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Geek wisdom goes mainstream

Hard-core nerds impart teachings of 'Star Wars' and Tolkien.

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Grant Morrison's "Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human" is another volume in the nerd-wisdom genre published this year. Even Deepak Chopra has gone geek: His latest book, "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World," shows how Batman's struggle with his dark side leads to self-help.

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What's going on here? Why might geek wisdom be so appealing, especially to the jaded? Scott Paeth, associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, teaches a class called "Hobbits, Hippogriffs, and Heroes: Fantasy in Literature and Society." He argues that even without a single, unifying cultural myth like Christianity, we still crave to fit our lives into meaningful narrative structures.

"People seek out other stories, even ones they don't believe to be true in a literal sense," Professor Paeth says, "in order to provide a framework for their common cultural experience, and to put their actions, their morality, and their suffering into some form of context."

That's the struggle charted by Peter Bebergal in his memoir "Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood." The political and spiritual ideals of the 1960s worked for the hippies, he says, but they didn't inspire the "next generation of freaks."

"Many like myself turned to more fantastical narratives to fill the void," Mr. Bebergal says. Marvel Comics, Dungeons & Dragons, and Tolkien provided complex universes whose "sheer immensity of detail" felt real. "This is what happens to the richest kinds of myths, how they take on a quality of truth. Even Led Zeppelin sang about Mordor as if it [were a] place they had visited."

Bebergal says he inhabited this world in the 1970s and '80s. Role-playing games like D&D provided tools to act out these stories from Middle-earth and comics, even rock 'n' roll.

"Who doesn't want to be a hero?" says Shelly Mazzanoble, author of "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Dungeons & Dragons." To be heroes, she says, we need mentors. That's why movies like "Lord of the Rings," "Star Wars," and "Harry Potter" feature bearded role models who help bumbling protagonists swing a sword. "Who wouldn't want to live next door to kindly old Gandalf? Wouldn't you just love visiting Grandpa Obi-wan at the senior center?" she asks.

Stories of derring-do and right and wrong have always been with us. But we don't tell tall tales around the hearth anymore. Instead, pop culture is our flickering campfire. Elyse Bartlett, a student at Emerson College in Boston and an avid gamer, grew up watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation." Each episode, the crew of the Enterprise grappled with the "Prime Directive," which forbids Starfleet officers from interfering with the social order of any planet.

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