Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dean Winchester and Gaius Baltar

One of the characteristics of a postmodern world is that spirituality is regularly injected into the public sphere, most frequently through popular culture. And popular culture often does a better job of capturing the reality of spiritual responses better than the church has typically done. I recently came across an example of this through a comparison of two different pop culture characters: Dean Winchester of Supernatural (photo on the right) and Gaius Baltar of Battlestar Galactica (photo on the left).

On one level these two characters could not be more different. Dean Winchester is a blue collar monster hunter who fights against evil. Gaius Baltar is a genius scientist who inadvertently plays a prominent role in the near-genocide of the human race. Yet they share a very similar journey. At the beginning of each of their respective series, each character is a hardcore, angry atheist. Through a steady string of adventures and eye-opening encounters, however, each character gradually progresses through agnosticism and into a form of faith that each acquires in the fourth season of their show.  They each come to their faith in different ways and for different reasons. And their varying responses to their journeys represent two different spiritual responses.

In the episode, "Are You There God? It's Me, Dean Winchester," Dean's brother Sam suggests that they now have proof that God exists (this is because Dean encountered an angel). Their conversation unfolds as follows:

DEAN: Proof that there's a God out there that actually gives a crap about me personally? I'm sorry but I'm not buying it.
SAM: Why not?
DEAN: Because why me? If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me? . . . Why do I deserve to get saved? I'm just a regular guy.
SAM: Apparently, you're a regular guy that's important to the man upstairs.
DEAN: Well that creeps me out.

Dean is the person who is so aware of his own faults and who sees his place in the universe as being so insignificant that he can't fathom that God would pay attention to him, let alone love him. 

Compare this response to that of Gaius Baltar from the episode "Escape Velocity":

"I'm not a priest. I've never even been a particularly good man. I have, in fact, been a profoundly selfish man. But that doesn't matter, you see. Something in the universe loves me. Something in the universe loves the entity that is me. I will choose to call this something 'God.'"

If Dean Winchester is creeped out by the attention of God, Gaius Baltar embraces it. Acutely aware of the sins of his past and rather than see himself as unworthy of divine attention, he is deeply moved by the thought that he could be forgiven, that he could find redemption for his crimes.

Anyone who spends much time in churches or around people who are spiritually seeking will recognize these two portraits -- that of those who find themselves shrinking away uncomfortably from the gaze of God and those who find themselves reveling in it.

Given the sordid past of American television, that it is the medium regularly presenting us with models of spirituality like these and others is itself a cause for wonder.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Supernatural Book

For those of you out of the loop, Supernatural is a television show on the CW network that is now in its fourth season. It is in many ways a descendant of The X-Files, but one that incorporates a heavier dose of horror while tying its mythology not to governmental conspiracies but to the supernatural battle of good versus evil. A new book that explores the world of Supernatural is about to be released, to which I was privileged to contribute. You can see an image of the book cover below and then the text that will appear on the back cover beneath that. If you have any interest in Supernatural or in the creative analysis of popular culture, you should check it out. I may provide a more detailed review of its contents when I have a chance to read more of it than my own chapter.

“[Supernatural has] the smartest, most passionate, most intelligent fans
of any show on television.”

―Eric Kripke, creator of Supernatural

Supernatural is more than a show about fighting demons. It’s about more than a cool car, a kick-ass soundtrack and hot guys with guns. Supernatural is about family and sacrifice and heroism—about good and evil and the choices you make to stay in the hunt.

You know there’s more to this show than meets the eye.

So do we.

• Professor Gregory Stevenson considers the true meaning of horror and what Supernatural’s characters have to say about the human (and demonic) potential in all of us
• Super-Wiki team member Jules Wilkinson gives Dean’s ’67 Chevy Impala her due
• Television Without Pity’s Jacob Clifton looks at the feminine in Supernatural’s world of shotguns, muscle cars and masculine bravado (it’s more influential, and more pervasive, than you think)
• Supernatural RPG writer Jamie Chambers outlines demon-hunting on the cheap—and what it has to do with Supernatural’s appeal
• Contemporary fantasy author Tanya Huff delves into the psychology of John Winchester
• Fan Sheryl A. Rakowski (one of the three winners of the Pop Supernatural Essay Contest) shows how the boys’ biggest weakness—their need for each other—is also the biggest strength they possess, no matter what the Trickster says
• And writer Shanna Swendson mines the sources of Supernatural’s monsters, from folktales to urban legends, and deems Dean and Sam our modern-day keepers of the lore

Monday, February 09, 2009

Big Bang Theory: Smartest Show on Television?

Comedy rarely gets its due, particularly when it comes in the form of the television sitcom. I've posted before about how television programs have gotten progressively smarter over the last couple of decades in terms of the expectations they have of viewers. One example of this is the expectation of a certain knowledge base on the part of the audience. Shows are designed today to reward smart, attentive viewers by providing references without explanation. In past sitcoms, no joke would be made unless it could be easily understood by the audience across a wide spectrum. Today shows are ignoring that rule and instead filling their shows with a variety of references and jokes that require a certain pre-existing knowledge base in order for a person to get the joke or to appreciate the joke fully. 

An excellent example of this phenomenon is The Big Bang Theory. As an exercise, one of my classes the other day watched an episode of this show and then we put together a list of all of the terminology that was used without definition and the references that were made without explanation. The show demands that in order for the viewer to fully "get the joke", they must come to the table with enough of a working knowledge in order to understand the terminology and enough cultural awareness to be able to understand the references (such as with the show's subtle references to movies without any mention of the title of the film itself). The episode we watched was titled "The Jerusalem Duality." Below is the list of references or terminology from that episode alone, categorized according to the type of reference.

Quantum State of Matter
Open Science Grid Computer
Free Electron Laser
String Theory
False vacuums
Quantum Loop Corrections
Lorentz Invariant
Field Theory Approach
soft component of cosmic radiation
laser array
argon lasers
payload bay
sensor apparatus
carbon nanotubes
tensile strength
cold fusion
helium neon

Science Fiction

Star Wars
Willy Wonka 
Field of Dreams
The Matrix 

Notable Awards
Nobel Prize
Stevenson Award

Historical Characters
Wolgang Amadaeus Mozart
Antonia Salieri

Foreign Languages
German – wunderkind
Hebrew/Spanish (Cielito Lindo sung in Hebrew)
Spanish (Nuevo Jerusalem)

Middle East Crisis
Wailing Wall

Sonora Desert

Biblical Studies
"new" Jerusalem
Promised Land

Sports Record-Keeping
the asterisk