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.


At 10:12 AM, Blogger Bruce said...

I happened to catch an episode of Little House this week and was reminded of the dualism of the morality as well. I wouldn't say "realism" though would be the distinction in the moral systems between shows like LH and Battlestar.

I think LH represents a current reality for some. I think it would be especially good for the formative years. Theologically, the morality of certain areas of the Torah, and the dualism of the Gospel of John would be similar.

I guess I like to think about spheres of morality that though there is some overlap are systems that either deal in the black/white OR deal in nuances or both/and systems. But as Ravi Zacharias says, "No matter how much you try to avoid it, the EITHER/OR tends to emerge."

Of course, as I understand it, our eternal destinations are based on dualism. Do the nuances in our currant moral systems arrive from falleness or from glorification? I would be curious to hear someone chat about this.

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Chuck said...

This is post from my friend Chuck. Greg, I know he'd love a response. BB


Very cool write up.

Love the part of not knowing if the cylons are right... It is soon true if you watch the show...

Also he is 100% on with the morals of TV and Movies... In "my time" before you were born. LOL
All shows for the most part were family and had a lesson, and good was good and evil was indeed evil...

Now on a side note my take on the current world...

Today like in real life we hide behind the politics of what is right and wrong and how to not offend... While we label
People who do not agree with the group or in my day the click...

You cant punch a kid in school or you might be some terrorist falling in to zero tolerance zone...
Where on the real scale some kids just have a much lower ambitions and are just bully's
who have existed since the dawn of time.
Today if you look the wrong way at someone you may be a sexist or racist or worse because
we need to label every one and every thing.
Its ok to be Gay, to be unwed and pregnant or even preach love and peace and forgiveness but try to make a judgment in any public capacity and you are shut down...
Even the Churches shy away from those sticky issues of politics, war, and Government... For fear of public labels

TV is showing shows like "The L word" and other shows like "Dirt" where ######## or Gay men kiss and make out.
New Orleans in still in rubble and even some of the fire stations and Police have no funding available while our president asks for 150 billion more towards the war. We now have a cold peace between Russia and the United States and the news is focused on Anna Nicole Smiths baby.

Even the modern "Battlestar" has shown way too much skin in episodes that were sexual and completely Cylon.

People for the most part have brought all this upon them selves.... In their silence and complacency by not the evil deeds but for the lack of the good ones the world will fall apart.

Harsh I call it like I see it...

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Chuck ,
Thanks for the comments. I think your comment about the state of some television today, including Battlestar, shows that determining the morality of a show is not as easy as "This one is good" and "This one is bad." The reality, as with life, is that with much of television, the good and the bad coexist within the same show. The question then becomes whether or not we are too willing to throw out the one because of the other.

At 3:39 PM, Anonymous Chuck Bridges said...

Battlestar Religion Response:

I agree that TV and Movies reflect life in their story and complex situations. What I see though is when a TV show or movie has say sex scenes in it or nudity for the reason to please the audience, to me is that disturbing but if it was there to teach a morality I might understand why it was placed there.

Another way to express this is

Often many Shows or Movies (I watch a lot of Movies) Have a sexual Scene that has little impact on the script when removed from the plot of the Show.

Don’t get me wrong I think the Story line of Battlestar is awesome…
As with many shows I have seen. I just think that there is a danger to accept the co-existence of good and bad with actors entertaining us in a show with out leading to a moral out come of why we are watching it.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Karen said...

Are you watching "Heroes"? Talk about no black and white!

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Yes, I do watch Heroes. It is certainly another good example. Lost falls into the same category in that the people on the beach keep insisting the Others are evil, while the Others insist they are the good guys.


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