In terms of wealth, power, and influence, the corporate Christian machine is one of the most fearsome in America. Yet for all the power that the corporate Christian machine has, it always failed in its attempts to be cool. No amount of money has made corporate Christians — from powerful lobbyist groups to the motivational speakers that operate by the wealth doctrine — any better at interfacing with the rest of popular culture and puncturing the powerful bubble of adolescent cynicism. Pop culture moves far too fast for Christian media to keep up with, and all attempts to transpose it are ignorant and insincere, relying on a captive audience of Christian parents trying to find some “safe” alternative of what’s popular for their kids, and thus, also holding the captive audience of that seemingly eternal American archetype, “the Christian youth group kid.” For this kid, Sonic the Hedgehog bridges the gap between their limited offerings and the rest of pop culture.
I exist in a strange space in all this, as I do with an awful lot of extremely online groups and phenomena. I was raised Christian and eventually lapsed out of it in my early teens, my trips to Church ending the same time it did for my parents. I entered high school, while still having spent enough time to know the Christian atmosphere well, and to know people who were still in it, listening to Switchfoot and talking of God’s plan for everyone in between games of Super Smash Bros. on the N64.
Growing up with a computer programmer for a dad, I was also extremely plugged into the existence of the internet before I had even hit the age of 10, digging through virtual anime shrines in the mid-’90s, making my own Animorphs fansite on Tripod, downloading bootleg copies of Mega Man 3 on gaudy Angelfire websites with mere megabytes of hosting space. In those days, I would run into not just the online Sonic fandom in its earliest iterations, but also plenty of Christian youth-group kids posting online. They made their own sites on the same free hosting services, and registered on the same fan forums as everyone else. They’d try to blend in but stuck out because, every single time they posted, they included a message-board signature declaring that they were proudly a fan of Digimon and a Christian. Though I was not the dedicated Christian youth-group kid, even when I was going to church regularly, I always knew them, offline and online.
One thing I remember in vivid detail is the nervous fidget of friends who were still in deep with their youth groups, and adhered to all the rules and limitations that would come with it. “Oh, my parents wouldn’t let me do that,” they would say, while talking with friends about the latest cool video game, cool band, cool book, cool comic, or just plans to head out somewhere and do something together, as a slightly rowdy friend group.
To be a Christian youth-group kid is to be in an eternal state of knowing that you are getting the second-hand versions of everything else that’s cool, and you’re often getting it years after everyone has already moved onto the next thing. That your parents and your church are constantly handing you the knockoff that’s not nearly as good, not nearly as fun, and certainly not considered “cool” by anyone other than the people handing it to you in the first place. Whatever the trend, whatever the era, you don’t get to be part of it. In the ’90s, while everyone else at middle school was buzzing about Mortal Kombat or Pokémon or Harry Potter, you’re left out of the loop.
You can see American Christianity grasping for relevancy in the many teen-oriented bibles on the market. There’s the X-Treme Teen Bible (sunglasses and skateboards and neon fashion), The Manga Bible (big-eyed and spiky-hair renditions of the apostles),and The Gamer Bible (voxels and crafting and health bars and a summary of the book of Luke laid out in metaphors of leveling up your dedication to Jesus Christ). There are Christian versions of Dance Dance Revolution. Christian cover albums of the latest top ten pop songs. Christian versions of Pac-Man created by hacking the original code. There’s an old first-person shooter where you are Noah on the ark, using a slingshot to herd around animals to their stables. Christian kids were offered all this while their friends at school — or the people at school they wish were their friends — were experiencing the real thing. This dearth left kids scrabbling for their own cross-section of cool and Christian. Dancing right on the border of “extremely online” and “extremely offline,” you will find the Christian Sonic the Hedgehog fandom.
It’s entirely possible that you might have trouble remembering a time before Christian Sonic the Hedgehog fanart. You might find it difficult to pinpoint exactly when you first became aware of it. Christian Sonic always been around you, usually in countless DeviantArt uploads — lush renditions of Sonic charging into the distance, with quotes from the book of Psalms etched into the black border around him — or in snarky blog posts.
Sonic is far from the only piece of pop culture to have a Christian fandom. You can find Christian Naruto fandom, Christian Undertale, and Christian Master Chief in just a few keystrokes. Christian youth-group kids will inevitably modify the pop culture around them in order to fit in. It’s like an inverse of the internet’s infamous rule No. 34, “If it exists, there is porn of it.” If it exists, there is a pious version of it.
But there is, I would argue, something different about Sonic the Hedgehog. And what makes it different in its space within online Christian fandoms is also such an important part of what makes Sonic such a seemingly inescapable aspect of online existence, from the years of phpBB fan forums to the endless waterfall of content that is social media in 2020. Anywhere you turn online, you’ll eventually find Sonic the Hedgehog turn up with a smirk on his face and a dismissive, cocky wag of his finger.
Sonic has a specificity to him that makes him universal.This is, of course, a self-contradicting statement, but it is still one I feel to be true. But perhaps it could be better said with this: For every possible niche of internet fandom, Sonic the Hedgehog is just edgy enough.
Sonic the Hedgehog is the most perfectly crafted piece of pop culture to pull into the Christian youth demographic. In the ’90s, Sonic the Hedgehog was legitimately cool. There is also nothing immediately objectionable about his existence. He’s made of bright colors and a family-friendly design with poppy music with no lyrics to be misconstrued as corrupting. When Sonic does feature lyrics, they come from Crush 40, whose musical aesthetic is right at home on a Christian rock CD. There is no blood. While Mario is more popular worldwide, he’s a blank slate. Sonic, on the other hand, explicitly distinguished himself by having attitude and a personality. He was the cool alternative at the height of the Sega-Nintendo console wars.
The Sonic games and TV shows might not have any explicit references to the church (could you even imagine?) but there was plenty of room for a kid in a somewhat stuffy Christian household to participate in being a fan too.
The Christian Sonic the Hedgehog fandom is not inexplicable or confusing at all. Give enough time to look it over, it even feels inevitable. The Archie comics tie-ins feature plots that position Knuckles the Echidna as a Jesus figure, even literally being depicted as walking on water. Miles “Tails” Prower, Sonic’s two-tailed fox sidekick, is a perfect figure for kids of all kinds to project on. Tails let kids relate to the Sonic universe without identifying too closely with the punkish, counterculture main character. There’s just enough detail, edge, and attitude to Sonic that gives him that aura of “cool” that separates him out from other family-friendly, animal-mascot characters, while still having a self and world around them that is flexible enough to bend to meet the personal circumstances and tastes of any kid getting exposed to the hedgehog and his friends.
It is that paradoxical vague type of specificity that makes him universal online. Sonic fits in perfectly for online Christian fandom, on Deviantart and Twitter and elsewhere, but Sonic also fits in perfectly everywhere else, to everyone else. Raver Sonic? Of course. Nu-Metal Shadow the Hedgehog? Naturally. A meme of Sonic telling you that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism? Well, Sonic’s creator Yuji Naka said that Sonic was intentionally created with environmentalist themes to combat the way humanity was wrecking nature, so why not? Critic and storyteller Austin Walker famously tweeted “My Sonic is black and he listens to ska.” Nobody can really prove him wrong. Sonic figuratively and literally exists outside of human frameworks of identity.
From the deeply sincere Christian youth group kid making up their own Sonic OC for an online roleplay group, to the older lapsed-Christian, irony-poisoned Twitter leftist posting that bootleg stencil declaring “Sonic says NO to fascism and racism”, you’ll quite obviously find that blue hedgehog hanging memorably in both their minds.More than even Mario, more than Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, more than Bubsy and dozens of others, Sonic is perfectly made for the whole of the internet and all the groups milling about on it.
The blue blur is a smirking spiny mammal who somehow looks just as comfortable next to a quote from the Book of Revelations as he does in an Impact-font meme declaring “KISS MY ASS, DUANE.”
And God bless that hedgehog for it.