As a lifelong fan of SFF narratives, I've always been fascinated by the way mythology and religion are incorporated into their worldbuilding. In stories where magic is demonstrably real and gods are active participants in human drama, how do we account for differences between doctrine and culture? Is there a gulf between the actual expectations of living deities and the demands of their churches? How do we differentiate real gods from false? Do gods exist because people believe in them and die away when they stop, or are they ageless, immortal creators of humankind?
It shouldn't surprise us that fantasy stories frequently brush up against a host of existential, theological and philosophical questions about the nature of the universe, even if they don't necessarily provide any answers. But what happens when those same magical stories are set in the real world, and make use of real religions? Drawing on mythology for inspiration in creating new worlds is one thing, but when we're making proclamations about the real truth of our own history – even if only in a hypothetical, fictional, clearly mystical context – it's easy to feel there's a different weight of expectation.
Which brings me to Supernatural, a deeply problematic show to which I'm nonetheless completely addicted, and its many uses of religion. After ten seasons and over two hundred episodes which run the full gamut of the sublime to the ridiculous, it's long since become a running joke that Supernatural – and, by extension, its vociferous fandom – has a gif for everything, up to and including the Archangel Gabriel starring in a porno. Which, yeah. That's a thing, because as heavily invested in Christian mythos – and I've picked that word on purpose – as the show is, it's also quite breathtakingly sacrilegious.
Do you have something to say about this article? Send a letter to the editors. Send your email with 'letter to the editors' in the subject line to [email protected] and we may feature your letter in the next issue!
Did you enjoy this article? Please donate so we can pay our talented contributors.
Because whenever you deploy an actual, real-world religion within a fantastical context, no matter how respectful or reserved you try to be – and Supernatural isn't exactly known for its tact – you're always going end up walking a perverse line between evangelism and blasphemy. To be clear, I'm a third-generation atheist and inveterate mythology nerd: the only dog I have in this fight is named Cerberus. I'm simply fascinated by the conflicting duality of the way religion works in storytelling, and particularly within Supernatural. On the one hand, you've got a show that unequivocally situtes Christianity as being both true and ultimate, in the sense that everyone seemingly goes to Heaven or Hell, and where angels, demons and other Biblical entities frequently steer the plot. But on the other hand, it's also a show where the Christian god is portrayed as a drunk, sexually frustrated writer who exists alongside deities from other religions, angels indulge in orgies, the King of Hell is a sympathetic ally and the Biblical Apocalypse was averted because two guys in plaid killed three of the four Horsemen, made a deal with Death and trapped the Archangel Michael in hell with Lucifer, who's coincidentally a fan-favourite character.
It's complicated, is what I'm saying.
Rather bizarrely, there's a sense in which this makes Supernatural comparable to, of all things, Twilight, which it actively parodied in Season 6. Among other complaints, Twilight is frequently criticised both for being Christian propaganda (because Stephenie Meyer) and for not being Christian enough (because vampires). In one sense, it's a paradox – objectively, neither narrative can be both things at once – but at the same time, it's also perfectly rational, because our perception of faith and religion, and our individual relationships with either concept, are wholly subjective things.
Which isn't to say that Supernatural doesn't normalise Christianity – or rather, Christian iconography and concepts – while simultaneously appropriating, othering and/or exoticising elements of different faiths. This it does in spades, but I'd argue this has more to do with promoting Western cultural primacy than religious hegemony, inasmuch as religion in narrative tends to exist as a facet of culture, rather than culture being a facet of religion. Or, to put it another way, Supernatural is all about angels and demons because such concepts are Western spiritual/cultural norms, and not because it actually wants to promote a particular brand of Christianity.
To draw comparisons with another show, I always wondered about the efficacy of holy water and crosses in defeating vampires in Buffy, given that no other element of the plot hinged on the idea that Christianity was the only true religion, or even that the Christian god was real. Quite the opposite, in fact: like the world of Supernatural, the Buffyverse features multiple dimensions and realities, the characters battle gods that are sometimes mythological, sometimes fictional, and sometimes an original mishmash of both, and there's never any question of the protagonists adopting a religious moral code. We accept the presence of Christianity in these stories, not because we're being subtly pressured to convert, but because it's part of the Western cultural-narrative framework, and even if we don't believe ourselves, we've nonetheless usually grown up with the stories.
Religion in Supernatural, then, is a convoluted thing – a Frankenstein patchwork of Biblical lore, world religion, classical mythology and outright fantastic invention. And whatever bones I might have to pick with the writers about particular episodes or approaches, over all, it makes for some damn fun television.
Lucifer in Supernatural