I was one of those kids who saw Star Wars (before it was dubbed A New Hope) in the theater. I was doomed to be a sci-fi/fantasy fan for the rest of my life. I began to buy comic books. I found Dr. Who on my local PBS. My mom brought home the Holmes Basic Box set. I tried reading the Lord of the Rings and found I could scratch my fantasy itch elsewhere. I even tolerated watching Star Trek with my Trekkie friends. Though for many years my entertainment dollar has rarely gone towards anything beyond RPGs and war games, I am still a fan at heart and hope that some day there is a franchise out there that I will find worthy of my time and my dollar.
Unfortunately, companies like WotC, Disney, WB, Paramount, etc. have all decided that I am toxic and whatever is the most recent flavor of -ist this week. I want Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and even Star Trek to be good; however, I don’t just think they won’t be anytime soon, I know they won’t be.
In the past, I have critiqued various movies and shows for abandoning the Divine in their story telling. God is the first storyteller. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament quoted by the writers of the New Testament and the oldest version of the OT we have today, the verb in the first sentence in Scripture (In the beginning God created) has the same root as poetry. This version of to create is only used when in association with God, and he creates (makes poetry) through speaking, “Let there be light.” Thus, just as all creation was doomed to decay and death by humanity turning its back on God, stories are doomed to meaningless drivel when the storyteller turns their back on the source of all stories.
While I still stand by this critique, there is another level of horrid storytelling that has been cropping up recently that I think needs to be addressed because it goes beyond turning its back on God and turns its back on the human person. Let me explain.
Reality can be broken up into two categories: the general and the particular. For example, I am using a computer in order to write this post. Some portion of those who are reading this post will also be using a computer to do so. While the term “computer” helpfully describes all of these devices, I am using a particular computer and the reader is using another particular computer. All computers = the general; my computer = the particular.
The crux of my critique depends on the fact the human beings always experience the particular and never experience the general. Whenever I encounter “computer” in my life, it is always a particular computer. The general “computer” is an immaterial concept that, although outside the particular experience of human beings, is nonetheless very real. The general allow us to make sense of the particular. Without the general, our empirical experience of the world would be a chaotic string of ever-changing data with no basis for interpretation or understanding.
From a Christian POV, this is how we experience and understand the Trinity. The general is God and the particular is the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is why Christ became a human being — so that we can intimately know God in the particular.
The reason story telling in the present is so awful is that the characters that occupy our stories are the general instead of the particular. Let me illustrate this my favorite literary inspiration for the Thief class — Bilbo Baggins. In JRR Tolkien’s works, Bilbo Baggins is important because he is a particular hobbit with individual quirks, strengths, weaknesses, and interests that qualify him to be the burglar that Gandalf chooses for the purpose of recovering what was lost to the dragon Smaug. If The Hobbit were written by today’s crop of storytellers, Gandalf would have chosen Bilbo because he is a hobbit and no other reason.
Characters today are largely just a collection of general categories based on immutable characteristics. While I acknowledge the reality of bigotry in the world — there is no question that bigotry exists and affects people on a regular basis — none of us have ever experienced “white,” “black,” or whatever category is fashionable in the present moment. We have, however, experienced particular human persons that have these immutable characteristics.
Herein is the insidious nature of the kind of storytelling we see in today’s popular culture, and why it is so awful. Characters are no longer human persons. They are no longer unique, irreplaceable, and valuable individuals. Characters are merely categories. As individual persons, they have no value because they can be replaced by another character from the same general category.
This type of storytelling can only produce uninteresting and valueless stories because the individual characters that occupy these stories have no intrinsic value in their particularity. As consumers, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these stories because there is no particular to encounter — these stories deny us the very basic human experience of the particular that is our reality.
This also explains why it is so easy to label fans who demand the particular as toxic and -ists of various flavors. We are denying and criticizing the immutable characteristic — the general category — of the character. Since there is no particular and only the general, we must therefore be toxic and -ist.
All of this dehumanizes everybody. History has shown again and again that when we dehumanize the other, nothing good follows.