There’s power in the ’verse — and the verse is Revelation 3:15
(Note: Fear not — I hate spoilers as much as you do, and if I’ve done this right there aren’t any here.)
One person with a belief is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests.
— John Stuart Mill
It arrived, and it delivered as promised.
One of Joss Whedon’s strengths as a scriptwriter is that he is not afraid to take a problem to logical extremes. If his characters find themselves in a “one false move and it’s all going to hell in a handcart” situation, likely as not somebody will make that false move and leave the viewer wondering how in bloody blue blazes are they going to get out of this one? During the course of the remarkable SF television series Firefly, the crew of the good ship Serenity found themselves in more than one hell-in-a-handcart fix; in the long-awaited film sequel Serenity they do so again.
In the process they teach us one heckuva lesson about faith.
Start with the words
Not that Joss Whedon’s film discusses the gospel of Jesus the Christ; it doesn’t. Nor did I expect it to (alas), knowing that Whedon’s own thoughts run in a different direction. And his Shepherd Book, as intriguing a character here as he ever was in Firefly, isn’t talking about the Good News when he tells Serenity‘s captain, Malcolm Reynolds, that what will carry Reynolds through the situation he’s facing is belief. When Mal tells him not to bother with a sermon, Book retorts, “When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?”
But that’s the point. The words belief and faith aren’t confined to some esoteric “religious” vocabulary. They’re words from life. They predate the Bible, and as with most of its other words, you’ll need to bring a basic understanding of them with you if you’re going to understand the book that contains them. Mind you, the way the words are used in the Bible will refine your understanding of what its authors/Author mean by them. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.
The Browncoat and the Believer
Here, Mal’s problem is that ever since the bloody Battle of Serenity Valley (depicted in the opening scenes of the Firefly pilot film), when he and his platoon of Browncoat Independents held the line against the enemy Alliance only to be abandoned — and thus, to the grunts on the ground, betrayed — by the Independent leadership, he has believed in nothing. He is a man without a mission, living from one brief job (legitimate or not) to the next, and the only thing he has to hold on to is his ship and crew and the desire to keep them flying.
Serenity’s antagonist is an Alliance operative whose skin color matches his black-ops status. He has no name, no rank, and on paper he doesn’t even exist; yet he is the most dangerous man Reynolds & Co. have ever faced. Why? Because he’s a believer, a word Whedon’s script uses unashamedly. So thoroughly does the Operative believe in the kind of universe the Alliance wishes to create that he will uphold that goal even though he knows he himself can never fit into such a ’verse. (One recalls the question once asked of ministry candidates: “Would you be willing to be eternally damned if it would bring glory to God?”)
Observe these elements of belief:
- Acknowledgment of something other than oneself
- Trust in its rightness
- Readiness to give up any part of one’s self-interest that’s incompatible with it
Shepherd Book knows that an unanchored Mal is no match for such a man. And so, when he says those words guaranteed to make a disciple of Jesus Christ cringe — “I don’t care what you believe; just believe it!” — he isn’t talking about Mal’s eternal destiny. He’s making it clear that Mal lacks the basics of survival as a human being in a turbulent ’verse, especially in the vortex of events that’s caught them.
In Revelation 3:15–16 Christ tells the church at century’s-end Laodicea, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Again, the gospel isn’t in view, but here it’s a given: this is a true church, a “lampstand” (see 1:20), a body of believers who possess the light of the gospel. The problem is that they ain’t doin’ squat with it. They’re hiding their light under the bushel basket, a practice Christ himself ridiculed in the Sermon on the Mount. To them he says, All right, choose! Be a church for all the world to see — or don’t. But for pity’s sake, don’t look like a lamp if you’re not going to shine the light! And don’t expect me to support the activity of a church that’s just messing around.
So what’cha gonna do about it?
A further corollary of belief: It comes with an agenda. Because the Operative believes in the Alliance’s goal, he will do whatever — whatever — is necessary to reach that goal. Mal’s own plan is simply (a) to keep his ship flying and (b) to make whatever living he can. The two agendas will clash, and Mal’s doesn’t have what it takes to come out on top. He needs something more.
Rock vs. sand
One more thing to observe about belief: Ultimately it’s only as sound as its object. Here Book’s advice comes up short. You can believe as earnestly, as energetically, as hard as you can, but your zeal won’t validate your belief, any more than all the sincerity in the world will win for Linus the beatific vision of the Great Pumpkin.
“If Christ has not been raised,” the apostle Paul observes, “then our preaching is vain and your faith also is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). On the other hand, if Christ is who he says he is, then hearing and following him is like building one’s house on rock, but ignoring him is like building it on sand — and it’s clear who’ll still be standing when the flood comes (Matthew 7:24–27).
Similarly, during the war Mal believed with all his heart that God was on the side of the Independents; he held tightly to the cross around his neck and referred to expected air support as “angels.” When the Independents lost, he concluded God didn’t exist — or at least didn’t give a roarin’ rut about Mal — and has been furious with God ever since. His faith was based on a false premise and so was doomed from the start. Likewise, if the Alliance is wise and strong enough to produce a good society, then the Operative’s faith will be vindicated. If not, that faith is futile, and he is “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Belief isn’t mere acceptance, any more than it’s “suspension of disbelief.” It’s not just something that sits on a shelf in your mind. It’s at the core of what you are.
Everyone believes in something or someone. Whom do you believe in?