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Stargate SG-1, Orthodoxy, and Imagination

Stargate SG-1, Orthodoxy, and Imagination

By Benedict Varnum

I recently (last night!) finished a lengthy project of mine, and finished watching Stargate SG-1 on DVD, putting me several years behind those who followed it on-air. For those who don’t know, the show had a mixture of religious themes, mythology, romance, humor, and the US Air Force going into space by walking through wormholes in the Stargate. But this morning, walking to work (following my own busgate trip), I found myself thinking back over my time watching it, and while I found it a fun romp, I realized that I disagree with (at least) one of the basic assumptions of the show’s fantasy.

Now, good sci-fi or fantasy will mix the real world with some elements that aren’t in the real world. When it’s done well, this mixture affects us somehow. It may hold up a mirror to our current lifestyle and practice (I was struck recently by the “meat-cloning vats” used to sustain an Earth population in the billions in Peter Hamilton‘s Nights’ Dawn trilogy; certainly a reflection on our contemporary factory farming, writ larger).

Or it may offer us an escapist hope to wonder at (I think of Picard’s speech to the de-cryogenized business tycoon in Star Trek’s “The Neutral Zone” episode, about how in the future, we’ve evolved beyond the need for money, and everyone’s task in life is to improve herself. The Star Trek franchise makes lighter of this in Star Trek IV, against the backdrop of feminism in the 1980s, when Kirk’s marine biologist date is forced to pay for their meal, saying something like “I suppose you don’t have money in the 24th century?” “We don’t!”).

Or you can get worlds as complex as the real one, which serve as soothing reminders that we can always grow and reinvent ourselves, simply by displaying character after character developed in a thoughtful way that takes advantage of the nuances of their fantastic otherworld (Han Solo’s career commitment to the ship he loves flies him not only across the galaxy, but from seedy cantinas to medal ceremonies before a hopeful new republic, and even lets him grow large enough that he can hand the steering wheel back to ol’ Lando, freeing his heart and arms to hold onto Leia, non?).

So what’s my problem with SG-1? On the one hand, nothing. They commit early and hard to holding the characters together through a mix of romance, duty, and humor (often through the characters annoying each other). They paint these everyday lives against the epic backdrop of a galaxy constantly on the brink of war or the destruction of all life. They hold up over and over again the value of a single person, both by the way in which any character’s actions might be the crucial difference between not just life and death, but the destruction of earth, or even the universe, and not. They firm that up by standing several episodes on the principle “We don’t leave our people behind,” even when it doesn’t make military sense to stage a rescue. Again, individuals make the difference, and it’s fun for us to watch the bonds between the characters grow stronger.

So what’s NOT to like? Well, for one thing, you’ve got to table any kind of cultural humility you have: the series stands pretty firmly on the assertion that whoever this team goes out and meets, whether they’re far more or far less technologically advanced than we are, they’ve always got a thing or two to learn from the good ol’ US of A. Most of the other cultures are either childlike and naive or warlike and arrogant. Very few cultures are ethical and emotional peers for the Stargate team, and in most of them, that budding kinship is embodied in one or two individuals, who are usually a minority voice in the face of an overbearing dictatorship. Humility is not a strong suit for the human race in this series . . . to the point that eventually even the Goa’uld, who have spent most of the show impersonating Egyptian gods, have to point it out. There are justice things to say about the show’s target demographics, its treatment of women and minorities (did all those early season Jaffa slaves HAVE to be black?), etc. It does get better as the show goes on.

But the gift of insight that I got out of reflecting on the show this morning is this: many of the show’s episodes, especially near the beginning and the end, operate by suggesting that every earth mythology is nearly-literally true, and based on powerful alien technologies being misinterpreted as magic. For example, Merlin was actually an ascended being who returned to this plane of existence to battle the meddling of other ascended beings, who are trying to kill anyone who won’t worship them. The magic? That was his technology, protecting him as he attempted to build an anti-demon superweapon.

Many of the gods of ancient cultures show up: Celt, Chinese, Egyptian, Sumerian. All the stories? Turns out they’re true accounts. (The exception is that the show is reluctant to touch Christianity; they have one of the Goa’uld impersonate Satan, but won’t go so far as to say the God of the Abrahamic faiths was any kind of alien, though they toe the line in the last few seasons with a virgin birth).

The problem I have with this is in its “theological anthropology” (which may match up well with some of my problems above with their cultural anthropology). Theological anthropology has to do with what the fundamental or metaphysical essence of human beings is. What is a human being? The image of God? A fallen creation? A little more than beasts, though less than angels?

Part of the answer in Stargate is that human beings are on the way to ascension (with a quick stopover en route as the “Fifth Race” in a sort of elite, enlightened galaxy-trotter club). But the other major part is that human imagination is something that obscures facts into stories, taking us further from the truth, rather than inviting us to wonder our way towards it. The ancient stories and relics the team encounters are usually clues, pointing to new technologies or hidden alien friends, but the process of interpreting them is about recovering the factual history, dispelling the myth.

Intriguingly, when the ascended beings are shown in a few episodes, they’re either comically distracted from the pragmatic and real, or else sitting in a mock-up of an eternal diner, relatively uninterested in their surroundings, except to read the news about the physical universe. So ascension is immortality, but without imagination, novelty, or wonder. Like the ancient Greek gods, these ascended beings are mostly defined by when and how they choose to interfere with the mortal realm.

The more I thought about how Stargate treats our imagination, the more I thought about what we do to our own stories and history. In Christianity, the word “orthodoxy” is often raised. The force of deploying this term is usually a conserving one, suggesting that somehow, someone has wandered too far afield to be part of the conversation, the community, any longer. The assumption in orthodoxy is that truth used to be much clearer, and that part of our task is to conserve it, guard it, return to it. The word “innovation” gets the opposite emotional and moral force from the way it’s used in, say, scientific learning (indeed, there’s no doubt much to say about the intersections of science, atheism, religious scientists, orthodoxy, the Christian tradition(s), and the history of “the West”).

Innovations, orthodoxy would usually claim, are things that obscure the truth further. They’re the cloudings of the story that Stargate holds our imagination to be serving up over the course of centuries, and the project of Christianity is in some way to push them aside and get back to the “original” (and therefore true) Christianity.

The problem, as I see it? First, you don’t have to read much of the Bible to realize that the early Christians had a strong history of misunderstanding Jesus (Gospel of Mark, anyone?), disagreeing with one another (Council at Jerusalem, the discrepancies between Paul’s self-account and those in Acts), and blending Christianity with the cultures of their day. The more I read and re-read scripture, the more clear I am that becoming as close to Peter (who, after all, Jesus called Satan) isn’t the fullness of life and relationship to God, Christ, self and others that I’m called to.

And there’s the further layer that Jesus didn’t provide a systematic manual of what the truth is. Rather, he told parables: stories that pointed people back to their own lived experience. Now, on a certain literal level, maybe that means that the only way to know God is to become a farmer, a landowner, a maiden waiting for the bridgegroom to arrive and a traveler passing Samaritans. But surely the message is richer than that? Surely this method demonstrates in some way that our lives are holy and bring us to the holy?

Thinking that way requires that we use our imagination, not because we, like the oppressed peoples of Stargate’s past, can’t understand the higher technology or God-power that we’re witnessing, but because imagination lets us wonder at where we are already seeing the holiness of our selves and one another.

Orthodoxy’s Greek roots translate to “right opinion,” which has nothing intrinsically historical or conservative about it. In fact, one might well argue that to make sure your opinion is right, you need to interrogate what came before — not throw it out haphazardly, but certainly really engage it. Imagination is surely part of how we find new possibilities that can lead us to greater truth or help us see around the incomplete truths (we ARE human, after all) that those before us have handed down.

No offense, SG-1 writing team; I did enjoy your series.

Benedict Varnum is a postulant for holy orders in the priesthood, and is currently serving as a chaplain for an intensive care unit and other areas in a Chicago hospital. He holds a Master’s of Divinity from the University of Chicago, and keeps an occasional blog at


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Benedict Varnum

C., I think the thesis at question is that in discerning how best to be faithful, imagination continues to have a role to play, and it is not the job of of an overly-rigid orthodoxy to eliminate that. This seems to me, hand-wringing about “kids these days” aside, to be fairly uncontroversial.

C. Wingate

Benedict, that you can say, with a straight face, that “today’s Christians are continuing to engage that balance faithfully” is a testimony to the hopelessness of it all. There is no particular balance that today’s Christians, in any sort of encompassing manner, can be said to engage a balance. The divisions cut across Christendom like the Grand Canyon across Arizona.

And what exactly is the meaning of a phrase such as “opens us to new, more faithful possibilities” unless one can say what it is that one is to be more faithful to? There is a fundamental vacuity in your thesis which I cannot get past: that, having abandoned the notion of standards, you have no way of convincing me that you are more faithful, because I cannot see that there is anything for you to be faithful to.

Also, Benedict, when you put “balance” in quotes, you misrepresent me. You don’t mean in any of your examples anything of the kind of which I mentioned, and indeed, the fact that every one of those social issues proved changeable really proves nothing one way or the other. If I am talking about a balance between what is held unchangeable and what may be reconsidered, then it follows that I do not resist every change.

Benedict Varnum

Well, to play with language for a moment, I’ll admit to dabbling in some “theological novelties.” I’m a fairly convinced filioqueist, and I do think Mighty Fortress is a decent hymn, alas for orthodox hymnody as described before the Reformation! While these may be laughably-settled topics for the Episcopal Church today, it’s worth remembering that the Eucharistic issues of the Reformation contributed to city-scale murder and hatred of our neighbors, just as anti-gay theologies are doing today.

I’m sorry that you’re not finding the current balance comfortable, C., but my sense is that today’s Christians are continuing to engage that balance faithfully, and that to claim that the orthodoxy of 20 (50? 200?) years ago should be privileged or unassailable is to make an idolatry of a present we once preferred. I’ll note further that the “balance” before lay communion was uncomfortable in the middle ages. The “balance” before the first black priest was ordained in the US was uncomfortable for African-American Christians. The married lives of gay and lesbian Christians — who stay in the church and suffer against a privileged status given automatically to everyone else — have been an uncomfortable balance that they have stayed in for the sake of the Gospel.

Doubting the “orthodoxy” of those balances opens us to new, more faithful possibilities as much as it could open us to less faithful ones. We are left to discernment, and I find patience, and not stubbornness, to be the virtue that can hold our common lives in love before God through that discernment.

I disagree that there is an “obsession with doubts,” or that the place of doubt that I’ve heard Christians describe is inappropriate. What I’ve heard seems to invite people to greater spiritual growth. The article’s reminder about the role of imagination is part of that invitation as well.

C. Wingate

Benedict, I make no choice between the passages you cite and the passages which relate the birth of Jesus. Why should anyone need to make such a choice? The year is long enough to read all of this, and not just part; the gospels spend much more time on the story of Jesus’ life (and particularly on the passion) then they do on his teachings.

Also, the point Benedict is not my suffering, but that of others. I am rock-headed enough and strong-willed enough to resist the siren voices of theology telling me that taking the text as it stands is naive and outdated. But it does take an act of will to maintain that stance; I live in a constant state of theological tension. And I recognize that I am atypical in that. The content of my faith represents a not-all-that-much-older, very middle-of-the-road Anglicanism, but the way in which I retain my faith is not what most people do. Most people do not seek out hostile theological discussion; most people stick with their own camp and do not listen to others except as it is filtered through their side’s leaders. And the reason for that is that most people aren’t as stubborn as I am, and not only do not need what I need, but cannot survive it.

I am to some degree approving of an institutional church which is tolerant, to a degree, of those who step outside normative faith. The problem I see in ECUSA is that there is a great deal of abuse of this now, so that there are a lot of clerics out there telling people whose faith is simple and naive and direct that they have to abandon that faith in favor of something which is too complex and contradictory for them to handle. What those people understand from this is that the institutional church has abandoned faith, and the tendency therefore is to drive these people into more dogmatic expressions because they come to understand that they need that dogmatism to protect them from faithless clerics– or on the other hand they incorporate the doubts but not the complications, and they apostatize. If there is complacency in this, it lies in a theological establishment whose members believe they can lead under such conditions, when they can’t. And I see that there is a subcommunity of this church in which “questioning” (that is, opposing) traditional teachings wins a person admiration and approbation, especially if it draws criticism from the most stubbornly traditional. The whole obsession with doubts has, as I see it, a decidedly self-indulgent cast to it. It seems to me that a cleric who is having trouble with basic tenets, who can’t say the creed without a lot of finger-crossing, has an obligation to refrain from inflicting his personal problems on the parish.

My personal problem is that I go to church, and it’s increasingly hard to find a parish in which the rector doesn’t indulge himself somehow. They have this need to change things, and while they can always come up with reasons, those reasons usually read to me as rationalizations which either disguise the real reason, or mask a lack of any reason at all other than boredom or a love of novelty. It used to be that Anglicans understood that there is a balance between change and stability, and that change and growth are different, and that destruction is change too. The dabbling in theological novelties is part and parcel of the whole.

Benedict Varnum

Thanks for continuing the conversation, C.

The place I’d push back at what you’ve written is “Those preachers make faith hard [&c].”

Rather, it strikes me that faith itself is hard, and preachers who acknowledge that difficulty are being honest. The folks I see who refuse to think of churches as being institutions of integrity stand on that refusal because they find clerics who seem to have full answers disingenuous. To paraphrase a friend’s recent remarks: “Lots of churches are growing because they offer a concrete answer, instead of having to constantly learn and grow; Episcopalians may be a smaller group, but they are passionate about continuing to search and question and learn and grow.” I’d suggest that this is an appropriate stance at any point in life, and that we draw nearer to God through our hope for more (the argument above, for imagination, is one part of this).

To your point about the need to “trust scripture to recount the circumstances of Jesus’s birth”, it strikes me that the messages that we need to trust from scripture are more along the lines of “God can raise up children of Abraham even from stones,” or “You are worth more than many sparrows,” or “Whatever you did to the least of these.” This is far more important to me than whether the incarnation is involved in a biological or super-biological descent from the lineage of either David or Adam.

Your point that “mistrust isn’t something that is readily regulated by the will or the intellect.” is also pretty provocative. I can see two possibilities here: the first is that all that is left is for our mistrust to be calibrated by grace through divine revelation (in which case I think we wind up in all of the epistemological problems of the Reformation, which I find best summed-up by Luther’s formulation “The devil can also come looking like an angel of light,”); the second is that we focus in on your use of “readily” and simply acknowledge that it is difficult to re-orient our trust (which seems in line with a good amount of Christian thinking on the need for God’s grace to re-orient both will and knowledge).

What I find challenging is what feels to me like an insistence that complacency is a theologically-valid stance. If a specific piece of someone else’s doubt doesn’t feel like it belongs in your spiritual journey right now, it does seem ungenerous to me to scoff at them (1 Cor 8 seems salient here, or Acts 5:38, similar to this discussion).

The place I really don’t understand is through questions like these: What do you suffer if someone else is struggling with an issue you’ve put to rest yourself? Where is God at work in their lives, from your perspective? Can their spiritual life only be held acceptable if they see the reasonableness of arguments in the same way you do? In the meanwhile, are you yourself without doubts, to the point that only the specter of mistrust might assail the theology you hold? Is there a confession of the limits of human knowledge in that theology? The possibility of your own reason’s imperfection? The possibility of sin, or participation in a system of sin handed down to you?

I don’t mean these to sound like a litany of grievances, and I hope they don’t; rather, that’s the place in what you’re saying that I don’t understand.

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