There's a corny theory that religion started when human beings stood on two legs and lifted their heads to the sky. Corny, but with a grain of truth.
In the recently-released science-fiction thriller Serenity, two characters are having a conversation about the emptiness of space. One suggests that when you come to the edge of the universe, it can drive you crazy. The other says that he's been to the edge, and all he saw was more space.
Such unexplainable expansiveness puts authors and audiences in the mood to tell and hear stories with the words "love," "believe," "sin," "sermon," "evil," even "Christian" (once in Serenity-- fun), without once blushing.
This is the power of AD storytelling, storytelling made possible by a certain inspiring and polarizing person who lived on the tipping point between BC and AD and whose memory, if not living presence (this is a matter of belief) still exerts a huge influence over the whole world.
I come at Serenity as a newbie; I admit it. I am not familiar with Serenity's writer and director Joss Whedon. I had to google him to find out he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and helped write Toy Story. Nor did I know that Serenity is a spin-off of the cult television series Firefly, also created by Whedon. I just knew that Ithilien, the friend of a blogger friend, considered Serenity "a great anti-Pelagian movie," and I have to be there when theology and film collide.
Pelagianism, according to Ithilien, is the heretical belief that "human effort can bring in [God's] Kingdom." Serenity's bad guys are The Alliance, an interplanetary government which rules several planets in a solar system colonized by Earth. They are plotting to pacify the entire solar system through mind control. The chief villain explains that The Alliance is trying to make things better by creating "a world without sin."
The heroes of Serenity are rebels and thieves, Robin Hood types, who once lost a civil war against The Alliance and now are just trying to survive. They and their friends are the ones who use "love," "sermon," and "Christian."
Both sides use "believe."
So Whedon recreates the age-old theological battle between Judgment and Grace. Guess who wins?
Be advised this is no prayer meeting. The violence is near constant. Yuck. But it's bearable, if you bring a big coat to the theater, hug it to yourself when the going gets rough, and use it to shield your eyes during the worst parts. I hugged myself so hard I could hardly lift my arms afterwards.
If you can get past the shooting and screaming, Serenity packs an entertaining punch: you'll see elements of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, Star Trek, anime, kung fu, The Matrix, A Clockwork Orange (thanks, Todd) and lots of westerns. It also had a curious kind of cowboy-Kabuki-Theater-of-Dionysus dialect that made it nearly impossible at times to understand the dialogue. Think back to the last time you heard "'tweren't" in a natural conversation. Yes, now you're getting it.
But none of this would've mattered if the movie didn't have a graceful heart. Belief-- without blushing-- is what makes Serenity worthy.
Orson Scott Card, the mega-selling sf author, liked the movie because of the relationships between the characters:
On that ship we had an interlocking community with a history, rather like what has been a-building with Lost and what was developed over the years with Friends (but what never existed in Seinfeld because the main writer, Larry David, doesn't seem to believe in anything, and you can't build a powerful community on a sneer).
The key to this kind of movie is that you create a community that the audience wishes they belonged to, with a leader that even audience members who don't follow anybody would willingly follow.
Card is a born novelist and he is going to focus on relationships inside action. But to me, Card's parenthesis about Seinfeld is the real key to Serenity's merit as good story. A "sneer" can't create a powerful community, but belief can.
Serenity went too fast for me to like or identify much with the characters. I would never want to belong to that community; guns are loud and gunpowder stinks, and I can't count the number of times I would've gotten air-sick on that tumbling spaceship. But I did identify with the characters' desire to create significance from their lives.
I'd like nothing better than to furnish all that empty space with some meaning of life.
(Illustration by Jason Palmer: see the big picture here)