A couple months back Onelowerlight Rising, a Mormon blog, posted a lengthy attack on the SF-western hybrid Firefly under the title "Why Firefly is Not Good Science Fiction." Firefly, the story of a group of interplanetary outlaws aboard a ship named Serenity, was the unfairly-cancelled brainchild of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, in your humble reviewer's opinion, was one of the best SF shows in the history of television). Among Onelowerlight's list of complaints was the manner in which the show handled religion. He specifically cites a scene in which River, a mentally scarred superhuman, "edits" the Bible of Shepherd Book, the show's resident preacher. "It's broken," River complains, "it doesn't make sense." Book's reply: "It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you." Onelowerlight complains that this misrepresents what faith means for the faithful:
He basically says that people don't believe in religion because it makes sense, they believe in it because they need something to believe in... However, this neglects something very important--from the believer's point of view, it does make sense! Joss Whedon doesn't show that point of view at all!
Had Onelowerlight seen Serenity, the film sequel to Firefly, he likely wouldn't have been too pleased with the way Shepherd Book presents faith there, either. At one point, Book urges Mal Reynolds, the leader of Serenity's crew, "I don't care what you believe—just believe it." I've seen several reviewers complain about this apparently content-less faith: what is belief that's not belief in something? But this approach ignores the context in which these pronouncements are made. Serenity has a lot to say about what its characters believe—their faith has content spelled out by their actions.
In Serenity, Mal's crew is on the run from an interplanetary government. They've been harboring River, and the Alliance scientists who gave her her superpowers want her back. They turn to Shepherd Book both for shelter and for advice. When Book tells Mal that he'll need "belief" to get him through, Mal is displeased: "I ain't looking for help from on high. That's a long wait for a train don't come." Book's response, at first glance, communicates nothing: "When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I'm talking about God?" This, it seems, is simply a communication of faith without content, a vague "faith in faith" that's easier than actually fleshing out a character's spirituality. The conventional wisdom on Serenity would probably conclude that this line shows boneheadedness about religion and nothing more—but the conventional wisdom takes the quote out of its context. Moments before, Mal had been expressing apparent regret at not abandoning River to the government:
Mal: I could have left her there. I had an out. Hell, I had every reason in the 'verse to leave her lay and haul anchor.
Book: It's not your way.
Mal: I have a way? That better than a plan?
Book's pronouncement that Mal needs belief to get him through immediately follows this exchange, and depends on it for its meaning. Because Book is a preacher, Mal assumes he's talking about belief in God, but he's talking about belief in community. Mal's "way" is not to abandon those in need, to help those who need helping, to do, in the mold of classic Western morality, the noble thing rather than the rational thing. Serenity is a story about a family, a community that stands together when oppressed. At the film's close, Mal gives River advice on flying a ship that sums up the object of the film's concept of "belief":
Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll throw you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she's hurting before she keels, makes her a home.
Faith doesn't stand for itself alone in Serenity. It is the first step in the progression Paul defines is 1 Corinthians 13:13: "Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." Firefly and Serenity tell a story about a community, a family that holds together against all odds by the strength of its love.
This post is part of Strange Culture's Film + Faith Blog-a-Thon.
For some more of my thoughts on religion in Firefly and Serenity, see chapters 5 and 7 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.