Preaching in Hell: Pastoral Care in Daredevil and Firefly
Part Six: Almost Saints
Over the past five weeks, I have introduced the television shows Daredevil and Firefly as cultural media in which we Orthodox Christians can find common ground with our neighbors. I have proposed an analysis of two priests, Father Lantom and Shepherd Book, as examples of good Christian ministry in dangerous worlds. I have shown how their pastoral witness and care guides the repentance and conversion of the main characters of both these shows. Now I have to talk about limits.
As Christians, when we engage our culture we strive to illuminate what is true and what points to Christ. Actual TV characters who are actually Christian clergy and are actually portrayed positively are a good and obvious help. But while seeds of truth in the culture mean that, in some sense, Daredevil and Firefly can be called Christian, the simple and straightforward sense of things is that they aren’t.
In the moral arc of Firefly, it’s praiseworthy to be an essentially lawless privateer. In the moral arc of Daredevil, it’s virtuous to beat people senseless in order to extract information. The moral guidance of clergy in these shows adds dimension to more prominent characters and softens their hard edges. Their guidance does not, however, profoundly bend the stories towards Christ in any way that is explicit or straightforward.
Of course not. The culture won’t take it; the creators aren’t interested in it. That’s the world we’re in. So let’s take what’s good, thank God for it, and talk about it. Let’s show how these stories do reveal Christ, and how they water the seeds that lead towards repentance. Glory to God!
But what if the themes did become explicitly Christian? What if Shepherd Book and Father Lantom were saints? What kind of saints would they be? There are obvious parallels between Shepherd Book and Saint Moses the Strong, who a fourth-century monk of Egypt’s Western Desert . Both had a rough and violent background. Saint Moses was a bandit outlaw, and Shepherd Book was a roughneck before he became an especially cruel Alliance officer. Both had dramatic conversions to Christ, entered a monastery in repentance, and carried the love of God to brutal people. Both died violent deaths at the hands of their enemy.
After becoming monks, both Book and St. Moses had occasion to fight their enemies. St. Moses was once attacked by four outlaws. He overpowered them, tied them up, and carried them into the chapel where they were released and forgiven. These bandits were so moved that they repented, accepted baptism, and joined the monastery themselves. Shepherd Book, when faced with the need to take up arms, did not respond quite as graciously. He made a wry comment about Scripture saying nothing about kneecaps, and shot his way into the place where his comrades were held captive. While Book did manage not to kill anyone, he also didn’t save any souls.
Their deaths are likewise similar and different. Book, seeing an Alliance gunship approach, took up an anti-aircraft gun and shot it down as it bombed his home. He saved no lives, but did, as he tells Mal, kill “the ship that killed us. Not very Christian of me.” St Moses, foreseeing an attack on his monastery, sent his brethren into hiding and confronted the invaders with only seven fellow monks. Recalling the words of Christ that “all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” he accepted death at the enemies’ hands as inevitable. This fearless stand saved the lives of seventy-five others.
Book, good Shepherd though he is, does not quite trust Christ enough to face his enemies this fearlessly. He’s not quite a saint. Nor is Matt Murdock a saint, though he wants to be. He wants a priest’s permission to kill his devil, Wilson Fisk. This brings to mind another saint who asked permission to kill a violent man. In third-century Thessaloniki, a gigantic gladiator named Lyaeus was championed by the emperor to wrestle Christians in single combat. When no Christians volunteered to fight the giant, they would be conscripted, defeated, and impaled on spears. Such sadistic cruelty makes Lyaeus an apt analogue to Wilson Fisk.
Murdock to Lyaeus’ Fisk is a young Christian named Nestor. Horrified by the body count, he wanted permission to fight and kill the gladiator. Nestor sought out a revered Christian leader, Demetrios of Thessaloniki, who at the time was in prison for his evangelistic fervor. Demetrios blessed Nestor to fight with the words, “You will defeat Lyaeus, but you will suffer for Christ.” And so Nestor killed the giant, thus ending his campaign of terror against Christians, but the emperor punished both him and Demetrios by martyring them together.
Unlike St Demetrios, Father Lantom will not bless Matt to kill Fisk. Lantom discerns Matt’s pride, and admonishes him: “Another man’s evil does not make you good.” I don’t think this priest is preventing Matt from achieving saintly martyrdom like Nestor. Murdock wants Fisk to be as villainous as Lyaeus, but he sees the antagonist’s humanity, and sees even that he is capable of love. With his priest’s guidance, he is unable to make Fisk into the adversary he wishes he were.
As you engage the culture of the world around you, look into that culture for people like Shepherd Book and Father Lantom. Look for images of the saints, and for types of Christ. They will be flawed, but you will find them. You can use these characters and stories to reveal- first in your own soul, and then perhaps to others- the glory of God that always surrounds us.
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