Oct 12, 2009

contemporary mythologies

Is it just me, or are TV series better these days about accurately and intelligently broaching some deep and important topics? Well, okay I know it's not just me, because Speaking of Faith ran a program on TV and Parables of Our Time which was really cool. And their mention of Battlestar Galactica was the last push I needed to check it out; a few of my friends also said I would enjoy the mix of SciFi story and Religion.

The series presents a story of war between humans and machines set, presumably, in the far future and in a distant part of the galaxy. The humans live in colonies named for (and presumably located within?) Zodiac constellations - Caprica, Gemini, etc. The humans create a race of cybernetic machines as tools to improve their lives. The machines - cylons - rebel against the humans. There's a long war between them, but they declare an armistice. After 40 years though, the cylons return to destroy all of humanity. That's where the series starts.

An interesting twist of the series is that the cylons are more religiously zealous than the humans. The humans somewhat superficially maintain a "pagan" religious tradition that resembles the mythologies of ancient Rome and Greece; by contrast the cylons are deeply devoted to their faith in the "One True God" that's apparently inspired by monotheistic fundamentalism.

I have to say so far I've thought the religious themes and concepts explored by the series have been pretty average. There's nothing grossly inaccurate nor offensive, but the writers lack some of the subtlety and nuance of fuller religious reflection. A few episodes I watched last night raised the bar a bit, and I'm hoping it continues to improve in season 3.

One of the episodes depicted a scene with a human priest counseling one of the characters after they've done something, uh ... really bad.

(Priest) Cavill: Chief Tyrol, I am Brother Cavill. I understand you've asked for religious counseling.
Tyrol: I never really believed in psych therapy. My father was a priest.
Cavill: I see. You thought you'd have an easier time with a priest than a real doctor.
Tyrol: Okay. I pray to the gods every night. But I don't think they listen to me.
Cavill: Do you know how useless prayer is? Chanting and singing and mucking about with old half-remembered lines of bad poetry. And you know what it gets you? Exactly nothing.
Tyrol: Are you sure you're a priest?
Cavill: I've been preaching longer than you've been sucking down oxygen. And in that time, I've learned enough to know that the gods don't answer prayers. We're here o­n our own. That's the way they set things up. We have to find our own answers, our own way out of the wilderness without a nice little sunny path all laid out in front of us in advance.
Tyrol: That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to find my way.
Cavill: Well, it's not going to get better until you see what the problem is. And the problem is, you're screwed up, heart and mind. You. Not the gods or fate or the universe. You.
Tyrol: Thanks for the pep talk.

I had to pause the DVD at this point. This is a perfect example of a big distinction between Abrahamic and most pagan theologies. Judaism was the first major religion (of which we know) to espouse the idea of a god who was compassionately oriented towards humanity. By contrast, the pagan gods of Assyria, Babylon, Canaan, Egypt and Greece were only superficially interested in the well-being of mankind. By and large, pagan peoples offered sacrifice and prayer to the gods of nature in an attempt to barter favor from those who would really rather pursue their own interests. The pagan gods viewed humanity the way we might view a hive of bees - good when they give us honey, but also annoying when they sting us; insignificant creatures to be merely used or swatted.

Of course the exchange hints at other theological ideas - deism vs. theism, fate vs. free will, etc. But this is was, in my opinion, the meatiest theological material in this particular episode. It inspired me to include some ancient Greek mythology in my essay, "Themes and Theologies from Primeval Myths of the Ancient Near East and Today." The myths I'll explore in the essay ...
From the Ancient Near East:

  • Hebrew Genesis

  • Babylonian Enûma Eliš

  • Babylonian Legend of Adapa

  • Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh

  • Ugaritic Baal Epic

  • Egyptian Nu and benben Myths

  • Greek Theogony


  • J.R.R. Tolkien's Silmarilion

  • C.S. Lewis's Narnia

  • George Lucas's Star Wars

  • Battlestar Galactica

I'm sure I'm missing some obvious or important contemporary "mythologies" ... ?


Michelle said...

My husband is really into Battlestar, but every time I watch I end up having dreams about the cylons and I don't like that! haha! Interesting thoughts though. I think it irks me that the cylons are more devout than the humans, because they aren't real.

Michelle @ livingaliturgy

Saint said...

Also, to say the obvious concerning your quote... the Abrahamic religions, and Christianity specifically, were the first to say that we're the one's that are screwed up, not God. And which is the singular point behind salvation. If we were simply perfect beings, what need have we of a Savior? And if we were perfect beings... how to explain what we've done to each other and the Earth?

luke said...

That's funny Michelle. My wife had a dream about Battlestar Galactica the other night too.

I'm really into the whole SciFichology themes exploring the intersections of technology, artificial intelligence, and consciousness. Matrix, Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, etc.

It's worth thinking about the notion of God revealing Himself to second-hand cybernetic creations. The truth of the matter is we're moving closer and closer towards the "technological singularity" - i.e., an AI system with sensory abilities and processing capacity on par with a human being. So we should consider the theological ramifications.

C.S. Lewis made a similar endeavor with his Space Trilogy series. Written when we did not know if there could be life on Mars or Venus, he set the story of a human traveling to these planets meeting with alien races who each had their own relationships with God. Fr. Obregon has pointed out some other "Christian" SciFi that I'm going to check out ... some day.


Saint said...

Dude, I've said it before. Read Philip K Dick. You won't regret it.