Boldly Go: The Gospel of Star Trek

Boldly Go: The Gospel of Star Trek September 17, 2018

This is part of a six-week sermon series “Resistance: Justice Heroes From the Bible and the Big Screen.” The preaching text is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Remember a few weeks ago, we talked about “bad words” and “good words?” Well, there is a new “d-word” that is off-limits in some circles. It’s “diversity.” All of a sudden that has become a trigger word, indicating some extreme leftist agenda. Media personality Tucker Carlson went on a tirade about it just this week. Responding to other public figures—who were celebrating diversity—he argued that people get along better, are “more cohesive”as he put it, the more they have in common. And he went on about how much better life is when we live among the people who are like us. It was one of those subtle maneuvers in which he didn’t exactly, directly say anything racist … but the implication was clear: Like Laura Ingram before him, who went on a similar rant about “shifting demographics that have been forced by us.” The message behind this increasingly common nationalist rhetoric is that popular culture is forcing us to interact with people who don’t look like us, and wouldn’t it be great if life were simple again and everyone stayed segregated in their own homogenous communities and schools and maybe even had separate water fountains?

It’s not just TV hosts. The Governor of Maine said not too long ago, while holding up mugshots of immigrants and African Americans, “The enemy right now … are people of color or people of Hispanic origin” He said that, y’all. Just right out loud. The governor. Of. Maine. And he’s not alone. In this current climate, politicians are winning races on … well, race. And the preservation of a “good old days” mentality, calling out a nostalgia vote around this idea that everything was better and nicer and happier when people were not forced to interact across cultural and racial divides.

What are they so afraid of?

Clearly, folks in these small and scared little circles missed the memo of Star Trek, which is to “boldly go” where none have gone before; to blaze new trails, and more importantly, to promote cooperation and friendship across all kinds of barriers—cross-cultural and interstellar boundaries if needed.

How do you capture the essence of a story that has spanned five decades—amounting to 14 movies, six different TV series, and more than 700 episodes? Maybe you can’t. Like scripture itself, which also spans many generations and mines a complex field of character and geography, maybe you can’t capture it in a single 20-minute message, so we work in broader themes.

The narrative world of Star Trek may be complex. But we can’t really do a sermon series about resistance in movie themes without boldly going there, at least in part.

The heroes of Star Trek, in any generation, stand apart from other movies in our “resistance” series because Kirk, Spock and all the rest of the leaders of the Starship Enterprise are not really out to defeat evil. Yes, they sometimes get into conflict situations … but that’s because their primary mission is to travel the galaxy and promote relationships across all kinds of barriers. That work of subverting norms and crossing social boundaries inevitably leads to discomfort. But they demonstrate that most of the time, the “other” is not pure villain, but one who has been misunderstood. Basic lack of understanding is what most often leads to conflict; and so they are working for a better world through diplomacy. They lead a resistance, not against some villainous “other,” but against bigotry and prejudice of all kinds. And they get to fly cool spacecraft while they’re at it!

From the earliest days of the original series, the crew was ahead of its time. The show featured women in power, interracial and even inner-planetary relationships (including the first kiss between a black and a white person ever shown on screen), with alien races who were once enemies sometimes showing up as allies in later shows. There’s even a countercultural vision of economic equality present in this fictional world, because the federation has no currency.

The storylines evolved over time, but the newer movie franchise has stayed faithful to this theme. Even the most recent movie (which I realize the true fans deemed the worst episode ever) reinforces that underlying message of equality and diversity. Near the beginning, we hear voiceover narration of Captain Kirk, reading an entry from his Captain’s log: “We continue to search for new lifeforms in order to establish firm diplomatic ties.” This has always been the spirit of the Star Trek narrative, from the earliest series to the recent films. There is “strength in unity,” as Lt. Uhura tells Krall at one point. The takeaway from the latest film is that the Federation—despite its imperfections—is still ultimately good and promotes peace in a critical way. Like the original series, the more recent movies reinforce the message that strong alliances across the universe are our best bet at survival. We are stronger together than apart.

This is precisely the message that Paul conveys to the church at Corinth in our scripture today: We are better together than apart.

Like many of the early Christian communities, the gathering at Corinth was made up of a diverse body of believers; people from different religious and social backgrounds, and, in this case, with different spiritual gifts to offer. Paul acknowledges the basic human impulse to sequester ourselves in pods of like-minded people. He saw Laura Ingram and Tucker Carlson and the Governor of Maine coming, ages ago … He acknowledges that it is easier to form clicks with people who are like us–but, he cautions, that is not what following Jesus looks like.

And then he unfolds this image of the Church as a literal body—the body of Christ. He paints a picture of all these moving parts, functioning together as a whole. The message is that the Church is to be not just about tolerance, but interconnectedness. Dependance. The call to life in community is to be literally a part of one another. When one member is hurting, all are hurting. Rejoice together, know another’s suffering as our own.

Paul didn’t invent this idea of a body representing a community. In fact, there’s some flagrant plagiarism going on here and he should probably cite his sources. This was a commonly employed metaphor, but in the popular culture of the day, that image of the body was used to reinforce systems of hierarchy. “Every body has to have a head,” Caesar might say … “And I am it. Somebody has to make decisions for the people.” “Every body needs a strong arm,” Herrod might say. “And I am it. Somebody has to exert force to maintain order.” “Every body needs its feet and hands,” Pilate might say. “There has to be a subservient working class, to do all the work.”

Well Paul takes that body and turns it upside down. He uses the Empire’s own language against itself. He paints a picture where the eyes and the ears and the kneecaps have as much power as the head or the arm. Not only are all equal, all are interrelated. One is no good without the other.

When you can take the symbol of hierarchy and transform it into the symbol of equity and justice that is the Kingdom of God—that is what you call resistance.

And how do you upend the icons of hierarchy and patriarchy? You build bodies with a wide range of strengths; you create vital communities that thrive on diversity and equal representation, rather than insular pods of scared and like-minded people.

Maybe that’s why some of the most powerful stories of diversity and equality happened behind the scenes of the Star Trek world, not on the screen.  

Before Chris Pine was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, the original series was breaking down barriers and ahead of its time on so many fronts. The story goes that Nichelle Nichols, enjoying the great success of her role as Lt. Uhura, was going to pursue other opportunities. She loved the work on the show, but thought “making it” in the industry meant Broadway. So she told director Gene Roddenberry that she was going to quit after the first season. Distressed at the thought of losing one of his biggest stars, he told her to take the weekend and think about it.

Over that weekend, Norris went to an NAACP fundraiser where one of the promoters came over to her and said, “There’s someone here who would like to meet you. He says he’s your biggest fan.” Norris turns and sees coming toward her, Martin Luther King himself. Seeing her face, King laughed and said, “Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your biggest fan. I am a Trekkie.”

She talked to King about the important work he was doing, and said, “I wish I could be there marching with you.” “No, you don’t understand,” said King. “We don’t need you out there; you are marching, you are reflecting what we’re trying to do.” When she mentioned that she was considering leaving the show, his face got serious. He said, “No, you can’t do that. For the first time, we’re being seen the world over as we should be seen. This is the first show that Coretta and I will allow our children to stay up and watch.”

Needless to say: that lieutenant stayed at her post. And she continued to boldly go where women of color had not gone before. In television, and in positions of authority.

This is how Star Trek has always modeled resistance by way of representation. You tell a story of the world not as it is, but as it could be. If we were all a bit more bold.

There was another line in Kirk’s captain log, at the beginning of Star Trek Beyond, that’s stuck with me. He says, “If the universe is truly endless, are we not forever striving for something out of reach?”

Well, maybe that’s true. Maybe the idea of overcoming all boundaries of race and class and economics and religion and gender … maybe that dream is just a dream, and we’ll never quite reach it this side of the universe.

But it’s the mystery of an unknowable God, made known in our neighbors, that keeps us looking. That keeps us moving toward a more just world, resisting empire and hierarchy, and looking for something holy in the stranger—maybe even the alien.

As disciples of Christ, we are called to resist the impulse to isolate ourselves; or to create insular communities with only “like us” people. We are called to resist norms where everybody looks and thinks like us, and to go boldly into a future that overcomes the boundaries of these mortal human institutions.

Maybe the most distinctive thing about Star Trek, all things considered, is that it’s a show about the future—but that future is not dystopian. Think about how rare that is … Most fictional future worlds, especially in science fiction, show deep discord and dysfunction, not peace and prosperity. Why do you suppose that is? What are we afraid of?

Maybe, like all species before us, we just fear the unknown. But in the life of discipleship, that fear is transformed to a bold faith in the connectedness of all things. That’s where we learn the stranger is not an alien, but another part of our own body, vital to our being, essential to the whole of community.  The call of this particular trek, this mission, is learning that we are all connected—hands and feet, head and heart, eyes and Vulcan ears … Only together do we live long and prosper.

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