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.