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 http://rootweaving.wordpress.com