Cultural Hybridity, War, Meals, and Moral Agency
First post: Firefly & Theology Part 1: I addressed questions of theodicy and evil as it related to the ‘verse in Joss Whedon‘s Firefly as well as the film, Serenity. A brief summary of my argument is that the Alliance, Jubal Early, and The Operative represent the faces of evil, which for Whedon is a human construct, and is revealed in systems of top-down oppressive systems. What follows from this post, and the four after are theological interpretations of Whedon’s narrative responses to wickedness.
SERENITY (Firefly Vessel/ Space Ship)
Many have pointed out that SERENITY as a spaceship, could be considered as the tenth character/shipmate. Beyond the futuristic 26th century technological advancements, I would have to agree, but I would also like to suggest that Serenity herself functions as the ultimate symbol of cultural hybridity in a post-colonial theological reading of Firefly. Cultural hybridity is a post-colonial concept drawn from Homi Bhabbha’s reading of Frantz Fanon; specifically, in Fanon’s chapter entitled “On National Culture” in his Wretched of the Earth, he understands the role of cultural leaders as persons who maneuver in-between a sort of Third Space, where the meanings and symbols in a given culture have no pure beginning or fixed end. Cultural traditions are changed in the midst of a struggle. Serenity, which is built as a Firefly, or a small transport ship (viewed as outdated/antique in the world of Firefly) is transformed into a shelter of sorts as well as almost the perfect weapon in avoiding the gaze of the Union of Allied Planets as well as the Reavers
The cultural meaning of the Firefly ship changes in the midst of the battles between the Alliance and Serenity’s crewmates. In the pilot entitled “Serenity,” the Alliance describes Firefly ships as being for “low life vultures.” The very name Serenity remains as a reminder for Mal what he stands for, which is independence from the Alliance, for it was the Battle at Serenity Valley that the Alliance clenched the War for Unification.
Robert J.C. Young further explains hybridity in this way,
“Hybridity works in different ways at the same time, according to the cultural, economic, and political demands of a specific situation. It also involves processes of interaction that create new social spaces to which new meanings are given. These relations enable the articulation of experiences of change in societies splintered by modernity, and they facilitate consequent demands for social transformation.” Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, page 79.
If you notice, the logo above appears on the side of Serenity. The world of Firefly is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, where Chinese and American Standard English are spoken. In the episode, “Out of Gas,” Serenity automatically announces the condition of the ship, first in English and then again in Chinese. She is also, in the eyes of Captain Mal Reynolds, seen as a beacon of freedom, “to be under the heel of no one ever again.” Simon Tam the doctor eerily suggests to Inara that Serenity had a “vaguely funereal sound” to it. Serenity is the embodiment of freedom and death, existence in the face of non-existence which would be life under the Alliance. Now, details are not given as to what was the defining event that convinced the whole world’s to become at least bi-lingual so I am going to safely assume, through the gaze of hybridity that it was a number of processes. What keeps Serenity going is not just the excellent genius mechanic Kaylee, but also, as Mal says in the conclusion of Serenity the movie, “Love keeps her in the air.” It was the love of the crew members that makes Serenity a home. Serenity is transformed into a home for the homeless and the exiled, and thus it remains a marker of hybridity.
What does this brand of hybridity mean for theology? I believe that it means that no longer can Christians in particular claim the pure starting points of Germany and France, but rather, can collect theological resources from throughout the world. Theologically, Serenity as a character, symbolizes for me as the possibility of a post-colonial world. Serenity’s antiquity can point theologians in the direction of doing theology by going back to the early Church mothers and fathers while simultaneous (since we are, after all, talking about science fiction), her futurity can guide us for doing theology for the purpose of our future hope, the New Creation, which knows no nation-state or ethnic barrier, only the Savior.
CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS
Mal Reynolds is one of the very first human actors that Whedon introduces the audience to. Reynolds represents one of many possible ethical responses to empire. In general, moral agents do not fall out of the sky, but rather are formed in communities. Moral agents embody the virtues that they learn from their communities (I am about to go Hauerwasian in case you can’t tell). Since we know almost nothing to very little about Mal’s upbringing except that, according to the episode, “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” he was raised by his mother and about forty hands on a ranch. While I have no doubt that Charles Hackney is correct in pointing out the psychological significance of Mal’s father’s absence, I believe that the definitive community of Mal’s moral formation is the Browncoat military.
The Operative in the film Serenity reminds Mal that he (M.R.) won a medal of Valor at the Battle of Serenity and in the midst of fighting Mal Reynolds, taunts him that he is still fighting a battle that he has already lost (of course, the triumphalist approach to history). That is only a half truth. As Mal suggested in the movie, “Half of writing history is hiding the truth.” One can see Mal’s plight in a negative light, right? He’s living in the past, yada yada. I do not think it is that simple, however. The only other person involved in the war on the crew is his second in command, Zoe, and their friendship runs deep. Badger (a height-deficient two-bit criminal) calls Mal “pretentious” in “Shindig” because Mal has this air about him that he carries from his war experience. On the other hand, Mal is also seen as “unpredictable” in the film by the twins, Minty and Fango.
Although Mal’s personality and character are irreducible (as he says in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” ‘like woman, I am mystery’), there are principles that he develops from the Independence movement. Personally, as a dedicated pacifist, one could say that I am about to be too generous in my description of Mal and his military education, but I think by using Stanley Hauerwas insight into the notion that war is caused by the social desire for cooperation, that that critique would go rather unwarranted. In his 1984 essay, “Should War Be Eliminated?,” Hauerwas postulates (in response to “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” written by Catholic bishops here in the U.SA.), that rather than the longing for harmony as the root of peace movements, that this desire is actually the foundation of war-mongering. A rather shocking idea, I know, but Hauerwas comes pretty close to articulating what I refer to as hegemony. Although this pastoral letter from the bishops made room for the pacifists (woot, let’s give them a pat on the back), they,like most just warriors, dismissed pacifism as an “unrealistic” option (whatever reality that means). For Hauerwas, war is not simply just another form of violence; it is an alternative reality that promises a form of salvation. Conflict happens because of (and not in spite of) “the nature of cooperation whereby one person’s immediate interest and the general long-term interest of the group are not the same.” (The Hauerwas Reader, page 405). Therefore, two false choices are given when discussing the nature of war, either one sides withe state and the natural order of things or one sides with anarchy and chaos Thus, this is the nature of how pacifists get accused of being “unrealistic” for they reject the false sense of unity imposed by the state (usually in the name of religion and patriotism). Peace, in the mind of the bishops as well as many just warriors, as seen as something relegated to the great by and by. Remember The Operative from the movie, whose sinless, peaceful utopia was something for the future; he even admits he will not be there when it happens.
Hauerwas suggests that just warriors and Christian pacifists rely on two different eschatological schema. The Operative shares the futuristic, other-worldly utopian outlook of the JW position. On the other hand, if one recognizes that God’s peace has already revealed himself in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, peace is possible in the here and now. Mal Reynolds falls into this latter view. Mal does not accept the way things are because present has the utmost value. It is Mal’s independent Browncoat spirit in the face of the Bluecoats and their false peace that makes Mal’s chaotic ways a form of resistance. Mal sees civil society and public institutions for what they are: an impediment on the growth and freedom of the individual. Mal says in the pilot, “That’s what governments are for; getting in a man’s way.” This makes Mal is a dedicated abolitionist. In “Shindig,” on the prosperous and civilized core planet of Persephone, Mal questions the slave trade’s existence and later confronts one of Inara’s gentlemen callers, Lord Atherton, “Yours? She don’t belong to nobody.” In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal tells Saffron that, “You are no one’s property.” This theme of individual rights, self-possession, and basic humanity dignity are part of Mal’s way of NOT cooperating with the system. Like he says, “Following the rules make you a slave.” Much like Clement of Alexandria centuries ago, in his sermon to the Greeks, said, “Custom strangles a person. It turns one away from the truth.”
Lastly, when one observes Mal’s actions, one can see that his value system is completely different from that of the Alliance and its interplanetary society. On Persephone, Mal chooses to spare Lord Atherton’s life even though it was custom to kill an opponent in a duel. Mal does not kill The Operative, but perhaps (“because there is nothing left to see here”) does worse by destroying his dream of a sinless world. Mal creates a moral alternative to the world that he knows, and that starts with his purchase of his freedom and his home, Serenity. It is there on Serenity, Mal and the rest of the crew enjoy meals, enjoying each others’ fellowship through conversation and games. I think the scenes with the meals are intentional, for Mal sits with at least three people who should be his sworn enemies by the fact that they have benefited from living in or working for the Alliance, but that is for a future post.
What can the morality of Mal Reynolds say to theologians? Well, I think that theologians who adhere to a presentist eschatology should be in favor of the liberation of human beings in the here and now, always questioning the system. Since every person is made in the image of God, not one soul should be considered anyone’s property. Theologians should always remain alert for those traditions that may have been intended for the good and cooperation for religious communities, but now have becomes wards for the death-dealing forces of oppression (for example, the pro-slavery hermeneutic of the “Christians” who supported the Confederacy). And lastly, theologians should remember the power of the meal, that it is sitting down at the table in the presence of our opponents, remembering the One who died for his friends and his enemies, that humanity can experience reconciliation today.
Next post: Shepherd Derrial Book and Inara Serra, and explicit religious themes in the Firefly ‘verse.