The Hopeful Kingdom; or, The Last Resort is to Eject the Warp Core.
“Jesus was going throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people.” (Matthew 4:23).
I love Star Trek. Unequivocally, passionately, I love it. Since I was a boy watching with my father, I have been enraptured with the franchise’s depth and enduring heart. You see, for me, science fiction (and I suppose art in general) is most arresting when it allows us to live in the midst of our own lives and the difficulties therein. By casting the human experience into a universe where just the right amount of suspended disbelief is encouraged, we can cast aside those things that would prevent us from engaging in the Big Questions. I recognized pretty early on that the fantasy aspect of the series enabled Roddenberry and his team to address the weighty issues of the day: civil rights, corporate greed, friendship, you name it. As the show became other shows and a series of films, Star Trek started to hit at the Really Big Questions: What does it mean to be human? What motivates us at the core? What makes life worth living?
Yet the real allure of the show to me is the way in which they explored these questions. Star Trek has a fundamentally optimistic worldview. Good always triumphs over evil in the end, even when things get really messy (Borgs, Dominion, Ceti Eels, Neelix’s cooking) or heroes compromise their moral fiber for a time. You knew every episode that good would prevail, not only to prevent evil, but to actually make the universe a better place to live. The whole mantra of the show typified this perfectly: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
New worlds, new life, new civilization. New possibilities.
At the other end of the televised spectrum, we have the behemoth that is syndicated crime dramas. You know the type. Every couple of years some big shot thinks up a new way to recycle the tried-and-true formula of the mystery murder. Sometimes they use numbers, sometimes they commune with spirits, sometimes they ride bikes. Whatever the gimmick is the plot is always the same: there has been a grisly murder, and the protagonists have 23-43 minutes to figure out whodunnit. Why these shows are so popular is another conversation altogether (maybe our morbid curiosity with death?), but they make apparent that this type of thinking contains a fundamentally pessimistic view of the world. Yes there are good guys and bad guys, yes there is usually resolve within the allotted timeframe, but not in the same way we find in a show like Star Trek and its ilk. The drive behind the shows are not about stepping into the open possibility of life and seeking newness, but merely attempting to slow down the [inevitable] decay of the world. The heroes are trying to figure out what already happened so that some weak sense of justice may be carried out. The world is not a better place by the time the credits roll. Humanity just hasn’t imploded as quickly.
Ah, you say, this is all very well and good, but what does this have to do with the Kingdom of God, Ryan? Are you to insinuate that heaven is like the Star Trek universe, in which we are all basically good, working towards perfection? And that CSI:Miami typifies the defeatist attitudes of the World? Perish the obvious thought.
I don’t see this dichotomy in entertainment as merely the abstract theological difference between the Kingdom of heaven and the Empire of said World. The far more sinister, and indeed far more applicable conversation is to identify this within the Church itself, and indeed within our own hearts.
When our “faith” is hopeless, we only seek to put band-aids on all the things that are wrong in our lives and the lives of those we purport to minister to. We naturally gravitate to a practical theology that offers a grim outlook on the world, and a negative perspective on what it means to be human. We even become preoccupied with, even obsessed with, brokenness and evil.
At the heart of this hopeless outlook is our misunderstanding of what “the gospel” is. Perhaps it was the alarmist reactionary streak in certain strands of Western christianity that transformed the core message from identity to guilt, but regardless of the source, so many of us grew up under the thumb of a message that sought to control and hold us down under the glaring eye of an angry God who is holding back his wrath until the appointed time. Indeed, this message has been repackaged over-and-over in our culture to suit those whimsy of people who think that God’s love and its repercussions for humanity are simply Too Good To Be True. So we learned the best we can hope to achieve [usually by our own merit] is to maintain the “blank slate” that is the forgiveness offered us at the crucifixion. We struggle to hone in on the sins in our lives and throw ourselves into a masochistic legalism, where we beat ourselves trying to rid the body of sin. We re-enact the role of the flagellants in medieval Europe, but our new instruments of torture are far more subversive than cords and whips and that stripy spikey leg-wrap thing.
If “the good news” was “Jesus died for your sins”, then we spend or time dealing with sin in our lives, contending with guilt and shame until we can bring ourselves to that clean slate. Life is about maintaining zero, and spending an enormous amount of time and energy focused on the flesh. Additionally, it matters very little what Jesus said or how he lived his life; we see the Virgin Birth and the Crucifixion/Resurrection as the whole sweep of the story. And I’m not suggesting we devalue the cross, or elevate Jesus’ teachings and praxis to a place where they eclipse the transformational work found therein and Christ becomes merely another philosopher in the pantheon with Plato, Confucius, et al. But what does Jesus say is the good news, before he ever climbs Calvary? “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and with it, woven into it, revelation of intimacy with Father, our identity, our inheritance. More than a clean slate that brings us to zero, but a new world in which to live. So we seek to make that a reality in every fabric of our being. The cross then becomes the vehicle through which the good news is fully realized in a broken world. If we grasp this, we stop simply living by the mercy of God, and start living by the grace of God.