Rethinking Christian Geek Culture

by Mike Duran · 12 comments

In Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, author Brett McCracken analyzes a growing sub-culture within the Western Church — Millennial postmodern believers seeking to mesh trendiness with spirituality. McCracken concludes that while aspiring to be culturally relevant, Christians need not compromise Truth for being “cool.” In fact, “coolness” and/or “hipness” exist on a sliding scale. Meshing eternal truths with ever-changing contemporary valuations is quite sticky. Thus, the “Christian hipster” straddles the line between legitimate engagement of culture and superficial pop cultural appropriation.

I was thinking about this phenomenon while recently reading about another, similarly odd, subculture — the Christian Geek.

Before we can get to the Christian geek, we must acknowledge the ascension of geekdom in the broader culture. Somewhere along the way, nerds and geeks went from being dorky outsiders to cool kids. This transformation has as much to do with the proliferation of popular culture and exponential technological advance than almost anything. At one time, the geek was the kid who constructed the short wave radio in his garage and chatted with a caribou hunter in Alaska. Today, practically any cell phone owner can Facetime the same caribou hunter in between micro-waving lunch and streaming anime on their HD 4K thinscreen. Now that immediate geek cred is at our fingertips, we can proudly display our bona fides with any number of purchases or references. Just mention ComicCon, much less namedrop panelists you were pictured with, and your geek points accumulate at warp factor.

As a result, a glut of “geek” outlets have been born — Den of Geek, ThinkGeek, Geek Girls, Gadgets for Geeks, Geek Street Clothing, GeekFuel, Geek squads, make-up for geeks, and even a site for Geeks Who Drink. Eventually the most eligible bachelors weren’t just stud muffins, they were geeks, and the quickest career arc to affluence was through the use or development of cutting edge geekery. Now geek is the new sexy. And non-geeks are straight-up muggles.

As with many pop-cultural trends, it didn’t take long for Christians to follow suit.

I’m not sure when it started, but as with the Christian hipster, the Christian geek piggy-backed off an existing cultural trend, appropriating the label for their own purposes and sanctifying the pursuit in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. So now we have outlets like the Geeky Christian, Christian Geek Central, Geeks Under Grace, The Christian Geeks, and Geeks and God; there’s Geekually Yoked, a podcast for “married Christian geeks,” a Geek’s Guide to Christianity, an Apostle to the Geeks, and even a Gay Christian Geek. With this has come a spate of reflections on Why geeks make great Christ followers, what Christians can learn about God from geek culture, how to Geek-Proof Your Faith, and numerous principles of spiritual growth and evangelism via geek prescripts. Now you can apply Dark Knight Discipleship, and learn how to live in community (because geeks do Acts 2 better than most churches) and geeks don’t crucify each other, but know how to disagree respectfully (of course, don’t tell that to Gamergaters and the Hugo Award flamewarriors).

But while there has been much effort to baptize the new demographic, pushback has been minimal. Research the subject and you’ll inevitably be directed to articles like What the Church Can Learn from Geek Culture and 10 Things Church Can Learn from Geeks. You see, geeks are now the new demographic that the church should be crafting outreach to. Yet while Christians appear to be rushing to embrace the label of “geek,” at least usher them into the fold, few have appeared to offer criticism. Which is what I’d like to offer here.

Affirming Christian geek culture poses two potential problems. One is the continued fragmentation and commodification of Christian culture, the other is interpretative over-reach regarding Christian themes in pop culture. In other words, validating the demographic and sanctioning its many cultural forms.

People will always sub-divide according to their likes and dislikes. Whether it’s music, film, food, politics, hobbies, or clothing, we inevitably migrate toward those with similar interests. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if gamers, anime artists, or Star Wars fans do the same. Even if they do it in the church. The problem arises when we slap the label “geek” on these niche dwellers and frame them as some sort of outcasts who need to be shepherded into the fold.

In their article The Overlooked: Geeks in the Church, Geeks Under Grace suggests that “geeks are particularly too often overlooked in the church” and offers this example:

“A young Christian woman I know creates beautiful anime-style art, but hesitates to share it in a realm of faith because ‘no one wants anime Jesus.’ Well, who says? Hasn’t God equipped her with a love and grace to be shared with others who might respond best to such an outlet?

The fact is, Jesus loves gamers, otakus, and comic book nerds – and he lives in the hearts of many such people. Isn’t it a mistake to overlook them just because it’s hard to understand what God has called them to do?”

While this is true, it’s not not unique to “gamers, otakus, and comic book nerds.” The same argument could be made for creatives in general. Churches don’t do a great job of recognizing horror writers, sushi chefs, and chainsaw sculptors either. So why should “geeks” suddenly become the new outreach demographic? In fact, it could be said that with the embrace of technologies by the church (podcasts, digital overheads, professional stage lighting, etc.) that computer geeks are MORE in demand for churches than, say, oil painters or screenwriters. Other than musicians, the church does not do a great job engaging creatives in general.

Furthermore, do we really need another sub-culture within the church? At some point, we are in danger of fracturing the Body into an infinite number of subcultures – Christian geeks, Christian singles, Christian homeschoolers, Christian athletes, Christian business owners, etc., etc. Heck, even within the geek community there exists numerous sub-divisions — Firefly fans, Marvel enthusiasts, Halo buffs, Tech toy aficionados, etc., etc. Shouldn’t we be more reluctant to embrace another label (“Christian geek”) which potentially fragments the community into another specialty niche? And with technologically-based pop-culture exponentially growing, people who enjoy gaming, gadgets, computers, comics, and CGI comprise, like, half of our Western world. Christian geeks are not the lonely misunderstood outsiders they are often made out to be.

A second possible issue concerning Christian geek culture is its embrace, assimilation, and sanctioning of numerous pop cultural commodities. Now don’t get me wrong here, Christians DO need to be more culturally savvy. And in the broader sense, Christians should be adept at identifying echoes of the Gospel anywhere we hear them. God has fused us with His image (Gen. 1:27), placed “eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccl. 3:11), and written His Law in our consciences (Rom. 2:14-15). It’s no wonder that even the most seemingly innocuous pop cultural artifacts can contain glimpses of Truth. So riffing on these “Gospel glimpses” seems like a smart thing to do, apologetically speaking. In this sense, identifying and affirming spiritual themes in popular culture, from X-Men to XBox,  seems a reasonable thing to do.

The problem is that Christian geeks can simply become celebrants of niche elements of pop culture who attempt to spiritualize their specific fandom. With the rise of Christian geekdom, it is now not uncommon to find those highlighting the numerous “Christian” elements of their specific fandom. Thus, Christian geeks seem to find Bible truth just about anywhere — Harry Potter, Star Trek, Dr. Who, The Walking Dead, or Dragon Ball Z. To say that some of these are a bit of a stretch is an understatement. Take Star Wars Redeemed: Your Life-Transforming Journey with Jesus and the Jedi, wherein the author uses the Star Wars series as a template for expounding upon “some of the most difficult-to-understand subjects in the Bible.” From the synop:

Star Wars Redeemed teaches the powerful truths of God’s Word using the backdrop of Star Wars. Have fun exploring some of the themes, metaphors, motifs, scenes, characters, and dialogue from the first six Star Wars films while learning some of the most difficult-to-understand subjects in the Bible.

In Star Wars Redeemed, you will find answers to the following questions:

• Is it possible to find God’s will for my life?
• Does God’s control have limits?
• How can I know if I’m saved?
• What’s the purpose of the Church?
• How can I arm myself for spiritual warfare?
• Is speaking in tongues possible?
• Does God care how I vote?
• What about the “End Times”?

Look, I’m a Star Wars fan. Are there hints of the Gospel in Star Wars. Absolutely! But does the series really answer questions about the End Times or whether speaking in tongues is possible? This kind of interpretative overreach is symptomatic of much of today’s Christian geek culture. I mean are Batman and Robin really templates for biblical discipleship? Is there really a Gospel According to Spiderman? Only if you squint. Let me suggest that this is another potential problematic element of Christian geek culture. I mean, what is the “Christian geek” but someone who seeks to superimpose his or her spiritual values over a specific fandom? Often this involves over-reach, the sanctification of our own amusements. It is pop cultural appropriation at its worst.

But perhaps the potentially most troubling aspect of Christian geekdom is its appeal to cultural hipness. The term “geek” used to be synonymous with “outsider.” And though many professing geeks still like to gloss themselves as misunderstood outsiders, the truth is that geeks now exists in the tens of freakin’ millions. Yes, at one time the guy with the short wave radio in his garage WAS an outsider. Trouble is, anime fans, Star War cosplayers, and tech lovers are now everywhere!  Face it, the term “geek” is now brandished as a badge of honor. It is cool. Wearing a Superman shirt is hardly unfashionable. Quoting Batman in a sermon garners you props. And knowing how to write code for video games can make you a pretty penny. So this idea that geeks are somehow still some misunderstood group of outsiders is just inaccurate. Frankly, one reason Christians are anxious to embrace the “geek” label is because it carries cultural cache. Geeks are now the cool kids. And God knows that we Christians need to appear more cool.

Wherever you fall on the geek spectrum, might I suggest that we not rush to baptize “Christian geeks” as the next unreached people group. Every Christian, geek or not, is measured by their relationship to Christ and to His Body. Knowing all the characters in Full Metal Alchemist or owning a Nanoleaf Aurora will not improve your standing with either. Building a TARDIS might earn you a side-eye from the choir ladies. But methinks Jesus could care less.

Anita A Cooper December 29, 2016 at 1:31 PM

Very well thought out commentary, Mike. I admit, I hadn’t heard of the “Christian Geek” thing until I came across this post!

Christ said we would be hated because we’re not of this world. Unfortunately the modern church, yet again, misses this simple fact. In our rush to be “relevant” we not only embrace our surrounding culture, we take it into our hearts. Granted, we do live in the world, and we most certainly should understand the world we live in, but not at the expense of our own spiritual health.

That’s where the real trouble begins…the separation from God and His voice, and the ability to be a light in this dark world.
Also, where is SACRIFICE in all of this? Sure, it’s great to identify with others…as you know Paul spoke on this himself…but we’re cheating everyone, not only these self proclaimed “geeks” by neglecting to mention that sacrifice is central to being a disciple of Christ, whether that sacrifice takes the form of money, time, “cultural cache”, etc.

What’s wrong with simply being a disciple of Christ who enjoys anime, Star Wars, Batman, etc.? I suppose it’s because, deep down, many of us are afraid of being misunderstood and therefore disliked. (and if we we’re being honest, are we ashamed of Christ??)

Granted, the “street cred” of Christianity as a whole has been banged up and even sullied, but why should we be surprised?

Satan is a master liar and manipulator with many of us his willing salesmen…

All have sinned and come short of the Glory of God…not just “geeks”…so I guess I’m taking the long way around to say that I agree with your observations. 🙂

JaredMithrandir January 10, 2017 at 7:19 PM

The “World” Jesus meant in that Quote is mainly the Nations. Yet too many Christians want to make that about Entertainment media so they can pretend their Patriotism and nationalism is somehow Biblical.

Teddi Deppner December 29, 2016 at 2:23 PM

Aw, Mike, you’re living up to your “cerebral grump” roots with this one.

Affirming Christian geek culture poses two potential problems. One is the continued fragmentation and commodification of Christian culture, the other is interpretative over-reach regarding Christian themes in pop culture.

In response to your first point: We’re going to have subcultures in Christianity. There’s no avoiding it. I agree with you, inasmuch as I think it’s dangerous to focus too much on labels and categorizing people. But I don’t criticize the recognition of people groups (subcultures), the analysis of them, or the desire to reach them in unique ways. It seems to me that God is always doing this — sending missionaries with unique ways of reaching unique groups.

Although the Rise of the Geek in our culture can be annoying, it’s there, and I don’t feel there’s a biblical or moral imperative to resist it. In the past, different groups have risen to popularity. Nobility used to be a big deal; there was a time every parent aspired for their kids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers or professional sports stars. Now it’s cool to be an activist (ecosystem, humanitarian, civil rights, etc), YouTube star, or a geek. Maybe I don’t move in the same circles you do, but I haven’t seen a huge focus in the church at large on “reaching geeks”, although reaching Millennials may require the same basic tactics given their tech-dependent lives.

As for over-emphasizing the “Christian” themes in popular culture… yes, I agree that those can be a stretch, too. I sometimes roll my eyes at book titles. I also get concerned when people seem to justify an entire fandom just because of a few loosely redemptive themes in some of the characters or storylines. And yet… and yet! Who am I to judge another man’s servant? If Christ is being preached, I’m glad. If not, then that’s too bad… but the geek examples you give are no different than any other subculture focus, right? I’ve met too many people whose message seems a stretch at first glance, or seems unnecessary or a very narrow focus, but whose ministry bears good fruit — reaching people who otherwise would not hear anything of Jesus.

It sort of feels like you just got a burr in your bonnet on this. 😉 Or maybe I’m just defensive because I love geek culture and am so glad that a subculture that I’m familiar with is opening doors to the hearts of people I want to reach.

JaredMithrandir January 10, 2017 at 7:22 PM

It’s nothing new. Clement used the Phoenix myth before the Church was even a Century old. The NT Authors actually did quote Greek writers like Euripides.

Teddi Deppner December 29, 2016 at 2:27 PM

“So this idea that geeks are somehow still some misunderstood group of outsiders is just inaccurate.” Well… yes and no. Yes, geeks now get more respect in general culture. But no, it’s not inaccurate to say that (true) geeks are a misunderstood group of outsiders. There are still plenty of real geeks (I know a bunch!) who are socially awkward and shunned from the mainstream of relationship circles

Mike Duran December 29, 2016 at 7:12 PM

Testing

Gray Rinehart January 2, 2017 at 4:15 PM

Very interesting post — thought-provoking!

I clicked through to some of the sites you mentioned, because despite being deep in science fiction & fantasy fandom from my work with Baen Books I hadn’t heard of any of them. My primary association in that regard has been with “Fans for Christ,” which recently morphed into a new group called “The Bridge.” FFC’s founder, Stephen Weese, wrote a little book a few years ago called GOD LOVES THE FREAKS — it was something of a response to the animosity he faced within the church to his fandom-related activities. Some congregations are reluctant to welcome fannish things, just as some fans are reluctant to welcome faithful things.

Best,
G

Kessie January 3, 2017 at 10:01 AM

The church seems so intent on reaching these people. Yet my mom and I were talking about how the women in her Bible study, despite being in church their whole lives, know next to nothing about the Bible. Like, they had no idea why the Old Testament was in the Bible at all. My sister and brother-in-law, as youth leaders in their church, have decided that the kids are the only people in the church who want to learn about God. The adults are not only not interested, but only go to church as a social exercise.

This has shaken me deeply. How many of my Christian friends have gone months without cracking a Bible? I’ve been doing a Common Book of Prayer study and love it … I just assume that everybody else does something similar. But apparently people would rather study the gods of our culture than the true God.

JaredMithrandir January 10, 2017 at 7:24 PM

Indeed, all Christians need to strive to be Nerdy about The Bible.

JaredMithrandir January 10, 2017 at 1:33 PM

I’m something even more specific. A Christian Otaku.

Michael Morejon January 24, 2017 at 8:34 PM

That’s awesome! May I suggest you check out http://www.beneaththetangles.com 🙂 We are the largest Christian anime blog on the web. Hope you find something you will enjoy there.

Michael Morejon January 24, 2017 at 8:40 PM

Good post, though it does read a little negatively towards Christian geeks, but that’s ok because you do bring up a good point. We as Christians want every sub-culture to be “Christian” and make it a little holy bubble of sorts. I don’t agree with that at all, even though I write for a large Christian anime site (www.beneaththetangles.com) and have my own video game blog that relates faith to video games/anime (www.gamingandgod.com) for the past few years. The way I see it, is that as Christians we should be going into places where Christians wouldn’t think to bring the gospel, like cons or gaming servers or other places where geeks hang out. There are a lot of geeks/nerds (whatever, pick a name haha, not sure anymore) that do not believe in Christ but are open to the gospel if others like them would tell them about Him.

When Apostle Paul spoke to the Romans, he used quotes from their own poets to show them the gospel. He could relate to them because Paul was a Roman. Like he wrote in 1 Cor 9:20 “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.”

If we have to put on cosplay (for those that enjoy it) to win souls at a Comic Con for Christ, then do it. If I write about video games with a spiritual twist that brings it back to God, in Jesus name I pray that Holy Spirit would do something in their hearts to lead them to Him. However the method, regardless if we fully understand it or not, let His Kingdom come in anyway possible. Just my 2 cents. God bless you, and hope to read more of your perspectives on this topic!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: