Is portraying religion positively enough?
Last night as my wife and I ate dinner, we watched two TV space opera episodes. Interestingly enough, both had themes dealing with religion.
Note: there are likely to be spoilers, but most of you have probably seen these before. They aren’t recent shows.
Star Trek TNG – Who Watches the Watchers
The first show we watched from Season 3, episode 4 of Star Trek TNG, involves the plot-line where a more primitive race, encountering the Enterprise, believe Picard to be a god.
At one point, to solve the pollution of their culture, the suggestion is made that the captain give them a list of “commands” to guide the newly forming religion from devolving into holy wars and religious persecutions. An obvious reference to our own history of religious persecutions and wars.
Picard vehemently refuses to subject the people to superstitions of gods which they had given up 1000 years prior. His solution is to prove to them that he is only a mortal man like they are, except he has better “tools.”
Star Trek is known, especially when dealing with the humans, for promoting a throughly secular philosophy and world-view. The human race by that point has divested itself of religious superstitions. Only various alien races display any religion, but never based upon anything more than legend and myth. Any gods with existence are always alien beings further along the evolutionary chain than humans are just as Picard was compared to those who wanted to worship him.
Religion has no place among the humans of the Star Trek universe.
In science fiction, this perspective has flourished. One of the goals of many a Christian science fiction writer is to paint a picture where religion does still exist and plays a positive roll in that future reality.
Indeed, that aspect is one of the main reasons I felt God wanted me to write science fiction. I felt science fiction needed not only a more positive future for Christianity painted in stories, but to be an influence that the two are not incompatible with each other.
Firefly – Jaynestown
Easily one of my favorite Firefly episodes. Out of science fiction, this show has one of the more favorable treatments of religion. While much of the crew isn’t particularly spiritual, the inclusion of Shepard Book along for the ride adds a religious dimension to the stories.
While they never label his religion, clues—like using our Bible—indicate it is some version of Christianity. Based on the later movie, Serenity, Book ends up holding a position of spiritual mentor/conscience for Mel, the ship’s captain. As far as a positive portrayal of a man of faith, Firefly scores above average.
But this episode, for all its charm and good storytelling, shows that might not be enough. While the crew is away in Canton, one subplot involves Book “babysitting” River while Simon is in town. At one point, she is busy correcting Book’s Bible, saying a lot of it doesn’t make sense. How could billions of animals fit on Noah’s boat. It had to go. Rip!
Book, not happy with her earnest efforts, attempts to help her understand. I may not quote this exactly, but he says something along the lines, “The point of the Bible isn’t to make sense, but give us something to believe in.”
Hold that thought. This subplot parallels the main story.
The crew goes into the smelly town of Canton where Jayne believes he has enemies. Unknown to him, he had inadvertently dumped his stolen money into the middle of Canton. The town, ending up with the money, made a Robin Hood-type hero out of Jayne, believing he’d done it on purpose to help them out. His folk-hero status came complete with a statue and a rousing drinking song commemorating the occasion.
As you’d expect, the enemies finally show up, and it is revealed to the people that Jayne didn’t dump the money on purpose. As the man shoots at Jayne, a boy who believes in Jayne jumps in front of him and takes the bullet, then promptly dies. The bad guy is quickly dispatched and they all leave.
As Mel and Jayne discuss it back at the ship in the closing scene of the episode, Jayne repeats River’s words though he didn’t hear them, “It just doesn’t make any sense.” In this case, why the boy would sacrifice himself to save Jayne shortly after he declared no one would do that kind of thing.
Mel’s answer, paralleling Book’s but expanding on it, is that it isn’t about making sense, but it is that the people needed a hero to believe in. Their belief isn’t based on the truth of what happened, but upon what they need to give them hope. For all its positives on including religion in a positive way, the underlying view of religion isn’t much different than in Star Trek.
So I ask again, is portraying religion positively enough?
While there is a place for more subtle seed-planting, if it portrays a false picture of Christianity, what will those seeds grow?
Christianity claims to be more than just giving hope in the midst of life’s drudgery, it is about giving life in the midst of death. The former may require inaccurate stories that are more about symbolism than truth, but the latter requires real seeds with accurate ability to grow the divine life in our souls.
No, basis in reality, no basis for life, no foundation for hope.
Or to put it in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:14,
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.