John Crichton, America, and Me

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a borderline pathological obsession with the early 2000’s Sci-Fi network original series Farscape. Anyone who knows me really well knows that I have had, at times, a complicated relationship with my American identity (typed as I hold my Canadian passport close to my Timbit-loving heart). These two sentiments are not unrelated.

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I’ll not confirm nor deny if I own this John Crichton T-shirt.

This time last week, I started a re-watch of Farscape with some friends here in Gambier.  As we began the first run of episodes, someone pointed out that Ben Browder, who plays series protagonist John Crichton, is the only American in the cast. I suppose that’s not an utterly surprising fact for an Australian-produced series. At the same time, Crichton’s national identity is no accident. As I commented to my friend, every aspect of Crichton’s character (both the good and the bad) springs from his prominent identity as AMERICAN.

Crichton is deeply flawed, and the series is not afraid to highlight his psychological issues. He is obsessive, putting his own interests–whether that be knowledge of wormholes, his quest for earth, or romantic interest Aeryn Sun–above everything else. He is brash and impulsive. His brilliant plans fail more than they succeed. It’s pretty clear that these qualities are seen, at least in Crichton’s mind, as uniquely American. I always see Crichton’s definitive moment coming in the final run of the show’s fourth season, when the madman bursts into an alien war council with a bomb strapped to his hip and proceeds to jump onto a table declaring: “I am an AMERICAN. And what does an American want? Democracy? No! Capitalism!” I appreciate the critical light Farscape is able to shed on some of the more troubling attitudes American can express with respect to the rest of the world.

And yet, for all his flaws, Crichton’s “Americanness” by an large enables his survival. More than his obsession with wormholes, Crichton is defined by optimism and hope. Throughout the series, Crichton survives an onslaught of truly terrible events thanks to nothing more than his own stubborn resilience. The motley crew of Farscape rises above impossible odds mostly because Crichton is not afraid to innovate and improvise. In the series premiere, Crichton stands with co-star Aeryn Sun as she faces rejection from the Peacekeeper military force, the only life she has ever known. When Aeryn declares that she cannot possibly join Crichton in exile because being a Peacekeeper is all she has ever known, Crichton does not hesitate a moment before declaring: “You can be more.” That is Crichton in a nutshell. Always believing something better is possible. Always expressing a sense of hope and an indomitable spirit. Always willing to see the best in people. Isn’t that the essence of all that good and nobel (dare I say, “Great”) about America?

[Here be spoilers]: In the show’s fourth season, Crichton finally achieves his long-held dream of returning to Earth and, more specifically, America. What with Farscape being Farscape, it is a bittersweet reunion — Crichton has been far too damaged ever to go home again. But Earth and, more specifically, America has changed too. Crichton, who learned optimism from his astronaut father, is distressed to see both his father and his country respond to the promise of genuine space exploration with nationalistic fears and increased competition between different countries. In outrage, Crichton challenges his father — stressing that he only survived all of his ordeals by believing in that very American sense of hope. Crichton, sucked through a wormhole into distant space in 1999, asks, “When did that change?” He receives the answer: “September 11, 2001.”

If there is one thing I take away from my beloved Space Muppets and their critical examination of what it means to be an American it is this: Americans are at our best when we believe we can be more. We are at our best when we believe the world is better than it may be at the moment, and when we hold ourselves to that standard. We are at our worst when we descend into ourselves and our own petty fears and obsessions. We are at our worst when we promote our own interests at the expense of others.

I spent the last eleven years as an American ex-pat, and I would be lying if I said I haven’t been experiencing some degree of reverse culture shock since returning from the True North Strong and Free. But I have also been pushing myself over the past several months to rediscover all that is great — exceptional, even — about the country of my birth. If American’s greatness lies in anything it is the fact that we have always pushed ourselves to be more. To be more inclusive. To embrace more freedom for all people.

Like John Crichton himself, American is a mixed bag at times. So is Canada. So is the Church, if we’re being honest. But we keep moving forward, not backward. Because if we have any greatness to speak of, it is in always striving to be more. Not less.

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A Beauty, a Beast, and a case for salvation by Works

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The cover of McKinley’s retelling. This may be the book I have reread the most in my life.

Growing up, there were certain things brown-haired, bespectacled, nerdy girls had in common. We knew Belle was the best Disney princesses (even if the Disney princess machine was not quite a *thing* yet in the early 90s). But we also knew Disney blatantly stole the best parts of its classic 1991 feature film from Robin McKinley’s 1978 debut novel Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast. Ok, I can’t back that claim up. But still … Giant libraries containing every book you could ever want to read … including books that had never been written! A castle full of enchanted servants! A prince who was probably more attractive when he was the beast … you get the idea.

I was reminded of McKinley’s take on the tale as old as time earlier this week when we went to see local Mount Vernon Arts’ production of the Disney stage musical (a really great production, by the way!). For while Disney owes much to the original story, not to mention McKinley’s depiction of the bookish bell, the mouse industrial complex made one (unsurprising) change to its source material. The Disney version of makes Beauty and the Beast a story about “love.” The Beast must learn to love another, and be loved in return. At no point is there any question — this is a story of romantic “true” love.

It has to be noted that this is quite a significant departure from more conventional retellings of the tale, whether that be McKinley’s two versions (she wrote a subsequent novel Rose Daughter in 1997) or Jean Cocteau’s 1946 cinematic classic (also undoubtedly an influence on Disney). Typically, the Beast’s objective is not to get a young woman to fall in love with him, but rather agree to marry him. As Beauty and the Beast grow closer in trust and friendship, their nightly dinner together is punctuated by the Beast’s poignant question: “Will you marry me?”

As a kid, the terms of the Beast’s enchantment in Disney’s version struck me as more desirable. After all, in those other stories, the Beast (at least initially) does not particularly care if Beauty “falls in love” with him. “Love” as a concept is beside the point. He just needs to find someone — anyone — to agree to marry him. Disney, in its every more romantically aspirational way, connects the Beast’s plight with the concept of “love.” Love is transformative. Love is redemptive. Especially romantic love.

That is all well and good. But “love”–especially that oh so idealized romantic love–is also very abstract. What does it mean for the Beast to fall in love with Belle, or for Belle to fall in love with the Beast? At what non-arbitrary point in their feelings for one another do we cross this magical threshold into Disney-fied “TRUE LOVE”? For all the seeming lack of romantic sentiment to the traditional story of “Beauty and the Beast”, there is certainly weight behind the Beast’s nightly proposal to Beauty. The terms of the Beast’s enchantment will be lifted not when he can entice another being to “feel” some abstract emotion, but when that love is lived out in action — in the agreement to marriage, with all the mundane, daily acts of commitment and self-sacrifice that entails. There is something far more real, far more tangible, behind the traditional tale’s call for Beauty to be willing not just to feel some warm fuzzy feelings for the Beast but ultimately to agree to marry him. It makes for a much more powerful story.

Love requires action. For all that the Disney version seems to promote an abstract concept of emotional “feeling” we nevertheless see the end of the Beast’s imprisonment only when that love is followed up in action. The Beast allows Belle to return to her father. Belle comes back and admits her feelings to the Beast.

We hear many cries for “love” all around us. Genuine “love” for one another is the solution to the gaping racial chasm that exists in our country. “Love” will heal our political divisions. In the language of our faith, we speak of “love” for God and for our neighbor as the source of our salvation. And yet “love” is not an abstract feeling. Love, especially Christian love, must be an incarnational reality. Our love is lived out and made know in how we give of ourselves to one another. One might say indeed we are indeed “saved” (for lack of a better term) not by faith or love alone, but by the works of charity, compassion, self-sacrifice born out of our love for one another. What will we do to make that love known?

#BlackLivesMatter (again)

While recently on vacation, Leeman and I spent most of Amanda’s daily naptime binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black. I was fixated on what this latest season had to say about the corporate for-profit prison system and what happens to our collective humanity when we view one another as profits rather than people. I was totally on board with this being the strongest season of the show to date.

Then the last two episodes happen. Here be SPOILERS:

The climax of the season occurred in the penultimate episode of the season, when tensions between the new authoritarian guards and the prison inmates culminate in a (peaceful) demonstration. The guards rush in to break up the protest and, in the ensuring chaos, a young, inexperienced guard inadvertently takes the life of fan-favorite character Poussey Washington. Given the racial dynamics explored over the course of the season, and the staging of Poussey’s death to evoke the real-life police killing of Eric Garner, the writers made an undeniable connection to the #BlackLiveMatter movement. That would all be well and good, except that the series attempts to portray a “balanced” outlook on the reality of law enforcement repeatedly taking the lives of black men and women.

As the series comes to its conclusion, we see two warring perspectives on what went down in that fatal moment. On the one hand the guards immediately jump to a defensive narrative — Poussey must have been armed, she made the first attack, their colleague was just defending himself. The inmates, on the other hand, demand justice for the death of their friend — she was innocent, someone must pay! Adding to the complexity of the situation we see the prison’s Public Relations team searching for the right angle. They ultimately determine the guard in question must be the sacrificial lamb for the good of the prison’s reputation. They find the most aggressive pictures they can to paint a picture of this confused young man as potentially dangerous and hardened. (Indeed, what makes this plot point particularly odious is the appropriation of what the media actually does when a young black man is killed by the police).

The season ends with a press conference in which Joe Caputo. prison warden, refuses to give in to the narrative that the guard is totally to blame for Poussey’s death. Caputo lays out the complexities of working in a prison system, even a minimum security facility. Ultimately, he argues, the young man made a mistake but did the best he could in the situation. Caputo’s failure fully to indict Poussey’s killer leads to a full-fledged prison riot and a cliff-hanger ending for the season.

It is difficult to know how to interpret Caputo’s final moments. The whole season laid out something of a battle for Caputo’s soul, as he sought for ways to affirm the humanity and dignity of the women in his prison against the corporate interests of his employers. One might read Caputo’s comments as his utter failure of moral courage–but I’m not sure that is what the writers were communicating. In the midst of all the various “agendas” — whether the guards defending one of their own, the inmates passionately demanding justice, or the corporation looking to defend its public image — Caputo lays out a seemingly nuanced, measured take on the situation. He speaks from his own personal convictions — not defending or exonerating the young man, but not indicting him either. Indeed, the actor who plays the guard in question, has encouraged a nuanced reading of the situation, noting that “good people make mistakes.”

A part of me can appreciate what the writers were trying to do. It is tempting always to look for nuance in complex situations. Indeed, the story of an immature young man thrown into an impossible circumstance where he makes a horrific, unintentional mistake makes for really compelling drama. It is also a grossly irresponsible statement to make in light of current events.

We live in a world where police repeatedly kill black men (and women) without just cause or due process and get away with it. This year alone, the police have killed well over 100 black men. Just this week two more names were added to the tragic black victims of police brutality: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both deaths caught on video. Nothing to suggest the police who killed them were in any immediate mortal danger.

It is all well and good to look for nuance and complexity. It is all well and good to explore what leads someone sworn “to serve and protect” to make the fatal mistake that results in the the loss of a life. But there then comes a time when we must stand up and say that some issues are NOT complicated. Some situations do not merit nuanced discussion. There come times when we must declare that “mistakes” that lead to the repeated executions of black men and women don’t deserve discussion or measured responses. We must declare that Black Live DO INDEED Matter and that those who take them should be held responsible. We must name injustice for what it is if we are to have any hope of working together to create a world that reflects the true love and equality of God’s kingdom.

The other option is to be Joe Caputo. No one wants to be Joe Caputo.