Into Darkness … and Finding Light?



 I’ll be seeing Star Trek Into Darkness tonight—attending the screening with who knows how many costumed Ferengis and Klingons and perhaps the occasional Horta. And of all the movies I’ve had an opportunity to review this year, this may be the one I’m most intrigued to see. These Star Trek films almost always have something interesting to say about something—and often that “something” centers at least partly on faith.

Which, when you think about it, is strangely counterintuitive.

See, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was one of the entertainment world’s most prominent humanists. Yes, his humanism was fueled by boundless optimism: The future, Roddenberry told us, doesn’t have to be bleak and depressing, filled with alien overlords or bodysnatchers or zombie apocalypses. Human ingenuity and technology will help us solve the problems of tomorrow. Roddenberry’s future was sunny and vibrant—but one made without the help (he believed) of God or gods. And it’s telling that Enterprise captains spent an inordinate amount of time tossing down one false deity or another.

Though raised a Baptist, Roddenberry was already quite skeptical of religion by the time he was a teen. “I guess from that time it was clear to me that religion was largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious things,” he told The Humanist in 1991. “In my own teen life, I just couldn’t see any point in adopting something based on magic, which was obviously phony and superstitious.”

So clear were Roddenberry’s messages of religion-free enlightenment that Brannon Braga, who wrote for and produced three Star Trek series, argued that atheists could and should use the franchise as a sort of secular mythology—Kirk and Spock and McCoy subbing in for Abraham and Moses and Jesus. In 2006 at the International Atheist Conference in Iceland, he said:

Every episode and movie of Star Trek is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry’s imagining of the future … Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. … On Roddenberry’s future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.

But with all due respect to Braga, that doesn’t seem altogether true. Not if you judge the show by the litany of Bible verses it quoted or faith-themed episode titles it used or biblical allusions the show made.

In “The Gamesters of Triskelion” from the original series, Dr. McCoy volunteers to follow Mr. Spock on a dangerous mission, saying, “If you’re going into the lion’s den, you’ll need a medical officer.”

“Daniel, as I recall, had only his faith,” Spock says. “But I welcome your company, Doctor.”

It would seem that Braga’s atheists of the future knew far more about theology and the Bible than some Christians do today. And even if all that knowledge was academic—that folks at Starfleet studied the Bible as one might study works of Plato or Shakespeare, without any spiritual passion—why then, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is Spock’s lifeless body jettisoned out into space while Scotty plays “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes? Seems a strange choice to play in an apparently godless universe.

 Star Trek II (which, admittedly, only involved Roddenberry as a sort of adviser) was just brimming with spiritual, even Christian themes and allusions, from the “Genesis Device” (that would create a living world from a dead one in the blink of an eye) to Spock’s deeply Christ-like sacrifice at the end. For those who haven’t seen the film, Spock braves a fatal dose of radiation in order to repair the Enterprise so it can warp to safety.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Spock tells his captain behind a thick veil of Plexiglass, “… or the one.” Moments later, he breathes his last—having sacrificed everything so that others might live long and prosper. Spock becomes, in that moment, a servant-king. And in his death new life is found.

Of course, it wasn’t Spock’s last breath, after all. The Vulcan is quite literally raised from the dead the very next movie. Sorta fitting, I suppose.

And here’s another irony: The same tune that sent Spock’s body into the great beyond was played during Gene Roddenberry’s own memorial service. Go figure.

For all I hear, and for all we at Plugged In sometimes say, about a dearth of value and faith in entertainment, I think it’s rather difficult to make a purely secular work of art. The very act of creating such art reflects, in a way, God’s own creative nature: When Genesis tells us that we were made in His image, I wonder if it’s possible that our instinct to tell stories, paint pictures and write songs are a big part of that image. He creates things—created us—out of love. And we create out of love, too. Neither love nor creation would be possible without God, and I wonder if there’s an aspect—a hint—of God (even if it can be terribly misguided and go horribly awry) in those most sacred of impulses.

We can ignore God. We can blaspheme Him. We can deny He exists. But if we’re wrong and He does exist, there’s no way we can escape Him. We cannot sever our relationship with Him completely. We may close our eyes to Him, but God still knows us. After all, we are His creation. And our hearts long to beat with His, whether we know it or not, acknowledge it or not. We’re like pots made for a purpose, and even broken we still bear our Master’s prints. Gene Roddenberry had very little use for God when he was alive. But that doesn’t mean that God didn’t have use for him.

When we read through the Bible, we find scads of examples how God used those who didn’t worship or honor Him for His own perfect plans. And I think it’s the same today. Star Trek is covered in God’s fingerprints—and every so often they’re obvious enough for us to see. Will it be the case with Into Darkness? I don’t know yet. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Charity Bishop More than 1 year ago

Interesting thoughts -- I think you'll enjoy some of the conclusions this film reaches (I've been spoiled enough to have some idea of where it's going). Hope you enjoy it! I'm a bit jealous -- I promised to see this with friends, so I have to wait until Sunday to get my fill of Spock, Kirk, and Cumberbach. ;)

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

I think the Star Trek episode that reflected best on Christians was probably "Bread and Circuses."

Jonathan Henry More than 1 year ago

It's also odd that Wrath Of Khan is still so appreciated today despite having little of Roddenberry's influence and yet the first movie is not despite his heavy involvement.

That said, the last Star Trek movie was a fun action film so I'm sure this one should be as well.

Joanna Horton More than 1 year ago

The last paragraphs of this blog evoke Dorothy Sayers' "The Mind of the Maker." Awesome book, awesome concept.

syd collings More than 1 year ago

I agree that you can't really make a purely secular work of art. There is always some kind of belief system being portrayed, be it christian, atheist, buddhist etc. That said, I don't look for spirituality in movies, and if there is any kind of christian reference, i don't read too much into it. I think that some christians tend to look for something that isn't there. But sometimes references are just throw-away and does not mean anything to the movie's message or plot.

I remember reading, on some christian websites, discussions over the 'puny god' reference made in Avengers, and the 'there is only one God and he doesn't dress like that' reference. I appreciated the scenes and thought they were funny, but to me it's just another line. There is no reason to read anything into it.

That said, I also plan on seeing Start Trek Into Darkness this friday and I'm really pumped because I enjoyed the first one :)