Firefly: Browncoats & the Beatitudes PART ONE: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”

* Part ONE of EIGHT * From a breakout session/presentation at Doxacon 2013

Something FUN
I love Firefly. I love the characters, I love the ship, I love the story, and I love the mystery surrounding so many backstories. This show could’ve lasted for season after season without getting dull or repeating itself. The television industry as a whole, and the individuals who didn’t fight its cancellation should be sorry they let this one get away. Though cancelled, the show still has a way of inspiring love and loyalty among its fans. Not counting the almost rabid fan love for the show, even the production seemed like an amazing convergence of many talented people in the right pressure-cooker of creativity with Joss at the helm (he has a reputation for building camaraderie on his production teams).

So you can bet I was honored and delighted to look at the Firefly ‘verse in light of the Gospel of Matthew’s Beatitudes, as my way of contributing to the first-ever Orthodox scifi convention, DOXACON.

Something IMPORTANT
It truly was GREAT fun to be at what I hope will be the first of many Doxacons! I mean, how many Orthodox SF conventions are held at all, much less so close to me that my husband and I could drive to the DC metro area to attend and present? Hosted (at great & worthy volunteer cost) by a local parish, St. Mary Orthodox Church in Falls Church did a great service to Orthodox Geeks everywhere by initiating such a fun gathering! But it was also IMPORTANT being a participant at Doxacon, because by upholding and celebrating Biblical truths in our beloved scifi and fantasy stories, I believe that we are active participants in the redemption of the world. A favorite verse from Ephesians helps say this:

See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. ~Ephesians 5:15-16

Redeeming the time

We are actively participating in the redemption of this world by discerning what is beneficial out of popular culture’s offerings; ESPECIALLY when that story moment wasn’t intended to give glory to God. By extracting a scene or sharing thoughts about a character or a story line, we bring “every thought captive” to Christ (2 Cor 10:5), and we save the baby from being thrown out with the bath water.

So…what does Firefly have to do with the Beatitudes?

Christ shares the beatitudes with his disciples, on a mountain, with a multitude of people gathered around listening. He speaks of blessings that come with rewards both NOW and in a FUTURE fulfillment of His Kingdom to Come. In looking closely at each beatitude in the light of tv show excerpts, we seek to restore a richness of meaning that’s lost in a post-modern use of words like blessed, meek, and merciful.

“Blessed” is probably best substituted for “happy”, “lucky”, or “fortunate” to the average person today. But Southern Baptist Pastor, Josh Dryer (River City Church in Iowa), presents a refreshing turn on “blessed” in his exegesis of Matthew 5:1-12:

At his very core, a person who is blessed is undergoing a spiritual change unlike anything this world has to offer. He is experiencing the power of God in His life and it is transforming his very being. That meaning has been lost in the present day interpretation of the word “blessed” but that seems to be the original intent of the Gospel writer.

You could also say that if the meaning of “blessed” means only that someone is “happy” in these states, then the beatitudes are hardly more than a list of observations on human need and hopes for a better life. But if, as Josh Dryer presents, the meaning of “blessed” refers to a humbled state of spiritual transformation thanks to God’s loving embrace, then looking at Christ on that mountainside is a vision of a loving Creator who is reaching out to his Created Ones where they reside: shivering in their deepest needs.

THIS…

This is where the beatitudes speak to the Firefly ‘verse: in this well-crafted story that’s true to human nature and to the human condition in need of God, we can see where the character’s needs are similar to our needs. It doesn’t take too much looking to see that we’ve “got heathens a’plenty…right here.” Knowing this, we aren’t condescending or arrogant to our beloved characters; we are humbled by our similar needs. We stand with love among our story friends and we hope to see them redeemed with us (or at least, I do).

The First Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

Episode: THE MESSAGE

Tracey is a side character in the Firefly ‘verse; he embodies someone who is truly poor in spirit. An old war “buddy” of Mal and Zoë, he’s pathetic and annoying and drags others down rather than carrying his own weight. You could say he whines better than Luke at his most ‘Toshi Station’. Hard on his luck 7 years after the war, Tracey mails himself, to all appearances “dead” (he’s in a sort of medical coma) to Mal & Zoë, looking to dupe them into getting him out of a major scrape.

After awakening from his coma, he briefly makes nice with Kaylee, an open and trusting character (the opposite of Tracey), but his jitters and distrust of others get the best of him; fearing that his old buddies will turn on him for a reward, Tracey insults and threatens the crew in general and Wash and Kaylee in particular. He’s obviously not trusting that they have “a good plan.”

Tracey gets himself shot by Mal, who “just carried the bullet a while,” an irony initially lost on Tracey, who is stuck in his own victimized self-image. This pitiable character ultimately misses out on the blessing of their help. His lack of trust leads to his death. He first shows a kind of “poorness of spirit” that is so unspiritual it’s entirely material and self-motivated. He ends up bumbling his way through a confession at his own death.

Up until his death scene, Tracey is “poor in spirit” in the basest sense: he has no awareness of his own limitations, or of his need for God. Of course he wasn’t written to be a walking Bible Story Warning For The Consequences of Bad Choices, but he so painfully lacks any sense of how his choices affect others, that it’s hard to watch him without disliking – or pitying – him. It’s hard to hear his recorded “goodbye message” without wincing at the harshness and insensitivity of the actual character who sought to manipulate with his heartbreaking self-eulogy. “The poor in spirit” in the first Beatitude refers to someone who is spiritually poor the way that Josh Dryer mentions: that person awakens to a truth that they are “a worm and no man” (Psalm 22:6). That person senses that they have nothing of worth to offer to God. And yet, God loves them…which is the blessing for those who are spiritually poor: transformation from selfish blindness into humility that sees that same selfishness and yet wonders how God could still love them in that state.

The scenes in the video below are both from the Firefly episode called “The Message”, written by Joss Whedon & Tim Minear, directed by Tim Minear. All commentary is my own; all images and video material the property of 21st Century Fox Television.

SCENES: 1) war flashback, Tracey, Zoë & Mal – Watch for how Zoë reveals her dislike hedging on loathing for Tracey (side note: her patience for Mal’s frivolous behavior is evident, as well – funny to see, and makes her more of a matriarch to him than guard dog). As such a rock for the ensemble cast, it’s telling that Zoë has no fondness for this character, since she rarely steps out of line from anything Mal does or says.

2) Tracey’s death – As Tracey realizes that he was foolish for not trusting Mal, he gushes a kind of half-hearted confession sprinkled with humility and gratefulness onto his surrogate parents, Mal & Zoë. He experiences a transformation in his spirit because of Mal and Zoë’s tenderness to him and maybe even because of their “tough love” (they did shoot him, after all). He realizes that he is of little worth in and of himself.

Tracey: Sarge, um, that stupid message of mine and… I was trying to play you guys and now… You’ll do it? You’ll get me home?
Mal: You know the old saying.
Tracey: When you can’t run, you crawl. And when you can’t crawl, you can’t do that…
Zoe: You find someone to carry you.

Hearing “the old saying” is an echo of the promise of the poor in spirit receiving “the kingdom of heaven”. Tracey receives a kingdom of love and forgiveness, if you will, in the wake of his life’s failure and impending death. He finds and receives their friendship before the end. But it’s heartbreaking that he only understands the depth of their friendship (and the cost of his foolishness) as he is dying. As in the war flashback, you can watch Zoë in particular for screen cues showing when Tracey is collectively despised or loved. She goes from “Next time, I’m just going to watch” to “You find someone to carry you.”

I can easily put myself in Tracey’s place – I hope I never wave guns at people while mistrusting them or God, but I’m in the dark about what’s best for me so often, and I fight against God’s “good plan” for me. It’s silly, really, and gives me more tenderness for pathetic Tracey. And it gives me hope that I can die to self and live in Christ.

All commentary is my own; video material is the property of 21st Century Fox Television, used here as reference only.

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