Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Logic of Love, and My Inner Nerd
“It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one”
I’ve been trained to ask a surprisingly complex question during the last few years: Where is God in this? The question is surprisingly complex because the answer is not always obvious.
Last week I went to visit my family in Portland, Oregon. When my brothers and I get together, we ususally watch a Star Trek or Star Wars movie. Yup. We’re nerds. And I love it.
On this visit I wanted to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although it is not their favorite Star Trek movie, my brothers politely obliged. Throughout the movie, they made playful, sarcastic comments Mystery Science Theater 3000 style about the Kobayashi Maru test, Ceti Eels (okay, those are gross), and Khan’s massive pecs, (I envy the pecs on that 60+ year old dude). This is the Sci-Fi nerdiness that I love.
But I also love The Wrath of Khan for its theology. I’m convinced that the director, Nicholas Meyer, knew what he was doing. So, as one of my brothers loaded the DVD, I asked the question nerdy theological question: “Where do you think God is in The Wrath of Khan?”
They referred to the Genesis Device – which could bring life to a lifeless planet. Creation and resurrection are indeed Godlike qualities. But the Genesis Device has a darkside that made us hesitate to say that this is where we find God in the movie. The Genesis Device can be used to destroy and manipulate planetary life.
So, where is God in the movie? First, because the word means different things to different people, I need to tell you what I mean by “God.” I mean Jesus. I mean the God who self-sacrifices for the needs of the many. And what did Jesus bring that we need? In part, he brought a transformation in our understanding of sacrifice.
As René Girard points out in his development of mimetic theory, human culture was built on the logic of violent sacrifice. Girard has a long explanation of this hominization process that you can read about in books like Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, but it’s fairly intuitive. The logic of sacrifice works basically like this: If conflicts and rivalries arise among people, the mimetic solution, which is always non-conscious, is to unite against a common enemy. This unfortunate person becomes our sacrificial victim, aka, our scapegoat. Even more unfortunate is that this scapegoating works to bring temporary peace to a community, but it never actually solves the problem. Soon, conflicts and rivalries arise again and sacrificial logic reasserts itself and a new scapegoat is needed to bring peace and unity.
Girard calls this archaic sacrifice. Don’t let the word archaic fool you: Girard asserts that we are still infected by archaic sacrifice. We still know that finding a common enemy is the easiest way to find unity. But the Judeo-Christian message challenges archaic sacrifice with another form of sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing another, we find the Judeo-Christian alternative of self-sacrifice. It is a form of sacrifice that has its own logic, but it is a logic that counters the logic of archaic sacrifice. For example, when two women ask Solomon to settle their rivalry over a child, the real mother sacrifices her desire for the child so the child may live. The prophet Isaiah writes about the Suffering Servant who sacrifices himself for the needs of the many. And, of course, there is Jesus, who for Christians concretely reveals the true character of God precisely in this self-sacrificial love. Jesus’ logic of sacrificial love is summed up in John 15:13, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
If you have seen the movies, you know that Spock is not a perfect Christ figure. But when he sacrifices himself in order to save his friends, he does something truly amazing and “Christlike.” Spock had choices. He could have used archaic logic to unite the crew in sacrificing someone else, but instead he used the Judeo-Christian logic of self-sacrifice. When I see Spock perform this sacrifice, I think of the prostitute and her child, the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus.
As the movie ends, Amazing Grace begins to play. Indeed, as the director, Meyer had to have known what he was doing. For it is an amazing grace that leads us to the self-sacrificing love of God.
And, to further my sci-fi/theological nerdiness, in Star Trek III Spock is resurrected back to life!
Self-sacrifice and resurrection. Judeo-Christian themes are all over Star Trek, and my inner sci-fi theological nerd is all kinds of giddy.