Longtime readers of this blog know that I have spent a number of posts talking about different ways to express religious–particularly Christian–beliefs responsibly in fantasy and science fiction. As I begin to transition away from my series on speculative fiction, I thought I might share a brilliant but often overlooked (I think) example of where someone handled it extremely well: the episode “Passing through Gethsemane” from the third season of Babylon 5.
I am a very recent Bab5 addict. I remember the show being on when I was in high school, but I never really got into it then. Recently, I came across all five seasons at Sam’s Club for sale on the cheap side, and so I picked them all up. I’ve been dazzled by the writing (for the most part) ever since. The special effects are really, well, special, but the stories and the characters are so engaging that I can ignore the shortcomings. I’m amazed at all of the Tolkien references I’m seeing!
If you really want to experience the episode properly, I would stop reading, go watch it, and then come back for my thoughts (and to offer yours in the comments).
The story in “Passing through Gethsemane” (written by J. Michael Straczynski and directed by Adam Nimoy) is about Brother Edward (Brad Dourif–Wormtongue, from Jackson’s LOTR), a monk in a Christian religious order on Babylon 5. Edward is a kindly and harmless soul who would do anything for anyone. His first indication that something is wrong is when a black rose inexplicably appears in his bag. It means nothing to him, but he is soon shocked to find a threat written in blood on his wall when he returns to his quarters. When security chief Garibaldi comes to investigate, the writing is gone.
Later, Edward meets with Ambassador Delenn (of the Minbari people) to talk about religion. They have a very polite, respectful conversation that culminates with Delenn asking Edward what the most important emotional point of his religion was. He replies with an honest description of Christ in Gethsemane, and wonders if he, Edward, would have been able to wait there like Christ did, and willingly pay the very painful price for the sins of others when he could have just walked away.
Later, Edward begins to have flashbacks of himself committing brutal murders, and it emerges that he was formerly a serial killer called the “Black-Rose Murderer.” Their futuristic society doesn’t execute criminals. Instead, they wipe their minds completely and rebuild a new personality that will serve society. That was, in effect, how “Brother Edward” had been created, and now someone was trying to break through the mindwipe to bring back his memory of the crimes committed in his former life.
Edward does remember, and even though he can escape, he decides to face his persecutors, whom he rightly guesses are the families of the women he killed. One man confronts him and states that he is “willing to do what is necessary.” Edward then allows himself to be tortured to death for the sins of the Black Rose killer, someone who in a very real way is a completely different person. He dies after receiving last rites, stating that he now knows what Jesus Himself must have faced.
There is a last turn of the theological knife worth mentioning, and that relates to forgiveness. But I think I’ll just make you watch the episode. :)
All of that said, while I don’t personally agree with everything in the episode from a theological perspective, I think it is a brilliant example of a responsible and fair treatment of Christianity in a mainstream show:
- The characters are human. They are not stereotypes, there to be idolized or hated. I felt as if I could run into one of them in real life.
- The characters are functioning, integrated members of society. Don’t get me wrong, they were quirky and odd, but Christians often seem that way to others. They are shown to be perfectly well adapted to the culture around them, not bigoted outcasts who cannot engage with it or understand it.
- The characters are not automatically presumed to be hypocrites. Again, don’t get me wrong–there definitely are religious hypocrites out there and they who are should be called out, but modern Hollywood goes way too far in this respect. In order to justify their own views and behaviors, Hollywood often trots out the hypocrite stereotype as if it is exclusively true for all believers. It was refreshing to see a fair treatment.
- Their religion is natural, not forced. Related to this, there was no apparent ulterior motive for its inclusion. Never in the course of the show did I think that the religion had been inserted to make a point, one way or the other. It was simply a part of that world’s life. As such, it drastically deepened the impact of the episode and my understanding of the characters.
- The understanding of religion is mature and multilayered. Far too often, writers and directors take only the most shallow of understandings of religion and try to stretch it into something profound. They often fail miserably. Here, I didn’t get that sense. I might disagree with him on some points, but I never felt that Straczynski had not taken the time to really engage Christian belief with respect.
Over all, Babylon 5 is an excellent show, and this is a strong, stand-alone episode. If you haven’t taken the time to look into it, it is very much worth your while.