Over the Easter break I got a chat message from K., one of my fondly remembered students from years past, currently living well on the other side of the world. I’m actually not sure of the state of his own religious beliefs, but K. was telling me that he was recently challenged by a dogmatic atheist who asserted that the ways in which religious people are still trying to penalize homosexuality and prevent same-sex couples from being fully accepted into society is further evidence that religion always does more harm than good in society. So knowing that I am a relatively open-minded and believing sort of person, he wanted to get my take on this question.
My standard brief response on same-sex marriage was that as a committed hetero the status of this legal and cultural innovation isn’t of particular personal importance to me, but as a multiple divorcee myself I believe that I have personally already done more damage to the institution of marriage than any same-sex couple ever will. Beyond that I’m sort of traditionalist still in the sense of believing that ideally children should be raised with positive role models of both sexes at home, but I still see gay couples of either sex raising kids together to be far preferable to a single parent struggling to raise children on his/her own. The main thing is that the child feels loved and secure, and witnesses emotional maturity and adult cooperation between her/his parents. That’s about as far as I’m willing to take a stand on the matter.
K. then wanted to know what I thought of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. I told him that the Old Testament teaching on the subject was basically that sex should always be done in such a way as to potentially make babies –– “be fruitful and multiply” –– and any sexual activity which lacks that capacity is considered sinful. I consider that to have been an important, useful policy relative to the ancient Jews’ and Israelites’ cultural situation back in the day, but not an eternal moral requirement. In my own life I have done my part for the race in terms of producing enough offspring for replacement purposes, but the vast majority of my sexual experience has been of the sort where baby-making was not a possibility. Thus I cannot in good conscience judge others whose sex lives are of non-baby-making varieties.
In terms of the New Testament teaching on the subject the only serious consideration given to homosexuality there was that the Apostle Paul was clearly a bit homophobic in Romans 1, and quite possibly he was a latent homosexual himself and angry at himself regarding his attractions in that direction. If you read his epistles with that in mind it opens up a fascinating new human perspective on things.
K. thanked me for my input and said that he’s been meaning to read more of the Bible for himself sometime, but that he had this nagging feeling that parts of it that just don’t work. He sometimes felt a bit of sympathy with the perspective of the “genius girl” character on the sci-fi series “Firefly” when she wanted to “fix” the preacher’s Bible by trying to take out the parts that didn’t work.
I knew basically what he meant in terms of that urge. It has a long and prestigious cultural history: Thomas Jefferson was one who spent some time with his own version of such a project. Beyond that lately I’ve been reading a book by Chris Hedges in which he says (p. 6), “Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. …Until this happens … these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate and eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means that these churches share some of the blame.”
I get what is meant there, but I still basically disagree with the sort of project in question. I don’t think we can go through the Bible censoring out the offensive bits. This might make me sound like an NRA anti-gun control nut, but I don’t believe that scriptures cause genocides; people with tribal mentalities using scriptures as weapons cause genocides. I believe that people need to let go of the idea that through their interpretation of the Bible (or the Qur’an, or the Adi Granth, or the Analects…) they can arrive at perfect and unquestionable certainty about everything in life. Once they set aside their cravings for simple absolutes to use as their epistemological and moral foundations, the scriptures that they turn to for guidance will cease to be a threat to those around them. If they continue craving such simple certainty, however, any moral code that they turn to, no matter how enlightened and inherently benign it might be, will become a deadly weapon in their hands. So for me going through the Bible and blacking out the hateful bits as a means of protecting mankind is a project doomed to failure.
But all that being said, I must confess, I didn’t really know what K. was talking about with his “Firefly” reference, so I had to go and look it up. And given my studious dedication to such matters, over the past week I had to watch the complete series through. (It only had one production season, so it wasn’t that big a task.) I have to admit, it provided me with an interesting perspective on a bunch of different things.
The series basically lays a thin sci-fi veneer over the 19th century archetype of honorable Confederate soldiers, admitting that they lost the war but never admitting that their cause was not the more just one, forming a sympathetic band of outlaws moving around out on the fringes of known civilization. This band is made up of basic assortment of archetypal elements:
- The captain of the gang, who was a heroic sergeant during the war –– a leader down in the trenches –– who used to be quite a devout Christian but now wants nothing to do with matters of faith
- His Stoic and faithful sidekick who quietly and competently takes care of most of the practical details involved in realizing the leader’s strategies (who in this version of the myth happens to be a darker skinned woman)
- The crazy wizard of a “wheel man”/driver, capable of getting the gang out of all sorts of scrapes with the law and other menaces through his imaginative maneuvering skills (who in this version of the myth happens to be married to the commander’s faithful sidekick)
- The uneducated, unpolished technical genius with a mystical ability to repair and “soup up” just about any machine known to mankind (who here happens to be a “poor white trash” girl)
- The simple-minded, high testosterone human killing machine that can never be entirely trusted, but who continuously proves himself to be rather useful in the ever-present gun fight scenarios
- The elegant high-end prostitute who relies on the gang’s protection and provides them with an air of refinement at times when they need it, who shares a secret attraction with their commander that neither is willing to admit to anyone
- The renegade preacher who has a deep and sincere faith, and lives according to monastic vows, but is fully ready to participate in a righteous battle every now and again (who in this case happens to be black)
- The young, highly intelligent and highly educated but socially awkward “Yankee” doctor who has his own reasons for running from the law and from his own people, whom the gang keeps on because they find him useful
- The doctor’s helpless but gifted little sister, whom the gang band together to protect from the mean, cruel world out there
- The outside menaces of “Feds”, hostile tribes, local warlords, chain-gang bosses and the like.
The plot elements in this series, such as they are, are really nothing more than means of exploring the inter-relationships between these archetypal characters, under circumstances that glorify “God, guns and guts” as approaches to greatness. To me the amusing and interesting part of all this is the sheer transparency of the myth being retold in this manner. I’m also fascinated to consider how all this relates to the ear of cultural history which the show falls into just over 10 years ago, in GWB’s first term as president. It came out less than a year after the 9/11 tragedy, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t succeed in building the sort of cult appeal that it was looking for –– that time of exceptional national unity and solidarity in the US was not the ideal time for the telling of a myth of Confederate nostalgia and the honor to be found in resisting the federal government’s encroachment on the lives of heroic southern gentlemen while dreaming that eventually the South can rise again. The writers, producers and directors of this series couldn’t have known when they went into production that such a dramatic change in American consciousness would occur before they would be ready to broadcast. Their tragedy as it turns out: the show never saw a second season.
My guess is that without 9/11 it would have had a much longer run. Or perhaps if it had come out after GWB had succeeded in thoroughly re-dividing the country into “red states” and “blue states”, or after the election of the nation’s first black president brought Confederate nostalgia to its greatest high since the death of the original Civil War veterans, Firefly could have become a long-running cult classic among redneck nerds to rival the status of Lost or Game of Thrones among yuppie nerds. Then again, perhaps the cultural coup of creating a demographic of “redneck nerds” would have been too much to expect of one TV show even under the most ideal political circumstances.
So it remains unclear how much market there might have been for a myth set in a futuristic world where space ships are equipped with rough-sawed hardwood tables and mismatched wicker chairs; where heroes chase down levitating rocket scooters on horseback; where modified six-shooters, pump-action shotguns and 25th century laser cannons are all used in the same gun battles; and where the good guys are once again those who lost their war for independence and are thus forced into submission to a larger federal government, whose powers they continue to resist with the help of guts, guns and perhaps God. Sci-fi/fantasy as a genre has always “pushed the envelope” of seeing how many cultural and scientific impossibilities they can get the audience to overlook. If this one would have succeeded commercially it would have set a new benchmark for enabling an audience to suspend disbelief.
Perhaps with a longer run the show could have explored how the commander, having been disillusioned of his faith when he saw that God was not there to help out in the righteous war that they lost, could come again to appreciate the importance of having something transcendent to believe in. There were certainly hints in that direction. Or perhaps once these mythical characters were properly familiar to and respected by the audience, the script could have tossed in more intellectually challenging and stimulating variations on the archetypes and mythical structure in question. Then again, maybe they would have just played it safe and stuck to feel-good themes that rednecks are traditionally comfortable with: the married couple deciding to have children in spite of the continuous struggles they are facing, the educated outsider and the down home poor girl managing to fall in love and get married in spite of their clumsiness and cultural differences, the gallant captain eventually making an “honest woman” out of the pure-hearted call girl, the dumb gorilla eventually developing a sense of honor in terms of appreciating some values more important than his base hedonistic interests, the captain’s honor continuing to cause him to triumph against impossible odds in spite of his gullible trust in others (exploited by his “wife” and his old army buddy in the first season) …
But from my non-southern perspective there are also significant risks in this sort of mythical world gaining prominence in the national psyche. The more committed people are to a belief that resisting any central government is in their best interest –– materially and spiritually –– the less any honest democratically elected government will be able to do to limit the sociopathic powers of big businesses, protect the environment against unsustainable exploitation, or protect the human rights of those who are seen as “different” against local bigotry. The more that people subscribe to a myth that personal gun toting can solve all of their security concerns, the greater the arms race between neighbors will be and the more people will end up getting killed unnecessarily. The more the idea of a new civil war is glamorized, the greater the risk of some hot-heads succeeding in starting such a war. The more people are ready to believe that God is on their side in their honorable killing sprees (wars), the more intense those killing sprees can get. The more elements of nostalgia people depend on –– particularly nostalgia for the “good old days” before civil rights were federally enforced in the US, or for the “good old days” of Apartheid in South Africa –– the less motivated people will be to confront the abuses of “the good old days” and the need to keep working on building a more truly just society.
Then again, I admit, maybe I’m just taking a piece of escapist pop culture a bit too seriously.
Whatever the case, though this show did provide me with some hours of amusing distraction this last week, I still think that since the American education system is coming nowhere near equipping kids to critically examine what sort of myths they absorb, it’s probably for the best that Firefly ended up getting cancelled. Then again, if it would have actually succeeded in creating a sub-culture of truly redneck nerds, the sheer entertainment value of watching such creatures trying to function in everyday society might have outweighed the long-term cultural dangers of having the show continue.
My take on a passing trivial matter. Your mileage may vary.