Firefly & Theology, Part 2: Captain Mal Reynolds & Serenity

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 Serenity, which is built as a Firefly, or a small transport ship (viewed as outdated/antique in the world of Firefly) is transformed into a shelter of sorts as well as almost the perfect weapon in avoiding the gaze of the Union of Allied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.

SERENITY logo

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.

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h00die_R (Rod)

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18 thoughts on “Firefly & Theology, Part 2: Captain Mal Reynolds & Serenity

  1. Good point about Hauerwas and war coming from a desire for harmony. I had not heard that position before. It makes sense. It especially makes sense applied to the world of Firefly, given the opening scene in Serenity (the film, not the episode), in which River’s schoolteacher lectures on the war. She states the outcome/goal of the Unification War: “And now, everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.” and everyone but River seems to find it incomprehensible that the ignorant savages of the outer planets would resist merging with the harmonious Empir… I mean, Alliance.

    Okay, I’m going to put on my existential psychology hat for a moment. Terror management theory sees the motivation for violence in terms of the threat that others pose to the correctness of one’s shared cultural worldview. The existence of people who happily thrive within a set of beliefs and values that contradict my own raises the unhappy possibility that my worldview might not be The Truth, and that’s a scary thought.

    • “The existence of people who happily thrive within a set of beliefs and values that contradict my own raises the unhappy possibility that my worldview might not be The Truth, and that’s a scary thought.”

      I think you just described the Rob Bell/ Gospel Coalition situation from this weekend.

  2. Here’s the issue I have with Firefly’s concept of freedom. Yes, it argues, and Christians agree, that humans should not oppress, enslave (literally or figuratively), or manipulate other humans. But Mal argues that humans should be held accountable to nothing and nobody, especially not God. Whedon himself has said he sees God as a “sky bully”. Sure, Mal is free, but free to do what? Steal, kill, and drift through life without a purpose.
    If I had to choose between being controlled by a corrupt government of men and living this lifestyle, I would still say that the latter is better. We have our morals and our conscience, meaning that God’s law is with us whether or not we want it to be. Mal does make many ethical choices, at times in spite of himself (“The Train Job” comes to mind), and in Serenity he once again finds something truly worth fighting for. That’s certainly a step in the right direction. But overall, I think the concept of the show is flawed; it seems to be arguing that true freedom is going around doing whatever you feel like doing.

    • Hanna,

      You make an excellent point. Whedon’s concept of freedom does conflict with Christian responsibility. While Whedon’s libertarianism does fall into a form of anarchy, at the same time, how the series played out, Mal did become accountable in a sense to the people living on the border planets (his big speech in Serenity: The Movie); he exposed the alliance for them, also, there is hope at the conclusion that he would be more responsible, taking on the helm as pilot as captain, and sorta reconciling with Inara.

      Those would be my initial responses, but excellent critique of Whedon (overall, anyhow).

  3. I would like to disagree with Hanna’s point. Mal is neither an anarchist nor a nihilist, but a deeply ethical man. He chose to become captain and owner of a ship, which entails both the obvious freedom of self-employment and the responsibility for caring for those who come under his hand: Serenity, her crew, her passengers and her cargo. He makes many covenants during the course of the series and the film, and he only breaks one voluntarily: his deal in “The Train Job,” which turned out to be a crime against the people who needed the medicine.

    As I recall, we see him commit what could be called theft exactly five times: the salvage operation at the beginning of the pilot, the eponymous train job, the drug heist in “Ariel,” the theft of the Lassiter pistol and the bank job at the beginning of the movie. The salvage operation, committed on an abandoned wreck in deep space, was commissioned by Badger. The next three were at the behest of Niska, Simon and Yosafbrig, respectively. All five could be classified as crimes against the corporate state of the Alliance, the acts of a Robin Hood.

    I admit that Mal kills people, but only under two conditions: in a state of war, as in the film or in “Heart of Gold,” or under extreme duress, as at the end of “The Train Job.” One does not reason with a rabid dog: one ends its threat and its suffering.

    If Mal has a flaw that approaches sin, it is denial. He can’t open himself to Inara. He pretends to be cynical and amoral when every action reveals that, while they may not agree with those of society at large, his ethics and benevolence drive him. He is an idealist who has been denied two of his three homes, the murdered world of Shadow and the Independent forces. Having been so deeply wronged, he lashes out against both the Alliance and the God he sees them purveying. He is afraid to accept love from anything but his ship, whether it is from Inara or from Book’s God. He scrambles for Grace while insulating himself from the possibility that he may not find it. He finds God in the black without recognizing Him.

  4. Pirie, it seems to me that you’re saying it doesn’t count as theft if you don’t like the people you’re stealing from. I wouldn’t count the salvage operation, because the ship was abandoned and nobody was using what was on it; that was just dumpster diving. You could call the other four incidents crimes against the alliance, but that doesn’t justify them.
    Personally, I believe that God clearly said “You shall not steal,” and since stealing violates the law of God, it is inherently sinful. I think there are exceptions, like if you’re literally starving and nobody will give you bread. If Mal avoided these kinds of jobs unless it was absolutely necessary, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He chooses these jobs so he can stick it to the Alliance.
    If you don’t accept that stealing is always a sin, “The Train Job” shows that there are consequences that Mal isn’t aware of because he chooses not to ask questions. This is the only time the series shows there being any real consequences, but considering he’s been doing this for years, I doubt it would have been the first time. Mal was thrilled to take this job, because he saw it as stealing directly from the Alliance. If he had been offered similar jobs in the past, which seems likely given his connections, he would have taken them just as readily. But as soon as the job was done, he would have been off that planet, free from ever having to face, or even know about, the consequences. In “The Train Job”, it was only because the circumstances forced him to stay that he found out at all. When you’re responsible only to yourself and the eight other people on your ship, you can’t afford to know or care what you’re doing to others.
    Mal is driven by his own ethics and benevolence, but because he is human, he is also subject to his bitterness. He hates the Alliance so much that he never stops to think that when he is stealing from them, he may also be stealing from people. And he is so averse to God that he never stops to think that His law may be what’s best.

  5. Overall, though, you make some excellent points. What you said about denial was very well-put, and I agree completely.

  6. Please excuse the excess of posting lately. I’ve been going through I time when I’ve been questioning just about everything, and Firefly is a vehicle for me to do some of that questioning. I know I’m probably not your usual sort of commenter, but I like hearing what you have to say.
    As much as I love Firefly, I’m still not sure how I feel about the way it romanticizes the idea of drifting around without any aim or purpose. Mal used to fight for a noble cause, a cause he really believed in. And when that didn’t work, he decided to wander around and steal stuff and call that freedom. It’s presented as the best way to live, accountable to nothing and nobody. If God calls you to do something, help someone, to stop drifting and walk with a purpose, he thinks that would hinder his freedom rather than actually freeing him from a pretty meaningless existence.
    Now, when I look at the way they’re living on an everyday basis, there’s nothing much wrong with it. Apart from the stealing, which is very understandable given the circumstances and who they’re stealing from, the way they live isn’t that different from the way I do. They’re a family; they protect each other and love each other. Nobody on that ship is living for material things (they don’t have any) or for just themselves, and nobody is living a life without love. And when the need and the opportunity arises, then yes, they do help others out. Mal denies that his morality comes from God, but I see otherwise.
    What bothers me is just the premise, the underlying ideas and assumptions beneath the whole show. Mal found Serenity. The way it’s presented, and the way it’s sung in the opening titles, gives you this great sense of rising above. Everything that oppressed him, the way men tried to hold him down and steal his freedoms and keep him from being, that’s gone. But what’s the solution? Wandering around aimlessly, going where the wind takes him, living day to day, stealing what he can find, ignoring whatever he is called to do. The way I see it, God finds him in the black, in spite of his efforts to escape. But the way Whedon sees it, He does not. It’s almost as if the highest form of freedom is to live without purpose.
    Mal begins to experience a sort of awakening when Simon and River come on board. It develops slowly at first, for the obvious reason that it was meant to be developed over several seasons, but we see it played out in full in the movie. It’s Shepherd Book who finally convinces him to believe in something, to believe that even though his cause was lost years ago, there is still plenty worth fighting for. So they go, they fight, they have their victory, and the whole thing feels very Han Solo. But once the fight is won, the movie implies that they go right back to the way they were living. Apart from having lost their pilot, it seemed to me as though very little had changed.

  7. Rod of Alexandria,

    As a Browncoat and a Christian, I am greatly enjoying reading your thoughts on the intersection of these two powerful (although in different ways) “worlds.” I agree with much of what you say, but was confused by this: “I believe that it means that no longer can Christians in particular claim the pure starting points of Germany and France….” Starting points of what? Christianity? That seems to be implied when you say “Christians” cannot claim these starting points. But millions of Christians do not. The starting point of Christianity was Jerusalem, not Geneva or Wittenburg. This seems unnecessarily protestant-o-centric. Also the “purity” of the foundations of the Reformation is at least historically questionable. So I found this particular presupposition at first confusing, then off-putting.

    I am looking forward to reading more of your obviously well-thought-out exposition.

    • Hey Mousethief,

      To clarify my statement:
      “I believe that it means that no longer can Christians in particular claim the pure starting points of Germany and France….”

      What I am talking about here not specifically the Protestant reformation (even though one can include that in this critique) but the notion that because God is beyond our national boundaries, that God’s spirit can inspire theology and philosophy from any continent, because God’s spirit is free to do so: the wind blows where it wills. In theological studies (mostly Christian), there is too much of a dependence on continental philosophies from countries such as German and France (Foucault, Schleirmacher, etc.), and while I may like Foucault personally, there is a bias out there that sees his views are normative, without having to take him in his French context. I reject this view, and try to offer a way out, by looking at how Serenity/Firefly can teach an appreciation for many cultures without promoting a cultural separation or a “melting pot.”

  8. With all the attention paid to Mal’s moral stances and independent spirit, nowhere did I hear a response to the very obvious loss of faith that Mal suffered as a result of the Browncoats’ defeat in Serenity Valley. He explicitly tells Book at the beginning of the series, “You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.” So what are we to say about Mal (in Latin, “bad,” as River tells us, or also “evil”) and his self-proclaimed atheism? Is he still moral after having rejected God and severely chastized the messenger God put among his crew?

    • “Is he still moral after having rejected God and severely chastized the messenger God put among his crew?”

      His anti-slavery stance does point to a morality i am more concerned with more than a belief in a higher being. It’s concerned for the bodily existence of humanity that concerns me, for religious reasons while for Mal, it may be for other

  9. Thanks for your comment!

    Since you’ve indulged me so far, I’m going to float another idea that I’ve been kicking around since I first saw the series, concerning the relationship between Mal and God. I always thought it telling that in the Battle of Serenity Valley, he pulls out a cross and kisses it — a form of devotion, a prayer if you will. And then of course the Browncoats lose the battle, and the war, in Serenity Valley.

    Later when we meet Mal again, God is a sore subject with him (“You’re welcome on my ship; God ain’t”). Is this a reaction to the Battle of S.V.? He trusted in God, and God didn’t come through for him. So he’s given up on God, put God behind him, and is relying on nobody but himself (and, significantly, Zoe). Either he no longer believes God exists, or what I think is more likely, he’s angry with God and is purposely shutting God out of his life. Thus Shepherd Book being on Serenity creates a constant tension with Mal’s antagonism with God.

    I think Whedon handles this extremely deftly, and not at all ham-handedly like some non-theists might. He is a masterful storyteller, and that means in part understanding what makes people tick, even people who believe things that he does not.

    Some thoughts, anyway. Once again, great series of blogposts.

    MT

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