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November 12 2007

Faith in the Serenity-verse. SF [Science Fiction] Gospel Blog analyzes the nature of faith in Firefly and Serenity. part of a "Film+Faith blogathon."

Mal assumes he's talking about belief in God, but he's talking about belief in community.

I'm not so sure that that's what Book is talking about in that scene. Mal lost his faith (in God, amongst others) in Serenity-the-pilot. And because of that he became a harder, different person. A man who only lives to survive, to "keep flying" and keep his assembled family together. He no longer believes in anything. Not just in God. No, Mal also lost faith in the goodness of people, the importance of ideals and goals that are larger than any single person. He fought for his ideals, supported by his faith in God in the war and got nothing but sorrow in return.

Mal certainly does believe in a sense of community (although maybe not on a large scale). Just take a look at how he's structured the crew on his ship - like a family, where everyone looks out for everyone else. (See how angry he gets at Jayne for betraying Simon and River, while he had no problem with treating them badly while they were still 'outsiders').

What Book knew Mal would need, was faith in something, anything, some bigger cause. He explains this further on in the movie in more detail:

Book: "'s on you now...all this death, this have to find a course. This can't mean nothing. have to..."
Mal: "Come on, keep it up -"
Book: "I don't care what you believe! Just...believe it. Whatever you have to..."

Book knows Mal needs to be just as determined as The Operative, who is someone who does believe, hard:

Inara: "We have every reason to be afraid."
Jayne: "Why, 'cause some guy beat up Mal? That ain't so hard -"
Mal:"He didn't beat me up -"
Inara: "Because he's a believer. He's intelligent, methodical and devout in his belief that killing River is the right thing to do."

And that's what Mal finds on Miranda, and we see it reflected in his Grand Speech[tm] on board Serenity afterwards:

Mal: "This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried til River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear, 'cause there's a universe of folk that are gonna know it too. They're gonna see it. Somebody had to speak for these people. (pause). You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. 'Cause as sure as I know anything I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief that they can make people...better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave."

And this is why, from this perspective, Mal succeeds: he believes in his cause just as much as The Operative does in his. Mal, again, starts fighting for something he believes in (I start fighting a war I guarantee you'll see something new.", he told Inara earlier).

Mal: "I know the secret. The truth that burned up River Tam's brain and set you after her. And the rest of the 'verse is gonna know it too. 'Cause they need to."
The operative: "You really believe that?"
Mal: "I do."
The Operative: "You willing to die for that belief?"
Mal: "I am."

So, yes, the article is right that just taking the Book-quote (I don't care what you believe—just believe it.") out of context to use it as a way to preach against the context-less faith of Serenity, is missing the point. (And I'm not even going into the argument of why anyone would have to show all points of view to religion in a work of fiction). But I do disagree with the stated intent the linked article places in Book's words. Although, of course, that may be a matter of perspective.
Wow. GVH had a long comment.

I was just going to say, you know I thought there was an article that was going to explain why it would rule for Faith to be a character on Firefly. I was so excited.

[ edited by FaithsTruCalling on 2007-11-12 18:20 ]
I think GVH hit it on the nose. There's hardly anything more I can say... I agree that Serenity-the-movie was a turning point for Mal. It was Mal coming to believe something, and this something turned out to be that what happened on Miranda was absolutely wrong.

Interesting points of view! I'd not thought too much about this angle before.
Good post GVH.

I don't care what you believe! Just...believe it.

I took that to be talking about purpose/meaning. Without belief in God you've no externally imposed purpose, you have to make one up. I don't think Book was saying "Just believe", that's much too simplistic for a guy that's spent years away from the world contemplating his faith and what it means, I think he was saying "Find something to believe in [again]". He wanted Mal to pick an abstraction, even if it wasn't his (Book's) choice of a personal God ("I don't care what you believe" i.e. it doesn't have to meet my approval) because to fight The Operative he'd need more than the kind of stubborn, angry nihilism that had (more or less) sustained him up to then.

Mal already had regard for the individual (lack of that regard being The Operative's fatal flaw) now he needed to re-discover his "faith" in the common good, that there are things in this world bigger than the individual, bigger than mere survival. And by the end he has, he's found something he's willing to die for (course, that ain't exactly plan A ;).
Saje, it sounds as if you think Book wanted Mal to find a higher power, a la Alcoholics Anonymous. Interesting... I wonder what the South would have looked like had there been a 12-step program for Civil War veterans and former slaveholders. I'm thinking it would have been a better place than we got in reality, with the KKK forming shortly afterwards.
I, too, thought that this was a crossover story, which would be awesome.

I think that's a very interesting point jclemens. So much of Firefly and indeed Joss' entire work is about what happens when you lose what you believe in--even if what you believed turns out to be wrong. The fact that Angel tried to go back to being evil because his whole identity was wrapped up in being Angelus and being with Darla also plays into what you're saying. I could imagine some slaveholders realizing with the change of the times that this racist outlook is wrong, but, hey, what else are you gunna do? There's nothing else.

(Or maybe the better metaphor is chipped Spike, and the slaveholders aren't convinced of the wrongness of their actions and are just prevented from doing anything about it. And, like Spike, if they don't get an outlet they have to adapt or die out.)
Saje, it sounds as if you think Book wanted Mal to find a higher power, a la Alcoholics Anonymous.

Yeah, as I understand it, that's close to what I mean jclemens. Basically, just accepting (and gaining from) something bigger than yourself as an individual (even if it's only "the collection of other individuals" i.e. humanity).

Otherwise the long view starts to crush you, kill your hope (as it was Mal's at the start of 'Serenity'). It's fine to not have "meaning from above" as in divine purpose IMO (just as well in my case ;), but you have to replace it with something.

Course, the trouble with asking confederates to pick a "higher power" and accept their own powerlessness (something Mal, with his almost religious belief in individual freedom and autonomy, would find extremely difficult I think), especially in the 19th century, is that most of them would pick God and The Bible - a selective reading of which supports their position re: slavery. Dunno if that would allow forward movement or not ?
Well, Saje, religions can and sometimes do adapt in the face of calamity. Judaism survived the destruction of Solomon's temple, the Hasmoneans, the destruction of the second temple, and the Holocaust, to name just a few of the major calamities. Christianity survived the lack of an apparent physical return of Jesus in the 1st century. In each case, the associated faith modified their assumptions about the underlying beliefs and how they expected life to be.

The thing about the selective reading of the Bible by Southern Christians is that the Northern Christians were very much behind the abolitionist movement with THEIR reading of the same text. Much like the civil rights movement in the late 20th century US, it was originated and initially led by religious reformers who saw human degradation as an affront to God. Speculating how things might have turned out differently can't be too productive, but when you read the accounts of the personal religious lives of leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it becomes very clear that the South would have been a better place had its future been entrusted to their philosophies, rather than Nathan Bedford Forrest's.
Yep, fair point jclemens, it's a big book (in every sense ;), there's plenty of room for a whole bunch of readings (which is why reading it as literally true and inerrant has always struck me kind of silly).

Re: your examples of religions surviving calamity, true, ideologies that aren't (necessarily ;) fact based can be changed for political/social expediency, but then, in e.g. Christianity's case, that had some unfortunate side effects (1st century Christianity was a pretty laid-back, relaxed affair with any literate person being allowed - even expected - to preach the word, it was only really when people realised Jesus wasn't coming back in their lifetimes and a long term strategy was required that it calcified into a patriarchal, hierarchal priesthood with its subsequent controls on the text and its "correct" interpretation and the nastily misogynistic - among other things - results).

Judaism likewise suffered from the various persecutions and invasions in e.g. the 9-8th century BCE, 7-6th century BCE etc. by becoming less tolerant of other religions (previous to the 7th century BCE, shrines to other gods were a common sight in the area and the idea that there was "One True God" would have struck most people as pretty daft - monotheism, in other words, was a result of persecution/cultural desperation).

So i'd say neither survived unscathed or unchanged. What might've been if different viewpoints had gained traction in the South after the American civil war ? As you say, hard to know (though the options for it being worse seem limited ;).
Actually, Saje, I'd say that Christianity was most directly affected in the directions you raise (hierarchical, misogynistic) not by the absence of an immediate return, but rather by Constantine's co-opting and institutionalization of the movement. Not until temporal status and power was associated with religious office did you see insta-bishops (Roman nobility baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishops in a week or less) and other abuses we've come to associate with the late Roman empire.

You are quite accurate in that monotheism is a peculiar thing. In the ancient near east, it pretty much meant there was only one God worth worshipping. Nowadays, there's a widespread denial among monotheists that any other spiritual entities (except, perhaps, fallen angels) even *exist*. Interestingly enough, "atheism" was a pretty common charge levelled against both Jews and Christians living in polytheistic societies. Even then, their intolerance for other deities was not, itself, tolerated.
Actually, Saje, I'd say that Christianity was most directly affected in the directions you raise (hierarchical, misogynistic) not by the absence of an immediate return, but rather by Constantine's co-opting and institutionalization of the movement.

Yeah, I agree, the (first) Council of Nicea was where it really went (if you'll pardon the expression ;) to hell in a hand-basket with Constantine sticking his imperial fingerprints all over the church and the idea of a canon really gathering momentum but, like a lot of stuff the Romans get credit for, the original ideas were already around. Paul, of course started laying the groundwork for well organised services and how churches were to be run even in the 1st century (i'm gonna give him the benefit of the doubt re: women not having authority over men and staying quiet in church - there's some reason to believe that some of his letters were "revised" or mis-attributed afterwards - but even given that, he was a bit of a stick in the mud ;). Other versions of Christianity were also being pared away even before the 4th century by e.g. Origen and Eusebius.

I reckon it's just an inevitable consequence of people having enough time to think about things and enough distance from the origins to "dare" to interpret what was said, coupled with their own agenda/desires. The "honeymoon period" ends and folk have to start asking what was really meant, especially when it doesn't fit with their preconceived ideas (to some extent that goes hand in hand with biblical scholarship so it's not all bad).

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