Preaching in Hell, Part 3: The Missionary’s UnChristian Death
Last time, I introduced Shepherd Book from the TV series Firefly and its sequels in the comic books and film Serenity. I showed his arrival as a missionary on the spaceship Serenity, and how his ultimate failure to “carry the Word” – or even keep his cool – led him to leave the ship for a new assignment on the mining colony Haven.
Book’s pastoral ministry on Haven is not a story of Serenity and her crew, so we don’t know much about it. But the glimpses we get show a flock with a shepherd who is honored and heeded. To the Shepherd on Haven, Captain Mal Reynolds says “You know I always look to you for counsel”- a thing he never did when Book tried to advise him onboard his own ship.
By giving up the wandering life and becoming rooted in local ministry, Shepherd Book at last succeeds in reaching – and converting – those who resisted his preaching for so long.
Book is sent as a missionary. But as far as I can tell, he makes only three converts. All three are converted after his death.
Book’s death isn’t a martyrdom. It isn’t saintly, and it isn’t particularly Christian. He who lived by the gun, in the end dies manning a gun, shooting down an attacking ship as it destroys his community and kills him. He does not even save his people from death, but succeeds only in exacting vengeance. “I killed the ship that killed us,”he tells Captain Reynolds. “Not very Christian of me.”
And it isn’t. Most of Book’s action in the series Firefly rises not from his vocation as a Shepherd, but from his violent history. He takes up a gun in Episode Ten, “War Stories,” wryly explaining that while the Bible prohibits killing, it is “somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.” In these and other episodes, Book’s effort to live out his repentance is overshadowed by repercussions from his former life as a thug and a warrior. This extends all the way to his “unchristian” death.
Book knows this, and enables those who survive him to achieve repentance more fully than he’d ever managed. Mal, witnessing his Shepherd die by the sword, now has the chance to not kill – to save, even – his own killer. And he does.
Book’s second saving word to Mal is his urging towards belief. He has previously cautioned Mal that his nemesis, the Operative, is a “true believer,”and can be countered only with belief, “the one thing that’s going to walk you through this.”Now, the Shepherd’s final words reinforce this urgently: “I don’t care what you believe! Just…believe it. Whatever you have to…”And he dies.
Now, “whatever you believe, just believe”- that’s not terribly Christian. Except when it is. And here’s another thing about being a missionary.
Again from St Innocent of Alaska, from his instructions as a bishop to the missionary hieromonk Theophan. Evangelism, he says, must begin where the evangelized are. We can’t talk about Church attendance before talking about Christ, and we can’t talk about Christ before talking about the Law of Moses. Before the Law of Moses, an evangelist starts with evidence of God in the created world. An evangelist will encourage native concepts of the Creator, imperfect though they be, and will expound on the Mosaic Law “which is graven indelibly upon the tablets”of the heart of even “the crudest savages”- even a Browncoat’s heart. Later in his instructions, St Innocent notes that “it imports not a little for thy success that thou shouldest do justice to any good customs they [the crude savages] may have.”(Oleksa, 249)
Book knows Mal, and knows his customs. He knows that if Captain Reynolds will “just believe”anything, just believe, then such imperfect belief will be a step in the right direction- a step towards Christ. Before finding faith in Christ, a person must learn to have faith of any sort, must learn to rest securely in belief. We see this even in the case of Mal’s final adversary, the Operative, whose dedication to truly evil beliefs allows him to come to faith eventually in the truth.
So that’s two of Book’s saving words. Die like a Christian, and have belief. Here’s his third saving word, the word that comes after his death. Serenity’s crew have landed on the dead planet Miranda and have learned the awful truth that the demonic Reavers were created by a failed government mind-control drug called Pax. They’re discussing what to do. Mal has found belief. There is truth – facts, specific – about Miranda’s fate, and the crew has a duty, he argues, to tell this truth to the world. “Somebody has to speak for these people”who died from the Pax drug, and for those whom it turned into Reavers.
He’s unsure how the crew will respond until his “main gun”Jayne speaks and, remarkably, speaks for everyone. “Shepherd Book used to tell me, can’t do something smart, do something right.”
Book’s words to Jayne, recalled after the Shepherd’s death, have converted the most mercenary of men to a faith for which he is willing to die. The belief is in something that is the truth, that is a fitting remembrance of the dead, that will serve as a caution to save more lives. It is “something right.”
And now Mal has the chance – with the faith that Book guided him towards – to be a Christian where his pastor failed to be a Christian. He can save the enemy who would kill him. He can, in fact, make a convert of the Operative.
By the time Mal has reached the back-up from which he can broadcast to the ‘verse, he has good reason to believe that his crew are dead at the Reavers’hands. After a brutal fight, he has the Operative at his mercy. What reason does he have not to exact revenge? He can take revenge for the presumed death of his crew and destruction of his beloved ship, for his pilot Wash’s earlier death, for the murder of Shepherd Book and the entire Haven colony, for the destruction of other colonies that had sheltered Serenity and her crew over the years. What is left – in Mal’s own words – but the simple and seemingly righteous sin of wrath?
But Mal doesn’t take his revenge. He spares the Operative, and indeed shows him the very thing he’d fought to achieve: the world, on Miranda, “without sin.”The Operative, witnessing the evil consequences of what he’d been convinced was a righteous cause, actually repents, actually becomes a convert. As a convert, he saves the lives of Mal’s still-living crew and joins Mal’s side in the new struggle to tell the truth and keep the truth from being forgotten.
And, in these three converts, we see the great legacy of Shepherd Book, a legacy revealed by these three final sayings. “Just believe.”“Do something right.”And, implicitly, “Be a better Christian than me.”
Next time, I’ll introduce another TV show, another hell, and another priest: Father Lantom from the 2015 series Daredevil.
Oleksa, Michael, ed. Alaskan Missionary Spirituality. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2010.
Serenity. Dir. Joss Whedon. Universal, 2005. DVD.
“War Stories.” Firefly. Dir. Joss Whedon. Mutant Enemy Productions, 2002. Netflix broadcast.
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