Churl and I had the chance to watch the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special together in theatres this past weekend. And while each of us enjoys considering the deeper questions in television programmes like this, we both agreed that the 50th was, at its core, primarily just a good romp. [A few spoilers follow.]
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there weren’t interesting questions in the story. The episode revolves around the conclusion of the Time War, an event which has been oft-referenced during Nu-Who but never seen. We already know, as a result, that the Doctor is the one who ended the Time War—an act which took the lives not only of the Timelords’ enemies (the Daleks) but also of the Timelords themselves. To prevent the destruction of the universe, the Doctor sacrificed his own people. Or, put less charitably, in saving countless others the Doctor committed the genocide of his own race.
The 50th anniversary special (The Day of the Doctor) brings our attention back to this event. In fact, as the show is about time-travel, it actually takes us back inside the event, back to the Moment when the Doctor must decide whether the ends truly justify the means—whether the end of the Time War is worth the destruction of Gallifrey. This episode, as a result, is heavy on moral questions. And they are quite explicitly asked here: a past incarnation of the Doctor (who has yet to make the choice) asks future incarnations whether the horror of what he did/will do still haunts them. “Did you ever count how many children there were on Gallifrey that day?” he asks. In other words, did these future Doctors ever look back and wonder how many children died as a result of this decision. The past Doctor wants to know how they live with themselves; he wants the benefit of their retrospect even as he still wrestles with whether he will make the choice or not.
It brings us back to the Moment when the Doctor must decide whether the ends truly justify the means—whether the end of the Time War is worth the destruction of Gallifrey.
I won’t say anymore than that here; you really should just watch the episode yourself. But since we’re talking about Doctor Who and deeper things, allow me to highlight a few interesting articles about Doctor Who and religion.
The BBC has an interesting retrospect on religion in Doctor Who over the past fifty years in a recent article by Andrew Crome entitled “Doctor Who: Time travel through faith.” The thesis in short? “Doctor Who has continually engaged with important religious themes across its 50-year run.” Dr. Crome takes a broad stroke approach to the topic.
For a more frequent discussion of Doctor Who and its relationship with religion, readers may want to check out James F. McGrath’s blog “Exploring our Matrix.” Dr. McGrath, a member blogger for the Progressive Christian channel of Patheos, frequently discusses recent episodes and news regarding Doctor Who. His site is definitely worth watching for new posts on Who.
It’s also worth noting that the above two writers (Dr. Crome and Dr. McGrath) recently collaborated on a new book entitled Relative Dimensions in Faith: Religion and Doctor Who. The book includes essays by 19 scholars discussing such topics as “Doctor Who and the Apocalypse,” “The Role of Christian Imagery in Russel T. Davies’ Doctor Who Revival,” and “The Church Militant?” [If anyone feels inclined to get me this book, I wouldn’t say no to it!]
Finally, readers may want to catch up on my earlier post here on A Christian Thing as well. Entitled “Doctor Who: Religion and the Limits of Human Reason,” I examine the role of gods and demons in the Doctor Who franchise, with particular attention paid to Tenth Doctor stories “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit.”
How has your religious community historically seen mental illness? – And how does your faith, today, shape the way you see mental illness?
My background is the Evangelical tradition, so however far from it I may be at the moment (being an Anglo-Catholic), it is probably the tradition I am best able to speak out of and address. As someone who grew up suffering from some Frankensteinian hybrid of OCD and depression, and as someone who had family members who were also suffering from depression, OCD etc., I can say that, in my experience, there really was no place for people with mental illness. To be sure, if we had perhaps been more candid about it we may have found some comfort – I don’t know. But in some ways this highlights exactly the problem that has been typical in Evangelical churches. It is only in extreme situations that they actually go out of their way to say something against mental illness or against talking about it; no, the most damaging thing, at least when I was growing up, was what was not said. What was not said is that not all problems can be fixed by a spiritual high, or a neat testimony. What was not said is that some problems are as physical – biochemical – as they are spiritual. What was really not said was that it was okay to be in pain. It was of course okay provided you could reflect positively on it in retrospect – things were bad until God the deus ex machina leapt in and made everything better. But chronic suffering was not okay.
Now, it would seem, things are changing. Talking about mental illness among formerly repressed Evangelicals is now all the rage. Like our secular society beside us, we presume the way to do this is to do lots of talking – have lots of awareness etc. And neither talking nor awareness are bad things per se. But they become bad when they become a way of making us feel good about ourselves rather than actually doing something. As we know from the book of James, talk can be very hollow indeed. I suppose the question for me is whether all this talk will translate into substance. That Christianity has the resources to do this I have no doubt; whether Evangelicals wishing for further discussion and awareness are willing to pay the price of becoming Christ’s instruments of grace for those with mental illness is a question that will only be answered by their actions; by their fruit we will know them.
This may sound harsh, but I say this because, if Evangelicals have become willing to talk about mental illness rather than stay silent, they have I think been less willing to give up their wedding to simplistic fixes for things. It seems, for instance, that in many instances, the former quick spiritual fix for something like depression – you just need to have more faith etc. – has merely been replaced by a quick medical fix – you just need to see a doctor. This is of course not unique to Evangelical Christians – the majority of secular “awareness” types are also addicted to a fairy tale ending for mental illness, and we can see this “redemption story” in Obama’s speech for Mental Health Month, quoted in the original call for the Patheos forum. In the past, so the story goes – those nefarious dark ages – we never used to talk about these things. But if people will just come out and talk about them they will be cured by doctors and everything will end happily ever after. In many ways we – both secular and Christian – seem to think it is necessary to offer a unified insistence that things will turn out all right in a this worldly sense. But what about when they don’t, when medication doesn’t work, when there is an incompatibility between patient and counselor, when side effects become nearly as problematic as the illness itself? And what about those instances in which there is only a partial fix? Or those instances where other complicating factors such as homelessness and substance abuse combine and send someone into the cyclical pattern of being in and out of the hospital again and again, always caught between a world that cannot fully “fix” them and another world that doesn’t bother to love them? What then? It is perhaps a lovely middle class dream to be able to send our mentally ill of to the doctors who will “fix” them and send them back good as new, like repaired cars. But it does not always work this way. And I do not think it fair to tell half-truths about the help on offer just so more people will seek it; indeed, setting people up for a happy ending that may not be as simple as proposed is a good way to make patients already suspicious of doctors twice as unlikely to return. I had a friend who once sought help for her mental illness at the diversity office of a certain institution. Seemingly, this institution could afford large glossy signs featuring troubled youth with depression-filled thought bubbles around their heads; the implication was that these invisible problems could become visible and helped if you went to the diversity office. She went. And found no help.
So this is the question I really want to put to the Evangelicals so ostensibly interested in raising awareness about mental health issues. By all means talk about mental illness. By all means encourage sufferers in their faith. By all means send them to doctors. But if none of these things “works” in the simplistic sense you were expecting, are you willing to stick with them in their suffering? Are you willing to let a part of yourself die with them? Because it might cost you that. You might end up like Mary, a sword piercing your own soul as you weep over a person you deeply love contorted in pain you cannot imagine let alone fix. And you may find yourself crying out with Christ, with the person you so deeply love so deeply in pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us.” For this too is a prayer of the church.
Put another way, I think at bottom the problem is not just with awareness but with the Evangelical theology (or non-theology) of the cross. Are we going, like we used to do in our city-wide Evangelical service, acknowledge, if somewhat uncomfortably, that yes we maybe have to talk about the cross, but then skip as fast as possible to a triumphalist read on the resurrection? Or are we going to do what Christians in fact do, which is stay by the person on the cross even when it seems all bets are off and we would do better to abandon that person for something or someone more cheerful?
Even for myself, I have a hard time answering these questions. I will with all my heart to be such a Christian, and hope there are times when I have shown such grace. But I pray for the future in the knowledge that this is something I can never do by myself. I need, and need daily, the grace of the Christ who knows what it is to suffer the full extent of suffering, the God who knows what it is to feel the pain of watching the person you love most die an excruciating death – the God with whom creation mourns, the God for whom such an act merits the ragged tearing of the temple curtain as one in mourning might tear his clothes. I need this as I daresay will anyone who is going to take on the task of caring – that is, really caring – about those who suffer from mental illness.
Such caring involves, I suggest, looking among us for the faces of the crucified, for it is in these faces that we will see Christ. This means not just talking, but doing. For instance, spend some time volunteering in some capacity where you will actually meet real people with mental illnesses, though it need not be formal. I have no doubt that all about you there are people suffering invisibly. Pray, and look for them. Seek and you will find. Watch for the ones on the margins, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones that nobody else is talking to. Watch for the popular ones hiding their deep sadness under the paint of superfluity. Watch even for the experts, even those who would seem to have far surpassed you in their knowledge of this kind of love. For these people suffer too, and sometimes the worst; it is so easy to forget that those best at loving and caring, with a seeming artfulness and ease, are also in need of love – at times starved for it. Love the foolish. Love even the wise. But, you will say, not all these people necessarily have mental illness. Yes, but it is certain you will never know which ones do until you begin to see them. Before we can start loving people with mental illness, we need to start loving people. And in order to love people, we are in most desperate need of the cross of Christ.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.
The Doctor confronts the old god in “The Rings of Akhaten.”
In case you haven’t heard, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. As a fan, I’ve wanted to pay homage to the show for some time, planning to write a post discussing the good Doctor and religion. Now seems as good a time as any, given that the most recent episode “The Rings of Akhaten” is a story in which the Doctor comes face to face with a “god.”
It’s a common enough theme in science fiction: the self-proclaimed deity who is unmasked as a pretender (think Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country—“What does God need with a starship?”). Still, the Doctor’s confrontations with religious beings are a little different than those in other science fiction series. He is, after all, a semi-divine figure himself. All space and time is at his disposal. He can go anywhere and anywhen. He’s more Q than Picard, if you will.
The Doctor’s confrontations with religious beings is different than other science fiction. He is, after all, a semi-divine figure himself.
So when the Doctor comes up against a “god,” we know he’ll be able to expose it as a fraud. And it always is another a fraud. It might be a powerful being; it might be ancient. It might, as in the most recent episode, have existed for millenia, feeding on the offerings and worship of its followers. But whatever else it is, it is not truly divine. It is as much a part of the universe as anything else. It can always be explained. It can always be understood.
Except, perhaps, in one two-part story from the Tenth Doctor’s era. In this story, the Doctor again comes across someone professing godhood: he meets a being which claims to be the Beast, the devil himself. But the Doctor has faced many false gods in his day; they are all pretenders. “If you are the Beast,” he mocks, “then answer me this: Which one, hmm? Because the universe has been busy since you’ve been gone. There’s more religions than there are planets in the sky. There’s the Arkaphets, Christianity, Pash-Pash, New Judaism, San Claar, Church of the Tin Vagabond. Which devil are you?”
Only this time the devil is real. “Which devil are you?” the Doctor asks. “All of them,” the Beast replies. He is not lying.
Here the Doctor is confronted with something greater—and more terrifying—than he can imagine. Not merely because it is an unknown but instead because it is by its nature unknowable. When the Doctor asks the Beast when he came to be chained in the Pit, the latter answers, “Before time.” This answer makes no sense to the Doctor; he cannot conceive of a “before time.”
“What does ‘before time’ mean?” he asks.
“Before time and light and space and matter. Before the cataclysm. Before this universe was created.”
“You can’t have come from before the universe,” the Doctor responds incredulously. “That’s impossible.”
To which the Beast replies, “Is that your religion?”
The Doctor can only respond, “It’s a belief.”
The Beast scoffs, “You know nothing. All of you, so small.”
Here the Doctor, nigh on a deity himself, is confronted by something beyond him. Unknowable. Unthinkable. Impossible. He cannot conceive of existence before time and matter. His reason is too small; it cannot bend so far. He cannot comprehend it. He cannot measure it and test it. “If that thing had said it was from beyond the universe, I’d have believed it. But before? Impossible.”
So too did God question Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone?” (Job 38:4-6). The questions are, for Job, impossible to answer; they are beyond his understanding: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). But Job’s inability to answer God’s questions about creation—and the Doctor’s inability to comprehend of existence “before time”—does not change the fact of their existence.
So then: the Doctor finds himself opposed by a power he cannot even comprehend. He has no more ideas. He has no more options. Even the TARDIS—and, consequently, the only chance of escape—has been lost. All hope is at an end. The situation is utterly and completely beyond him.
The situation is utterly and completely beyond him. How fitting then, that the solution must also come from beyond him.
How fitting then, that the solution must also come from beyond him. It has, in fact, been prepared in advance by those who first imprisoned the devil. The Beast had been imprisoned “before time,” he tells us, when “the Disciples of the Light rose up against me and chained me in the pit for all eternity.”
The Doctor meets the Devil in “The Satan Pit.”
It is impossible to miss the reference to Scripture here. “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:7-9). And again: “The angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6).
As in the biblical text, the devil was defeated and chained in the darkness (in the television series, the devil is quite literally chained imprisoned on an “impossible planet” fixed in space in the shadow of a black hole). But the Disciples of the Light seem to have foreseen both the Beast’s attempt to escape and the Doctor’s presence at the event. When all hope is lost, the Doctor finds the Disciples of Light have prepared a solution for him ahead of time—quite literally before time existed.
Having fallen into the Pit, the Doctor awakens to find he was “expected.” “I was given a safe landing and air,” he says to the Beast, asking why. Slowly it dawns on him: provision for his safe descent was not the devil’s doing; it was the work of the Disciples of Light. “That’s it!” he exclaims. “You didn’t give me air, your jailers did! They set this up. They need me alive, because if you’re escaping then I need to stop you!” The Doctor discovers what the Disciples of Light intend him to do, and he does it—knowing full well it will mean his own death.
Except it doesn’t. In a deus ex machina worthy of the name, the Doctor’s previously lost TARDIS is discovered to have also fallen into the Pit. In fact, it’s landed right where it needs to be, almost as if by plan. And perhaps it was by plan. That’s what’s so fascinating about this particular Doctor Who story: it leaves room for the possibility of something more—something beyond mortal comprehension, beyond even the super-human Doctor’s understanding. The Doctor lays down his life to defeat the devil, only to find his life restored to him in the end.
Mark Driscoll has scared me for a while, with his unbiblical perspectives on gender and what can only be termed overgrown schoolyard bully antics. I keep hearing that, yes, he is a little much, but at least he has good (or standard, depending on your perspective) reformed theology. To this, my general reply would be, as per James: You believe that there is one God – good – even the demons believe that, and shudder. You see, even demons can have good theology.
What is bothering me particularly at the moment is the recent news of what seems to be an abuse of power in Driscoll’s church. Yes, I realize that with so many denominations there is a lack of Christian accountability, and this is what they are reacting against. And yes, I think there is something wrong when someone compares a church covenant to the agreement you click on iTunes (interesting aside question: does the cavalier way that such programs have taught us to enter into contracts compromise the Christian practice of letting our yes be yes and our no,no?). But from what I can tell, it does seem that the response of Mars Hill to Andrew is grounded more in an exaggerated defensive stance against “sissy” Western culture than in sound Biblical exegesis. Yes, maybe we are supposed to treat Christians under discipline as we would treat tax collectors and sinners – but then again, our model of how we treat tax collectors and sinners must be Christ rather than the Pharisees.
In short, this looks like abuse of power, and it worries me greatly, given Mars Hills’ seeming lack of accountability to other churches. You see, people often make the assumption that institutionalisation kills churches, that it would be so much better if we went back to the good old spontenaeity of the early church. I would rather suggest that, in its ideal form, the Christian institution exists to protect us from the abuses of Biblical and Christian language by those abusing that spontenaeity. You see, when I think of corrupt Christianity, I do not think of the tottering and awkward bulk of the institutionalised church – it is often too bumbling to be able to maintain the prideful appropriation of Christian language for too long – God is always humbling it through its sheepish awkwardness. No, the abuse I fear is when people say we should “just” pray, or “just” be more biblical, or “just” be more discerning, or “just” listen to the holy spirit (just should be treated as a four letter word in the Christian vocabulary). Surely we should do all these things, but the problem is that such advice sets itself beyond appeal; anyone who questions whether its use might be self-serving rather than humble and Christian is accused of setting themselves against these good things – as if pointing out their abuses were the same as dismissing them altogether. And it seems to me that Mars Hill is guilty of this; it is the Biblical church (let me just say here that no contemporary church is Biblical in the way churches think they mean when they advertise this), and questioning it is tantamount to questioning God. This is particularly scary given that Mars Hill is hardly in submission to or under the discipline of two thousand years of Christian belief – it is in submission to and under the discipline of Mark Driscoll. While it may be exceedingly corrupt at times, Christian tradition, practice, and the communion of saints exist to keep pastors – shepherds – from becoming abusive celebrities. Church discipline is important, yes, but I think it should only be practiced by churches insofar as those churches are being the church in all aspects. If Driscoll is so keen about Christian submission to discipline, he should consider submitting his own church to the authority of a two thousand year old Christian tradition. And since he so dearly loves blood sport, I do not feel particularly bad in hitting below the belt and suggesting that he start by studying a certain Council of Trent, presumably undertaken with people like him in mind.