Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Getting Spiritual

"Hello? Have you people looked out the window? How can you look at this galaxy and not believe in something?" -- Ashley Williams

Okay, this may be the most loaded post -- in other words, this post has the best chance to start arguments -- on my blog. The subject of spirituality has come up time and again in science fiction and fantasy, two things we geeks love. Arguably, the two best known examples of each genre are "Star Wars" and "The Lord of the Rings", respectively. "Mass Effect" follows in the respected footsteps of those works in the sense that all three involve a fellowship of very different heroes banding together in the name of good in the setting of a great conflict. "Star Wars" (the original trilogy, I mean) had Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and others fighting the Galactic Empire; "The Lord of the Rings" involved Sam, Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn and more struggling against the forces of Mordor and The One Ring...and "Mass Effect", as any fan of it knows, centers on Commander Shepard, Garrus, Liara, and others trying to save the galaxy from the omniscient return of the Reapers and stop a vicious cycle of extinction. All of those works share a lot more in common besides the fact they're trilogies. All three have an undeniable spiritual element, as well.

Spirituality, unfortunately, can cause problems in the simple sense too many people subjectively bring their point of view to the table, which can often already be influenced by their religion. Remember how much of a huff was made over "Star Wars" and the spiritual concept within its narrative of The Force, the universal life energy that binds and permeates all living beings in the universe? Critics came mostly (and loudly) from Christians who thought George Lucas was trying to promote Taoism, which held similar concepts. It's the same as when the Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling enjoyed amazing popularity to become movies, but some decried them as promoting witchcraft to easily-influenced young minds. It's of interest to note, touching on a subject from another blog, that Lucas was inspired to create the Jedi Knights by the samurai depicted in the films of Akira Kurosawa, and those warrior-knights believed in Bushido as strongly as another would believe in Buddhism. It's easy for some to spot supposed bad in the most harmless of things -- they're only books and films! -- and feel threatened by's another thing to spot bad that might threaten all a person believes in.

I don't know whether Lucas tried to calm critics by creating 'midi-chlorians' to explain The Force in the prequel trilogy, but he only confused the issue and got a lot of fans mad. And for good reason. If he tried to 'fix' "Star Wars", he damn near broke it instead.

There wasn't as much of a hoo-ha over J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, in book or film form, and it isn't so strange to note that. While there are those characters who use magic like Gandalf the Grey, such things were classic conventions of medieval mythology. The world of Middle-Earth was one of dragons, trolls, elves, goblins, dwarves, and other such beings, the stuff of harmless fairy tales. If any of the religiously devout of any faith has cursed "The Lord of the Rings", then they've done it quietly...a lot of geeks love Tolkien's works, and fans are already beside themselves to see the upcoming film adaptation of "The Hobbit".

Spirituality has also been a part of "Mass Effect", but in ways that have created negative feedback from some fans. I've already talked about how one of the main characters, Ashley Williams, makes no apologies for believing in God, which has drawn plenty of flak all by itself. (I think some automatically think of her as Christian or something; a lot of people don't like certain religions.) But there are other characters who follow their own religions in the trilogy...Liara believes in the Asari Goddess and Thane Krios believes in many gods, as two examples. Most alien civilizations seem to believe in a higher power in the "Mass Effect" trilogy...some can take their religion too far. The Hanar (they look like glowing, pulsing jellyfish) believe that the Enkindlers, aka the Prothean race, were gods, and not to spoil things but one Hanar in particular will make the logical leap that the Reapers, who really created the technologies that bring the galaxy together, were the 'true' gods and seek to assist them in their cycle of extinction! The most criticism has come from those who have noted religious symbolism in the games instead of spiritual: Shepard being brought back by Project Lazarus, twelve disciples following Shepard in "Mass Effect 2", and so on.

But in my beliefs, which aren't rooted down by a single religion (I was once a Catholic, and while I still believe there's a God and a place we go after we die, I just couldn't place all of my faith in the Bible), the "Mass Effect" games are spiritual in the sense that again and again, they bring up the simple subject of faith. And not faith in a in oneself, faith in one's people, and faith in others. As war breaks out after the arrival of the Reapers in "Mass Effect 3", it becomes more clear than ever that Commander Shepard needs faith in him/herself, but it's hard when Shepard can't save everyone, like the boy destroyed by the Reapers who haunts his/her dreams. One of the core, overarching facets of the trilogy is Humanity's place in the galaxy, and whether other civilizations believe they deserve one. It's up to the gamer to make the rest of the galaxy believers, of course, but they can go down a Renegade path that says 'screw what other people think!' just as easily as the Paragon path. Many of the biggest decisions a gamer must make in the games involves whether they as Commander Shepard can take a leap of faith for example, which I talked about in yet another post, involves whether to kill the last Rachni Queen or let her live with the promise her children won't make war with the rest of the galaxy again.

Spirituality is something of tremendous power, and if you want to be reminded of that, remember this is a world where people can call for blood when a holy book accidentally gets destroyed. What's spiritual is subjective, and can be confused too easily with organized, religious dogma that only serves to preserve the strength of a particular religion and whip believers into a furor. We need to remember that spirituality can also involve belief in ourselves, in others, and stuff that's just as intangible as belief in a given god. Luke Skywalker said during his trials to become a Jedi, when he couldn't lift his X-Wing from the swamp and then watched Yoda levitate the fighter out of the muck, "I don't believe it!" The Master Jedi sagely said, "That is why you fail." Belief can be a truly powerful thing, one of the most spiritual aspects of what makes us both human and alive, and it can be said to be a cornerstone of the "Mass Effect" trilogy.

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