This is part 2 of “Theology in the ‘Verse,” which deals with Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series as it is continued in the feature film Serenity. This post contains spoilers, so if you are planning on watching the episodes or movie, check them out first and then come back to read and comment!
What do we believe in? How do we perform that belief? These are some of the most common — and challenging — questions that humanity wrestles with. Questions like this, the big questions, bind all of us together as human beings. The Latin verb “to bind” is religio, from which our English word religion is derived. When we ask questions about belief (among others) we’re re-presenting that human beings are homo religious, that these questions lie at the core of what makes us human. And these questions also lie at the heart of Serenity.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds wrestles with what he believes in throughout the film. There’s a quiet moment between him & former crew member Shepherd (Pastor) Book on Haven, where Book has taken up residence … and occasionally offers Serenity a place to hide and recuperate.
Book: Only one thing’s going to walk you through this now. Belief.
Mal: You know I always look to you for counsel, but sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’t looking for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.
Book: Why when I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God? … Sort of man they’ll like to send believes hard; kills, and never asks why.
Book knows Mal well, perhaps knows him the best out of all his shipmates. This is more than just a warning from someone who lived a hard life before, given to one who has the same kind of life now. It’s a challenge to Mal’s own identity and character. What, exactly, does Mal believe in?
The Operative, a one-man marine combat unit with a twisted sense of honor and drama, is the one referred to by Book, that the highest echelons of political & military leadership will send to find the runaway River Tam. He casts a shadow across the entire film, even when he’s not making an appearance onscreen. He and Mal cross paths several times; during their penultimate confrontation, there’s an interesting exchange.
The Operative: Are you willing to die for your beliefs?
Mal: I am… [they draw. Mal fires first, and the Operative is forced to take cover.] ‘Course, that ain’t exactly plan A.
What transpires is that Mal believes in a very different way than the Operative. Whereas the Operative believes “hard,” without questioning orders — he even says, to Mal, that his work is quite evil (though necessary, from his & the Parliament’s point of view) — Mal is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, both about the work that is to transpire and if his crew can accomplish it.
So when Book tells Mal with his dying breath, “I don’t care what you believe; just believe it,” it isn’t a 25th-century pastor endorsing a froofy, happy-dappy pluralism that says everyone can believe whatever they want and we can all just get along. He’s dying on orders from someone who believes differently, and it’s doubtful Book would say that belief is okay with him. He’s reflecting Mal’s character back to him and asking him to choose many of the myriad reasons why he needs to do the necessary thing: for the sake of the ‘verse, to challenge his old Alliance foe, to maintain his integrity, revenge for the deaths of his many friends and partners, to prevent River from being recaptured and bent to repressive purposes… Mal has to believe in the rightness of his cause and in the people who are around him.
He has to believe in them more than he does in himself. To believe in yourself these days has turned into a bit of an idol, though it is clear that a lack of fundamental respect for your own abilities cripples your mission or plan from the start. Mal’s pilot Wash’s belief in himself, reflected by his creed, “I am a leaf on the wind,” is fundamental to flying Serenity with nerves of steel through the battle between the Alliance fleet and the subhuman Reavers. But even his unparalleled skill in flying can’t finally save him from death at the hands of the Reavers. Mal doesn’t believe with naiveté; he’s been through the Battle of Serenity Valley. Even the rightness of your cause and people you trust can’t overcome every obstacle. But without his cause and the community he has assembled, Mal is nothing more than a sometime trader and all-the-time criminal.
Mal believes with humility. He invites the crew’s participation in the final mission to get the message of Miranda out to the ‘verse, because the crew is the beloved community, which is raucous and messy and traitorous (Jayne) and dangerous (River) and a whole host of other less-than-perfect things…but always bound together by Mal’s profoundly religious determination that they are crew, are family, are loved. His willingness to show exceptional grace and forgiveness and understanding, even when it is by all accounts idiotic to do so, is what sets Mal apart. And given his boundless love and trust in his crew, and the pressing cause of Miranda, he finds he is able to believe, at last. He may not believe in God like people in our universe do; but he does believe in something larger than himself…and he loves with all of who he is.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7,12)