions are vital to holding onto one’s “humanness.” In response to Amy slapping Rory, Oswin makes the comment: “Do you know how you make someone into a Dalek? Subtract love, add anger.”
Owsin’s fantasy world has enabled her to maintain her compassion, wittiness, and her humanity.
Doctor Who has provided me with a small retreat into another world-not to the extent Oswin experienced in Asylum of the Daleks, of course-I am still firmly planted in reality and as far as I can tell, I am not a Dalek. Nevertheless, during these past few months Doctor Who has provided me with a safe space where I can disengage, if only for a short amount of time, with the events that have threatened to overwhelm me. This past year has been filled with various changes and events-I graduated college in May 2012 and left the one place where I felt truly at home. I ventured to North Carolina as part of a volunteer program and had an amazing time interning at Hyaets, meeting a group of people who actually lived out their Christian faith and lived amongst the poor, who are often neglected and despised by society. I then went to California as part of a year long internship program where I interned at a local nonprofit (which I loved) and was sponsored by a local church. Compared to Hyaets my experience with the church was disheartening. The leadership and church painted themselves as being progressive yet like the conservatives they mocked, they aligned themselves with a political party and seemed to care more about publicly advocating for social justice while not actually doing so. My depression came back with a vengeance and after reaching out for help, I was essentially kicked out of the program, even after telling them about my home life and past experience and explaining to them the fact that without the program I would not have health insurance and therefore access to the help they claimed they wanted me to get. Coming back to PA after California left me angry, disheartened and ashamed.
And then a friend introduced me to the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who. I had briefly seen episodes before, while studying abroad in England in 2011, but in February 2013, after all I had experienced, the show captured my imagination and attention in a way it failed to do in 2011.
Doctor Who is entertaining and funny, yet its best episodes involve some type of critique on religion, or popular culture. For example, as I struggled with my theological beliefs, in light of my undergraduate studies as a religion major and especially after the fiasco in California, I found myself thinking, “wow I actually agree with that!” For example, the Doctor’s speech in the Rings of akhaten, reminded me of why I ultimately left the fundamentalist/charismatic church of my youth-where the God we worshiped was cruel and vindictive
even though I can still acknowledge that the theology of my childhood served an important purpose at that point in my life.
Doctor Who, provided me with a way for me to wrestle with some of my theological beliefs yet to also have fun at the same time and not to take myself or my struggles to seriously.
Now as I struggle with an aging grandmother, with a mother who still insists on acting like a kid, and with a government bureaucracy that seems to penalize the poor and aging, I find myself, during high moments of stress entering the world of Doctor Who. A world of fantasy but also insight. Unlike say, reality shows which are entertaining but which I find very little insight I can take with me to the real world, Doctor Who reminds me that I will get through these trying moments, and that me, a puny person in a world of 6 billion is both insignificant but also important.
Stories, whether they were written thousands of years ago and viewed by many as sacred, or were written recently and are channeled through mass media provide us with a way to view and critique our world. Stories can be provide us with a moral compass, a light in the darkness or a temporary escape from our problems.