They Can’t Stop the Signal

"Fireflies" | Art by OtisFrampton. Used with permission.
Let’s talk about the F-word. No, not that one. The other one—the word considered by some to be just as dirty: faith. The way people talk about it, faith seems no more than a strong willingness to blindly believe something completely unfounded. And Joss Whedon would probably agree with that.

I gotta hand it to Whedon for even touching on the issue of faith in some of his films and for doing so in such a compelling way. Whedon’s self-professed preoccupation with spiritual belief is interesting because he also happens to be a self-professed atheist and Humanist. In a 2002 interview with The New York Times, he admitted his fascination with “the concept of devotion” and his desire “to explore that.” However, for Whedon, it is not the object of one’s faith that is important but the strength of conviction that stands behind it.

For example, in Serenity, Inara tells the crew that the Operative is not to be taken lightly, that “we have every reason to be afraid . . . . because he’s a believer.”  On another occasion, Whedon uses the character of Shepherd Book to remind Malcolm Reynolds about the need for faith.

Mal: “Ah, hell, Shepherd. I ain’t lookin’ for help from on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.”
Book: “When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?”

Later in Serenity, Book’s dying words to Mal drive home Whedon’s views: “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it.” Sounds pretty Zen, no? The idea that anything goes—what’s the problem with that?

There is no denying the appeal of the seeming freedom and self-made meaning Whedon desires.

So what if, hypothetically, Mal suddenly decided with great conviction to believe in something morally-reprehensible? Such as, that the behaviour of the Alliance Operative was right? Yes, the one who was responsible for Book’s death and the deaths of Haven’s innocent civilians. Would Shepherd Book really not have cared what Mal ended up believing in? Somehow, I doubt it. (Note to self: make sure my dying words are less vague than “Whatever, man. It’s all good.”)

The idea behind Whedon implying that all beliefs are equally valid is called Relativism. One of Relativism’s problems is that regardless of the fervor of my belief—no matter how strongly I might declare that, for example, I am a 400-foot-tall, purple platypus bear with pink horns and silver wings—neither my wishing nor my confidence makes it so. A belief either conforms to reality or not.

As a former Humanist, I totally get the appeal of Whedon’s faith in “people power.” Everyone says “believe in yourself!” And sure, that phrase has a nice ring to it. In Age of Ultron, Tony Stark’s bumper sticker in the cockpit of the Avengers’ jet that reads “Jarvis is my co-pilot” riffs off the popular “God is my co-pilot” bumper sticker and signifies that Stark has more faith in something he created himself than in a higher power.

Ultimately, Whedon believes that the solution to the failings of the human condition—to the problem of evil and the meaninglessness of life—lies in the optimistic belief that people alone have the power to fix themselves. Whedon’s commitment to Humanism infuses his films through the dominant theme of having faith in other people.

There is no denying the appeal of the seeming freedom and self-made meaning Whedon desires when we consider our broken world full of disenfranchised people  who have come to distrust any kind of authority. But if I’m brutally honest with myself about my own failings, the reality of betrayal and, well, humanity’s track record, I have to admit that G.K.Chesterton got it right: “What’s wrong with the world today? I am.”

Unlike the illusory nature of Whedon’s Humanism, I believe that the power that lies behind the Christian worldview, on the other hand, is not the power of professed faith itself, but the power of an historical Jesus of Nazareth. As someone wanting to make sense of herself and the world around her, I find the Christian worldview best explains why it is that, despite all my best efforts, I “do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” It explains why humanity can never seem to win the battle between good and evil that Joss Whedon’s work so aptly recognizes takes place within the human heart.

Everyone says “believe in yourself!” And sure, that phrase has a nice ring to it.

I’m reminded of when the male members of the Avengers team try again and again with all their might—and in Tony Stark’s case, technical prowess—to lift Thor’s hammer, but each fail. They are simply not worthy (which becomes a running gag). Even Captain America, most steadfast and virtuous of them all, just barely manages to get Mjölnir to shift (much to Thor’s relief). Later in the movie, the Avengers argue over whether or not they can trust the newly-created being called Vision. But when Vision casually and effortlessly hands Thor his hammer, it is clear to the heroes (after a brief moment of stunned disbelief) that Vision has demonstrated that he can really be trusted, and their immediate and natural response is to follow him into battle.

The Avengers’ “faith” in Vision was neither blind, nor unreasonable; it was warranted and earned. In the same way the Avengers had faith in Vision, I have faith in Jesus Christ, not because He is a tool created to make me feel better, but because of who He is. The historicity of Christ’s sacrifice demonstrates to me that He is who He claimed to be—one worthy of carrying something far heavier than Mjölnir, something I am convinced that none of us have the strength to carry on our own: the terrible weight of our own sin. It’s because of this that I can trust Him even when I can’t trust myself.

Why is it we find it so hard to win the battle between good and evil that Joss Whedon and his fans recognize taking place within the human heart? Because we are simply not capable of doing it on our own. However creatively Whedon or anyone else may try to reinvent this truth without God—without the being who essentially embodies truth—they will always fail. As Mr. Universe says in Serenity, “They can’t stop the signal.”

J.D. Hay

J.D. Hay

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Cleverly disguised as a mild-mannered Assistive Technologist by day, J.D. Hay is a writer of historical and speculative fiction with an insatiable interest in lives both real and imagined. She is also an avid collector of hobbies.
J.D. Hay

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