There’s a concept in fandom around various cinematic and literary franchises called “head canon.”
Canon, of course, is borrowed from Biblical studies: as opposed to the two-n cannon, which fires off cannonballs, the scriptural canon is the roster of books or texts approved by the church over time.
In fact, I believe canon formation is one of the most spiritually interesting areas of church history, with odd asides such as Martin Luther despising Esther & James, but he consented to keep them in Protestant Bibles when erstwhile allies said fine, but let’s also take out Song of Songs and Revelation. The Holy Spirit at word, or religious log rolling? You be the judge, but I think in canon formation you see how spiritual discernment works to get us the Bible we have, and the apocrypha and pseudopigrapha we don’t reverence in the same way.
Canon is used today in a variety of forms. Sherlock Holmes is “canon” in the 56 short stories and four novels by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, but there are many additional works, some published and others more fan fiction, that make use of the Great Detective. They aren’t canon, in other words.
Harry Potter is a cottage industry of sorts, with seven novels in print, eight movies made from them, and the author J.K. Rowling has written a number of short works and a play. They’re all canon, but there are debates about how canonical variations in the films weigh versus the books themselves, let alone odd asides Rowling has made over the years since the last one.
And this is where “head canon” comes in. For some people, an image they have in their head is the “real picture.” The color of one character’s hair, or eyes, for instance. And there are pieces of backstory which are not canon, as in they aren’t in the core texts, but which people can seize onto and insist are true, at least in their own minds.
Biblically, this comes up with a kind of head canon like the certainty most of us have about there being three magi, or wise men. If you go to canon, the words of scripture, it’s just plural. No number, other than their having three gifts, which gave rise to the idea the multiple magi were three wise men.
I have a big hunk of head canon in my mind that I’ve come to impose on the Star Wars universe. I could bore you for possibly hours on it, but in sum, it’s the idea that somewhere before the events in the 1977 film (Episode IV if you must), a plague ran through humanity in the galaxy we’re learning about, killing most humans, hence there actually aren’t that many “people” in the fictional universe we’re encountering.
Cloning was one response, which we get to later on, and also droids: but (and this probably came to mind because I’d read “Dune” before seeing the first “Star Wars”) there was a general distaste for robotic life due to past misuses of their autonomy. Remember in the cantina scene when the bartender oddly erupts “we don’t serve your kind”? So droids were regarded nervously at best, and still prone to independent action.
Clones, though, were equally problematic, and especially when forced to maturity were functional but somewhat shaky and erratic: remember how bad the stormtroopers were at hitting a target right in front of them?
All of these ideas fill in plot holes, but are directly contradicted by other statements in official Star Wars canon. Whatever! I have my own head canon which helps me make sense of the story (don’t ask me about Snoke).
And that’s fine in fiction, but for faith formation, it can be a problem. I was once an associate minister with responsibility for Christian education, and learned one of the regular teachers was a fervent believer in astrology. As in, she spent major dollars in having astrologers do horoscopes for herself and her family, to help in making plans and decisions in her life.
Let’s just say that was a pastoral challenge. Her theology about the person of Christ and the work of God was really quite orthodox, she had just figured out how the Lord used the influences of the planets and zodiac to prepare for us the road we would travel. We carried on quite an ongoing conversation about where and how this could relate to our shared Christian beliefs.
Our conversation here about theology and head canon will continue, too!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher in central Ohio; he has his own sense of where the guardrails are. Tell him where you’d set the center line at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: Faith Works: Theology, worldview, and head canon