Thursday, February 15, 2007

Battlestar Religion

My wife recently acquired several seasons of Little House on the Prairie and we have been watching them with our kids. One of the things I find interesting about the show is the simplicity of its moral vision. It is certainly representative of most shows from that era. People either go to church or they don't; people either behave well or behave poorly. And each episode wraps itself around a nice little moral lesson.

The world of television back then is a completely different universe than today -- and I'm not talking about pushing the envelope with respect to sex, violence, and profanity. I'm talking about the embrace of moral and religious ambiguity. Today's shows rarely present clear-cut options where the choice is simply between good and evil, deciding instead to make people think by presenting both sides of an issue as equally attractive and equally problematic. In short, the goal is realism. In contrast to shows of the past where choosing the good path is the only real option when you think about it, today's shows acknowledge the fact that sin and the dark side have such a powerful pull on people's lives precisely because they possess attractiveness and their own internal logic.

On Battlestar Galactica, the embrace of ambiguity shows up in many ways, but particularly in the areas of religion and politics (more on the latter next time). The original Battlestar Galactica of the 1970's was largely guided by the Mormon theology of its creators. In this newer incarnation, the show's theology has become more varied, nuanced, and unpredictable. The show resists attempts to confine its religious outlook to neat categories.

In short, in the world of Battlestar Galactica humans are polytheists. They worship the Twelve Lords of Kobol who are suspiciously similar to the ancient Greek pantheon as they include deities such as Athena, Hera, and Apollo. By contrast, their Cylon oppressors are strict monotheists. In fact, the Cylons claim their one true God, who loves all, was once the God of the humans until the humans rejected him and he then chose the Cylons for his people (an argument not unlike some Christian supersessionist views towards Judaism). The Cylons also claim their attempts to wipe out humanity are at God's command.

What is fascinating about the religious portrait on this show is that it refuses to bow to our preconceptions. We are meant, it seems, to root for the humans who have been nearly abolished and are simply fighting for their survival as a species. Yet it is the Cylons who worship a "one true God", while the humans bow before their molten idols. The genius of the show is that as much as you naturally root for the humans, you can never be quite sure that the Cylons are not right. The Cylons claim they are the agents of God's judgment on humanity for its sin and as they regularly speak about "God's will," you begin to wonder if they are on to something.

Are they like the ancient Israelites who were told by their one true God to conquer and destroy the polytheistic Canaanites and take over their land? Are they like the wicked Babylonians who nonetheless served as the agent of God's judgment on his own people for their sin? Or are they misguided zealots who have fallen under the spell of their own self-deception and simply use God as an excuse for their own imperialist aims? Stay tuned to the show and perhaps we'll find out . . . or not.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Battlestar Galactica and the Question of Humanity

Several years ago we ordered basic cable. The prospect of having 60 channels at my disposal was nice, but I knew I would never visit most of them. The amount of time I would be spending with the Golf Channel could be measured by the seconds it would take for me to quickly hit the channel button after realizing I had stumbled upon it and my only interaction with the Home Shopping Network was going to be in my attempts to keep my wife away from it. But one channnel I was excited about was the Sci-Fi Channel. Now, to be honest, I have never been a real big fan of science fiction. I much prefer the horror and fantasy genres. However, the sci-fi channel dabbles in those as well and I was looking forward to all of the wonderful programming I could sample.

A few years later, I realized the Sci-Fi channel was among my least-watched channels. Aside from the Twilight Zone marathon on New Year's Day, I stayed far away from it. This is because the shows they typically put on there are mind-numbingly awful. The acting and writing rival that of daytime soaps while the special effects are often on par with sci-fi offerings of the 1970's. Half of the monsters look like bad imitations of the Sleezaks.

In this wasteland, however, is one particularly bright, shining light. The new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica. Good science fiction stories are often inherently religious in the sense that they pose the big questions about ultimate meaning, purpose, and identity. In this sense, Battlestar Galactica may be the most religious show on television today. One of those ultimate questions that it bandies about regularly is the question of humanity. What does it mean to be human? To have a soul?

The catalyst for this discussion are the Cylons. For any BG newbies, the storyline goes as follows. Human beings created machines to serve them. These were called Cylons. However, the Cylons rebelled and a great Human-Cylon war erupted. Eventually a truce was declared and the Cylons left. Forty years later they return and, in a sneak attack, destroy virtually all of human civilization. Just under 50,000 human survivors remain, traveling through space looking for a safe place. The real kicker is that the Cylons have evolved. They created a new line of Cylons who are indistinguishable from humans. They hunger, sweat, bleed, feel pain.

This new breed of Cylon insists that they are alive, that they have a soul. Thus the stage is set. What constitutes a soul? What defines life? The humans insist that the Cylons, for all their fleshly simulations, are merely "toasters" with effective window dressing.

Recently in a class I am team-teaching called "Religion, Media, and Youth Culture," we watched two episodes of BG: "Flesh and Bone" and "Downloaded." These two actively address this question and even appear to provide something of an answer. For there are two Cylons who appear to be almost more human than Cylon - Sharon and Number 6. The question is: what makes these two different? In fact, at the end of "Downloaded," these two Cylons are trapped underground as the result of an explosion. When their Cylon search party finds them, one of the Cylons says, "They're alive!" Sharon and Number 6 reply, "Yes, we are!"

Battlestar Galactica's answer to the question of what makes one human appears to be love. What marks these two Cylons as different is that each learns how to love a human being and in that act also learns mercy and compassion. Throughout "Downloaded," the Cylons, who are strict monotheists (more on that in the next post), keep saying "God loves you" to each other. Then as one Cylon is about to kill a human, the Cylon comments, "God loves me." Whereas the Cylons keep talking about themselves as the recipients of love, they seem incapable of showing it. Except for Number 6 and Sharon, who alone among the Cylons, have learned to give love rather than receive it. That is what appears to identify genuine living (perhaps even the soul) on Battlestar Galactica.

Now, I say "appears" because I have only watched the first 2 seasons of the show and it is possible that season 3 may turn all of this on its head. That is one of the intriguing things about this show: that it actively seeks to complicate everything you think you know to be true. In fact, in my next two posts I intend to look at how this show embraces moral complexity with respect to both religion and politics and how that says something profound about the state of popular culture today.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Super Sunday

Whether I attend or throw a Super Bowl party is always a year to year decision. The deciding factor is whether my beloved Steelers are playing. When the Steelers are in the Super Bowl, I isolate myself from all human contact. The intensity of the game demands my total attention -- plus should things start to turn bad for my boys, I become less than desirable company. When the Steelers are not playing, then it's party time.

Super Bowl parties are an interesting phenomenon. A major social event revolving around the television. Although it occurs here on a grander scale, this is actually a more common event than perhaps we realize. Watching television can be a significant social activity. Solitary TV viewing is not as common as many suppose. When most people watch TV, they do so with others. It thus becomes a shared engagement that creates social cohesion. We watch together and talk together about what we have seen.

A great example of this is the watercooler show. In the past shows like Friends, Seinfeld and others were social viewing experiences. You had to watch or be left out of the conversation the next day. Today, increasing numbers of shows function in this way: shows like Heroes, Lost, American Idol, etc. Friends regularly gather together much like in the old days for pinochle or bridge parties, but instead sit themselves down in front of the TV in order to share the experience of viewing their favorite shows. Even solitary viewing today is not really solitary. Even when a person sits down alone to watch the latest episode of Heroes, he or she does so aware that the next morning others in the office or at school will be discussing that night's events and that the web will soon be teeming with reviews and comments on that episode. They thus have an awareness of being a part of a much larger social movement.

Television viewing, for better or worse, is becoming something of a national pastime. As I sit down for the Super Bowl this Sunday, I will do so in a room full of other people, sharing food and conversation as we watch the action unfold. When you think about it from a social standpoint, it's not too much different than being at a real game. Minus the drunken fans and rude outbursts. Go Bears!