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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Battlestar Galactica as modern theology

With the recent end of long-running sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, many of the nerds were unhappy with the apparent theological conclusion to the space opera.

Moans of 'God did it! What a cop out!' seem to me to expose the huge gulf in understanding between those of a sci-fi (or scientific) bent and those of a more religious one.

One of the things I greatly appreciated about this fine TV show was its many attempts to incorporate difficult contemporary debates into its story arc.

It questioned the nature of democracy and its tendency towards demagoguery. It examined the legitimacy or otherwise of terrorist insurgency when under occupation. These were brave, maybe even dangerous discussions to hold in Dubya's America.

And by bringing them to the TV-consuming sheeple, one might even say that the producers and scriptwriters of BSG were serving a vital purpose in providing a platform for such essential debates in the US at that time.

But the element that intrigued me the most was how BSG, of all recent dramas, gave serious airtime to relative theologies.

The human contingent of the colonies were clearly depicted as polytheist, worshipping a Greco-Romanesque pantheon known as the 'Lords of Kobol.' They believed their Gods appeared, like the Roman and Greek pantheons, to be amoral, flawed and constantly interceding in their lives.

But in many ways, the classical names masked a more Eastern polytheism. From the Gayatri Mantra that was the show's theme music, it is clear that Hindu elements played a part too.

Seers, visions, prophecies all fulfilled important roles in the human theology, implying a much more Hindu vision of polytheism than the names Ares, Apollo and so on might indicate.

On the other side of the war, the Cylons were depicted as rigid monotheists, believing in a one true God. Their Abrahamic theology is particularly focused on predestination and fate, indicating a Calvinist or Jansenist vision of progression that is at odds with the concept of free will - which makes sense in the context of software for a brain.

Others have discerned elements of Mormonism in the show, while some have even posited the thought that the a la carte approach to belief systems presented in BSG could be a template for the future of religious faith in America.

And in its depiction of how women gathered around Gaius Baltar, the programme showed clearly how guru cults are formed, which is the point of origin for all religions we know today, be it an Abraham cult, a Jesus cult, or a Krishna, Buddha or Mohammed cult.

The ending of the series, however, resolved itself in a concept of human history as cyclical, requiring enlightenment of those involved in order to break a cycle of suffering, illusion and destruction.

This, in a nutshell, is the core belief of Buddhism. But even that Buddhist finale was undercut by a vision of angels on the streets of Manhattan, speculating about the amoral, Manichean nature of a solitary godhead.

The result is that the series offered a melange of theological positions, and gave each its own space to be considered in conjunction and in opposition to others.

It's rare these days to see such serious considerations of theology outside of factual documentaries featuring Michael Wood or the like. I for one welcome it.

I hope that one day someone qualified will produce some good academic research that teases out all of the relative theologies and their relationships with science and technology in this superlative TV show.

Some people have made initial attempts, and I suppose this post is mine.

In the meantime, perhaps it will have provoked pause for thought among its many viewers, who may not have been exposed, or taken seriously, other theological positions before. It's possible that the viewers may also take the same a la carte approach to religious beliefs as the authors of the show did while writing it.

I don't see that as anything other than positive. Exposing oneself to alternative beliefs is a creative and productive process, one that destroys sectarian interests and broadens the mind and one's conception of the universe.

And for the nerds who moaned about the presence of God in a fiction, I think they've missed the point and been blinded by their own blinkered attachment to the concept that science is atheistic.

It need not be, as recent research indicates.

I'm an atheist, but I loved the spirituality and relative theologies present in BSG. I hope the debates it raised will run in its viewers' minds long after the show is consigned to late-night satellite station re-runs.

PS: I claim 'Geek of the Week' for learning off the Gayatri Mantra as set to the music of the BSG soundtrack. Maybe that's enlightened of me, or maybe it's just sad. I dunno. But I do find it very soothing.


attic luddite said...

The image exemplifies your point/s nicely.

BSG's capacity for political critique is what drew me in initially; it set a standard on how to represent societal and political events from the fictional standpoint of a galaxy far, far away.

mellobiafra said...

Jesus Dude! Have you ever heard of a spoiler alert! Some of us have to wait until these things appear on FREE TV before we see them...I'm only half way through series 3 and I've been dodging revelations about who the other secret cylons are for the last year! Now you've gone and blown Season 4! Awwwwwwwwww! Wahhhhhhh! Waaaaaahhhhh!

Saying that...to be honest if the whole thing is going down the old Deus Ex route...I think I'll can it anyway! They should have put BSG to bed at the end of Season 3 anyhoo!

JC Skinner said...

Series four ended in the Free State this week. Sorry if you lot in the Occupied Six are behind.
But I think you'd be well to give the fourth series a proper go. By a mile it is the best of the lot.
And to be honest, I've not given much if anything away.

attic luddite said...

Aside from some unimportant details, I can confirm there's no spoilers here mello--that whole 'one true God' phrase has been flying around since Season 2 at least. There's still sufficient surprises in store in Season 4, believe me.

JC, I think Sky One broadcasts in Norn Iron too...

gerryk said...

I very much like how it is the self-serving, secular zealot who brings about peace (however temporary). Baltar has been a favourite character of mine since the beginning. Flawed hero doesn't even begin to describe him... he's what most of us would probably love to be, but are afraid to express that level of selfishness.

The theological aspects may have pissed off some hardcore sci-fi types, but, TBH, only added to the richness of the series for me. Humanity as backward polytheist vs. the, arguably more sophisticated and urbane monotheistic cylon was a fun contrast to see played out, particularly these days when even the slightest variation of monotheism is enough to get you shackled and orange-jumpsuited.

I'm gonna miss it. I'm glad it finished while it was still sharp and challenging, and didn't fade into senility like some series.

Anonymous said...

Oh please.

The people who didn't like the BSG's finale weren't ticked off by the inclusion of God or religion. Since the miniseries, spirituality and the divine have been incorporated into the show. It just would have been nice to have Ron Moore and co. actually go somewhere with that story.

The show's ending presented vacuous ambiguity as some sort of deep and profound revelation. I'd call it lazy writing instead.

There was no explanation as to what Starbuck actually is, despite the tremendous build-up. It seemed the writers just shoe-horned in a nice tidy packaged conclusion, merely because this season was its last.

Not to mention, the near-Luddite message shown at the end. Giving up everything except for in Bill Adama's words, "their clothes on their backs" and a few "provisions".

Good to know that the Colonials are such innately good hunter-gatherers / farmers that they can instantly live off the land and build suitable lodgings. Its not like they were a technologically dependent people for all their lives who had only known the inside of a ship's bulkhead for the last 4 years.

Oh wait...

JC Skinner said...

Miss the point, much?
This is how TV get's written, anon.
They spend as much time as possible creating suspense and mystery so that viewers will be hooked and keep watching.
Then, when the show is cancelled, there is an almighty rush to try to make sense of as many of those mysteries as possible.
It's rarely entirely coherent. See Twin Peaks or Lost, for example.
I thought BSG did a pretty good job, since the closing of the story arc only began in the final series.
As for Starbuck (SPOILER ALERT), I'd have thought it was obvious.
She's God. Hence Baltar's closing line.

Peter Slattery said...

Only got to watch the finale of BSG last night. As a confirmed confused one (agnostic), I still really enjoyed the inclusion of theology in the show. Even from a dramatic point of view, it made the show more rich and layered.

And for those who complain about the ending, sometimes it's better to leave some ambiguity than have everything spoon-fed to the audience. Leaving things to interpretation creates debate. And that's certainly something BSG did in spades.

boro said...

If you enjoyed BSG then you might want to check out Caprica. Its been released on DVD in the states but of course all the usual places have it too.

Here is a good review of it: http://io9.com/5222085/robo+noir-caprica-is-religious-terrorism-done-right