Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What Battlestar Galactica Teaches Us About Faith and Prophecy

I love science fiction. It’s rich in allegory and can teach us many truths about life. In a way, I think that it can be our modern-day parables. I recently finished watching the 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica (hereafter abbreviated as BSG). It’s a television show filled with deep and rich commentary on matters of spirituality, the human condition, forgiveness, diversity, politics, life, death, and the mysterious workings of the divine. One major religious refrain that is repeated throughout the show is “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.”

Today I’m going to talk about what BSG teaches us about the nature of faith and prophecy. In order to make this post comprehensible to someone who hasn’t seen the show, I’m going to be giving a great deal of background and detail. There will be spoilers in this post, but I’ve contained them all to after the jump.

I. Summary

BSG is set in a spacefaring society of humans consisting of 12 planets that make up the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. The society is similar in many ways to 21st century American society. The majority of the citizens follow the dominant religion with varying degrees of devotion. The planets are nuked by their enemies, and about 50,000 humans survive. They form a ragtag fleet of ships and they set off in search of Earth, which is described in their sacred writ as the location of a 13th colony of humans.

One of their scriptures is contained in a writing called the Scroll of Pythia. The scroll was written a few thousand years before the start of the show, and it contained several prophecies. The main prophecy is about a dying leader who will lead the people to their new home on Earth.

When the planets are nuked, the only survivor from the government is the Secretary of Education, Laura Roslin. The morning of the attack, she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. 43rd in the line of succession, she was sworn in as the new President of the Colonies and began to lead the people.

She begins to have visions as a side effect of her cancer treatment, and as a result, many of the survivors view her as a prophet and as the prophesied dying leader. Over the course of time, she begins to believe it herself as well.

Eventually, she is near death. At the last moment, her cancer is cured by an experimental treatment. The dying leader is no longer dying. Shortly thereafter, she loses her reelection bid and is thus no longer the leader. A few years later, she regains the presidency and her cancer returns. After much difficulty, following ancient maps and prophecies Indiana Jones style, the fleet arrives at Earth in the hopes of being welcomed into the 13th tribe.

When they land on Earth, they are shocked and dismayed to find only ruins. Their promised land was a barren wasteland that had suffered nuclear devastation thousands of years previously. The band of refugees, now numbering closer to 38,000 after deaths over the years, once again returned to space.

Laura is devastated. She slides into a deep depression and can’t bring herself to face the people. In a poignant scene, she is seen burning her copy of the Scroll of Pythia while sitting on the floor sobbing.
After a few more devastating battles against their enemies, the fleet numbers only a few ships. The ships are nearly out of fuel and are falling apart. In a last-ditch effort to save what’s left of humanity, the ships use the last of their fuel to travel in a seemingly random direction. Just as they are nearly done for, they arrive at a habitable planet populated by a primitive hunter-gatherer society that hasn’t yet developed language skills.

The viewers see an image of the planet from space, and it looks startlingly familiar – there’s an outline of Africa visible.

They settle on the planet, deciding to send their spaceships into the sun and integrate with the native population. Laura is near death, and she asks what the planet is called. Admiral Adama, the military leader of the fleet , says that it’s called Earth.

When Laura replies that it’s not Earth because Earth was a barren nuclear wasteland, Adama said that Earth is the dream of home for the people, so this planet qualifies. Laura observes the animals frolicking on the plains and breathes her dying words  “so much life”.

The scene then shifts to modern day New York City, with the caption “150,000 years later”. We find out that a child born to two crew members in the fleet ended up becoming mitochondrial Eve – the progenitor of modern humanity.

II. Analysis
What can we learn from this story?

The first thing we learn is that prophecies (be they scriptural, patriarchal blessing, or personal spiritual impressions) don’t always turn out the way we expect. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the prophecy is false or that we’re not a part of it. What it does mean is that, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “we see through a glass darkly.”

When Laura was cured of her cancer, and when she lost her reelection bid, she didn’t cease to be the dying leader. When she arrived at the first Earth and found it to be a barren wasteland, she didn’t fail in her promise to lead the people to their new home. There was something different afoot. She did lead the people to Earth – our Earth, and she saved humanity in the process, just like she was prophesied to do.

The second thing we learn is that there will be doubts and tests of faith. Laura was devastated after the discovery of the first Earth not being what she had hoped and sacrificed for. She nearly lost her faith, going so far as to burn the scriptures that had once given her such comfort and peace. She even in a moment of desperation confided in the leader of a rival religious faction that she thought she might be a fraud.

It’s hard to hold on to faith when things look bleak – when everything we’ve put our trust in seems so impossible in light of an unexpected turn of events – when that thing we’ve been promised turns out to be a radioactive wasteland instead of a land flowing with milk and honey. But the real wonders happen if we press through. In the end, the promised land really will be filled with “so much life”.

The third thing that we learn is that faith is a team effort. Laura had advisors and friends who counseled her and buoyed her up. When she was in the pit of despair, some of her friends shouldered her responsibilities, and others cared for her soul. Because of their help, she was able to emerge and complete her journey.

Likewise, we have covenanted to “bear one another’s burdens that they may be light” and to “weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort”. And others have covenanted to do that for us in our time of need. When we are weak, we have the right to call upon those around us to strengthen us.

If you’re  standing in the ruins of a nuked Earth, don’t lose hope. Remember the words of John the Revelator in the penultimate chapter of the Bible: 

Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.

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