Attitudes To Deity

Last night, we watched “Thor: Love and Thunder” (2022). While there’s plenty of action to enjoy, I was struck not only by the poor writing but also by the attitudes to deity that were reinforced throughout: the gods as failing to protect their people, the pettiness of their actions, and the pointlessness of religious commitment. It was a veritable lecture on Epicurean atheism.

Polytheism gets a tough ride in the Marvelverse. Putting aside the assertion that deities are really just super-powered despots who lord it over the populations they are supposed to protect, there is a definite sense that might makes right. Without spoiling this film, it’s interesting to see the villain be arguably the most understandable character.

It got me thinking about how to present deity in my fantasy worlds. Being a student of theology and deeply interested in spiritual traditions, the way in which post-modern writers trivialise the relationship between humanity and deity makes me wince. But the repeated assertion that gods should protect their people, especially the children, was one that got me pondering.

In many ways, the behaviour of the average D&D party of player characters parallels the presentation of polytheistic deities in film: they are petty despots, power-hungry and greedy, and seeking to aggrandise themselves at any cost. They rampage across the fantasyscape slaying and looting their way to glory.

I can’t help wondering what might happen if the gods really did turn up to protect their people. Can you imagine how players would react to the Orcish Thunder God rocking up to smite their characters for burning down that settlement they raided last week?

Religious traditions are far more nuanced and complex than the presentation of deity as super-heroes with outdated values. In my own Mystamyr, there is a deep ambiguity about the reality of deity expressed through the Temple of Ten Thousand and the way in which an inclusive expression of religious faith is presented.

I prefer to imbue the player characters with the responsibility to express their deity’s goals and values. I find it rewarding to watch players find ways to live out the ideals and legends of their character’s faith. It’s interesting to see the traditional murder-hobo transformed by a serious consideration of moral questions in-game.

What if there was a very good reason why the god and goddesses prefer to stand aloof from your fantasy realm? What kind of intrigues might they inspire in their followers to expand their influence and raise up new monuments to their worship? Those are the kinds of questions that I find interesting.

Game on!

3 comments

  1. Great post, Che. A little background. Sorry if this sound pedantic. In the God Butcher series of Thor comics there is an interesting angle that the “gods” of the Marvel multiverse are, in fact, a different sort of being than mortals. It examines the subject with a lot more nuance (for a comic) than this film. The God Butcher and the God Bomb are then followed by a run of Thor in which he loses the ability to wield his hammer when Nick Fury simply whispers in Thor’s ear “Gorr was right” and Thor doubts the very essence of what it means to be a “god”. I don’t really collect comics or even keep up with them, but this one caught my eye at the comics and game store and I very much enjoyed its run.

    I watched this film a couple of nights ago, and while I’ve been a fan of all the Thor films thus far, I found this one very hard to watch. I was skeptical of the negative comments the peanut gallery, but I have to say it didn’t do the source material justice and was, in fact, pretty horrible.

    In the D&D campaign my friend William runs, “Novel Earth”, the Creator sent the Authors into the world to teach the people the Lore. The authors were supernatural beings, sort of akin to something Tolkien might have come up with. There is also the “Old Ways” — the religion of nature that existed before the Authors, which druids often adhere to. It is all very different from the typical D&D religious setting, and I find it more sophisticated and interesting. Characters (Clerics of course) can pick an Author as their patron, or they can simply be followers of the Creator. Not surprisingly, William went to seminary.

    Bob

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In my world of the Paynim Empire, deities interact with the world somewhat indirectly. There are spirits who claim to be either manifestations or messengers/angels of various gods, and they might be. In any case, it is by summoning the spirit of a deity and allowing it to manifest through a human being that gods can become manifest. Or maybe those spirits can create a body for themselves, who knows for sure? Certainly, gods have been known to possess their worshipers and followers.

    More directly relevant to your post, I have been long disappointed by how Hollywood treats religion since the 1960s or earlier, and Marvel’s cinematic arm is just an extension of that set of attitudes.

    Like

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