Ritual, Faith, and Magic in Military Sci-Fi

“There seems to be a lot of tension in sci-fi between the idea of space and the idea of God,” mused panelist Melayne Seahawk at the beginning of “Supernatural and Religious Elements in Military Sci-Fi” on Saturday afternoon in Westin Chastain EF. This was the heart of a deep but entertaining conversation about the ways science fiction TV shows use religion or religious elements to create otherworldly theology. Joining Seahawk on the panel were Callie Kelly, Damien Williams, Fr. Bryan Small, and Heather McMurray.

Because there are so many worlds that have been created over the years, the panel decided to mostly focus on a few TV shows and how they interact with actual, real-world traditions. Babylon 5, for instance, has a number of religions, both real-world and alien, and they’re fleshed out. “Most of the time, when you do see aliens in sci-fi, they often end up being a mono-culture… you’ll have an entire planet where they all believe the exact same way,” said Seahawk. However, with Babylon 5, “You’ve got a new religious book being written over the course of the TV show and how that affects these people who are living through this moment of great change in their society.” She also really appreciates small touches that show a person’s faith without screaming about it. An example she offered from Babylon 5 was Susan Ivanova having the occasional background menorah in her quarters to show her Jewish faith, which was a minor, but important part of her character.

Small, who is a Catholic pastor, is bothered by the fact that almost every form of Catholic liturgy shown in entertainment is wrong. “They don’t (even) dress right, it’s crap.” One of two places that he says got it right was the Babylon 5 season 3 episode “Passing Through Gethsemane,” which among its many draws from Christian mythos, includes a scene of a crucifixion. (The other thing Small says gets it right? The Exorcist.)

McMurray, a scholar of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and a life-long Battlestar Galactica fan spoke on how the original series pulled from these source materials. The 12 tribes of Israel, and the Mormon belief in a lost 13th tribe were used to play out the 13 colonies that established the world of the show. She used Count Iblis as an example of how the interplay of various actual faiths worked within the show’s universe, as he was an accepted “good guy” by many, only to turn out to be a demonic force, leading them astray. Iblis is, in fact, the Muslim name for the devil. This character, who was acting as a savior at first, was literally Lucifer. “In 1979, that was pretty wild,” said McMurray.

The conversation shifted to religious world-building, how making it feel “lived in,” rather than handing over a fully formed religion, is vital to a long-game good story. Having a sense of how it plays out and affects the lives of characters, the everyday rituals, make a story both relatable and feel more organic, less forced. Williams, a philosophy professor, studies rituals, and offered that “ritual is a component of every aspect of your life. Coffee, the way you drink it, the way you get coffee with a friend…all of it is ritualized. If you look at the history of ritual in Western society, it follows particular lineages and is informed by the history of those religious traditions.” McMurray also pointed out that there needs to be a variety of degrees of reverence/belief: “Not everyone should practice it to the nth degree—there should be variation.” Small agreed, reminding us that there are people who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, some who go every Sunday, and there should always be that spectrum in what people and aliens believe, and how they practice.

One of the problems that sometimes arises from an often false pitting of belief in religion versus supernatural is that the latter, in that context, tends to be written off as silly, or dismissed because it’s those weird people who don’t believe like we do. What this can do in a fictional world is create conflict for the characters to resolve, but oftentimes is used as a way to skirt the deeper issues, and also dismisses common ground. These elements interact with each other, and with us, in so many parts of our lives that to make them flat, static, and at odds does a disservice to a story, and to our real lives as well.

Author of the article

Brynna Owens is a mild-mannered freelancer by day, but by night, she's working on joining the Justice League. Cutting her teeth on fanfic before she knew there was such a thing (Frodo/Sam based on the books, anyone??), she's been writing since she learned that you put words together and form sentences. Her calling as a Professional Fangirl started with the X-Files, where she honed her writing and editing skills via fanfic that she finally had a name for, and discovered the amazing world of online fandom via IRC and AOL chats. And now, having written that, she feels old! She currently resides just outside Seattle, is owned by a cat named Gandalf, aspires to save the world, and owns over 100 tubes of lipstick.