The Illusion that is Pop Culture

I saw a lot of people try to gatekeep in a conversation sparked in the Loki’s Wyrdling group by the upcoming release of the Disney series that features Tom Hiddleston as Loki.

There are a lot of individuals who struggle with the idea that people can find divine inspiration in pop culture, and they go out of their way to tell others that doing so is wrong. I don’t think there is an issue with anyone who finds divine inspiration in pop culture; I think there’s an issue with pop culture altogether.

I am the person who will commit the opposite fallacy of the bandwagon fallacy – I will purposefully avoid the things that everyone seems to like. I refused to read or watch the Da Vinci code when it came out because suddenly everyone around me was talking about it, and it creeps me out when literally everyone I run into is talking about the exact same thing. It’s like a hive mind has suddenly taken over humanity, and I want to get as far away from it as I possibly can.

I don’t geek out the same way that other people do; I’ve learned this from watching how other people invest themselves in fandoms to the point they can basically quote any/everything that ever happens. Nothing appeals to me so much that it outweighs literally everything else – what appeals to me about different series of books and shows is the story that they tell, the world that the authors/writers/actors build, and the characters that inhabit it. I care about the structure and the overall essence of the story – I care about what general understanding of humanity I can pull from stories.

For me, that is the purpose that any story from anywhere serves. If I read a book, it is to broaden my horizons of the patterns that can occur in the world because I can take a pattern of behavior I see a character in a book exhibit and transfer that pattern to the external world and evaluate it to see if it holds true for anyone around me. I care about what I can learn about how people behave and why they hold the perspectives they do. I invest in stories for what they can teach me about life, and then I take what I see in the stories and I test them in the world around me.

So, from my perspective, a person who indulges completely in the fantasy of only one or two fandoms is someone that I am going to find rather flat, and they are probably going to bore me to tears. If a person is so wrapped up in a single fandom that they forget that they have their own life to live in the real world, that is not a person that I am going to find it easy to get along with because I have an insatiable curiosity about the world. I do not want it limited to one or two fandoms. I want to expand it. I want to experience everything, cram as many lifetimes into this one as I can, and find the people willing to enjoy that ride alongside me.

That’s a hard thing to communicate to others because usually what people hear when I say I dislike pop culture Paganism is that I devalue the experiences that people have through that lens. I don’t think that those experiences hold no value; I think that their value is overstated. And it is overstated in a way that makes it seem like the person defending pop culture Pagan experiences knows that they aren’t quite getting everything they claim to be getting from those experiences. There is altogether too much validation of the experiences of pop culture Pagan experiences and altogether too little validation of the experiences of gnosis that occurs outside pop culture.

I have read and heard hundreds of stories about how people have come to Loki through the MCU, most often, or through other types of pop culture. I have read the posts and comments of so many people validating this experience that I have realized that it is, for me, like the Da Vinci experience. Everyone seems to be doing it, so I’m going to step as far away as I can from it.

I step away from it because it’s too validated, it’s too authenticated – it’s too much like a hive mind and it creeps me out. It honestly does. It feels too much like people jumping on a bandwagon and not actually taking the time to formulate their own thoughts and opinions on a subject, and that never sits well with me because of the undeniable reality that Western society is patently anti-intellectual and discourages critical thinking.

I know the opinions I hold aren’t popular ones – I do the best I can to *not* hold popular opinions. Unless, somehow, after an extensive amount of deliberation (usually measured in months if not years), I come to the conclusion that the popular opinion is, after all, the best one. It happens, very rarely, but it does happen. I agree, after all, with the basic concepts of hospitality and reciprocity, and I agree that gravity is real and effective (I tend not to argue with obvious facts of physical reality; thus I agree that the Earth is real and the Sun and solar system exist).

To put this in a different way – I go out of my way to discover the things that I myself enjoy with as little influence from my peers as possible. I listen to music that others ridicule because I enjoy it and I don’t need others to validate my choice in music. I read fantasy books because I love magic and I love seeing authors craft worlds that rival our own, and I love seeing characters developed so well that I can imagine myself in their shoes as I read through the book. I love being able to fall into a book that way, so I enjoy the authors that can create that experience.

I enjoyed the Harry Potter series when it first came out, back when I was in middle school and was one of the only people reading the books. I still remember the controversy it evoked because my friends’ parents refused to let them read the books because the presence of magic in the books automatically meant it had to be Satanic. I enjoy the series now because it gives me an easy playground to use to write fanfiction because the worldbuilding and magic system was actually so loose that I can essentially recreate the entire world with a few base elements and have a lot of fun playing around. It has very little to do with the actual story of the books, which overall really isn’t all that impressive.

Actually, the two best YA series I have ever read about magic that pits light and dark against one another were Susan Coopers “The Dark is Rising” sequence and Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” series (although it’s life vs. entropy rather than light vs dark in her series). Susan Cooper’s series is absolutely amazing and yet rarely ever mentioned – it’s impossible to find gems like that when you refuse to venture outside of the bubble of pop culture favorites.

I have a feeling that if I surrounded myself with people who advocated for pop culture favorites all the time, I would be told continuously by them that I am behind the times and not up-to-date with what is happening. I resist things that get too popular too fast – things like Snapchat and Vine and TikTok for instance – because they become so popular so quickly that it is obvious to me that they are just another distraction from really living, which I define as creating meaningful relationships with other people.

It’s difficult for me to see how pop culture provides anyone with the tools to create more meaningful relationships with the people and the world around them. So many of the people I know and see engaging with pop culture engage to the point of disengagement with the world around them, almost like they are trying to drown out their own minds in the noise and light of pop culture glitter.

Perhaps I should give people who come to Loki through that path a bit more credit – after all, Loki is a god of transcending boundaries and pushing limits. Maybe he shows himself there to find those who are capable of seeing past the glitter in an attempt to pull them out of the plastic bubble they have created around themselves. Perhaps that is why so many people find their first experiences with Loki so uncomfortable. Perhaps Loki has to wade into the noise and the light of the false realities that pop culture serves to create in order to find those few individuals capable of shattering the illusions.

That seems like a pretty strong possibility to me, since Loki is a god that transcends boundaries and shatters illusions. It makes sense that he would look for those capable of doing the same thing.

From there, though, the question in my mind becomes why so many of the individuals who get pulled away from the noise seem so invested in defending it, making excuses for it. Maybe there is something addictive about living in an illusion that I don’t understand because I have always run kicking and screaming from anything that got too popular. Maybe there’s a comfort in being like everyone else that I can’t wrap my mind around because I am like no one else I have ever met, and the only people I feel comfortable around are the people who don’t quite fit.

For me, it’s not a question about whether Loki can appear to people as MCU Loki or not – I am not Loki and will not speak for what he can and cannot do. I will not rule out such a possibility, not when I know he is a shapeshifter and finds limitations and restrictions stifling (something else we hold in common). He can appear to me in any form he likes, as long as he gives me some indication that it is him, and I will respect his choices.

What I have a harder time respecting is the decision I see others make about shoehorning him into boxes or telling others that their practice isn’t valid. I don’t think it’s necessary to agree with someone’s practice to view it as a valid one. Like I said earlier, I can see that there is value in pop culture Paganism but there is not enough value in it for me to invest in it.

There are indications to me that pop culture isn’t worth investing in, and one of the first indications is the obsessive level of fans over different shows, actors, movies, musicians, etc. I have never, in my life, wanted to meet someone so badly I have felt like I could die happy or ever looked at a celebrity as larger than life – I have always looked at people with fame as people with their own complex stories. I actually think that being famous is a terrible burden for a person to bear – can you imagine always being on display for the entire world to judge? I couldn’t do it, so I have respect for the people who are able to do it despite knowing that a single misperceived action could ruin their entire lives. That takes a different type of courage, and it isn’t something I hear a lot of people consider.

Another indication to me that pop culture isn’t an investment I want to make is that people get way too defensive over arbitrary things. I have heard people claim they couldn’t be friends (and mean it) with people who don’t like Star Wars or Game of Thrones etc. I have heard the constant DC vs. Marvel refrain so many times that at this point I just roll my eyes. I have people complain to me when I tell them that I don’t read comics but enjoy some of the MCU movies because, to them, that means I’m not “nerdy enough.” Never mind the fact that I pick up books on quantum physics and read them just because I’m curious. No, my “nerd credit” depends only on whether or not I read the right comic books or play the right video games. Because that makes sense.

So, then, what is my actual take on MCU Loki? I think that Marvel did a decent job with his character but that he pales in comparison to the Loki that I know. I have heard maybe two lines from the MCU Loki that even reminded me of the Loki I know, but most of what I hear and see is a human actor playing a role he was hired to do. I see a person with his own complicated story.

And then, when I read posts about how people see Loki in the guise of Tom Hiddleston, I actually find that problematic because that devalues the life and story of the actor. It doesn’t devalue Loki – Loki can do whatever and be whomever he wants to be. But it does take away the agency from Tom Hiddleston to be someone else, to be his own individual person and to have his own experience of life. He is not Loki; he is Tom and he deserves the right to be Tom. That is one of the things that bothers me the most when I read posts that compare an actor to Loki. At the end of the day, Tom Hiddleston is an actor playing a part, and he can never fill Loki’s shoes.

I think part of the problem I have is that I know actors – my best friend is an actor, and he is constantly regaling me with information about the craft of acting. Loki is just one role that Tom plays; for Tom, Loki is just a character that he has created for a show. He may enjoy the character; he may hate the character (but love to hate him; it’s hard to know). What I do know is that what a person gets through the screen of an MCU film that features Tom Hiddleston as Loki is the version of Loki that Tom Hiddleston has created in his mind – it is not the version of Loki that Loki has created nor is it the truth of Tom Hiddleston. It is a series of illusions being bought as if it is real, and that is something I personally find distasteful.

Because it doesn’t harm my practice, I don’t say much about it very often because if people want to indulge in fantasy…. well, that’s their business, and it doesn’t impact my ability to practice nor does it affect my relationship with Loki. Except to maybe make me wistful that people don’t experience him more fully and more dynamically than they seem to.

Honestly, I think the thing I find most bothersome is that there are so many posts on MCU Loki and “fluffy” Loki and “light” Loki – and maybe he is all of these things – but there are so few on the serious side. Perhaps because we live in a world where “shiny” and “plastic” are the go-to experiences, so people are afraid to share their experiences.

But what I want to know about are the people who sit down with their friends and suddenly find themselves talking to the gods, the people who walk into a restaurant and suddenly find that their waiter bears the name of a god, the people who sit down with a stranger and watch that stranger disappear into thin air…. what I want to hear about are the weird and interesting experiences people have with the gods. The things that other people would call them “crazy” for even suggesting as an experience.

I want to know where the people are who have been possessed by a god, who have been stalked by a god, who have been tormented or loved by the gods. I want to know where the experiences of the god-touched are at, who the people are who hear the call of the gods so loudly that they cannot help but respond to it. I want to see posts and comments from people who live so closely with the world of spirit that they walk so carefully on the taut barrier between this world and the spirit world that one wrong move might drive them insane. I want to see the real, lived experiences of people who have interacted with gods in ways that I can’t even imagine today.

And it is the lack of this kind of experience… the lack of willingness to discuss it because others might view it as “crazy talk,” as “insane,” or as “delusional” that keeps the silence even in Lokean groups. It is the fear of being seen as abnormal or the fear of being marginalized, of being ridiculed, that keeps the people with these experiences silent.

In many ways, the insistence that the experience of pop culture Pagans are just as valid as those with the depth of the types of experiences I am talking about often keeps us silent because there’s a level of knowing “they won’t understand” that hangs about when so much emphasis is put on the validity of pop culture.

Pop culture itself is an illusion, a disguise for a society desperately trying to hold itself together even as it disintegrates (just look at the political actors at work in the world). It’s impossible to build meaningful relationships with people when you know that the depth of the experiences with the gods that you have had will come across as nonsense to people who have not had the pleasure of realizing that the gods can, and do, walk amongst us at will.

7 thoughts on “The Illusion that is Pop Culture”

  1. I have thought of pop culture paganism in two ways. One is that it can be a gateway to deeper experiences with the Gods. Two is that it can be a gateway for the Gods to reach modern people. Writing is a sacred space that unites the worlds. Take Godzilla, He came out of Japanese religion filtered through the nuclear bomb dropped on Japan.

    Like

  2. As usual, your ideas resonate with me. I believe you once wrote that it’s possible the gods are using Marvel to spread their names. This article is a good balance to that very real possibility.

    Like

  3. Your article was heartfelt and provided a good look at how you view “pop culture paganism.” I can say that I agree with much of what you have to say, but I have to put in an attaboy for fandoms; not as they apply to religion. I read the Song of Ice and Fire and Wheel of Time when it first came out. I read the Dragon Riders of Pern and Jules Verne, and so many other science fiction and fantasy from the time I was a child to a woman coming up on 50. From my own perspective; Marvel, Star Wars, Doctor Who, etc… they formulate memories from childhood and the fantasies and playtime with friends and family. Worlds you could disappear into with imagination and creativity. Treasured times, when my father would bring me comics when I was feeling down or sick…or when my friends and I would race our bikes in the deserts of El Paso; but they were very much tie fighters and X Wings. Sitting on the couch late Saturday with my parents watching Tom Baker as The Doctor… Bringing and sharing that magic to my own children as they began to release new Star Wars films and Marvel movies, and Lord of the Rings; sitting on the couch with my own children watching the newer Doctors race about. I guess, as much as I heartily agree with most of what you wrote, I wanted to articulate that some “pop culture” isn’t just plastic and fake, but it provides a framework for deeper experiences shared with others.

    Like

  4. Wow I really appreciate your distinction between Hiddleston and Loki. It clarified some things for me!

    Re: you seeking peoples alternative experiences with deities. I had a bad intersection with paganism and mental illness. I’ve only just recovered in the past year or two. Happily, I’m still in my heathen faith, but like wow, shit can get bad if you don’t have teachers or much community!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would be nice to hear more about that intersection, since it is actually more common than is portrayed. Might help others struggling with similar issues.

      Like

      1. Yeah! I think I’ve talked about it on my pagan blog from time to time. You’re welcome to check it out!

        I’m not sure how to talk about that intersection briefly, if going through my blog isn’t of interest (or a time management thing)…. hmmm… to sum up: dream journaling led to sleep deprivation which led to a host of issues, primarily centered around psychosis, depression, and delusion. Religious delusions can run deep when you have no teacher, guide, or elder to teach you in proper discernment. I had online community but that only takes you so far. Meds, therapy, and brief stints of hospitalization helped me get better. Through hard fucking effort, and a lot of divine grace, I am still here and happy to know the gods. 🙂

        That was, I’d say 2013-2017 with lingering issues until 2019. Granted, I still have health issues that might even be chronic at this point, but whaddaya gonna do.

        Like

  5. errr, I am unsure if my gravatar pic actually links to my blog, so just in case its : ahomeinfaith.wordpress.com.

    Additionally–I’m skimming through my blog and realizing that I don’t *actually* talk about mental illness too much, except in brief obscure references… but I found some posts if you are curious:
    https://ahomeinfaith.wordpress.com/2019/02/06/negative-spoons/

    (I’m not Hellenic anymore but: https://ahomeinfaith.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/hard-lessons-a-visitation-from-lord-apollo/ )

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s