Tue. November 27
Serenity as Secular Myth: The Future of Religion in Science Fiction
by Brandon J. White
“I don’t care what you believe. Just believe in it,” a dying protestant minister says as he grabs a hold of his friend, the renegade captain of an illegal salvage and trade vessel.
Avid fans of the short-lived series Firefly, or Browncoats, remember well this quote from the highly anticipated movie Serenity (2005). It’s the last guidance offered by Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass) to protagonist Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillian).
In the futuristic world of this sci-fi cult classic, Reynolds lives as a rebel on the brink of society simply trying to find work, take care of his crew, and keep adrift. When the Shepherd first joins their crew, his presence is something unexpected, something foreign to the dominant cultural mindset of the crew. And while he carries a Bible and prays for safety, Book rarely mentions God or religious rituals. He simply offers advice when needed and helps the crew escape several “close calls.”
Nonetheless, Book is pivotal for the emotional development of Reynolds’ character as he grapples with a classic utilitarian dilemma, whether the greater good of society should come before your personal safety and the safety of those you love. Only a few short scenes before this, Captain Reynolds discovered one of the biggest secrets in the Universe, capable of toppling the tyrannical Alliance. And so he is forced to choose between risking the life of his crew to expose the Alliance, or ensuring their safety and continuing life under harsh Alliance conditions.
In this scene, Shepherd Book is pushing Reynolds to look beyond himself and place importance in something outside of him and his crew.
Firefly creator Joss Whedon argues that Book is meant to represent Western Protestant values. But, to what degree does he promote religious values, versus promote a self-help mindset?
Sure, Book’s role in helping Reynolds escape egocentrism to work for the greater good of the ‘verse is an admiral characteristic. But, it could have just as easily come from a pithy fortune cookie as it did a Protestant Minister.
Throughout the fifties, social scientists debated over the place of religion in an ever-changing, ever-advancing society. They call this debate “secularization theory.” In the past, many thought that as society advanced, we would eventually grow out of religion. Over the past fifty years, however, this theory has largely been overturned and substituted with theories of how religion evolves or changes in response to new technology, new values, and new problems.
Sociologist Jose Casanova argues that the future of religion will fight to stay relevant by continuously differentiating itself from other “secular” facets of human life. In other words, religion will have to try to stay relevant, but different from other social institutions. Whether or not he intends it, this is a theory Whedon implies in his invented conception of the future.
The sheer fact that Firefly/Serenity has an overtly religious character is already out of step with much of American sci-fi. As we avid fans know, religion is not the most highly admired phenomenon in shows such as Star Trek or Star Gate where gods are often reduced to alien creatures.
Ultimately Whedon’s narrative, while trying to maintain religious presence in conceptions of our future, implies that religion will fight to become irrelevant! For ministers like Derrian Book, religion is not about separating sacred values or spaces, but about a hopeful mindset of self-empowerment. But, for me, this is religion without content, belief without an object of belief. My question becomes at what point does religion stop being religious?
Brandon J. White received his master’s degree in theological studies from Emory University in 2011. Currently, he owns Constructive Learning Tutors in Morrisville, NC. He continues independent research focusing on the intersection of religion, society, and politics.