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March 20 2011

Firefly & Theology, Part 1. Exploring "questions of theodicy and evil as it related to the 'Verse." Part 2 is the first of a promised series of "theological interpretations of Whedon's narrative responses to wickedness."

Parts 3-6 do not appear to have been posted yet. If/when they appear, I'll update this thread.

If one is to assume subconscious religious allegory in Firefly by Joss [a purely speculative supposition], then the Alliance by its desire to unify all under its rule, "to make better worlds" per the Operative, to constrain the chaos inherent in independent action, then the Alliance with all its Light and Civilization is Heaven.
And Evil.

Mal and our BD heroes, and their friends (and enemies) who seek to live outside Alliance rule, and often act to thwart it for their personal benefit, are "the Adversary" (in Hebrew: ha-Satan).
And Good.
Particularly Mal (in Latin "Bad", as River points out), who gathers to him like-minded rebellious souls.

Don't know if this needs much in depth critical analysis, however.
Heh, true, Mal is advocating personal responsibility and knowledge over blind obedience to the higher power so the Alliance is basically God and Mal's both the devil and the snake in the garden. He even says he's "...a fan of all seven" deadly sins. Get thee behind me, Malcolm ;).

It's always interesting to see the show through other peoples' lenses, particularly when it's pretty far from your own.

(also, nitpicks - The Operative "...persuades a scientist to commit suicide..." ? Hmm, really ? Sure looked a lot like plain old murder to me. And also the 'we' in "We’re making a better world. All of them. Better worlds." isn't the "royal we" surely, it's just the we 'we' i.e. The Operative isn't referring to "the office of Operative" he means we, plural as in "me and the rest of the Alliance". 'Serenity Valley' not 'Hill')
Fun fact - in the first draft of Serenity, The Operative isn't called The Operative - he's named only as Jude.
Fun fact - in the first draft of Serenity, The Operative isn't called The Operative - he's named only as Jude.
gossi | March 20, 14:48 CET


Personally, I've always been partial to "Javert" after the antagonist in Les Miserables...probably since it was used in an awesome Firefly/Serenity fanfiction story series that revamped the post-OiS part of the 'Verse timeline ;D
Jude


The patron saint of lost causes.

Sure looked a lot like plain old murder to me.


As it was but I think the Operative was such a zealot that to him it looked the scientist was willing to fall on his sword. He was merely hurrying the process along.
Yep, that's what the world needs, more willing scientist implaling theirselves with swords....wait..maybe that was lawyers?
Hmm, yeah, I kind of don't agree with a religious reading of Firelfy. I don't really see why it has to represent any kind of absolutes because (and I guess I think this about all of Joss' work) the thing in question is people in all their awful subjectivity. I mean you can't make a straightforward statement about the alliance being evil anymore than you can make a straightforward statement that the nazi's were evil, i.e. there are people who do things which can be viewed as bad but they don't do those things necessarily because they are evil.

To me, the discovery of Miranda and the creation of the Reavers is a prime example of humanity blundering through the dark and making stupid, mistakes. Sure the alliances intention with the pax gas was to subdue the human population but is thatan evil act? The Reavers were just an awful accident, evil didn't create them, human stupidity did, that's where the horror is for me.

I don't think I'm explaining this very well...I guess its like that thing Joss is fond of about if nothing we do means anything then all that matters is what we do, I just want to resist any interpretation of events that places notions of good and evil within the human realm. We are not good or evil and we don't represent absolutes, we're just people.
This thread has caused me to muse ...

So often in these deconstructions and comparisons "Christianity" is understood as institutional churches that impose a way of living, including on non-believers, including using secular power. There's a far more individualistic strain of "Christianity" which traces back at least to the Gnostics, through groups like Moravians, Wesleyans and even Quakers and Jehova's Witnesses currently. Certainly, while Amish and Memmonites demonstrate beliefs that require them to live a particular way, they don't require this of non-believers. In this non-institutional POV your conversion is binding on you, but not on others. In more humble Christian doctrines, it is a witness's role to witness. Conversion is not up to a sword you hold, but to god.

Are the objections to religion in Firefly & Serenity to the institutions or the message? The Alliance has a doctrine that encompasses everything and justifies anything. They seem to me more like an institutional religion absent the sky bully than anything else. Is The Patron in Safe necessarily corrupt because he uses the word god, or power-seeking and found a new, old drug? In Heart of Gold the bad guy has and offers a different kind of belief with a destiny, institutions & prerogatives fueled by that belief.

Book is far more interesting as someone who believes personally but isn't power-seeking, and doesn't try to impose his beliefs. (Disclosure - I haven't read the comics yet, so am missing some back story.) Even Mal and The Operative while speaking of belief express it very differently.
I found that author's conclusion a pretty big stretch. Yes, the story contains elements of good vs evil...but what story doesn't? I see many more parallels between the Alliance and a militant church than the devil.
Sure the alliances intention with the pax gas was to subdue the human population but is that an evil act? The Reavers were just an awful accident, evil didn't create them, human stupidity did, that's where the horror is for me.

"Evil" is a pretty fraught word, but I'd say Mal pretty unequivocally considers the Alliance's schemes an evil: "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."

The notion that the good is individual freedom--including the freedom for "naughty men" to "slip about" within the cracks of the hegemonic force that forces its subjects into its chosen mold--is pretty clearly our Big Damn Hero's ethos. The Reavers were an "accident" in the technical sense (they weren't an expected result of the experiment), but so was everyone else laying down and letting themselves die. Metaphorically, the taking away of individual free will that causes both is the evil. In that light, collectivist secular power substitutes for abusive authority based on the divine.
@digupherbones

You said:

"I don't really see why it has to represent any kind of absolutes because (and I guess I think this about all of Joss' work) the thing in question is people in all their awful subjectivity."

I dont think i ever claimed objectivity #1, and #2, can you find in any of my posts any clues to absolutist thinking? The problem is when others hear theology, they automatically assume I or other theologians are using these terms as absolutes. In fact, this could not be further from the truth.

As far as the rest of whedon's work, I do find his philosophy helpful. I pointed out that Whedon does not come from a Christian or religious perspective; but if a person believes in human freedom, the value of human bodies, as well as the confrontation with institutional oppression, what difference does it make that they are atheist or not? In my opinion, this is of little consequence. Yes, I guess I am saying that religious persons can learn from non-religious persons. It is called rhetorical listening.

AS far as evil goes, I do not believe that people are born evil, it is just in an imperfect world, imperfect people can become in charge of imperfect institutions, which then become evil. Institutions can become oppressive, but goodness is in humanity. There are some Christians like Cornel West who are humanists as well.

You also said:

"I just want to resist any interpretation of events that places notions of good and evil within the human realm. We are not good or evil and we don't represent absolutes, we're just people."

At this point, I really have to question if some of the commenters read the two posts, or just saw the titles and subtitles, and judged from there. Again, as I responded above, evil is a human creation within institution. It is not absolute, there are no absolutes (in my subjective view, except for g*d). My view of evil, to rely upon the historical sources of Firefly, you know, that little thing about the Civil War,etc., is that this is the face of evil: the confederacy and the enslavement it defended. any interpretation of my 2 pieces other than this, i would have to ask you to go back and read my views of evil closely.

@Pulzer
You said:
"I found that author's conclusion a pretty big stretch. Yes, the story contains elements of good vs evil."

can you find any contradictions in your statement? I think I can. If the story has elements of good and evil and thats all i discuss, where is the stretch. Just admit it, and be honest, say you disagree with my theistic interpretation of Firefly simply because it's theistic.

@Bierceambrose,

Thank you for clarifying what my posts said. I hope the commenters who do not claim a religion can understand that there are some forms of Christianity that have alternative views of evil.

As for the rest, I respect your criticism and remain open to critique; I am not infallible nor have I claimed to be. However, if you are going to argue that the ONLY religious interpretation there can be to Firefly/Serenity is an irreligious one, or one where Mal is a "satan" character, i must say that you have joined the ranks of Christian fundamentalists who claim that there is only 1 way to interpret the bible, the tradition, etc.

I look forward to further dialogue, and to answer your questions, yes, I have more on the way.
@RodFromPoliticalJesus

You are welcome, although any clarifying is a happy accident.

Perhaps I could use some clarifying myself.

I didn't manage to say before that Christian doctrine requires one to respond to one's own conscience, as guided by one's understanding of the will of god. One kind of church delegates those choices to the institution, the issues being too subtle for individuals. The other kind of institution supports individuals in grappling with this obligation. Islam also encompasses this divergence between personal and institutional faith. Sunni and Shia diverge initially on who is the proper successor of the Prophet, directing the Caliphate - the institution. Yet, also within Islam is the Sufi wisdom tradition contains some of the best teaching stories.

Mal, despite his gripes with god & theology, actually behaves as a good, independent protestant. He & Book both adhere to the one commandment the institutions violate: "Thou shalt not disfigure the human soul." (Great line from the Dune series, actually.)

When you distinguish among theology, ethics and morality, non-institutional religion actually is right in line with the humanism so front and center in Mr. Whedon's work.
RodfromPoliticalJesus, you're coming across as rather defensive and a bit disrespectful of posters here. Tone it down please.
@Sunfire,

My apologies if my response came across as defensive, but I did ask for permission to clarify my views.

@BierceAmbrose,

I could not agree more, with a few qualifications about the protestant part though.
gossi: Fun fact - in the first draft of Serenity, The Operative isn't called The Operative - he's named only as Jude.

Simon: Jude
The patron saint of lost causes.


That's very nifty to know, gossi - I don't remember hearing that before.

Judith - of Bethulia - from the Book of Judith in the Old Testament Apocrypha - was, like the Operative, quite the sword-wielder, too.

Dunno if it's any more relevant than is St. Jude - but it is my middle name, and I'm quite fond of it. ; > Plus, fictional or not, she was quite the Strong Female Character.
This discussion has fallen into, "How many angels can dance on a head of a pin."

Solution? Quit being so serious, people! May start throwing fruits and various meats here! :)
Sorry if I misinterpreted you but to me the word evil is an absolute, people can be bad, sadistic, cruel, stupid etc. but they can't be evil because evil is an absolute term and inapplicable to humans.

So yes, I did read your posts, I just disagree with your use of the word evil.
Strictly 'evil' just means 'bad' or 'wicked' (or maybe "knowingly bad") so people can be evil though to me also there's a difference in common usage digupherbones. People often use 'evil' as a way of putting events outside of human experience IMO, of categorising events as so bad they need a new word. So Hitler is evil whereas the bosses of Enron are "merely" bad. For that reason I don't really use it myself (nor do I generally describe people as 'monsters' - no matter what they've done, they're still people, by definition they haven't done anything a person isn't capable of and we'd all do well to remember that IMO).

Using the word interchangeably with 'bad' seems more common among religious people maybe because it crops up a lot in The Bible and because I guess most religious people believe there is a final arbiter of good and evil (i.e. God/Allah/etc.) but in this instance that seems to be all the author's done (i.e. used 'evil' where others might use 'bad').

Must admit, a Christian moral relativist - as this author seems to be from his posts and his comments on here - isn't something i've come across before because believers in God see Him as knowing, absolutely, what is good and what evil. So we ourselves may not know, absolutely, what constitutes one or the other (though again, believers in my experience seem to feel The Bible, as the word of God, tells us this) but His judgement is absolute (i.e. there is an absolute measure to judge acts against, even if we aren't privy to it).
@digupherbones,

I am sorry for falsely accusing you; i think there was some miscommunication on my end, but there are different understandings of evil in Christian traditions.

@Saje,

I do not consider myself a relativist, for even the idea that all truth is relative is an absolute idea. All I know is that God is the only absolute and good and that human knowledge of that is limited.
See, this is one problem with language - eventually you have to make an absolute statement if you're going to make any claim whatsoever about the world. You say (quite rightly) "...human knowledge of that is limited" RodfromPoliticalJesus and yet just before that you also say all you "...know is that God is the only absolute and good..." which is an absolute statement of human knowledge (unless you intend 'know' just to mean 'act as if is true' or 'have faith is the case').

I don't say this in the spirit of tripping you up BTW, it's just an observation that absolute claims are everywhere and are even inevitable (unless our answer to everything is fixed at "I don't know" - which is a valid position but not particularly interesting).

I do not consider myself a relativist, for even the idea that all truth is relative is an absolute idea.

Quite true, as a relativist myself I wouldn't make such a claim (or to reframe that: all truth is NOT relative. Absolutely ;).
RFPJ- If I may, where I begin to run into problems as an academic is in some of the way you structure and construct your argument. You imply motive when you do not have direct knowledge. For example, you make these comments: "For Joss Whedon, the human body takes center stage in his work; it is the body that performs gender, race, nationality, and ultimately, human freedom can only be obtained in bodily form." And "Whedon’s response to the problem of evil comes in the form of the crew of Serenity, the space ship." Maybe I am making an obvious point, but this is not what Whedon himself has said, nor is it his response to anything; it is your interpretation of the tale taken from your perspective and bias. Where has Joss stated that his response to evil comes from the crew? Thus, you are arguing in essence from the perspective of authority; you are arguing that because it is from Joss, that is how it is, except that I cannot find where Joss said this and I would not be swayed even if he did. I would just admit that it is my interpretation of the text but is not based on specific knowledge of the creator's meaning behind what he writes. Sometimes a spell is just a spell and sometimes it is a metaphor.
@Dana5140,

I am only interpreting; my interpretation of Whedon, as you right point out is subjective. But I think as a science fiction work, movie and t.v. series, these things are open to interpretation. For my part, I am doing a post-colonial theological interpretation, a fact that I do not hide.

And I am an academic as well, perhaps from a different discipline than yourself. But in some forms of theological studies, everything, for the most part is interpretation.

@Saje,

Yes to all the above stated. but there is a difference in what we are talking about when I say something is absolute, and what you are saying. Just because I say "god is absolute in good" does not make it so, and so I accept detractors from that statement. There are people who would even question the goodness of god, especially in light of human suffering. So this notion of what is "absolute" is not universal, it is only particular to me, and the religious community that I worship in. What God's goodness means is going to be distinct depending on what community or person is talking about it; for example, homeless person's view of God's goodness is going to be quite different from say a more prosperous person. Its about perspective.

[ edited by RodfromPoliticalJesus on 2011-03-21 20:21 ]
Just because I say "god is absolute in good" does not make it so, and so I accept detractors from that statement.

Sure but presumably you think it's so RodfromPoliticalJesus ? I.e. your claim "God is absolute and good" is your opinion about the state of the world (i.e. that it has an absolute, good God in it) not just a statement about your own subjective state (i.e. that you personally think that) though it's that too. Implicit in "I believe in a good God" is that you think such a being actually exists in the world which is a condition that, if true, would apply to everyone, whatever their beliefs, culture, life experiences etc.

In that way it's an absolute statement (just one you accept may be wrong). Though (as you may mean above), since it's not unqualified, it's not strictly absolute, granted (I think i'm using 'absolute' in this context to mean 'not relative' and you may not be).
@Saje,

i appreciate your commentary, but I think you are reading a tad much into my statements on this blog and the 2 blog posts linked so far. I am aiming here for a nuanced view, no more no less. I think you are hung up on the term "absolute" and that is just not where my series will be going or was it ever headed.

Again, we are only talking about AN interpretation, not the interpretation of a science fiction television series/movie. I do not think i have to qualify that fact at all.
I do not think i have to qualify that fact at all.

No but your position should be internally consistent to be worthwhile surely ? Some of what you've said about absolutes seemed not to be to me so it seemed ripe for discussion. But i'm not in the business of forcing people to discuss something they don't want to so good luck with your essay series RodfromPoliticalJesus, hope they're well received and generate interesting discussion ;).
@Saje,

You consider my position inconsistent because my position is being misconstrued in order to make me out to be some strawman for you to argue with. Plus, you are addressing a topic that really I have no concern for, which is, remaining in the abstract.

Saje, if you wish to continue this discussion, I would invite you to comment on any blog post at my blog, Political Jesus, and we can correspond through e-mail. I would be more than willing to have a conversation on "absolutes" but it is not relevant to this forum.

[ edited by RodfromPoliticalJesus on 2011-03-22 15:22 ]

[ edited by RodfromPoliticalJesus on 2011-03-22 15:39 ]
You consider my position inconsistent because my position is being misconstrued in order to make me out to be some strawman for you to argue with.

Err, that implies malicious intent on my part which seems a bit uncalled for RodfromPoliticalJesus. To me you seemed to forswear absolutes and then in the next breath use absolutes, if that's not what you intended then fair enough (i'd humbly submit perhaps you could've put it better but that's just my perspective) and as I say if you don't want to discuss it (or not on here) then that's cool with me, have a good 'un ;).
Not implying malice at all.

Thanks for the conversation though; sorry to have gotten lost in translation.

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