Preaching in Hell, Part 1: TV and Missions
This article, and its follow-ups, are a version of a presentation that I gave in July 2015 at Doxacon Seattle, a science-fiction and fantasy convention sponsored by Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Tacoma, WA. Doxacon “Prime” will take place this November in Washington DC, and if you’re interested in reading and interpreting pop culture as an Orthodox Christian, it’s well worth attending. Doxacon Seattle will also return next summer. You can learn more about all this at http://www.doxacon.org .
Part One: TV and Missions
In April 2015, Netflix premiered a new show called Daredevil. Although I’d never read the comics, I recalled the 2003 film with Ben Affleck. Really, all I remembered was that there’d been a priest in the film. Would there be a priest in the show? Yup. First episode, second scene.
I was applying to seminary and working hard on my application essay, a personal response to St John Chrysostom’s treatise On the Priesthood. With this fresh in my mind, it was apparent from the start of Daredevil that its priest, Father Lantom, took his priesthood seriously.
This reminded me of my other favorite television priest- Shepherd Book from the 2002 series Firefly, the 2005 film Serenity, and the Serenity comic book series. I realized that Father Lantom and Shepherd Book have similar roles in their respective worlds. They’re both missionaries. Book travels to hard places and lives with hard people. Father Lantom lives in a hard place, ministering to hard people. Both strive to bring the Gospel to people with rough lives and major moral dilemmas. They undertake the hard work of showing the love of Christ in places that really don’t know Christ.
Well, this is personal. My parents are missionaries, and I grew up in Kenya on the mission field. My wife and I served in Tanzania as Orthodox missionaries, and we’re headed to seminary so that we can go back as missionaries. So now I’m thinking of what I’ve learned about Orthodox missiology, and how these TV missionaries practice their vocation.
The ultimate goal of Christian mission is the glory of God. The goal is for new Churches to spring up around the world (and across the ‘verse) giving glory to God. “In each country,” says Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, “the Church is called to glorify God with her own voice.” (Stamoolis, 53)
That’s where we need Orthodox missiology 101- sometimes called “contextualization,” but better called “Incarnation.” God became man, as St Athanasios puts it, that man might become God. God enters our world, takes on our flesh, speaks our language, engages our reality- and it is because of Christ’s Incarnation that we have the opportunity to ascend with him in glory.
That’s why it’s worth watching, and talking about, these TV shows. If you’re looking for a mission field, for rough people who need Christ, for a despairing culture… well, you could come with us to Africa. Please do come- we need you! But Christ is also needed in Seattle. This culture is suspicious of preachers, but it watches shows like Daredevil and Firefly. When we watch with our neighbors, when we engage their culture in their vernacular, we have the chance to encounter and reveal Christ, to reveal the glory of God, in ways that they can hear.
Orthodox Christian tradition is that Christ, after his crucifixion, descended to Hades and proclaimed the Good News to the dead. Not only this, but also that St John the Forerunner, just as he foretold Christ’s coming on earth, also preceded our Lord in the underworld. One hymn of the Feast of the Beheading of St John declares that he, “having suffered for the truth with joy… proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.” An eighteenth-century Russian icon depicts this vividly, showing St John in the grave preaching about Christ to buried kings and prophets.
The worlds of Daredevil and Firefly are types of Hades; they are settings ruled by death and dominated by despair. Although Christianity is explicitly present in both stories, the characters are by and large pre-Christian, needing to be told of Christ’s coming before they can be ready to encounter him. They need forerunners. That is why I’ve chosen this image, of the Forerunner “Preaching in Hell,” as my title for this essay.
In future instalments I’ll talk about Shepherd Book in Firefly– his origins, and his influence. Later, I’ll introduce Daredevil’s Father Lantom and demonstrate his pastoral work in that show’s version of Hell’s Kitchen. Finally, I’ll conclude by showing what these two priests can teach us about presenting the Gospel in our culture, and how they- as fictional characters- can be used as we strive to illuminate the glory of God in the world around us.
Two words of caution.
First: there will be spoilers. To talk about this stuff, I have to talk about it.
Second: both Daredevil and Firefly are shows for adults. If their content and story arc weren’t life-affirming, and didn’t point to Christ, I wouldn’t be talking about them. But they take place in their respective hells, and terrible things happen in these hells. Watch these shows expecting to encounter evil, and prepared to witness a Christian response to this evil. Do not expect the stories to be easy, and do not imagine for a second that they’re for children.
Stamoolis, James J. Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.
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