Friday, 16 May 2014

ON STAR TREK, MORMONS & PROGRESS



                               “I have faith to believe... I can do anything”


No, it isnt Joel Osteen (though he may well have said it too).

Rather it is this.

 The opening credits of Enterprise: the final offering of the absurdly successful Star Trek franchise which began way back in the mid 60s.

The scenes are powerful.   


 Images flicker across the screen portraying human progress from its earliest days through to iconic 20th Century space exploration images and then on to speculative glimpses of future spacecraft breaking free of earth orbit.

 Throughout the music reassures us that our “faith” (presumably in ourselves) is strong enough to bring anything to pass. So it is that the sailing ship is enabled to become a starship & disappear into the blue. 

Now at this point I must make an embarrassing confession:

I am a Star Trek fan.

There, I've said it. 

Now, I hasten to add, I have never been a fully nerdified, convention-haunting, Klingon-speaking kind of a fan. But nevertheless a fan. One who has always known his Datas from his Lores.

 Back in my teenage atheist days, firmly convinced that “Religion” had held back “Science” for a thousand years, the series had seemed like meat and drink to my worldview.

 Actually it is only in watching the series in more recent times, now armed with a greater knowledge of alternative religions, that I realize that I had in those days been somewhat guilty of misreading the ethos of the show.  

Whilst Star Trek was always about Man’s progress, it was not always the clear-cut atheistic view of progress that many watching probably believed in.  

In fact I now see that in some respects the world of ST could be shockingly religious

 I am  struck now by how the end result of all of this “progress” was encapsulated in something called the Q Continuum. This was an eccentric family of highly evolved super-beings who were the closest the series could actually get to “gods” without offending all of the atheists like me!. 

 But watching an episode a few months back I was suddenly struck by how thoroughly Mormon the notion of Q is.

 For what are both the Father and  Jesus Christ in LDS thought but highly evolved super-beings?  Mormonism offers this godlike status to mortals just as some got the chance to join the Q Continuum in Star Trek.  

I had long known that the original, cheesy Battlestar Galactica series had been heavily influenced by its  Mormon creators but it was quite startling to see such concepts in my beloved ST!    

  Hence whilst the series promoted progress I can now see that it was not always of the purely secular humanist variety of which I had once approved.

Nevertheless I would suggest that it is the notion of Secular Progress that has been the lasting legacy of Star Trek.  Even today I must admit that I can still find that opening scene a little moving despite the fact that I now wholly repudiate the mindset that lies behind it.

What was/is the attraction of the show?

 I think its appeal was in the fact that it allowed us to believe in an exciting technologically-advanced future, but one that was encompassed within a safe Western culture of constitutions, family values, and human rights. These were ordinary people who just happened to be out in space.

 The ultimate guarantor of all those rights was Starfleet, which was presented to us as being essentially the projection of US military power into space (those starships were not prefixed USS for nothing).

Yes, despite having in those days admirably more than the requisite token number of Russians, Africans, Indians etc (along with one dubiously-accented  Scotsman), Star Trek was still essentially 20th Century America in Space.

 It was lightyears (sorry) removed from the grim futuristic tableaux offered up to the youth of my day by far edgier Science Fiction writers than Gene Roddenberry.

 Here was a show that was full of aliens, but was never allowed to be conceptually alien.  ST instead offered us all a safe, homely kind of future full of reassuring characters and institutions. It was exciting and could even be dangerous, but it was never disturbing the way real SF was.  

To me that was the secret of its success.  

Whilst the series was considered by some noteworthy for anticipating certain technological innovations such as the I pad, I think it was sometimes guilty of actually  underestimating the speed of technological advance.

 I recall how one of the early ST movies featured Kirk having his identity verified by means of a fancy device called a retina scan.  Presumably the producers in 1982  thought that this looked like the kind of technology that might well be available by the 23rd Century. In fact such things were to be considered pretty much old-hat before the 20th Century was out!   

However one area where the Star Trek producers were proved wholly wrong was in their assessment of the rate of social change that would have taken place in their futuristic world.

 As I have said, Star Trek was US culture –including US family culture- projected into a future century.  The series reassured us that such values could and would survive.

In the future children would still have fathers and marriage would still exist.
Indeed, not only would 23rd Century men still marry but they would actually still marry women.  

 Same-sex issues had occasionally made appearances in some later episodes but rarely. This may well have been due to the censors in those days but actually you always sensed that ST’s commitment to revolutionary social change as opposed to technological change was only ever half-hearted.  That was not what had made the show successful so they mostly steered clear of it.

 So, by and large, ST provided us with a future with the “nuclear family” model still pretty intact far into the future. 

Here was where they seem to have been completely wrong. 

 Today - assuming the continuation of current trajectories - we can no longer conceive of that family model surviving the next few decades let alone centuries.

The moral revolution was largely missed by Star Trek as it was by so many others.

 That this Star Trek phenomenon can greatly influence even Christians, is a reminder to us that we are all products of the times and the societies in which we live.  Just as Martin Luther never wholly escaped the power of Roman Catholicism, nor can we ever hope to be completely free of the mindsets bequeathed us by our upbringing.

Every society has its myths, and Star Trek has given our society one of its most powerful myths.

This myth is that of Progress: linear progression towards an ever-improving future.

The idea affects our behaviour today in a myriad of ways that we may not be aware of.   

I note how cancer charities sometimes lament the disparity in giving between medical research on the one hand and end-of-life patient care on the other.   

What this disparity indicates is that whilst we don’t mind cancer patients being well-looked after in their final days, what we really expect to see is a cure.  And be assured it is the Star Trek view of the world that has long driven belief in such a cure. 

 The conviction reigns that if only sufficient time and resource are ploughed in to the problem, then somehow medical science will one day be able to cure not only cancer but all disease. We demand linear progression towards the elimination of all human suffering, maybe even towards the abolition of death itself.

It goes without saying that this worldview is wholly contrary to the scriptures which assure us that illness and death are by-products of the Fall. It is only God that can - and one day will - fully draw a line under their effects. We however will always remain powerless to do so.   

Yet we have been indoctrinated to expect medical cures. We have all watched this utopian vision of a disease-free humanity on our TV screens since 1966 and now we are confident that it is must not only be possible, but actually we are certain that by now it ought to be just around the corner.

But it is a delusion.

The new medical advances come more slowly than in the past and they bring less radical improvements than formerly. 

There is also a struggle to keep hold of the ground that was once conquered.  The reality is that “old” diseases are slowly coming back, whilst new super-bugs almost have the measure of our present antibiotics.

Don’t be fooled by those life-expectancy statistics.Many fear they are about to peak.

We are struggling even to hold the line. 

 Another example of our linear progression worldview is seen in our typical response to outrageous moral behaviour in our day.  

 When hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls are kidnapped and face a life subjected to sexual slavery, we say that we are appalled that such things can happen “in the 21st Century,” and reassure ourselves that this can only be because the kidnappers are “medieval” in their outlook.   

 In reality an atrocity like this is no more or less likely to happen in the 21st Century than at any other time.  Nor is there anything especially medieval about the captors.  
History and theology both assure us that unregenerate men have always behaved this way (1 Sam 30:1-3).

What is important for us to understand is that they always will

 Do not be hoodwinked by the bigger and better toys that we amuse ourselves with these days. Our essential nature is unchanged from the day that our first parents emerged shamefaced from the Garden. Outside of an encounter with God’s regenerating power, that nature is actually unchangeable.

Man has not advanced in the 21st Century.

Nor is he on his way to a Star Trek utopia. Such a universe is unreachable by starship or by any other means. 

It is vital that believers recognize this myth of Progress wherever they meet it, but especially where it is found in their own thinking.  Otherwise they will not be able to resist the siren sounds that are already beginning to lure many Christians onto the rocks of cultural relativism.

 How often are we being told today that we risk being “on the wrong side of history” on this or that issue?

 To me such a statement is quintessential Star Trek!   

 It reveals belief in that worldview I suggested which assumes linear progression towards an ever-more perfect future. But we live in no such world.

As Bible-believing Christians we must insist that true progress is measured only by scripture and not ever by the calendar.   How we will need to cling to that thought in the difficult days ahead!  

I find I can still enjoy an occasional relaxing hour in Gene Roddenberry's imaginary world.  But once you have seen through the Star Trek myth, its power - like that of all myths - is gone forever.

I thank God that He eventually opened my eyes to the lie of having “faith” in human progress.   

That was actually the original lie. The one that promised, “you shall be like God” 

Only they weren't. And we will never be like Q either