Thursday, January 27, 2005

You May Have Noticed I've Added a LINKS Section To My Blog:

  • The Reach” is a new blog by a man whose friendship and counsel I have truly come to value over the past years. Brett Miller is a college professor whose mind and heart will both challenge and edify you.

  • Real Live Preacher” is a blog I discovered several months ago. Created as a forum through which an anonymous pastor could give expression to his frustrations and musings on his life in the ministry, the blog became so frequented that portions of it have now been made into a book. But consider yourself warned—it can be as phenomenally poignant and perceptive as it can be raw and vulgar.

  •” is the website for Sojourner’s magazine, a Christian ministry whose mission is to proclaim and practice the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice. It is consistently stimulating and thought-provoking. Check out the recent interview with Editor-in-Chief, Jim Wallis on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

  • Glomming the Skinny” is a blog maintained by my former Bible college roommate. It’s great, so long as he updates it once in a while—hint, hint…

    These sites ought to keep you busy. I’ve been toying with adding a few more so be sure to check back later as well.


Saturday, January 15, 2005

Semper Reformanda--The Church Must Always Be Reformed

Sorry this is late. I know I forecasted this book review would appear sometime in December of last year, but none of us needs a reminder of how hectic and out of control the holidays can be, right…

Has there been, in the past decade, a more inspirational and concurrently infuriating book than Brian McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christian?

“This stirring fable captures a new spirit of Christianity--where personal, daily interaction with God is more important than institutional church structures, where faith is more about a way of life than a system of belief, where being authentically good is more important than being doctrinally "right," and where one's direction is more important than one's present location. Brian McLaren's delightful account offers a wise and wondrous approach for revitalizing Christian spiritual life and Christian congregations.”

I have never read a Christian book that left me more energized, befuddled, angry and encouraged than this book. McLaren’s take on the future of Christianity, through the often maligned eyes of postmodernity, is nothing short of staggering and awe-inspiring. It will deeply and irrevocably challenge all who crack its spine and delve into its pages.

Taking a page from the great C.S. Lewis, McLaren frames his story in a fictional narrative dialogue between an earnest, traditionalist pastor, Dan, who is burned out with the church and planning to quit, and his daughter’s science teacher, Neo, who leads him on an enthusiastic journey of postmodern thought as it applies to the Christian faith.

Something new is struggling to be born. Through Neo, McLaren outlines how the world is on the verge of social, economic, and technological change heading into the 21st century and describes why the practice of Christianity will and must change as a result. As an example of the paradigm shift that is to come, he compares our current social, political, economic and religious landscape to that of the Protestant Reformation and hypothesizes on how radical the church of tomorrow will be as Luther’s is from medievalism.

The Church to a large degree, Neo and McLaren lament, doesn’t even seem to be aware of the change:

“Doesn’t the religious community see that the world is changing? Doesn’t it have anything fresh and incisive to say? Isn’t it even asking any new questions? Has it nothing to offer other than the stock formulas that it has been offering?”

This thesis, that Christianity under modernity is as much wed to cultural accouterments and swelling as was the Medieval Church to Aristotle, is hardly new or unique to this book. It could be argued, however, that McLaren’s voice is the clearest and sharpest of all those who currently prophesize the arrival of a brave new world.

While change on a sociological scale is never easy or painless, McLaren insists that it will occur. The question we must ask ourselves is, will we allow the tide of the future to propel us into the undiscovered country or will we plant ourselves in fierce opposition and watch our influence and persuasiveness ebb away with the surge.

“All ages are ages of change, but not all ages involve transition. The dangers of transition are real. But are the dangers of the status quo less real?”

Finding ourselves perched between two great epochs is a scintillating and precarious position. All that we understand about being a Christian has been conditioned by modernity. Our theology is fundamentally modern, having been fashioned in the modern crucible of thought. One of McLaren’s strongest urgings is that it is not that modernism is bad and postmodernism is good. It’s a matter of appropriate and inappropriate. The church cannot continue on its present course or else it will inevitably run aground on the shoals of irrelevancy and powerlessness.

McLaren does not see postmodernity as a utopia in which Christianity will flourish without restraint. He readily acknowledges that postmodernity, like all other eras before it, will have its own set of unique and challenging hurdles to disseminating the Gospel. Furthermore, there will come a time when postmodernity will be replaced just as modernity is in the process of disappearing. When that day comes, the postmodernists must recognize that their model has become irrelevant and must pass away to make way for a more appropriate, more influential, more suitable model tailored to the burgeoning future.

Does this then mean that it is impossible to own a faith that transcends whatever historical situation one finds oneself in? McLaren doesn’t think so. If that were the case, the church would be irrelevant. But if the essence of Christianity is translatable for all times, than the difficulty we now find ourselves in is merely the growing pains of contextualizing our faith to fit a different time and place.

“[T]he spiritual resurgence that I see brewing is unconventional and even irreverent at times, largely developing outside the boundaries of institutional religion. But that to me says more about the rigidity of our institutions than the darkness of the current spiritual resurgence; it says more about our old wineskins than about the quality of the new wine fermenting around us.”

To transform, we must be brave enough to admit that the church and our participation in it is shaped by our culture and its views. Furthermore, we must not only admit that our time does not hold all the answers, but also admit that in many areas it has failed or been rendered impotent. Christians cannot rail against the failures of our modern world without admitting that that very modernity has shaped, molded and seeped into the very cause they champion.

“Either Christianity itself is flawed, failing, untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial-strength version of it is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision.”

Modernity’s malfunctions are being deconstructed and catalogued every time you turn around: its over-emphasis on objectivity; its uneasiness with mystery and grey areas; its obsession with superficiality; its lust for consumerism; its implicit (explicit?) violence that comes from reducing human phenomena to abstractions; its insistence on conquest and control; its reliance on analytical rationality and its predilection for reducing all ideas to solvable, simple, categorized equations at the expense of creativity and imagination; its need to always argue unyieldingly for absolute rightness which converts the end of debate from understanding and perception to winning and losing; the alienation of individualism; etc.

At times it seems that A New Kind of Christian’s author focuses more on the negatives of modernity than the positives of the future. However, transition must always bring forth criticism before it can give birth to intrinsically positive transformation. Furthermore, McLaren is not interested in writing just one more “how to” manual, but in inspiring his readers to discover the process for themselves. The book does not lay out how we are to then live, but instead points out that a change is on the wind and tries to point to the direction humanity is being blown.

The bulk of A New Kind of Christian is the fleshing out of exactly what the title’s subject looks like. What does evangelism look like in a postmodern context ("Stop counting conversions and start counting conversations")? How does postmodernity talk about salvation? How is the Bible to be read? What does it truly mean to love one’s neighbor and what does that look like? What are the unique challenges and opportunities for the Church in the coming age?

Postmodern Christianity, according to McLaren, does not draw the distinctions of modernity. It is far less interested in labels. Liberal v. Conservative, Protestant v. Catholic—these are distinctions that create walls to ostracize and corral people, not set them free. Postmodernity strives to find the truth and the good in both arguments.

A New Kind of Christian is not meant to be a primer for postmodern Christian living nor even an apologetic or treatise on an emerging creed. It is, simply, the story of seekers who, like myself, have become disillusioned with the limitations of institutionalized American Christianity and are questing for an authenticity and openness in their faith journey—an openness that inculcates an environment in which it is safe to ask the sort of frank and sincere questions which tend to frighten or upset traditionalism; the courage to pioneer fresh ways of seeing the Gospel; a place where right belief takes a back seat to right relationship with God and with our fellow human beings; a place where the questions may be more important than the answers; a place where the destination matters little compared to an honest dialogue and humble pursuit of God.

“The church doesn’t exist for the benefit of its members. It exists to equip its members for the benefit of the world.”

As exhilarating as this book is, it isn't for everyone. The degree to which one considers oneself conservative or evangelical is perhaps the degree to which one will find McLaren possibly heretical and somewhat divergent. There is plenty here to wrestle with. I found myself alternating between resounding yelps of praise and admiration and audible gasps of ignominy and shock. McLaren’s opinions and suppositions of issues such as biblical inerrancy, the validation of experience, the literalness of Scripture, and the questioning of Absolute Truth are points at which I still grapple.

But I for one consider spiritual earthquakes a good thing. We need, in my opinion, to be shaken from our religious lethargy with opinions and insights that challenge our pre-supposed and established principles. Only in honest observation and dialogue do we gain understanding and knowledge. Only in debate are our views sharpened and crystallized. Only in resistance are muscles strengthened. Besides, I'm not entirely convinced he's not right.

One doesn't have to accept all the ideas this book offers to see that many of them ring true and may represent a siren’s call from God to embark on a great and wondrous journey. The Christian may not be new, so much as he/she may be more in sync with the timelessness of Christ’s message and living example instead of the trappings of a modern-day Christianity that substitutes its pet peccadilloes at the expense of God’s heart.

“[The Bible] is a book that we can misinterpret with amazing creativity. Our interpretations reveal less about God or the Bible than they do about ourselves. They reveal what we want to defend, what we want to attack, what we want to ignore, what we’re willing to question. Maybe we need to read [the Bible] less like scholars and more like humble seekers trying to learn whatever we can from it.”

If you are convinced that you already know the whole truth and it's entirely black and white to you; if you're satisfied with the simplicity of "we're going to heaven, they're going to hell"; if planting yourself at a theological location and defending it is your view of apologetics; if you feel you have “arrived” at your faith; if you're convinced that if Jesus were here today he'd be a right- wing fundamentalist than this book is one you should run from as quickly as possible.

“When it comes to other religions, the challenge in modernity was to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong. But I think we have a different challenge in postmodernity. The question isn’t so much whether we’re right but whether we’re good. And it strikes me that goodness, not rightness, is what Jesus said the real issue was—you know, good trees producing good fruit, that sort of thing. If we Christians would take all the energy we put into proving we’re right and others wrong and invested that energy in pursuing and doing good, somehow I think that more people would believe we are right.”

However, if you are looking for a holistic Christian philosophy that rises above the simplistic heaven v. hell, saved v. non-saved, right v. wrong construct that characterizes most implementations of the Christian message; if you are embarrassed by the Christian image created by zealous and unyielding fundamentalists; if you are concerned that the Christian message seems to have been co-opted by those who seem rigid and judgmental rather than loving and compassionate; if you are confident that you don’t have all the answers and, in fact, were never meant to; if you are committed to Jesus but are open to new ways of getting his message out to the world; if the prospect of adventure, mystery and discovery entices you, A New Kind of Christian will be like a breath of fresh air in a stagnant debate.

“Whatever postmodernism philosophy is, it is still in its infancy. Defining it is premature. Just as modernism took nearly two centuries to find its full expression in Enlightenment rationalism, were at least a few decades from anything close to a mature expression of postmodern philosophy.”

Someday postmodernism will be given a name (after all, we don’t refer to modernism as postmedievalism) and hopefully lose the stigma so many in Christian circles have given it. For many of us though, there is no going back. Many, like myself, feel we are balanced on the cusp of a new great awakening. Moving forward, on the other hand, leads to Terra Incognita, treacherous and strewn with the carcasses of sincere but messy mistakes. Has it ever been any different? While doubtless there be dragons here, bold guides like McLaren are all the more essential, marking the path with a bracing vitality and a deep sense of wonder at the motioning hand of God. For all the danger, McLaren intimates, this is the right path.

“I firmly believe that the top question of the new century and new millennium is not just whether Christianity is rational, credible, and essentially true (all of which I believe it is) but whether it can be powerful, redemptive, authentic, and good, whether it can change lives, demonstrate reconciliation and community, serve as a catalyst for the kingdom, and lead to a desirable future.”

FEBRUARY BOOK REVIEW: Donald Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz”

Friday, January 14, 2005

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 7 of 7

These last few examples bring up an interesting point—how the different Treks have varied worldviews and tackle their specific dilemmas in different manners. This can be attributed to multiple factors, not the least of which is the span of time across which the shows were created. “Though set in the future, the attitudes, politics, and culture depicted in each series and film have always reflected the mores of contemporary society,” articulates Dr. Barad. “The ethical dilemmas of the Star Trek universe enable us to better understand our own society and the presuppositions that govern it. By dramatizing these values in a 24th century setting (even to the point of exaggeration), Star Trek provides us with a forum that’s informative as well as entertaining” (xii). In The Original Series, racial issues appear alongside episodes on Vietnam, the Cold War, the duality of man, animal rights, technology run amok, and cult fanaticism. On The Next Generation, America is a rosier place and the series reflects this, which is not to say it does not embrace the fray. Euthanasia, pop psychology, family fidelity, duty, revenge, personal identity, and suicide are just a few of the factors the show addresses. In DS9 the days of our current society are a bit bleaker and the series reflects this by being the darkest of all the Trek progeny—so much so that many, myself included, feel that Gene Rodenberry is spinning in his grave over how his idyllic views of the future have been subverted. DS9 tackled gender issues, homosexuality, drug addiction, greed, and war as both hell and necessity. Voyager constantly hits on medical ethics, as well as genocide, interracial relationships, cloning, capital punishment, and individual rights. While only in its first season, Enterprise has already leapt head first into issues of reproduction, hunting, inter-cultural cooperation, terrorism, vengeance and religious extremism. “Star Trek finds much to criticize about our own world’s societies, and does not pull its punches in showing us just what a mess we have made of our planet” (Barrett 200). Prophets and agents of cultural change always address the hard topics.

While the various series espouse diverse virtues ranging from Aristotelian to Kantian to Platonic, certain core threads run the length of each one:

"[W]e see that each series respects the principle that a rational being should always be treated as an end and never as a means only. Each show places a high value on the autonomy of the individual and the importance of following our duties over our desires. Each endorses the pursuit of altruism over egoistic concerns. Each recognizes the importance of intention over the consequences of an action when evaluating the morality of an action. Each show also agrees that the end does not always justify the means. In any particular situation there is always a right thing to do. All [five] shows also recognize and strive to realize the virtues of compassion, courage, justice, equity, friendship, and temperance" (Barad 351).

The ethical tapestry of Star Trek is rich and muscular. It refuses overall classification while still retaining a distinct and unified theory that, far from arbitrary, accounts for the actions and decisions made by every character in every instance of every episode or film. Star Trek has created a distinct and viable moral code by bringing together the most judicious principles from the totality of history. “[Star Trek’s] overall principles,” claims Dr. Barad, “form an impetus powerful enough to provide direction for our own future” (xiii). While not perfect, this moral code is strikingly powerful enough to stand on its own—a feat astounding for life overall, let alone a television show.

Of course, drama without conflict can hardly be called drama. There is nothing exciting about a race of people who have overcome all obstacles on the way to perfection and now live their lives in a sort of personal and collective nirvana. “Star Trek asks us to imagine with hope a future in which we have thoroughly explored the Earth and learned its lessons. By the twenty-third century, Earth has achieved peaceful, enlightened, worldwide government, with an end to all forms of discrimination based on sex, race, and species membership” (Hanley xv). Therefore, Star Trek focuses on the journey and not the destination. Such idyllic possibilities are just over the horizon, but will not be achieved without concerted and sustained challenge. It is the birthing pains of humanity’s evolution that will produce perfection in the end. “Earth is a nice place—but is life there just a bit too easy?” (Barrett 201). And so humans leave the physical and emotional comforts of home to embrace a life of exploration, ridden with conflict and danger. “Why explore at all? Because travel broadens the mind,” pronounces Richard Hanley. “When we visit other places and other people, we often encounter different ways of living, and this provokes us to examine our own lives anew. Travel isn’t just about exploring other people and places, it’s about exploring ourselves and testing our limits” (xiv). Star Trek takes its viewers on such voyages every week.

While many blanche at what they see as the degradation of basic values and morality in our society, we are simultaneously bombarded with issues of which our ancestors never even dreamed—cloning, genetic manipulation and engineering, life-support, fertility drugs, etc. Star Trek reassures us that no matter the far-flung calendar date or the level of technology that we achieve, the ethical problems that demand our attention are inherently basic, despite the cloak they may wear. “Vast as the Star Trek universe is, the series posits a universe, in which human beings never come to be dwarfed by their discoveries. The universe may be full of thousands of species and millions of planets, but at any point in the series the fate of the universe can hinge on the actions of a single solitary individual” (Richards 181). Star Trek insists that our theories and our responses are still imperative and perhaps all the more crucial due to the ramifications of living in a society in which one’s personal actions can have consequences for millions.

Star Trek is never better (and in some cases, never worse) than when it is on its soapbox. Not everyone agrees with the messages Star Trek tries to present. I am one of them. Some of Star Trek’s subjects seem ridiculous; others are downright offensive. But “[b]y raising these issues, each series challenges us to examine our own values and ask ourselves whether they are defensible, let alone reasonable” (Barad xii). When entertainment casts aside the shackles of stylistic convention and audience expectation, the result is either a gross comedy of errors or a luminous touchstone in a culture’s history. Like Aesop’s fables of old, Star Trek has become that cultural touchstone, illuminating our path and passionately contributing to our ethical discourse. “Gene believed the role of science fiction was not merely to entertain but to engage the imaginations of viewers, to generate ideals which would help solve humanity’s current problems,” states Majel Barrett Roddenberry. “He believed that, by attempting to turn dreams into reality for the future, progress would result today” (3). In its creator’s vision, Star Trek was always a morality play.

I never tire of Star Trek, nor am I fatigued by its deep and philosophical stories. If I want mindless entertainment, I need only turn to a hundred or so other channels. But this one hour a week is special. To some degree, when I turn off the television set, I get up from my couch a better, more enlightened person than when I sat down an hour before. The fairy tales I revel in each week, spiritual offspring of those fables of so long ago, are revolutionary both in content and impact. “Star Trek has no equal. By taking classic stories and placing them in strange new contexts, Star Trek became a modern Odyssey in outer space, a set of stories so basic to our culture that they can be told over and over again” (Richards back cover). Star Trek has provided a clear and convincing blueprint for an amicable and fulfilling life. All we have left to do is “make it so.”
* * *
Jean-Luc Picard: There is no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
Wesley Crusher: William James won’t be on my Starfleet exams.
Jean-Luc Picard: The important things never will be.
“Samaritan Snare”

Works Cited


Barad, Judith. The Ethics of “Star Trek.” New York: Harper-Collins, 2000.

Barrett, Michele and Duncan Barrett. “Star Trek”: The Human Frontier. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Hanley, Richard. The Metaphysics of “Star Trek.” New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Marinaccio, Dave. All I Really Need To Know I Learned From Watching “Star Trek.” New York: Crown, 1994.

Richards, Thomas. The Meaning of “Star Trek.” New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Roberts, Wess. Make It So: Leadership Lessons From “Star Trek.” New York: Pocket, 1995.

Roddenberry, Majel Barrett. “The Legacy of Star Trek.” The Humanist. July/Aug. 1995: pg. 1-5.


Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Pro. no. 70. Teleplay by Oliver Crawford. Story by Lee Cronin. Dir. by Jud Taylor. Paramount Pictures. 10 Jan. 1969.

The Measure of a Man. Pro. no. 135. Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass. Dir. by Robert Scheerer. Paramount Pictures. 13 Feb. 1989.

Duet. Pro. no. 419. Teleplay by Peter Allan Fields. Story by Lisa Rich & Jeanne Carrigan-Fauci. Dir. by James L. Conway. Paramount Pictures. 13 June 1993.

Tuvix. Pro. no. 140. Teleplay by Kenneth Biller. Story by Andrew Shepard Price & Mark Gaberman. Dir. by Cliff Bole. Paramount Pictures. 6 May 1996.

Dear Doctor. Pro. no. 013. Teleplay by Maria Jacquemetton & Andre Jacquemetton. Dir. by James Contner. Paramount Pictures. 23 Jan. 2002.

Samaritan Snare. Pro. no. 143. Story by Robert L. McCullough. Dir. by Les Landau. Paramount Pictures. 15 May 1989.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 6 of 7


Having not even completed a full season (reminder: this was written in 2002), Star Trek’s newest series, Enterprise, set a mere hundred plus years in our future, has not yet had time to fully develop its ethical wings. Yet, we are assured that it will indeed have wings and that, while reflecting the moral heritage of its predecessors, it will no doubt have focal points all its own. We see a situational world much like that in which Voyager found herself—here Captain Jonathan Archer leads his crew truly where no man has gone before. Already the characters are starting to stretch and flesh themselves into three-dimensional entities. They are, perhaps, even more than DS9, our closest cousins. They are overly emotional like we are, curse when angry like we do, and, while straining for human betterment like we do, quite often fail. They do not have the morally advanced lifestyles that their more evolved successors would take for granted. For Archer and his crew, each day is a struggle to define their worldviews while holding true to those things they believe to be right. One can vividly see this struggle to define themselves and the universe they occupy in the angering and poignant "Dear Doctor".

Summary: When the Enterprise comes across a life pod with several ailing crewmembers, the occupants are brought on board to be treated by Dr. Phlox. The aliens are dying, but from what, they and the doctor do not know. In fact, they claim their entire race is on the verge of extinction. Captain Archer agrees to divert the Enterprise to their home planet and charges Phlox with finding a cure. Upon arrival, the crew discovers that the planet is inhabited by not one, but two distinct humanoid races—one plagued, the other, a far less advanced race, not. Phlox works around the clock, incorporating the other race into his research, certain that they hold the key. His conclusion is shattering. The culprit is not disease, but evolution. The planet’s technologically advanced and dominant species is in fact dying, because evolution has deemed their simple and primitive co-inhabitants the fittest of the two. Upon this discovery, Phlox cannot in good conscience continue treating the dying race. Over Captain Archer’s fervent objections, he refuses to mettle in and subvert the natural biological progression of the planet.

As controversial as it is profound, this episode forces the viewer to decide which laws (of both man and nature) can and cannot be broken. Where is the line at which action must slow and end in inaction? What evils should be eradicated and what things that may only appear to be evil deserve to be left alone to continue in their course unabated? Who decides? Phlox refuses to proceed with treatment because he feels he cannot interfere in the planet’s natural evolution. He feels it is not his decision to make, or more specifically, the decision has already been made for him by nature. And yet, he interferes with nature all the time. Nature dictates that some people develop atrocious diseases, yet doctors such as he work vigorously to abolish them. If the maxim truly were, “Never work against nature,” doctors would do little more than reset broken bones and give routine physicals. Is Phlox not still playing God by encouraging genocide by neglect? To come to the decision that a species would be better off extinct is callous enough, but to actually implement it, or in this case do nothing to stop it, amounts to little more than genocide. The character of Phlox follows his internal moral compass and sticks to it despite the protestations and possible reprisals of his fellows and superiors. In the end, the character is true to what he believes is right and refuses to waver, even if that belief has ramifications for billions of souls. Once again, Star Trek presents a complicated and multi-layered storyline, and in doing so forces its audience to abandon complacency and see things from an angle they would otherwise never have been able to observe.

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 5 of 7


How rigidly do you hold to your beliefs when no one is watching? Do you continue to hold yourself to high standards even when the yardstick that would measure you is not even remotely close? Do the rules of one galaxy even apply in another? These were the potentially debilitating questions facing Captain Janeway and the crew of the USS Voyager. Thrown millions of light years and a lifetime away from earth, Voyager was unique in that the starship and her crew were islands unto themselves, cut off from any sort of home support and contact, and forced to fight their way back to Earth through radically strange and unknown territory.

Captain Kathryn Janeway decides early on in her vessel’s banishment that the rules that governed them all before would continue, despite their distance from home space. They were ambassadors and would, as such, continue to hold themselves to the same standards as if nothing had changed. Starfleet regulations would continue to be upheld, uniforms would continue to be worn, and the things that made them Starfleet officers, rather then holding them back, would buttress their resolve in the coming struggles. Easier said then done. A hybrid of Kirk and Picard, Janeway is as impetuous as she is unflappable. Stubborn, but not to the point of being unwilling to admit her mistakes (and she surely made them), she is both aggressive and patient, strong and compassionate, resolute and flexible. Her life and leadership are an amalgam of both virtue and duty ethics. She constantly strains to learn and deepen herself. But perhaps her greatest challenges come not externally but internally. The idea of a commander’s decisions affecting an entire crew is seen with stark clarity on Voyager. Janeway realizes that when she chooses something for herself, it is for her entire ship. She has to be able to accept the consequences for her actions and comprehend that the crew must also bear the same burden. Her anguish over decisions is obvious throughout the series—not because she is indecisive but rather because she sometimes questions why choices she makes for herself must also be foisted on the crew. Ultimately, however, she does make the hard decisions. She could not otherwise be the captain. Furthermore, she must believe that her choices are superior to those of her crew, or else she would be emotionally hamstrung as a person and hacked off at the knees as a legitimate leader. This could not be better illustrated than in "Tuvix".

Summary: Following a freak transporter accident, the Vulcan, Tuvok, and the Talaxian, Neelix, are fused into a single person with all the memories and abilities of the two former individuals. The crew mourns the death of their comrades and friends while attempting to reconcile the addition of their new crewmember who decides to give himself the name, Tuvix. As several weeks pass, Tuvix settles into life aboard Voyager, and the crew adjusts to his presence. Then the Doctor announces that he has formulated a way to restore Tuvix to his two original components. However, a new problem now exists: Tuvix does not want to die, even if it means the other two can once again live. Tuvix argues that he has a right to live, and that by restoring Tuvok and Neelix, Captain Janeway will be presiding over nothing less than his execution. The Doctor agrees and refuses to take Tuvix's life against his will. In the end, Janeway performs the procedure herself over the objections of some of her senior staff as well as elements of her own conscience. Tuvok and Neelix are fully restored, but Janeway's relief is counterbalanced by the excruciating gravity of her decision to end Tuvix's life.

It is natural, after a catastrophic incident, to want to return things to the way they were. Which one of us would not want to amend a tragedy if we could somehow change the past? But what if, in doing so, you had to destroy others? Is the death of innocents justifiable in order to regain that which was lost? In this case, the innocent is a direct product of the tragedy. A living, breathing, wholly separate if not totally original individual stands before Janeway and pleads with her, “I don’t want to die.” In the end, she decides that the return of her officers and friends to their original selves supercedes the rights of an individual who would not have existed had they not lived in the first place. She forcibly ends one life in order to retrieve two lives. Contentious and divisive? You bet. The rightness or wrongness of Janeway’s ultimate decision is left in the hands of the viewers. This is one of the finest and most controversial of all Star Trek episodes. Perhaps more than any other series, Voyager was saturated with moral impasses that constantly put the crew, and, in turn, the audience, in turmoil as how to proceed. This Voyager episode, like the subsequent Enterprise episode below, shows us that sometimes our decisions are far from cut and dry and very often have drastically personal effects.

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 4 of 7


Deep Space Nine was a shock to viewers weaned on The Next Generation. If The Next Generation had a fault, it was that its outlook on life was a bit too rosy, its characters a bit too perfect, its messages a bit too pompous. DS9 shattered the paradigms. Here, the external and internal universes are in constant upheaval. Outwardly, the Federation is threatened by a malevolent force beyond anything it has ever faced (except for perhaps the Borg) and inwardly, its officers are conflicted, plagued, cynical, tortured individuals with very palpable problems. For the first time in the Trek universe, the future is not seen as a foregone paradise in which all of humanity has achieved a sort of personal nirvana. Indeed, humans are very much still working out their inner souls, and it is primarily here that the emphasis of the show takes place.

Deep Space Nine, a space station set at the interstellar crossroads of a wormhole, a cosmic conduit enabling almost instantaneous travel from one point in the galaxy to another, is by far Trek’s bleakest, darkest and, some would say, most honest series. They may be right. Modern audiences can perhaps relate to Captain Benjamin Sisko better than to any other leader of the show. He is a widower and father, trying to hold together an outpost on the extreme frontier of Federation space, as well as make a life for his son and himself the best he knows how. He is a stoic character who, nonetheless, occasionally cracks, revealing extreme and often volatile emotions. His duty to his uniform and what it stands for is paramount. So much is this so that when faced with the possibility of Earth’s demise, he is willing to do what no other Trek character has ever done—compromise his own ethics and morality for the startling belief that sometimes final ends do justify even the most despicable of means. The world of DS9 is far from black and white, and the bitter and heartbreaking conflicts the characters face rage just as hotly in outer space as they do in inner space. This existentialism, where the desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe occasionally permits acts of gross insubordination to personal and collective ethics, stands alone in the Trek construct and has not been dabbled with before or after the series.* The viewer succinctly sees this tormented world in "Duet".

Summary: When a Cardassian man by the name of Marritza arrives on DS9 with a rare ailment that could only have been contracted at the forced labor camp of Gallitepp on Bajor during the Cardassian occupation, executive officer Major Kira Nerys suspects him of being a war criminal on the lam. Commander Sisko is ordered to turn Marritza over to the Bajorian authorities if his guilt is revealed, and Kira is appointed to handle the investigation. Eventually Marritza admits he was at Gallitepp, but only as a filing clerk. Additionally, he purports that her claims of atrocities at Gallitepp are outrageous. Kira, a member of the resistance during the occupation, is insulted when he counters her claims for justice with the accusation that she is interested only in vengeance. When an image of Marritza is discovered from the Gallitepp archives, the picture bears absolutely no resemblance to the man in the holding cell. The image does, however, perfectly match another Cardassian, Gul Darhe'el, camp commandant and the man dubbed “The Butcher of Gallitepp." When confronted with the evidence, “Marritza” haughtily confesses to the masquerade and proceeds to boast proudly of his countless atrocities. As Kira and “Marritza’s” fiery debate continues, the plot thickens when it is confirmed beyond any doubt that Gul Darhe’el died several years earlier. The man in the holding cell cannot possibly be the Butcher of Gallitepp. This man wanted to be caught, but why? The truth comes out when it is discovered that the man in the holding cell is indeed the filing clerk, Marritza, who had his face surgically altered to look like the infamous camp commandant. He is revealed to be a tortured man agonizing over the atrocities of his government, who wishes to sacrifice himself in an attempt to purge both his and his world’s collective guilt. Kira, not willing that he should sacrifice his life, is preparing to return him to his home when a Bajoran man approaches in a crowd and plunges a dagger into the Cardassian, killing him. Shaken to the core, Kira hears her fellow Bajoran claim that the fact that Marritza is a Cardassian is reason enough to take his life.

The Holocaust has been addressed with varying degrees in each series but never more vigorously than on DS9. The parallels between the Nazis and Jews, and the Cardassians and Bajorians, are more than coincidence. This dramatic and emotional storyline was examined repeatedly throughout DS9’s run, but rarely more powerfully than in Duet. The idea of a man’s misplaced guilt so overwhelming him that he is willing to sacrifice himself as penance spins around the traditional victor/victim role and presents the audience with the realization that they are both sides of the same coin.

* “The high-minded utopian humanism of the 1980s had failed to find support in the selfish and cynical late nineties. More recent Star Trek episodes have presented moral ambiguity and downright immoral behavior by leading characters. The high-minded modernist assumptions of the Next Generation have begun to be eroded, in line with shifting opinion among Star Trek’s audience” (Barrett 57).

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 3 of 7


After a period of almost twenty years, Star Trek was alive again. When The Next Generation began, it quickly dominated the market and became the most popular syndicated series ever produced. Set in a Federation eighty years beyond that of the Original Series, The Next Generation was a flashier and upgraded Trek—but then, so were the viewers. While holding true to the ideals of its predecessor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and crew nonetheless operated differently. One need only contrast the two leaders to understand this principle. Picard is much more respectful and, indeed, reverential of the rules than Kirk. The duty ethics that define his life go much deeper than the Enterprise’s original commander. Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps they do not go deeper but simply manifest themselves differently. Either way, Picard broke the rules only in exceptional circumstances. While Kirk came across as a swashbuckler, Picard portrayed the image of the wise king reflecting his and the series’ ethics of virtue and utter and absolute reverence for the intrinsic worth of all beings. One sees this brilliantly in "The Measure of a Man."

Summary: When the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Starbase 173, Lt. Data, an android serving as part of Picard’s senior staff, is ordered to report to Captain Maddox, whose intent is to disassemble and study Data in order that additional androids can be created for use within Starfleet. After discovering Maddox’s goals, Data refuses to submit. When Captain Picard’s efforts to have the orders revoked prove futile, Data's only option is to resign from Starfleet. Maddox counters that Data cannot voluntarily resign, as Data is the property of the Federation, not a person with rights. The Judge Advocate General of the starbase, Phillipa Louvois, is appointed to resolve the situation. Due to a staff shortage, Phillipa explains that as senior officer, Picard must defend Data, while the next most senior officer, Commander William Riker, must take on the role of prosecutor. Phillipa warns Riker that if he does not give his best effort, she will summarily rule in favor of Maddox. Faced with no alternative, Riker insists that Data is simply a machine—the creation of a man, but not a man himself—and vividly emphasizes his claim by switching Data off and leaving him lifeless in his chair. Picard makes an impassioned plea for Data's freedom, declaring that the Federation's desire to create and own a race of disposable androids is tantamount to slavery and that in one manner or another all beings are created, which does not necessarily make them the property of their creator. The JAG agrees with the defense, affirming that while Data may indeed be a machine, he is owned by no one and has the right to make his own life decisions.

The concept of sentiency has been a consistent sermon preached from Star Trek’s bully pulpit. The argument of what constitutes “life” is a science fiction staple and doubtless will continue to be so, the nearer we as a society get to fully functional machines created in our own image. The ability to achieve self-awareness, to differentiate right from wrong, to think independently of encoded algorithms and leap beyond the confines of one’s original programming, are all ways in which Star Trek has argued for the definition of sentiency. This insistence on equality points unswervingly to the supreme importance of life and the individual’s right to possess and control his or her own destiny. “Star Trek can be relentless in its valuation of the single human life” (Richards 69). Autonomy is always paramount.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Modern Aesop's Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 2 of 7


The beginning of it all. Who knew that when this show, dubbed “Wagon Train to the Stars,” premiered it would revolutionize science fiction and television as we knew it. People tuned in each week for an exhilarating and optimistic view of the future and got far more than they expected. “Like any great work of art or literature, the Star Trek universe has an integrity and a resonance all its own, a completeness unrivaled by any other kind of science fiction. Any great work of literature is great because it somehow supercedes that which has come before, and Star Trek is no exception,” claims Thomas Richards. “It utterly supercedes both in depth and breadth the science fictions which have come before it. There is really nothing like Star Trek” (4). This new show did not, by a long shot, fit the standard mold. It was unique in every possible way. Here was a universe populated by people of all different shapes, colors and sizes who lived their lives in drastically different ways than ours, and seemed to have moved beyond the things we so graphically found ourselves viewing on the nightly news. Here was a group of people who lived not only at peace with one another, but also in an enriching and symbiotic environment in which they genuinely learned from one another. “In each of the television series, the most interesting characters frequently are those who are like us but also not quite like us. Star Trek encourages us to imagine what life is like from the nonhuman point of view,” declares philosopher Richard Hanley. “It teaches us something about ourselves and it exposes to popular consciousness (and so calls into question) the common conviction that members of the species Homo sapiens necessarily occupy a special place in the cosmos” (4).

One need only look at the bridge of the original Enterprise to see this multiculturalism at work. In turbulent 1960s America, entrenched in the Cold War abroad and race wars at home, Kirk’s bridge reads like a modern affirmative action advocate’s dream. The communications officer was not only a woman but a black woman. The navigator and helmsman were Russian and Asian, respectively. The second in command was a human/alien hybrid. The Original Series also presented a world in which the unknown was not to be feared but embraced. “In a very real sense, there are no monsters in the Star Trek universe, just living beings whose existence has yet to become familiar” (Richards 164). It taught us that just because someone is different than we are does not make that person someone to be feared or avoided. Additionally, Star Trek invested itself in powerful and controversial themes. “Star Trek routinely tackled subjects other shows were frightened to touch” (Marinaccio 52). The original series constantly pushed the boundaries of societal norms, at times making history, as when it portrayed television’s first interracial kiss.

The series’ ethical core can best be seen in the character of Captain James T. Kirk. An enthusiastic and often cavalier leader, Kirk took his uniform and obligations with grave solemnity but, as aforementioned, was not afraid to bend the rules. His duties to Star Fleet are prima facie, or conditional to the greater duty of beneficence. He sees his obligation to help others in opposition to his upholding sweeping rules which could not possible pertain to every specific situation. The Aristotelian ethic, that all relevant factors must be taken into account before any decision is made, rules the day. Additionally, Kirk always attempts to achieve balance in all he undertakes, which is nowhere more obvious than in the advice he consistently asks of his diametrically opposed friends, the logical Mr. Spock and the emotional Dr. McCoy. The controversial stands that the show was willing to take are splendidly shown in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield".

Summary: When the U.S.S. Enterprise intercepts a stolen Federation shuttlecraft, they discover the pilot is a humanoid named Lokai from the planet Cheron. Lokai, whose skin color is distinctly split between black and white, demands asylum aboard Enterprise. Soon after, Kirk and crew are visited by yet another inhabitant of Cheron, a man by the name of Bele. While at first glance it appears Lokai and Bele are identical, close observation reveals that the colors of Bele’s skin are exactly reversed from Lokai's. Bele claims he is a law enforcement officer sent to apprehend Lokai, who is accused of political treason. As the two men exchange venomous insults with each another, Kirk realizes that the fundamental issue between them, and indeed their entire race, is their opposite coloring. When Kirk refuses to indulge their racial rhetoric and instead concentrates on the Enterprise’s priority of decontaminating a nearby planet, Bele takes control of the Enterprise and leads it back to Cheron. What they find there is a long-dead planet where the inhabitants annihilated themselves by their bigotry. Lokai beams down to the surface to evade the enraged Bele, who quickly follows. Kirk and the Enterprise leave them on the planet’s surface to decide their own fates—the final survivors of a dead race.

Here, the race wars that enflamed America were presented as the loathsome and self-destructive one-sided squabbles they most often were. The two aliens’ irrational and depraved views of one another mirrored a society in which fire hoses and nightsticks were repeatedly being turned against African-Americans demanding nothing more than social equality. Additionally, Kirk’s seeming inability to see the glaring distinction between the two aliens’ appearances pointed the way to a more advanced society, one in which skin color was both irrelevant, and no longer perceived. Even after their entire race had obliterated itself in madness, the two men were still willing to pursue each other until the bitter end; this quest provided a stark and unsettling example of what unchecked bigotry has the potential to become. The message was not subtle. It was not meant to be. By tweaking reality in a way that made it astonishingly obvious, the writers of Star Trek were able to weave a powerful and timely story that rings as true today as it did when originally aired. The moral is as clear as “black and white”.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Modern Aesop's Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 1 of 7

Written in 2002

“We wanted to see if you had the ability to expand your mind and your horizons, and for one brief moment, you did… For that one fraction of a second, you were open to options you’d never considered. That’s the exploration that awaits you, not mapping stars and studying nebulae, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.” -- Q in "All Good Things…"

Okay, I admit it—I am a Star Trek fan. However, that banal confession does not do my rabid fandom justice. I’m the guy you see at the conventions. You know the one—dressed from head to toe as a Tarkassian razorbeast, lugging around discarded engine parts from a ’63 Buick LaSaber pretending they are Sub-Quantum Spatial Singularity Tachion Burst Detectors with built in Cappuccino makers. Yes, I’m that guy. The one who eats, drinks, sleeps, breathes and, if it were possible for the show to be incarnated in female flesh, I’d be the one who’d…well, I think we all get the general idea. And all this time I seemed normal, didn’t I? Fooled you.

I admit it is fun to indulge the Trekker stereotype. Stereotypes are, after all, stereotypes for a reason. It is enjoyable to divulge an obsession many see as utterly preposterous just so you can see their faces drop in disbelief and incredulity. But the truth of the matter is that the veneer of Star Trek’s almost religious fanaticism hides a much deeper, much more substantial reality. Star Trek is so much more than Klingons, photon torpedoes, and warp drive. Within the Star Trek universe is a highly complex and structured ethical system that drives not only the characters, but also the very stories themselves. Always known for its amazing effects and exciting adventure, Star Trek goes much deeper than simple entertainment and amusement.

What is science fiction if not a way for modern humanity to test the frontiers of the future? There, in that fabricated but strangely familiar world, we can experiment with new technologies, explore our collective wanderlust, examine our continued desire for conquest and colonization, and pose questions about how we will behave when we get there—all without leaving the comfort of our living room chairs. With science fiction, the only limits are those we impose upon our own imaginations.

Admittedly, it seems an erroneous proposition at first, but science fiction— and Star Trek specifically—has assumed the place of modern morality plays in our culture. The weekly episodes are a way to flesh out our ethical dilemmas in such a manner remote enough to provide distance, yet expansive enough to probe tangents that could not possibly be feasible today. By dealing with abstract quandaries instead of the more everyday plebian problems, Star Trek, and indeed all good science fiction, is able to rise above common ethical conventions and challenge personal belief systems on a level not possible through any other medium. “One reason why Star Trek has endured from one generation to the next,” says Dr. Judith Barad, “is that most of the stories themselves are indeed moral fables. Though the episodes are obviously self contained, when taken as a whole they constitute a harmonious philosophy” (xi).

Far from pushing the ethical issues away from any sort of modern understanding, Star Trek invites the audience to glimpse how they might engage their beliefs in a future that at times seems immediate and at other times improbable. Some would argue that the premises shown are so outlandish as to defy application. They would insist that the situations are too far-fetched even to be germane to ethical discourse. But they miss Star Trek’s point, and indeed its shocking brilliance: “Though many theories are quite able to account for normal situations, if we can’t apply them to circumstances that are unusual, then their inadequacy becomes clear” (Barad 327). Because Star Trek’s characters constantly find themselves in situations where they are called upon to make snap judgments about what is right and wrong, the ethical system on which they base their decisions must be broad and applicable to any and all situations, be they great or small. The Trek characters cannot escape the moral implications of their choices. “[T]here is no end to human freedom and thus no end to human responsibility” (Richards 182).

Somewhere around 600 B.C., a former Greek slave wrote and compiled a vast collection of allegorical stories that have come to be known today as Aesop’s fables. These parables, usually involving talking animals or some other such fantastical plots, always ended with a moral lesson. Widely circulated by oral tradition, the fables took on mythical lives of their own and became key examples by which parents and teachers were able to instill ethical behavior in their children. This tradition continues today. The talking foxes and donkeys have now been replaced by alien races with names like the Vulcans and the Romulans; the Greek landscape has been replaced by the immensity of populated outer space; and the human laborers are replaced by explorers far from home who are daily presented with astonishingly difficult dilemmas. The moral lessons, however, are just as potent and just as real.

“[S]pace serves as a landscape, beautiful and distinctly pictorial, a background for human activity and intensely human concerns,” writes former Harvard professor, Thomas Richards. “Despite the incredible vastness of space, the universe turns out to be a very personal place. The farther the Enterprise strays from earth, the more each individual becomes an island of humanity in a far and desolate place" (64).

Star Trek has cemented its place in modern pop culture not only for its staggering creativity but also for the language and ideas it has contributed to our modern lexicon. Ignoring the obvious additions of the show’s catchy and amusing aphorisms and technological wizardry that now seems within reach, another substrata of subtle influence lies just below the surface. Perhaps Star Trek’s three most tangible contributions to the ethical debate are the Prime Directive, revolutionary utilitarianism, and the Vulcan IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations).

Star Trek’s most vivid philosophical statement is one that binds the entire show together and, at times, binds the very hands of its characters. This idealistic (and admittedly dramatic) tool is none other than the Prime Directive, which writer Dave Marinaccio describes this way:

"Central to everything in Star Trek is the non-interference directive, the Prime Directive. It may be the most important idea in the series. The way the directive is applied or not applied is as interesting as the concept of the directive itself. The Prime Directive prohibits the captain and crew of the Enterprise from interfering in the internal affairs of any planets they visit. This rule not only protects the people of the planet, it protects the crew. Noninterference keeps the crew from getting into the middle of a private fight. Since they don’t get involved, they don’t have to pick sides. If you understand the preceding, you should also understand this. Episode after episode, Kirk ignores the Prime Directive and does what he believes is right. What then is the lesson here? A great one. People are more important than rules. Enforce the spirit of the law above the letter of the law. The Prime Directive was instituted to protect people. When the directive gets in the way of protecting people, ignore it. A person who understands a rule knows when to break it. A person who understands a rule understands intent. Kirk does the right thing when he interprets the rule to fit the situation" (48).

The futuristic view of Utilitarianism was brought out most perceptibly in the motion pictures, The Wrath of Khan and its sequel, The Search for Spock. After sacrificing himself to save the imperiled crew of the Enterprise, a dying Spock explains to his captain and friend a theme that has been running through the entire film: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one. Fascinatingly, however, this philosophy is turned on its ear in the next film when Kirk demolishes his career and places the lives of his friends and shipmates in jeopardy in an uncertain effort to resurrect his dead friend. The reason? Sometimes the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

Star Trek’s final philosophical underpinning is the Vulcan IDIC, or the belief in “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” Celebrating diversity long before it became a catch phrase, Star Trek lauded humanity’s attempts to incorporate all views and all beliefs into one humanistic stew. “That some people’s beliefs, customs, color, size, or shape,” Majal Barrett Rodenberry said of her husband, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry, “would prevent them from attaining the respect of others or from living the fullest life possible was unthinkable to him” (2). From its very beginning thirty-five years ago to its current incarnations, Star Trek has been about more than episodic drivel and cinematic escapism. More than any other show on TV, Star Trek has been about the great issues and the way in which we as human beings confront and overcome them.

“The great achievement of Star Trek is not the creation of a principle in theory but the staging of a variety of circumstances testing it in practice" (Richards 14). Very well. Let’s view the principle in practice. Let’s examine each of the five series, looking at the various captains for insight into that particular series’ overriding ethical bias. Furthermore, let us highlight one episode from each series in an attempt to distil from it what makes Star Trek such an influential and significant voice in our modern ethical and moral arena. Through this exposition, you will come away not only with a greater appreciation for the series as a whole but also with a greater respect for the role Star Trek has played in our cultural and societal worldview.

Tommorrow: The Original Series--"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"
Ut In Omnibus Glorificetur Deus