There are a great many things about Firefly that are special. The show is a perfect illustration of Joss Whedon’s belief that “good sci-fi can’t be something you like, it has to be something you love1.” Fans of the show continue to love the Firefly universe over a decade after its one-season run was completed. The thing most of us “browncoats” would likely say we love most, though, is the people. The relationships in Fireflyfeel authentic. They feel grounded despite the fact that much of what we see happens while flying through space.
No matter if it’s the close sibling bond between Simon and River, the surprisingly sweet marriage of Wash and Zoe, the “everyone’s frenemy” that is Jayne, or the socially complex love between Mal and Inara or Kaylee and Simon, the way these people interact with each other is what we keep coming back for. But of all the relationships on Firefly, the one that is arguably the most significant is the friendship between Zoe and Malcolm.
“Honestly sir, I think you got ripped off.”—Zoe on seeing Serenity for the first time
Sacred trust is one of the most fundamental elements of religion, and yet it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Religious belief of any kind is built on relationships—relationships between the divine and the human, between the community and the human, between powerful humans and humans without power, and between humans of equal footing. All of these relationships are based on trust. Most religious people have some kind of trust that their God(s) won’t abandon them in this life or the next. We trust our communities to give us support when we’re in need (spiritually or materially) and we honor our obligation as a member of the community to help others. It doesn’t matter if that community is found in a one-room chapel, a megachurch stadium, or an internet forum. Religious people trust their leaders, who have been given the authority and ability to act (essentially, power), to lead their communities in responsible ways consonant with their belief system’s moral codes. We trust they won’t just make things up as they go along or abuse their power for their own gain, we trust they’ll use their education and experience and wisdom to guide others rightly. And we trust our equals to help us in the day to day lived practice of our faiths.
But what happens when that trust is broken? It’s a vehicle for compelling storytelling.
Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Firefly, and Serenity after the jump.
While Star Trek and Star Wars still reign supreme when it comes to science fiction, I have noticed that in the past couple of years, there has been a different sort of trend happening in sci-fi. Usually what we get in sci-fi media is the story of plucky humans traveling the universe and beating all the odds. Though humans are usually not ignorant when it comes to science and space travel, there are usually alien species that are much older and significantly more advanced. Many oldersci-fi stories are hopeful humanistic stories about how we are able to overcome some sort of problem despite our lesser tech, or by showing how human resourcefulness and good old-fashioned spunk make us major players in the universe despite not being as advanced as some of the older races.
We have always been fascinated with the idea that we are not alone in the universe; that there is some alien presence out there older than us, maybe watching us. We aren’t certain, but we’re confident that one day we will run into them. But as our technology advances more and more, people look up in the sky and wonder why we haven’t encountered an alien presence or why we haven’t at least seen evidence of them through our most advanced telescopes. While this hasn’t stopped people from believing in aliens, this had led to two interesting theories: that either we are alone in the universe, or maybe we’re the more advanced race. For some reason, when we are left with these theories, science fiction starts to become a little less hopeful and a little more bleak in its outlook toward humanity.
Say you’ve begun a new religion. Congratulations! Now you need followers. You could stand on a street corner and shout at people. You could serve the poor and provide for those in need, attracting people with your kindness and generosity. If you’re powerful, you could compel them by law to convert. But those aren’t very effective ways of getting your religion to spread far and wide and really stick. I know what you need: a religious text! Yes, a holy book is exactly what you need to reach people out of shouting range and to make sure people don’t garble your message in our great divine game of telephone.
Most actual, real-world religions have some kind of holy text, but it’d be a mistake to think that they all treat their text the same way, or that members of the same faith treat their same book the same way. Scholars call the way people interpret a text a “hermeneutic” (her-man-OO-tic). If you’re going to understand a religion that has a text, you’ve got to understand the different kinds of hermeneutics you might run into. To do that, I’m going to show you how similar hermeneutics pop up in our geeky fiction.
If you have been on this blog for more than a second you can probably already guess that diversity is something that is important to us. And that is true even when it comes to belief. It is important to have wide representation of people of faith. We need characters who are Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, etc in our media. But within those categories we need characters who are devout in their faith, question their faith, are eclectic in their faith, etc. And even beyond that, we need characters who are strongly religious, atheist, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, etc. Basically, we need to show as many varieties of belief as we see in human beings because this is something that really matters to real people.
Firefly has always been one of my favorite shows despite it being tragically canceled, and I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed the show so much is the wide diversity of belief we see with the cast. It’s rare that shows discuss belief, and it’s even rare that a show does it across a decently broad spectrum.
Firefly ended in 2003, and although it returned for a movie in 2005 and has a currently-ongoing comic about the events after the show’s untimely end, producers never did what the show’s fans have been clamoring for them to do: put Firefly back on the air. Since many of the actors have gone on to big parts in shows like Castle and Suits, it doesn’t seem likely that the show ever will go back on air. Thankfully for all Browncoats, though, there’s something else to look forward to: a Firefly online game.
One of the most common answers to the “So what do you believe?” question is “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. More and more people are identifying as spiritually inclined without the attachments to any formal religion or philosophy. Plenty of self-identified religious folk tend to consider this “just plain old laziness”, but I think there’s something more to it. What’s making being spiritual but not religious so popular, and a successful storytelling tool?