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Star Trekking Religion By Firefly

Is portraying religion positively enough?
| Sep 9, 2014 | 19 comments |

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.

WhoWatchesTheWatchersStar 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.

JaynestownFirefly – 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.

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Michelle R. Wood
Member

*loud clapping*

I don’t know how many people have identified Firefly as a positive depiction of religion and this scene in particular with Sheppard Book. That character is at his best when he actually stands for something (the special hell scene with Mal in “Our Mrs. Reynolds” comes to mind), rather than this wishy-washy theology that made Serenity so hard to watch. Book doesn’t appear to have deep faith in God, he has deep faith in having faith. Religion here is just something to help people feel better about themselves and life, something to be tolerated, not something to truly explore and discover and accept as a fully sane, conscious human being.

I enjoy Firefly but have never understood why people think it is a good depiction of Christians. I hope our faith is grounded on something more than airy “faith” in “something,” and frankly, the idea that God doesn’t make sense and is somehow in opposition to logic has always felt pretentious and wrong.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

By the way, for anyone who wants to see a truly great exploration of religion in science fiction, please watch Babylon 5, specifically the season 3 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane.”

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

Hear, hear.  The Star Trek episode in particular is grossly offensive to anyone of any religious faith, not necessarily Christians.  It was specifically intended to damn any and all religious faith and reduce it to at best a detriment to any growing society and at worst an evil to be expunged.  Nothing positive comes from religion, we all know that.  And when Picard crows to the female leader “I have no doubt that you will” go to the stars, the writers show their true religion — humanism through and through.  Contrast this Star Dreck with Babylon 5, as you so rightly observe — religious faith is critical to some (Delenn, G’Kar) and the lack of it destroys others (Londo, Refa).  The world of B5 is much more “realistic” and ultimately much more satisfying, i.e., true.  Religion is a vital part of every culture.  It should also be so in SF, whether specifically Christian or not!

Jenny Hane
Guest

I consider Shepherd Book a cut above some portrayals, because he’s principled without being judgmental.  E.g. he disapproves of Inara’s profession without being against *her,* and in a culture where Christians are caricatured as “hateful” just for having standards, that’s something.  But yes, his vague, weak theology is really unfortunate.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I’m still really sad that Book’s character didn’t get to be explored much. We never got much more than a generic picture of benevolence from him, and I think that would have been fixed if his teased backstory arc was finished and embellished upon.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

I think they released a comic book specifically about Book and his backstory to try to fill in these gaps. I never read it, so can’t say how well it might have done so. In the purely cinematic world of Firefly, though, you’re quite right. The only thing that prevented his death being one of the biggest huh?” moments of Serenity was the death I refuse to acknowledge.

Tim Frankovich
Guest
Tim Frankovich

Hear, hear. Shepard Book was NOT a good portrayal of a true believer. He’s clearly meant to be a Christian missionary of some kind. Therefore, his greatest desire is to see other people believe what he believes, correct? Heck, they could have made him ANY kind of missionary and the point would be the same.

So what does he tell Mal in Serenity? “I don’t care what you believe, as long as you believe in something.”

So wrong.

I also echo the comment about the much more positive portrayal of Christianity (and other religions) in Babylon 5.

Paul Lee
Member

I think even fellow believers might disagree with my insistence on seeing a strong Christological element in boilerplate monomythic tropes in both of those episodes. In Who Watches the Watchers especially, Picard gets wounded (metaphorical death stage of the monomyth) before returning to the aliens to leave them with an anticipation of one day transcending their current mode of existence.

*pre-emptive defensive maneuver*
(Maybe I’m an ethnocentrist, but I’m not saying that the monomyth belongs uniquely to Christianity. Only that these common story elements can be understood Christologically, and that a Christological interpretation is powerful and warranted.)

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Well, your postscript has mollified me.

Julie D
Guest

If we’re discussing religious characters in general, not just scifi, I would like to bring up Call the Midwife, a BBC period drama about nurse/midwives in the 1950s East End.  About half of the midwives are Anglican nuns, and the others live in the convent.    I discuss it in some detail on my blog (Spoilers for seasons 1-2), but I’ll just mention one summarized line:

{name) didn’t have a crisis of faith, she had a wilderness experience, and believes God has given her a different path

For a secular show to put those lines in a character’s mouth is stunning.

Paul Lee
Member

Religion has no place among the humans of the Star Trek universe.

Very true. But don’t forget Deep Space Nine, where the Bajoran religion played a crucial part in the plot. The writers couldn’t use Christianity or any other real-world religion because the secularism of humans was already established in the universe, so I think the Bajoran race became a stand-in for the spiritual side of humanity.

Arguably, several points in the show’s story arc confirm the legitimacy of at least some of the beliefs of the Bajoran religion, even if the show always leaves the “unexplained science” explanation open. And Siscko because a religious figure in more ways than one — not just unintentionally as a monomythic hero. He even quotes II Timothy 4:7 at one point, proudly and explicitly standing in the tradition of American preachers. (This is not just a theme, it’s part of the story in one episode. He’s literally standing in the tradition of African-American Christian preachers. And he embraces that tradition.)