On 6 October, Tekla Slangen, Master’s student of Religious Studies, will graduate in a very unusual subject. The theme of her thesis for the Master’s programme in Religion and the Public Domain [now part of the MA programme Religion and Cultural Heritage] is Star Wars ‘fandom’ as modern bewitchment.
Tekla is a big Star Wars fan herself and also an admirer of Tolkien’s work. ‘I’m particularly interested in the role of religion in these films and books and the way that religion and spirituality are used to create an imaginary world. It’s also fascinating to see just how many people really enjoy fantasy and science fiction books and films in which religion plays such a key role, while at the same time, people are claiming that Western civilization is secular and that religion has no place in the public domain. To me, things just don't add up, so I’m trying to find out how people in a certain fan culture view religion.’
Tekla studied how fans of Star Wars appropriate these space fantasy films in a way which is meaningful to them. For her case study, she chose an online discussion forum for Star Wars fans, part of which she analysed: ‘I discovered all kinds of patterns, but what stood out was that Star Wars fans held sincere, intellectual discussions about various elements of the films. Based on these findings, I concluded that Star Wars fandom (as a fantasy fandom) constitutes a form of ‘‘modern enchantment’’. One of its main characteristics is that fans use their ‘‘ironic imagination’’ to discuss imaginary subjects.’
What does Tekla mean by this? ‘Fans pretend that something is real, although they know that it isn’t. Some people have creative, complex ideas about how The Force works in the Star Wars cosmos. I came across a discussion about the ‘dark and light side’ of The Force in relation to Taoism, for example. Taoism is one of the religious movements that inspired George Lucas when he created The Force. One forum visitor claimed that the ‘dark and light side’ were two sides of the same coin and therefore both indispensable, rather like yin and yang in Taoism. This would imply that The Force needs to have a good and a bad side to maintain its equilibrium. Continuing this line of reasoning, you need ‘Force users’ who use the dark side, like the Sith, and ‘Force users’ who use the light side, like the Jedi. This subject generated many forum threads, partly because it involves personal opinions about good and evil in the world.’
‘Another feature of ‘‘modern enchantment’’ is the way fans use the imaginary world to talk and think about things that take place in the real world. Conversations about the unethical treatment by characters from Star Wars evolve into discussions about the behaviour of political leaders and religious groups. This shows that Star Wars is a ‘‘key symbol’’ for the fans, helping them to understand their own lives and the world around them.’
Tekla Slangen wants her research to be a critical contribution to broader debate about religion and the post-secular society. Is she surprised by the results? ‘The Star Wars films cover numerous religious themes and I had expected fans to discuss them in a religious manner. My final conclusion is that the platform and this type of fandom has its own unwritten rules ensuring that discussions remain secular and rational. Even though previous research has shown that fictive worlds can inspire new forms of religion, my research seems to show that there are still ‘public domains’ which are not receptive to this.’
Was this a disappointing conclusion? Tekla: ‘Far from it. I thought it was very interesting! As a researcher, it’s always exciting when your expectations and assumptions are undermined. I’ve shown that researchers need to be reflective and willing to criticize themselves and other people’s research. My research reveals just how much we stand to gain by studying the role and position of religion and spirituality in fan culture and other public domains.’
Tekla certainly wasn’t disappointed with the mark given to her by the Board of Examiners for her extraordinary thesis: 8.5. She will be presented with her Master’s degree certificate on Friday 6 October 2017. Congratulations on behalf of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies!
Associate Professor Dr Erin Wilson will be the new Vice-Dean of The Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen as of 1 Januari 2020.
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