Preaching in Hell, Part 2: Shepherd Book’s Mission
In Part One, I proposed that we, as Orthodox Christians, can participate in some popular culture in order to have common ground with our neighbors. In particular, I brought up Father Lantom in the 2015 Netflix series Daredevil and Shepherd Book in the 2002 series Firefly and its spinoffs as missionary priests who can teach us something about missionary work and pastoral care. In Part Two, I’ll focus on Shepherd Book as he is presented in the TV series Firefly and the Serenity comics series and film.
The world of Firefly – the ‘verse, as it’s called – is a hard place to survive. The crew of the ship Serenity encounter planets ruled by warlords, by slave masters, and by predatory aristocrats, to name a few. On the planet Miranda, they even encounter Hell – a place inhabited by the dead, surrounded by demons. Worlds, as Shepherd Book puts it in the 2010 comic book Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, “untouched by His hand. Places defined by pain and suffering.” And this is where he sees his missionary calling, “to carry the Word where it is most desperately needed.”
The Word is desperately needed also on the Shepherd’s new home, the spaceship called Serenity. Book tries to enter the ship much in the way that St Innocent, 19th-century missionary bishop to Alaska, instructed his own missionaries:
“On arriving in some settlement of savages, thou shalt…appear in the guise of a poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow-men, who has come for the single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity and, as far as possible, guiding them on their quest.”A missionary must also strive to win the respect of all. “Good opinion breeds respect, and one who is not respected will not be listened to.”(Oleksa, 247)
But Book bungles this respect. Mal Reynolds, the ship’s captain, has contempt first for him simply because he’s a Shepherd. He tries, feebly, to save the life of the Alliance operative Dobson, but eventually confesses that he thinks Mal’s violent treatment of Dobson might not have been wrong. “I think I’m on the wrong ship,”Book confesses to his fellow-passenger Inara. And while this admission seems to win him Inara’s respect, the greater accomplishment is that she – a pagan and a prostitute – has won his.
Book’s commissioning as a missionary is seen in the comic book The Shepherd’s Tale, and consists of the prayer ascribed to St Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
How does the Shepherd carry out these directives?
Not very well.
Not on board Serenity. Early on, he preaches nonviolence without having earned enough respect to be heeded. Later, he earns respect by knowing weapons, by having a mysterious Alliance history, and by shooting kneecaps. While these virtues are respected by Captain Reynolds and his fight-happy crew, these virtues are not exactly Franciscan. The prayer of St Francis remains, for Shepherd Book, an aspiration unachieved. And I believe this is why he eventually decides to leave Serenity.
In the comic Serenity: Those Left Behind – a prequel to the film Serenity – Mal mocks Book’s faith. “Tell me, Shepherd, when things take a turn toward [Chinese], do you drop to your knees and pray, or do you steal a vehicle and do what needs to be done to survive? To live to repent another day-” and enrages the would-be peacemaker so much that Book strikes Mal in the face.
When Book later says that he’s decided to leave the ship, Mal replies, “It don’t matter to me that you hit me.”
“Which,” counters the Shepherd, “is exactly why I need to be away from you. Because sooner or later, it won’t matter to me, either.”
So far, we see a frustrated missionary yet unable to acquire a “spirit of peace,”as St Seraphim puts it, let alone save others. Shepherd Book will take on new dimensions as he leaves Serenity and becomes pastor for the mining colony of Haven. I’ll talk about that next time.
Oleksa, Michael, ed. Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010.
“Serenity.” Firefly. Dir. Joss Whedon. Mutant Enemy Productions, 2002. Netflix broadcast.
Whedon, Joss, Brett Matthews, and Will Conrad. Serenity: Those Left Behind. Milwaukie: Dark Horse, 2006.
Whedon, Zack, Joss Whedon, and Chris Samnee. Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale. Milwaukie: Dark Horse, 2010.
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