Firefly & Theology, Part 3 (A): Shepherd Book & Inara Serra

A Joss-pel for The Disinherited

Brief overview of the series so far:

First post: Firefly & Theology Part 1: I addressed questions of theodicy and evil as it related to the ‘verse in Joss Whedon‘s Firefly as well as the film, Serenity.  A brief summary of my argument is that the Alliance, Jubal Early, and The Operative represent the faces of evil, which for Whedon is a human construct, and is revealed in systems of top-down oppressive systems. What follows from this post, and the four after are theological interpretations of Whedon’s narrative responses to wickedness.

Second Post: Firefly & Theology Part 2: I attempted to provide a possible postcolonial theological interpretation of Mal Reynolds and the ship Serenity, and what it may mean for a liberating view of Christian moral agency.  The ethics exhibited by Mal Reynolds can be interpreted as prioritizing the emancipation of human bodies from bondage.   Life on Serenity could be seen as a metaphor for a community, more specifically in the Christian context, the church, where life means fellowshipping with people we consider our enemies “the Other.”


For this 3rd post of the series, I would like to take the time to observe the two most explicitly religious characters in Firefly/Serenity, Shepherd Derrial Book and Inara Serra.  The way that I study religion, along with many post-colonial scholars is from the stand point of practice, rather than doctrine.  To prioritize Praxis is to see how religious teachings matter in our day to day affairs.   The importance of ritual, rites of passage, social practices, and historical figures are prominent  in this brand of the study of religion. In this survey of religion in Firefly/Serenity, the lenses that I have chosen to engage the characters of Shepherd Book and Inara Serra are Black Humanism (both non-theistic & theistic) and Buddhist liberation theology.  From the outset, as a Christian scholar, I must admit that I am an outsider to the Black Humanist and Buddhist liberationist texts; however, it is important for every person who wishes to be an academic to engage critically and openly with other traditions and disciplines.  This does not mean a hijacking or a Constantinian baptizing of these persons’ works, but a form of scholarship that is more like a constructive conversation than a monologue.


As an African American male and as a religious person, I could not help but like Shepherd Book.  But before I continue with my analysis, something must be said for the portrayal of African Americans in the movies, television, culture in general.  Statistics show that black people are more likely than whites to believe in “g*d” or a higher being more than white persons.  What these numbers are meant to show is two-fold; first, that African Americans for some reason are more religious than whites culturally, and secondly, that there are fewer black atheists. This is the impression that one gets when reading books like the late reverend (former football player as well) Reginald White’s Fighting The Good Fight.  Seeing blacks as naturally more religious/godly is highly problematic in my view [think Blaxploitation films or Tyler Perry plays and movies].  In the context of the history of racial oppression, seeing Blacks as “The Other” becomes the norm when the “naturally religious” stereotype is applied.  Humans, for the most part, are religious/irreligious by choice.  I reject the turn toward the spiritual as something as natural and therefore necessary. Personally, the dependence on a “higher” power in some populations has more to do with the search for a source of hope outside the hurtful existences within colonialism, economic inequality and racial discrimination.

In African American religious traditions, there are diverse trends.  For example, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. comes from a brand of prophetic religion that emphasized social justice.  Very little attention historically has been paid to non-theistic Humanism in the African American tradition.  According to scholar Melanie Harris, historically, black humanism “asserts human worth, agency, and responsibility and envisions these themes” as part of the solution in the quest for liberating populations of African descent- (page 212 in Deeper Shades of Purple, Harris’s “Womanist Humanism”).  The meaning of life in black humanist as well as womanist (black feminist thought) is to place the questions and problems of life at the center, and put forth into consideration the objectification of human bodies as well as the problem of evil.  Author James Baldwin could be considered a non-theistic black humanist.  Philosopher William R. Jones, who wrote the essay, “Is God a White Racist?” still another.  The values of black humanism include human beings as SOLELY accountable and responsible for the human condition, that human beings have the capacity to correct humanity’s errors, a hermeneutic of suspicion of truth claims which explain the world in supernatural terms, “commitment to individual and societal transformation,” as well as a knowledge of the human capacity to do good and evil (220).

I think it is quite appropriate to view the religiosity of Shepherd Book in this gaze, as a more theistic humanist, especially in light of Joss Whedon’s own rejection of a “sky bully.” There is a history of African Americans who claimed a more Christian theistic version of humanism; Cornel West is a modern day variety of that, even though he participates in the social justice variety of Black religions as well. One can see a possible humanist interpretation of Shepherd Book in his recognition of the everyone’s humanity, including the monstrous Reavers.  In the episode, “Bushwhacked,” Book insists, “Reavers are men” over the insistence of Jayne that they are not human, while for others, Reavers remain mythical legends.  Shepherd Book, who unlike Mal Reynolds who sees the Alliance as a largely an institutional form of evil, Dorriel chooses to see them as persons, and only that: “a government is a body of people” (“War Stories”).

What Derrial Book believes remains a mystery; a large mystery much like the content of that huge Bible/sacred text that he carries with him occassionaly.  In the pilot “Serenity,” Book says, “Maybe I’ll bring the word to those who never been told.”  However, what is the nature of that word? And how come he never really goes into a sermon? You know, you are talking to a clergy woman, and she all of a sudden brings up God, and then before you know it, you all are having a discussion about the Bible.  I think Book’s word, or message if you will, comes more from the examples he sets forth with his actions. Ritual is part and parcel to Book’s religious praxis: examples such as treating the dead differently by putting them to rest (“Bushwhacked”), watching the wedding between Saffron and Mal while doing 3-4 burial rites (“Our Mrs. Reynolds), joining a small group of prostitutes for a prayer meeting (“Heart of Gold”) among others.  Faith is something that “fixes you” or in other words, one cannot really understand spirituality in terms of contradiction/non-contradiction, but rather dialogically, so it does not have to “make sense” as River Tam claim (“Jayne’s Town”).  Book’s dying words to Mal are, “I don’t care what you believe, just believe it.”  Mal thinks that every time Book talks about belief it’s “always about God” but in humanism, belief does not necessarily have to include a higher power, even though it does in its theistic modes. Book teaches Mal, in death, that even in not believing what the Operative, the Parliament, and the Alliance holds dear is a matter of faith, whether it be human dignity, freedom, etc.


From the theistic humanist perspective, Shepherd Book’s religious practices offer for theologians and clergy an example of how ritual shapes our lives.  If rites point us to that which is sacred, a Something Within that cannot be understood apart from human action, then the ability of human beings to claim both freedom and responsibility for their behavior must be taken seriously.  While Mal can be said to represent the more pro-emancipation of human bodies of a theology from Firefly/Serenity, Shepherd Book could be said to be more of a proponent of responsible action (remember, in the episode, “War Stories,” Shepherd Book does take up arms, but he shoots his opponents in the legs—non-lethal self-defense).  From this, Christians and other religious persons can understand that opposing institutional modes of evil (oppression) not only requires a dedication to human freedom, but also a recognition of the infinite value of human life as a way of caring for human bodies.

In part 3b, I will discuss Inara Serra, Buddhist liberation theology, and kyriarchy within the institution of  prostitution (both legal & illegal).

Enhanced by Zemanta

0 thoughts on “Firefly & Theology, Part 3 (A): Shepherd Book & Inara Serra

  1. Amanda Mac

    Part of what I love about Shepherd Book is the mystery surrounding him. How does he know how to fight? Why does he have credentials with the alliance? And of course the big question, is he actually a Shepherd?

      1. Joe

        In the Movie Serenity Book partially answers that question when he tells MAl rather matter-of-factly “I wasn’t always a Shepard.”

        There have been several notable figures in history who turned to religion after other lives. It is not an uncommon theme.

  2. Optimistic chad

    The answers to those questions about Book’s past are dealt with in the “Shepherd’s Tale” graphic novel. It is highly recommended. And if Rod wasn’t such a series-only purist, I would loan it to him for free.

  3. Charles

    “And how come he never really goes into a sermon? … I think Book’s word, or message if you will, comes more from the examples he sets forth with his actions.”

    Personally, I think that the reason Book never goes into a sermon is that he’s written by an atheist. When an atheist tries to actually write a sermon, it usually ends up as Watered-Down Generic Ethics or as Watered-Down Generic Spirituality.
    Example: “Hate is bad. Now let’s cheerfully sing a scary song about Judgment Day.”
    Example: “God is your own spirit and anyone who doesn’t get that is stupid.”
    And there absolutely must never be anything in any sermon about people needing any savior other than themselves.

    Frankly, I prefer that Whedon writes the characters talking ABOUT Book’s sermons (I’m thinking of his line in the pilot about knowing some very good sermons, some with lepers!) rather than trying to show the sermons themselves.

  4. Hanna

    I think the reason you don’t hear any sermons from Shepherd Book, apart from Charles’s point about him being written by an atheist, is that he knows who he’s talking to. He knows that a lot of atheists will stop taking you seriously or just tune you out as soon as you bring up the G-word, especially if you try to force them to believe something they’re just not ready to accept yet. Instead, he leads by his actions and holds fasts to his principles, something that the rest of them can respect.
    A good number of Christians weren’t happy with Book’s final words to just believe in something. They interpreted it as him saying that truth is a free-for-all, and if Mal believed that, say, that dead squirrel over there was God, at least it would be something. But they fail to understand the context. Mal has a long history of being angry with God, and he has a lot of issues to work through before he’s ready to return to his faith. If Book’s last words to Mal had been “Trust Jesus,” then maybe he would have died feeling good about himself for trying. But it wouldn’t have done any good. Instead, he knows that Mal is a deeply moral man, and if he can find the strength to truly believe in something, he’ll believe in what’s right. Book knows that you can’t lead some people to God by sermons; you have to show them God in different forms.

    1. Rod of Alexandria Post author

      I was actually pretty okay with Book’s last words. They were to lead Mal on a different path perhaps spiritually, perhaps from an antagonist atheist to more agnostic or even deist.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *