Browncoats and Bibles: Prophetic Misbehavin’ in the Whedony ‘Verse of Firefly


‘No Power in the ‘Verse…’ — The Whedony World of Firefly/Serenity

Joss Whedon is perhaps best known for his work in such cult franchises as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog. But many fans also recognize him as the visionary creator of the short-lived but loved Firefly series and Serenity movie. The futuristic ” ‘verse” Whedon imagines for the Firefly series and Serenity is both surprisingly unique and strangely familiar. Set some 500 years in the future, the galaxy is both a multicultural, technologically-advanced, Star Wars-esque network of planets, while also including many back-woods, folksy worlds at the outer edges that appear to be direct from a Wild West ‘shoot-em-up’ movie. Whedon’s world isn’t populated by innumerable alien species as is the Star Wars universe. Instead, it entails an interesting amalgamation of Eastern and Western human cultures. Far from the latent Euro-American-centric (White) culture of both the Star Wars and Star Trek series, inhabitants of the Firefly ‘verse speak almost as much Mandarin as English. Urban centers look more like Bangkok than New York. But white people still seem to run things, as evinced by the complexion of all the villains and shadowy government-type folks who relentlessly pursue Serenity (save one extraordinary black assassin). Buddhism appears to be dominant religion, most of the swearing is done in Chinese, and everyone who isn’t a Fed talks like Huckleberry Finn. One of the more interesting slang words is “shiny,” which replaces “cool.”

The series background is the turmoil that resulted from space expansion after the completely resource depletion of the “Earth-that-was.” A galaxy-wide civil war erupted when “the Alliance” sought to unify all the newly terraformed planets in one imperial power-conglomerate. From what I could piece together the resistance to the Alliance weren’t much more than a plucky militia from the planets furthest from the “Core” or “Central” planets, where nearly all of the wealth is consolidated. These “Browncoast” (as they’re called) were handily defeated but have never really given up the fight (like non-racist versions of Paleo-Confederates). One final touch of mystique in the Whedon ‘verse of Firefly is the “reavers” phenomenon. A marauding group of former humans said to have ‘stared into the black’ of deep space, now hunt passengers of wayward ships who they terrorize with inhuman, sadistic torture, rape, and cannibalism. Their existence is not acknowledged by they Alliance because the Alliance is secretly responsible for creating them when a small percentage of the inhabitants of a terraformed planet in the outer ring of the galaxy had a tremendously adverse reaction to a drug they pumped into the world’s environment to squelch aggression. The entire remainder of the planet’s population died when they allowed themselves to waste away, too pacified to eat or even breathe.

Ship and Crew: An Alternative Family of Complementarily-gifted Outlaws

“Serenity” is the name of the space-faring vessel the main characters crew. 500 years is far-enough into the future for the development of Star Wars-like vehicles capable of interstellar travel. Serenity is a “Firefly-class” craft described as a cargo transport favored by smugglers—which the crew happen to be. But Serenity’s crew are no ordinary smugglers. They are a motley collection of former soldiers, civilians, a mercenary, and a “companion” (which is what legally-registered and trained prostitutes are called in the future). Occasionally taking on passengers for cover and extra cash, Serenity serendipitously gains a doctor, a brain-damaged super genius, and a “Shepherd” (which is what ministers in the last remaining Christian order are called in the future). This makes for fun-filled high jinx and Buffy-like sexual tension between the odd-couple parings of romantic interests and natural enemies. The sexually-liberated  genius female ship’s mechanic, called “Kaylee,” is in love with the uncomfortably uptight and ‘cultured’ rich-boy doctor, Simon Tam, who’s life now revolves around protecting his young sister, River. The two of them, we learn, are fugitives since Simon rescued River from being the Alliance’s psychic-powers Guinea pig, forfeiting his life of extreme wealth and privilege. “Mal” (short for Malcolm) is Serenity’s captain and a former sergeant in the war. He is a courageous, mysterious, honorable, space cowboy and Han Solo-esque character haunted by the memory of the soldiers he lost under his command in the war. His lieutenant is the stoic-yet-sexy Zoe, who also fought in the war alongside Mal, and is married to “Wash” the always-joking, dinosaur-toy-loving kid-at-heart who is madly in love with his bride. The money-and-skirt-chasing mercenary is called “Jayne”. He’s a trigger-happy, muscle-head, collections of chauvinistic stereotypes. In complete contrast to Jayne, yet surprisingly close friends, is the pastor-with-a-past, “Shepherd Book,” the monk-like missionary who serves as spiritual counsel and moral compass for the crew—but particularly Mal. Last, but certainly not least, is Inera the “companion,” who is the eye-candy love-hate-interest of the captain and Serenity’s “ambassador” on planets where the crew’s criminal ways might not be well-received. As my wife would say, her and Mal’s love is quite unrequited.

Browncoats and Bibles

Mostly due to Shepherd Book, the Bible makes several appearances in the TV series and film, as well as references to God, hell, sin, abbeys, faith, and the like. One of my favorite scenes in which the Bible plays a prominent role is in episode 7 (“Jaynestown”) when Shepherd decides to look after River on the ship while her brother, the doctor, joins the typical away party on that episode’s mission. Shepherd finds River with his Bible very upset and destroying it feverishly while ranting about its content.

  • Shepherd Book: What are we up to, sweetheart?
  • River Tam: Fixing your Bible.
  • Book: I, um… [alarmed] What!?
  • Tam: Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics …doesn’t make sense. [she’s marked up the bible, crossed out passages and torn out pages]
  • Book: No, no. You-you-you can’t…
  • River: So we’ll integrate non-progressional evolution theory with God’s creation of Eden. Eleven inherent metaphoric parallels already there. Eleven. Important number. Prime number. One goes into the house of eleven eleven times, but always comes out one. Noah’s ark is a problem.
  • Book: Really?
  • River: We’ll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon. Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat. [rips out page]
  • Book: River, you don’t fix the Bible.
  • River : It’s broken. It doesn’t make sense.
  • Book: It’s not about making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t fix faith, River. It fixes you.

At least one critic of the show finds the “Jaynestown” episode to be an all-out attack on the Bible and Christian faith. He explains,

“At the end of this episode, when Jayne is talking with his captain about why these people still consider him a hero (even after the truth comes out) the captain tells him it was because they needed to.”

For this writer, this amounts to heresy, believing the only Christianity Whedon will accept is “…a mushy, emotional, non-doctrinal, non-judgmental one that applies to no one else but the person who believes it.”

A different Christian reviewer has a much more balanced assessment of Whedon’s approach to Christianity in Firefly/Serenity. Instead of casting Whedon as an enemy of Christians bent on destroying biblical faith, this writer finds that Whedon just simply doesn’t understand people of faith, and can’t coming from his atheistic viewpoint.

“Whedon is not nearly as successful as Straczynski was in peopling his universe with believable, full-orbed, practicing religious people. In Firefly/Serenity, Whedon has a wonderful character named Book, but Whedon never seems to know exactly what to do with him.  In the series Book is your typical liberal-created clergyman, non-judgmental and gripped with his own unresolved issues. Here he says ‘Believe! I don’t care what you believe — just believe.’ Uh huh.”

Both reviewers, however, have missed a critical component of Book’s character, and therefore Whedon’s outlook on faith: Justice. Book isn’t merely a “mushy, emotional, non-doctrinal, non-judgmental” person of faith who is “gripped with his own unresolved issues.” Book is also a man with firm convictions about justice, righteousness, empire, and sacrifice. He puts the needs of others before his own, and is willing to lay down his life for his friends. If being “Christian” actually meant being “like Christ” in U.S. American culture, Book would be consider the most “Christian” character in the Whedony ‘verse. But it is the “personal salvation” viewpoint of these authors write from that obscures their vision from seeing these facts. They have accepted the lie that Christian faith is a matter of believing the right doctrines and making others believe them too. They have strained out the gnat of Christ-like, self-sacrificial love and swallowed the camel of evangelical, doctrinal “orthodoxy.”

In episode 6 (“Our Mrs. Reynolds”), the ship’s captain, Mal, accidentally weds a local girl after having too much to drink and participating in their marriage ceremony of which he is unaccustomed. After she stows away on Serenity and reveals that she and Mal are wed, Mal becomes aware of her beauty (Christina Hendricks who played “Joan” on Mad Men) and her over-the-top willingness to please him in every way. Book confronts Mal very directly.

  • Mal: She’s a nice girl.
  • Book: Seems very anxious to please you.
  • Mal: That’s their way I guess.
  • Book: I suppose so. [Mal walks off] If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child-molesters, and people who talk at the theatre.
  • Mal: Wuh [stammers] I am not… Preacher, you got a smutty mind!
  • Book: Perhaps I spoke out of turn.
  • Mal: Maybe perhaps I’m thinking.
  • Book: I apologize. I’ll make her up a room in the passenger dorm. [They part ways]
  • Mal: Good!
  • Book: [Poking his head around corner] The special hell!

I don’t know if I’d call that “non-judgmental” or “mushy.” It’s definitely a bit too fire-and-brimstone for my taste.

It’s true that Book does not spend any length of his time on the ship trying to convince the crew that Adam was a historical person, or that 5000 different species of mammals were all in the ark together, or even that the Bible is infallible. But Book demonstrates his faith through his commitment to justice for the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Back in the Jaynestown episode, Book hung back on the ship with River because he was not afraid of her, despite of her violent episodes. The rest of the crew marginalized her because of fear, he engaged her and showed her dignity. In episode 6, he stands up to the captain on behalf of a woman he thinks is vulnerable. He speaks truth to power. In the movie, we find Book back with his fellow shepherds on a planet where they care for orphans.

While I can’t reasonably claim to know what Joss Whedon’s motives are or are not in the character of Book or in his depiction of faith in general, I can tell you that, as a Jesus-disciple, I found much to be admired in the character of Book and in the role his faith played in his life among the crew. He embodied an ethic of love expressed through acts of self-sacrifice, justice, and prophetic witness.

Empire, the Church, and Prophetic Misbehavin’

In fact, the primary faith metaphor I find in the Firefly/Serenity franchise is that of the struggle of the outlaw crew against the oppressive principalities and powers. The Alliance is a totalitarian regime with no regard human life, as the fate of Miranda betrays. Serenity is an flying outpost of freedom in an otherwise doomed galaxy. Together, the crew depend on one another for their very lives, utilizing their diverse and beautifully complementary gifts to not only survive and help folks along the way, but to expose the injustice of the Alliance, thereby toppling their dominion. Serenity is an allusion to the battleground where Mal and Zoe took a stand against the Alliance and Serenity carries on that stand. Serenity is an alternative way of life from that of the Alliance, a rebellious courage that opposes control and domination. Serenity is shalom, when life is balanced and as it should be. The crew of Serenity live by their own politic, one of loyalty and righteousness, even if it means death, which it ultimately does. “It is better to do what is right, than what is smart.” Following Jesus isn’t about expediency or efficiency or effectiveness; following Jesus is about faithfulness—even to the death. That ethic is embodied in Serenity.

The final enemy of Serenity is an extraordinary black assassin whom Inera calls “a true believer.” In a revealing scene, he and Mal debate their opposing ideals after the assassin has decimated Book’s home killing the orphans and Book himself. “The Operative” declares his belief in “a better world,” a “world without sin.” And he goes on to share how he himself will not be able to live in that world because of the atrocities he’s committed (like killing children). This is the muddled thinking that leads empires like the Alliance or the early European colonists to wipe out entire populations of people who stand in their way of a “better world.” Puritanical delusions like this leave no room for free will, free thought, or diverse expression of culture. Principalities and dominions and rulers and powers all want the same thing: control. They shroud their lust for power behind all manner of religious ideals, but in the end it is merely hubris.

In the end, Mal refuses to kill his enemy “The Operative,” but allows him to finally see with his own eyes what his “better world” philosophy produced on Miranda—the genocide of an entire people, and mutation of the reavers! When he has seen the inhumanity of the reavers, he is confronted with his own inhumanity, and orders the assault on Mal and his crew to cease. But it is too late. Wash, Book, and Mr. Universe are all dead.

Serenity is a picture of the Church, the body of Christ, a mobile outpost of rebellious outlaws who refuse to give up the fight against unjust powers. Guided by an embodied ethic of love and justice, the Church, like Serenity, celebrate the diverse complementarily-gifted members of our crew, live as an alternative family, and lay down our lives for one another. We must obey God rather than human-formed systems of control (Acts 5.29). We will not bow down to idols used to pacify us (Dan. 3.16-18). We will turn the world upside-down! (Acts 17.6)

We are a rebellious city on a hill, a network of relationships, that is troublesome to kings and provinces, but “shiny” because we are the light of the world. (Mt. 5.14; Ezra 4.15)

We Aim to Misbehave!