Christianity is supposed to be the religious equivalent of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Its advertising and marketing materials proclaim constantly that its adherents are, ideally, the cream of the crop of the entire civilized universe. The people serving on the Enterprise and Christians alike are both supposed to be the best their universe has to offer. But in reality, Christianity is a lot more like Red Dwarf–minus the sense of humor, self-awareness, and cleverness. And we can tell which it is by how its very own people react to their bad apples and their broccoli.
The Good Apples.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (hereafter called simply Star Trek or TNG), which ran on TV initially from 1987 to 1994, was the second generation of television shows set in the Star Trek universe. It occurs to me that babies conceived the night this program ended are now graduating from college and staring at their student loan repayment booklets, so here’s a very good viewing guide for anybody who wants to catch the good bits of this iconic series and become acquainted with its most important highlights. For completionists, the entire run is on Netflix (and if you do watch it, don’t miss the season 5 episode “The Inner Light,” which is my personal favorite, or season 3’s powerful “The Enemy.”).
Taking place some 70 years after Captain Kirk’s run, Star Trek: The Next Generation inhabits a universe in which humanity has largely eliminated all the terrible stuff that humans have dealt with for most of our existence. Though there are some notable exceptions (see “The Enemy”), for the most part humans and their many allied races work together now in peace and harmony. Hell, there’s not even really money anymore. In the Star Trek universe, people motivate themselves through self-improvement, personal challenge, and learning and exploration.
It feels downright quaint to write that paragraph. Nowadays, we’re awash in futuristic dystopias–from Panem to the Rattling Ark, from Battle School to Tris’ Chicago, from the Republic of Gilead to the vast theme park of Westworld, from the ‘Verse to Epsilon Eridani, the SF genre is blossoming with washed-out, depressing, oppressive, authoritarian hellholes full of bright-eyed young people with extraordinary inborn talents who either choose to fight or are chosen to oppose their worlds’ governments and leaders. For all that our world is actually stumbling upwards toward progress, very few of these fictional universes nowadays seem very optimistic about humanity’s future.
Years earlier, Star Trek showed viewers a universe in which humans had finally done it right–one in which the main problems people faced came from other sources rather than our own greed, fear, and egocentrism. Little wonder that at the time it came out, I remember people complaining about its care-bear world. Care Bears were a popular children’s toy at the time; they were colorful teddy bears that exemplified certain traits, like cheerfulness or joy or good luck, and they were almost always good to each other. (Do you need to ask which one was my favorite?) The characters on Star Trek were like that: almost impossibly good, almost impossibly kind, almost impossibly competent.
And even less wonder that the Christians I knew at the time were absolutely enraged at Star Trek’s utopian vision of the future–since religion was largely presented in a very negative light when it was mentioned at all. Christianity in particular barely existed as a fringe religion anymore–and yet people were doing great without it!
The TV in the Closet.
It was that criticism from our religious peers that led me and Biff, who secretly were both wild about the series and always had been, to buy a little television on the sly so we could be sure to catch the end of the series. We kept it hidden in the closet and brought it out just to watch that show and the Olympics, since that drama around Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding was going on around that time; we’d sit on the floor in the study and watch those two programs like we were expecting the Pentecostal Secret Police to knock on our door at any second.
I’m not even sure exactly why we liked Star Trek that much, considering that our peers were correct: its view of religion, particularly the really invasive and controlling variant we’d bought into, was not especially positive (in one of the movies the original crew runs into an alien who is pretending to be the Christian god!), and the show’s view of humans was way too positive considering that in our religious worldview people were intrinsically evil and bad-hearted. Suspiciously liberal, suspiciously atheistic, suspiciously scientific, suspiciously educated, Star Trek was a nightmare land for fundagelicals, who wrote and proclaimed their opposition to its perceived moral relativism many times back then and even years after the show ended. (That said, some of them try to subvert its themes to claim that the show has a great many Christian values.)
But something about it still resonated with me and my then-husband. Like millions of other Americans, we faithfully watched it every single week despite those perceived flaws.
Maybe one of the reasons I liked the show was that it portrayed a group of ultra-competent people at the top of their game who worked together more or less seamlessly. Their captain knew his ship inside and out; his officers were chosen for their core competencies and skills apparently without regard for sex, orientation, species, or anything else. Most of them tried their best to expand their minds and embrace other people, even people who had very different cultures and customs. Sure, they faced obstacles–but they found ways to get past and through those obstacles while doing their best to adhere to their ideas about morality.
In terms of conflicts, this show was more players vs. environment than players vs. players. And in terms of conflict resolution, the answers were often found in cooperation, diplomacy, and quick-witted ideas that often went well outside the box. And sometimes there simply weren’t any perfect answers regarding a problem the characters faced, so the captain and crew had to just pick the least-bad option out of the array of bad options they had at their disposal.
The crew of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) were almost all, to put it mildly, the very epitome of the term “good apples.” Were they realistic? Some might say yes, some might say no, but most of them were doing their best at least.
The Bad Apples.
The crew members of Star Trek were so good, in fact, that in one episode of the British science-fiction TV series Red Dwarf, there’s actually a scene where a character explicitly refers to Star Trek as an example of how really, really good people behave towards each other–as a contrast to how people in his world behave:
KRYTEN: You would gamble your safety for a mere android? Is this the human value you call “friendship?”
LISTER: Don’t give me the Star Trek crap. It’s too early in the morning.
It’s not like the show doesn’t constantly reference Star Trek. Almost every episode contains some kind of good-natured jab at the American show. But here we see Lister flat-out comparing his ship–in a very unfavorable way–to the Enterprise!
To add to the awesomeness of their riffing, Patrick Stewart (who played Captain Jean-Luc Picard on ST:TNG) at one point caught a random episode of Red Dwarf, thought that it was illegally imitating his own show, and picked up his phone to call his lawyers–until he saw something on Red Dwarf that he’d never, ever have seen on his show (I wonder what–though frankly, any episode of Red Dwarf would probably have done for an example)! I don’t think anybody would need more than a few minutes’ exposure to know that it definitely wasn’t trying to duplicate that far more august and dignified program.
To get this kind of awesomeness, you have to catch Patrick Stewart in a playful moment while in costume between takes.
To the contrary: Red Dwarf’s creators set its universe and its crew up against that trope of the super-evolved, super-civilized, super-urbane spacefaring culture. It was more realist than optimist, and its constant callbacks to those super-evolved tropes, right down to the occasional “Captain’s Logs” that Lister and Holly sometimes create entries for–and its subsequent lampshading and subverting of those tropes– were a big part of the series’ charm.
One of the ways in which Red Dwarf differed so massively from Star Trek: The Next Generation, I’d go so far as to say, was in how its crew members behaved toward each other and what they were like as people.None of the Boys from the Dwarf are particularly good people. Arnold Judas Rimmer is a mess from head to toe–neurotic, weird, domineering, petty, vindictive, and cowardly. He aspires to greatness and aches for a command role on the ship, even though he categorically lacks every single trait, personal habit, or talent that might get him there. The dude can’t even learn Esperanto after years of study! He once reveals to an Inquisitor judging his life,
My father was a half-crazed military failure; my mother, a bitch-queen from Hell. My brothers had all the looks and talent. What did I have? Unmanageable hair and ingrowing toenails. Yes, I admit I’m nothing. But from what I started with, nothing is up.
Arnold’s bunkmate Dave Lister is also a mess, but in the opposite directions. Dave is a likeable enough fellow, but he is also a complete gadabout, space bum, and party animal. He only signed up to serve aboard the titular ship Red Dwarf because he wanted to get off the planet he’d been stranded on. He hates working, has no discipline, and reeks of curry pretty much 24/7. His big contribution to the human race is the invention of the “beer milkshake.”
Most of the rest of the characters in the series are seriously broken in some way or another. The Cat is selfish, vain, arrogant, and self-serving to a fault. Holly, the ship’s computer, has “gone peculiar” (in his own words) over his long period of loneliness before awakening Dave. He often deliberately misleads and deceives the crew for a laugh. The android Kryten is as passive-aggressive as any Southern guy, yet programmed to serve people he doesn’t and indeed cannot ever respect. The alien species that the crew encounters are duplicitous, mean-spirited, violent, and even mind-bendingly cruel. Hell, they don’t even like their own alternative-future selves.
When we finally see the crew of the Red Dwarf themselves in various flashbacks and time-traveling episodes, we discover that they are the bottom of the barrel–as one might expect for a long-term mining operation. They are dissolute alcoholics and assorted malcontents whose path to service aboard the ship was as happenstance and as poorly-considered as Lister’s had been.
And yet even amid this ocean of terrible people, an ocean that distinctly includes himself, even Dave Lister knows what to use as a reference when it comes to talking about what a really good ship and a crackerjack crew look like. He knows that that ideal looks exactly like Star Trek, and he knows too that he bears as much resemblance to anyone on the crew of the Enterprise as he does to a piece of overcooked broccoli.
Speaking of Broccoli.
Somehow, on a ship full of good apples like the Enterprise, one bad apple managed to slip through the cracks–and it was Broccoli.
Even so, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Reginald “Broccoli” Barclay is not exactly a bad apple. He’s more like a bit of an accident, it always seemed. The crew of the good ship Enterprise initially wonder how this doofus got onboard their ship at all, much less managed to get into a nice position there. Though well-educated, he totally lacks the confidence, discipline, and ambition that his shipmates possess in such abundance. When the ship’s nerd-in-residence, young Wesley Crusher (played by the hapless Wil Wheaton, whose Tumblr is required reading for nerds of all kinds), calls a guy “Broccoli” behind his back, you know that poor sod’s going to be ten kinds of sadness.
Indeed, Barclay has gotten an assignment to Starfleet’s flagship, its ultimate prize, the plumbob to end all plumbobs, despite totally lacking the qualities that someone would normally expect to see in the cream of the crop of a civilization that seemed to begin and end with cream-of-the-crop people. There’s some argument over how he managed to get a good enough recommendation to ever land on the Enterprise, with one officer wondering if Barclay’s previous commanding officer maybe exaggerated his qualifications to get him the hell off his ship.
Once ensconced, Barclay’s limits become obvious very quickly. He never seems to show up for his shifts on time. He stammers and fidgets nervously. Worse, he makes junior-level mistakes constantly. Thanks to that combination of cluelessness and personality, he finds himself becoming the very first member of the Enterprise to be evaluated as “unsatisfactory.” Basically, he’s managed to get through his education and his initial days in Starfleet with a good enough evaluation to get onto the Enterprise, but once there and surrounded by really good Starfleet officers his less ideal personal and professional qualities and his general ineptitude began to show.
Of course, Barclay is aware that he was nowhere near the level of the rest of the crew of the ship. Instead of seeing this disparity as a challenge, though, he retreats into fantasy roleplaying–where he can act out his deep dislike of his superiors, his yearning for respect from others, and his scorching infatuation with the ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi. He spends so much time on the holodeck as the man he wishes he was that he ends up running late for work–it’s almost an addiction for him.
It isn’t until he gets possessed by an alien mind-probe that temporarily mega-boosts his intelligence that Barclay becomes more of an asset to his peers. After that incident, he seems to retain some of the boost–and begins to come out of his shell a little more. Years later, some of his shipmates fondly remember Barclay’s holodeck simulations–which he eventually begins inviting them to enjoy along with him. So his very shaky beginning with the Enterprise eventually evens out for him.
The funny thing is, Barclay was initially a cameo appearance. The actor involved, Dwight Schultz, was one of the original A-Team cast (as “Mad Dog” Murdock, of course). He was friends with some of the TNG cast members, so eventually one of them found out he was a huge fan of the show and got him in as a character. But Barclay turned out to be very popular, prompting the show’s writers to bring him back several times.
Reginald Barclay was, it seemed, the bad apple that made the goodness of the good apples that much more apparent. He was such a bad apple that his superiors had no idea what to do with him. Captain Picard made it his mission to redeem the junior officer (though he did delegate the task to someone else!). People on that staff went out of their way to help Barclay achieve the potential they hoped was buried somewhere in the guy.
In becoming the contrasting note on the crew, he turned out to be that little zot of relatable imperfection that made the perfection of his shipmates all the more obvious. And his presence went a long way toward reassuring viewers who maybe had wondered where all the sub-par Starfleet staffers and officers were.
In short, Barclay’s presence was a contradictory mark and counterpoint, a foil for the otherwise perfect image the crew presented.
He was, like Lister and Rimmer on Red Dwarf, very easily the worst crewmember aboard his ship for a while there–though his ship was full of really great people instead of the dregs of the known solar system! And his character works as a foil precisely because everyone knows how good the crew of the Enterprise is.
When we encounter an off-note like Barclay, it arrests our attention. We stop and wonder how he got there. We know after seeing him hem and haw and fumble through a scene that he’s not the usual quality of officer we’ve come to expect from this crew. We don’t think less of the crew for his presence there; we just wonder how they’re going to resolve this anomaly among them. And we know they will, because their commanding officers simply won’t tolerate having someone like that walking their ship’s halls and possibly endangering lives through some screwup. Someone like Jean-Luc Picard will not stand for having someone like Reginald Barclay floating around messing everything up that he touches and wrecking his crew’s good name.
And Captain Picard has the power and the ability and most importantly the desire to change the situation.
A Sign of the Broken System.
If Christianity actually lived up to its marketing, it would not only have way fewer bad apples in its bushel basket, but it would have an effective way to rid itself of those bad apples. It’d have a way to get them into line. It’d have a way to call them out, to rein them in, and to correct them.
But that’s decidedly not what we see when we look at Christians, in the main.
We all know about bad apples in Christianity. I’ve written about that idea many times. We know that hypocrisy–the quality of being a “bad apple” in a religion that demands perfection of adherents–is the religion’s defining feature. We know that hypocrisy is not only baked into its system but that it is an inevitable outgrowth of how that system is designed and administered. We know that hypocrisy is all but an essential element in Christianity, in fact, one that its leaders may wring their little hands over but somehow seem completely incapable of resolving despite the unilateral power they have claimed for themselves over every single aspect of life and death among their congregations.
So nobody ever wonders how a total hypocrite ever got into any Christian group. Very few people look at Christians as the moral powerhouses and ethical strongholds that they claim to be–and less every year hold that view. You may remember in comments recently that a number of our readers say they actively avoid businesses that advertise their religious affiliation–and some business owners/operators say they demand payment up-front and scrupulous double-checking from people who are very loud about being Christian, while waitstaff dread seeing Christians occupying their restaurant’s tables. Most of us avoid voting for politicians that pander to the Religious Right. We are never surprised anymore to hear about yet another minister caught sticking his dick somewhere it doesn’t belong or taking money even from children and widows–my phone sends me a list of dozens of such crimes every other day now.
In short, nobody encounters selfless giving, honesty, kindness, unconditional high regard, or anything like that and immediately asks, all starry-eyed and wonderstruck, “Is this the value you call ‘Christian love‘/objective morality/whatever else they’re trying to claim?” When we do encounter a Christian like that, we are growing less and less likely to view their positive traits as the result of their faithful adherence to Christianity.
The hypocrites we see, rather, are not Broccolis among the good apples. They are, rather, the crew of the Red Dwarf hurtling toward their collective doom.
And they don’t even have humor to save them.
Look to how a group handles its bad apples, and how their bad apples show up against the rest of the group, to find a broken system.
This is the kind of awesomeness I’m talking about.