Back to the Future, Medieval Saints, and Joy

If I could give one bit of advice to a young person moving to the city, it would be this: make friends with a film journalist. That’s what I did in London several years ago, and it has basically resulted in celebrity encounters, free stuff, and preview screenings (usually accompanied by free drinks – and the worse the studio knows the film is, the more free drinks they’ll give you before you watch it).

That was how I ended up at the West End premiere of Back to the Future: The Musical earlier this week. It was a fun night. I met Andy Serkis. Brian May turned up. The performances were great. There was free beer. The set and production were maybe the best I’ve seen on stage. There was free champagne. The songs were pretty forgettable though (“Johnny B. Goode” and “The Power of Love” aside), so I’m glad I didn’t pay for my ticket.

Accompanying my journo friend meant hanging by the red carpet, and this meant joining The Fans. Now, everyone is on some level a fan of Back to the Future – it’s utter cinematic perfection. But these guys were Fans, complete with obscure cosplay. They fizzed with nervous energy. We were on a narrowish pavement, and people were in danger of falling into the adjacent (and busy) bus lane. Some people in wheelchairs had to squeeze past, and I genuinely thought they might get knocked off.

Eventually, the big names turned up: Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown himself!), Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Alan Silvestri (no Michael J. Fox sadly, I assume because of covid and Parkinson’s). Everybody heaved forward, and the baying for photos and autographs began. The professional autograph hunters emerged. I’m fairly sure one of them was faking needing a crutch so that he didn’t have to move when asked.

Buffeted by The Fans and the autograph hunters, watching them make desperate efforts to take low-quality pictures, and concerned that some of them might just be daft enough to get hit by a bus, I thought: is this what it was like to chase saints and relics in the Middle Ages?

Are Pilgrims and Fans Alike?

I’m on a medieval kick with my reading at the minute, and I began to tease the idea out further. It would be too easy to make a trite, shallow comparison between celebrities and saints, so it’s worth thinking more closely about how medieval veneration of the saints actually worked.

In his classic book The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy describes how The Golden Legend (a popular medieval collection of hagiographies) describes the medieval cult of the saints:

The saints, the Legend went on, were “our dukes and leaders”, to be honoured and imitated, for they are the friends of God. Their bodies, having been the temples of the Holy Spirit, were sources of power, the alabaster box of spiritual ointment from which healing flows. Somewhat more pithily, [John] Mirk [a 14th/15th century cleric] characterized the attractions of the saints for a late medieval English mind in his sermon on St. Andrew, who was to be worshipped, he claimed “for his hygh holynes of lyvvyng, another for gret myracles doyng, and thrid for gret passyon suffryng”

The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Avon: Yale University, 1992), 170

I think BTTF fans I encountered would laud Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox for the same reasons – holy living (they’re good guys), great miracles (classic movies), and great suffering (Lloyd is visibly old and frail now, Fox has long suffered with Parkinson’s).

We really shouldn’t underplay the extent to which we’ve turned our entertainers into moral exemplars – look at how much people lose their minds when anyone in Hollywood challenges the liberal status quo, or has their old tweets dug up. A whole generation can only really express its moral universe in terms of Harry Potter, wondering who “the real Voldemort” is and whether Dobby died in vain given that Trump became President.

Duffy later writes specifically about why medieval people went to all the effort of going on pilgrimage to visit shrines and relics:

The primary purpose of pilgrimage had always been to seek the holy, concretely embodied in a sacred place, a relic, or a specially privileged image… In fact the practice of pilgrimage, travel to seek the sacred outside one’s immediate locality, had important symbolic and integrative functions, helping the believer to place the religious routine of the closed and concentric world of household, parish, or gild in a broader and more complex perception of the sacred, which transcended while affirming local allegiances. Pilgrimage also provided a temporary release from the constrictions and norms of ordinary living, an opportunity to review one’s life and, in a religious culture which valued asceticism and the monastic life above the married state, an opportunity for profane men and women to share in the graces of renunciation and discipline which religious life, in theory, promised.

p.191

This doesn’t seem far off why all those fans traipsed into central London on a Monday night, rather than just enjoying their memorabilia at home: setting their devotion in a bigger context, releasing themselves from everyday life to obtain some greater sliver of cinema magic which is usually only available to the priestly Hollywood class. The big differences are probably that 1) aside from waiting around by the red carpet for ages, a fan lacks the self-denial of a pilgrim, and 2) social media makes the fan’s undertaking infinitely more performative than that of the pilgrim.

I’m not the first to compare saints and celebrities, but such comparisons don’t usually pry into why such a comparison might be apt. It’s not just that both have been popular at one time or another. Are pilgrims and fans actually after the same thing?

Looking for Joy

At first, it may seem not. There seems little to compare a suffering, uncomely medieval saint with a Hollywood A-Lister on the red carpet. Saints have nothing in their appearance that we should desire them; celebrities are all about appearance and desire. Medieval Christians went to saints directly to get a hold of God; modern fans wouldn’t claim to be doing that when they camp out in cosplay.

Some might explain this by considering fandom as a “liturgical” activity – something built on shared ritual practices in a community over time. I think there’s certainly mileage in that, especially when considering fandom as a corporate thing. But just because they might both be “liturgical”, that doesn’t mean fandom and saint-veneration are both necessarily seeking the same thing. I could call any other shared group activity “liturgical” if I wanted – an archery club, a trainspotting group, my neighbourhood’s Saturday morning litter-picking group.

Yet fandom feels in many ways closer to saint-veneration than any of those groups – it feels like there’s a lot more at stake (though I’m sure there are trainspotters who disagree). So I do think that fans are seeking the same kind of thing that medieval pilgrims sought, but under a different name, or at one step removed.

Fans are, I think, always seeking what C.S. Lewis called Joy. Lewis names it so whilst describing a common feeling he had in three intense experiences (two involving reading):

[The feeling] is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often it

Surprised By Joy (London: HarperCollins, 2012), 18

Despite how excited and ebullient they were around that red carpet, I think this sums up the fans I encountered this week: marked by a forlorn sense of tragedy, even as they celebrate, because the world they love is not real, and they have not been raptured into it.

Back to the Future is a superb example of evoking Joy – that distinctive twinkling refrain in the score still catches my breath, twinkling with the peril and excitement of an adventure somewhere where you don’t need roads. Lewis had the same feeling when he encountered what he called “Northernness” – the atmosphere of magic and wonder in his beloved Norse and Celtic literature, just a few lines of which meant he “was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky” and “desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described”, but then “found [him]self at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing [he] were back in it” (p.18).

Of course, for Lewis, Joy was something which should ultimately lead us to God. The longing of Joy, evoked by myth and story, only finds resolution in Christ, whose story is the ultimate and true story, the myth made fact.

This is why clambering fans and travelling pilgrims are ultimately alike: both are grasping for God through some inferior intermediary and their trinkets. The medieval pilgrim is merely a step further along, more explicit in what they’re after: they want God, and think he’ll trickle to them through saints and relics. The modern fan doesn’t know they want God, but if Lewis is right then they do – they just don’t realise it. They seek what the pilgrim seeks, but at one step removed. They hope it will trickle down to them through an autograph, a selfie, perhaps even just seeing Christ Lloyd doddering along. 

Any man knocking on the door of Comic-Con is looking for God.

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