Firefly and Unconditional Love

by Glenn on August 6, 2016

Television is better and worse than it used to be.

We watched an old Perry Mason episode the other night. I will always be a fan—partly from the nostalgia of remembering it was my grandmother’s favorite television show.

Obviously, the technology in the television business (both for filming and watching) is a qualified better today (video vs film vs digital—all have different looks/feels), but so too are things like richness of character, multiple story lines running through an episode, and a dramatic arch/development across episodes.

You can watch a single episode of Perry Mason and not worry about having missed the episode before. The Perry of one episode is the same Perry you meet in the next one. Nothing that goes on in one particular episode is influenced by what comes before and won’t have any affect on those that follow.

Today, the good television shows have episodes that are self-contained (there’s some kind of beginning, middle, and end), but which are part of a larger narrative progression. You can watch a single episode, but it’s more fun to watch multiple episodes (witness contemporary “binge-watching”) because of the connections between and among them. The shorter stories are all part of a larger story.

One of these shows was Firefly, a one-season, low-budget, sci-fi production, set in space 500 years in the future. I can’t get enough of this show, and unfortunately  there aren’t that many episodes to get. As is always the case with popular culture, I was pretty late to the party and just discovered Firefly a year or so ago. (I think it was actually on television—Fox—in 2002 and didn’t last an entire season.  But a DVD of the complete season came out and an energetic fan base helped bring about a film, Serenity (2005), which provided some closure to a host of loose ends from the TV show.)

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As a Christian, it’s interesting to observe myself watching Perry Mason and Firefly. Perry Mason sounds a repeated theme with every episode—Perry will work hard and skate perilously close to breaking the law to protect an innocent person from an unjust prosecution. There’s some moral ambiguity in the show. The characters Perry defends aren’t always terrific people, they just aren’t murderers. And while there’s never the slightest hint of any untoward behavior by Perry and the other recurring characters, since blind justice is often blind to reality and too quick to make a judgment, Perry will take risks that probably shouldn’t be taken to obtain justice, routinely placing himself or his secretary, Della Street, or his private detective, Paul Drake, in jeopardy of one form or other. But good triumphs over evil, or at least the innocent are defended and the guilty are brought to light, usually with a climactic court-room confession: “Yes. Yes I killed Ned Thompson. I killed him, I killed him, I killed him.”

In contrast, Firefly is much more morally uncertain and in its characterizations reflects both the mores of its imagined future as well as the sensual nature of modern life and what today is allowed on television. (Observation only: there are situations and images in Firefly that would not have been allowed in the time of Perry Mason. Whether or not that represents progress or regress is for another day.)

Each of the characters on Firefly are lost in one way or another and are searching for a salvation of one type or another. Often the primary goal is survival. The cast includes:

Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), formerly a sergeant on the losing side (the Independents) of a civil war against the Alliance, he now runs a transportation operation on his own space ship (named Serenity, of the Firefly class of cargo ships), doing whatever he has to (including taking on passengers and managing illegal smuggling activities) to keep flying.

Zoë Washburn, who served in the war with Mal. She is tough. Her fierce loyalty to Mal has transcended the war and she now serves as First Officer on Serenity.

Hoburn “Wash” Washburn, Serenity’s pilot, is married to Zoë. His marriage relationship with Zoë is complicated by their subordinate relationship to the Captain.

Inara Serra, “a companion,” which is the show’s term for the work she performs as an escort/prostitute. Ironically, hers is the one “legal” enterprise on board. The awkward tension between Inara and Mal is one of the subplots of the series.

Jayne Cobb, a mercenary and strong man whose chief loyalty is to the highest bidder.

Kaylee Frye, the ship’s mechanic with Iowa farm girl persona and deeply intuitive understanding of engines and machines (i.e. Kaylee talks as though the ship talks to her).

Dr. Simon Tam, a fugitive from the law who has sacrificed everything to save his sister, River, from the Alliance.

River Tam, an enigma who provides mystery, alarm, and comic relief. We learn that she has some special skills (including telepathy) which were sought by the Alliance, who were torturing her to develop those skills.

Shepherd Book, a monk with a past.

There’s lots to say about this show, including the fact that I’m somewhat conflicted about it. (It’s often profane and sometimes vulgar.) The fact that so many people are so intensely loyal to it suggests there’s something of a touchstone quality about it.

What keeps me watching is the writing. It’s quirky. A Western in space—with the occasional salting of Chinese, often cursing, I imagine. With so many memorable lines that never seem to get old

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“Now you can luxuriate in a nice jail cell,
but if your hand touches metal,
I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.”
(Captain Mal Reynolds/Nathan Fillion)

it is like the first four seasons of The West Wing, where you can go back and enjoy the show again and again.

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As a Christian, here are some first thoughts when it comes to popular culture:

The first one is that I have to recognize that some shows are so in conflict with the greatest commandment to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, that they must be dismissed. I don’t have to watch a particular show to know that I shouldn’t watch a particular show. And the fact that another Christian has watched and endorsed a show is no endorsement for watching it myself. This is the “You’ve got to watch …” fallacy. No, I really don’t.

Neither should I be concerned that by not watching a particular show I am somehow missing out on something that would actually edify me. I haven’t seen any episodes of Breaking Bad, which I place in this camp. I’ve heard interesting comments about it, but “relevance” is a kind of idol. Freedom in Christ to watch a television program is not a requirement to watch that program. There is another freedom that comes from not being absorbed into a plot line. Other disciplines (reading, writing, praying, studying, exercising), which bring their own freedoms, are possible when we are not watching, say, multiple hours of television every day.

When I do watch something, I have to keep my guard up. I often think about this line,

“Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” (Andrew Fletcher)

Which reminds me that popular culture influences on the deepest level. It is making a kind of argument that bypasses the head and goes directly to the heart. If I’m not careful, I may accept the premises of popular culture or simply be seduced by it.

Aside: Some day I would like to have a conversation with a successful, working actor. The thing I admire most about actors is the thing that I think would make me struggle as one: you surrender to the role. Your job is to bring the character to life, even if the character is reprehensible. If your character commits a murder, you are to act out the committing of that murder. How do you keep a moral center when you are asked to do things as an actor you would not otherwise do? (For example, be in bed with someone who is not your spouse.) In a way, your morality can’t be greater than the morality of the character you are playing. Or at least you can’t be judgmental of the morality of the character you are playing. What is that like?

My last thought is the one that prompted me to write. When I do watch a television program, I am looking for light. In these postmodern days, I’m sort of desperate for Kingdom values. This is the positive, flip side to keeping your guard up. This is why I don’t think we have to reject popular culture altogether and either retreat to a Christian subculture or live a kind of monk’s life, avoiding all culture. There are moments of light out there and we need to celebrate them.

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In his short book, Epic: The Story God Is Telling, John Eldredge wrote,

“The films you love are telling you something very important, something essential about your heart.”

One of the things about Firefly that speaks to my heart is a ray of light that runs through the show, which is Mal’s essential goodness in spite of the fact that he doesn’t always appear to be doing the right thing or takes his time weighing the cost of doing the right thing before he does it. In some respects he reminds me of Rick in Casablanca (While Rick says, “I stick out my neck for nobody,” Signor Ferrari says of him, “He’s a difficult customer, that Rick. One never knows what he’ll do or why . . .”).

In the episode titled “Safe,” two of the ship’s passengers, Dr. Simon Tam and his sister, River Tam,  have become separated from the rest of the crew through dire circumstances. This is a kind of boon for the crew because the Tams are fugitives wanted by the government Alliance. Not having them around would certainly be easier for everyone else even though having a doctor on board has proven to be a benefit. Mal has to decide what to do about the Tams now that they’ve become separated from them—leave them where they are or go back and get them. Other crew members have attempted to influence him to decide one way or the other. Spoiler alert: He goes on a rescue mission to find them.

Afterward, Simon wants to know why:

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Captain, why did you come back for us?

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Captain Reynolds
You’re on my crew.

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Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 3.04.22 PMCaptain Reynolds
You’re on my crew. Why we still talkin’ about this?

Whatever else Firefly may be, it’s a love story. Here in a secular, sci-fi adventure is a picture of unconditional love. It’s extraordinary.

Simon and River needed rescuing. No doubt about that. But the reason Mal goes to rescue Simon and River has everything to do with Mal and nothing to do with the Tams. He could have given Simon a reason: “You’re a doctor—I need a doctor aboard.”

Instead there’s an element of the circular in the reasoning: “You’re on my crew, so I went and got you, because you’re on my crew, which is why I went and got you, since you’re on my crew …”

Mal’s commitment to Simon is unconditional. Mal doesn’t offer relationship based on who Simon is or what Simon can do for Mal, but what Mal declares about Simon: “You’re on my crew.”

And I love that “Why we still talkin’ about this?” In other words, “The decision is made and won’t be rethought. Don’t try to figure this out and wonder what you did or need to do. It’s not about you.”

The next line is Mal’s and it’s perfect: “Chow’s in 10.” (“Rest easy, Simon. You don’t owe me anything. I’m not thinking about this; nor should you.”)

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This scene reminded me of something I heard Timothy Keller say (complicated by the fact that what he was saying was actually quoting someone else) on the nature of love in a talk titled, “How to Change Deeply.” Here’s an extensive (and lightly edited) quote, followed by video from the event where it was given (this quotation comes at 19:54 into the talk):

“I listened to a minister some years ago preaching on Deuteronomy Chapter 7, where Moses says to the children of Israel, ‘God did not set his love upon you because you were one of the greater nations, in fact you were the smallest of nations, but it was because he set his love upon you that He brought you out of Egypt.’

“And the preacher said, ‘Did you hear that circular reasoning?’ He said, ‘God didn’t love you because you were great. You were actually not great at all. You were kind of a loser country—a loser nation. But he loved you and then he brought you out of Egypt.’ It was circular. He says, ‘Basically what God is saying is, “I loved you because I loved you because I loved you. I didn’t love you because you were serviceable to me. I didn’t love you because you would do this to me. I just loved you because I loved you.”’

“Then the preacher went on and said, ‘Some day your wife is going to come to you and say, “Do you love me honey?” and you of course are going to say, “Of course I love you, sweetheart.” And then she’s going to say, “Why? Why do you love me?”’

“And I remember the preacher said, ‘Now, be careful, guys, because everything’s on the line now.’ And he says, ‘Here’s what you could say: “Honey, I love you because you’ve got a great figure. I love you because we have great sexual chemistry. I love you because you’re athletic and we could do all kinds of stuff I couldn’t do with other women—we could do mountain climbing, we can play tennis. I love you because you actually have your own career and so you bring a pretty good amount of money into the family coffers. And I love you for…”’

“And I remember the preacher said, ‘If she is stupid, she will actually start to like what you’re saying for a minute, then she’ll think about it: “What if I want to quit work? What if I gain weight? What if I get depressed for a while?”’

“You see when you say, ‘I love you because you are serviceable to me, that’s not love.’ He says, ‘Something may have attracted you to your wife to start with, but you don’t love your wife unless you look at her and say, “Honey, I love you because I love you because I love you.” That’s sovereign, electing, gracious love.’

“And when God loves you like that, He loves you just because He loves you. He loves you at the infinite cost of his son. The only true response to that, if you think about it, and that’s what we try to do in worship and if you cultivate your heart in that direction, the only thing that you could possibly do is to say ‘God, I love you because I love you because I love you. I don’t love you because you give me this or that.’ Because if I do that, if I love God because he’s giving me things, I’m not loving him for who He is in Himself. I’m not loving him because he’s beautiful, I’m loving him because he’s useful.”

I’m convinced, Mal did not go back for Simon and River because they were useful. He went back out of love.


Thank you to the BBC for a fantastic concert from last weekend which was available for me to listen to while I worked on this post. The concert was No. 18 from the 2016 BBC Proms and consisted of one piece, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink. The concert marked Mr. Haitink’s 50th anniversary conducting at the Proms. He is 87. According to the announcer, this may be the last time he conducts Mahler’s Third.

Titles for the six movements were dropped before the symphony was published, but an early plan by Mahler included the title, “What Love Tells Me,” for the glorious and uplifting sixth movement (which the BBC announcer described as “meltingly beautiful”) which was a perfect accompaniment for this little writing exercise. The concert may be heard (for a limited time) here.

One thing I enjoyed in the last movement is that Haitink does not appear to be in a hurry. His is neither the fastest nor slowest version I recall, but it’s all about the transitions. There he takes his time. Here’s one example from early in that final movement. The music builds and builds then dies away. Now we move into the next thing (at 52″) but not too quickly.

Only complaint about the concert: Who is the guy who had to yell, “YEAH!!!!!” just as soon as the music ended?