Pop Theology is thrilled to welcome its newest contributor, Jason Derr. Jason has extensively studied creative writing and has an AS in Film/Video Production and an MA in Theological Studies from the Vancouver School of Theology. He is a theologian-in-affiliation with the Progressive Christian Alliance and has contributed writing to the Canada Lutheran. Several of his works in short fiction and poetry have also been published. Check out his first article, “Doctor Who and The Challenge of Community-Centered Hermenutics,” which examines Doctor Who and the Gospels, after the jump.
The Challenge of Geeky Authority
Any geek worth her or his salt knows Doctor Who. While the good crews of the Federation were establishing an all-seeing, all-benevolent government, the Doctor was playing the cosmic troublemaker and troubleshooter, a rebel who made his own rules. Running from 1963 to 1989 in its original run and featuring seven actors in the title role, Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction series in TV history. The series was revived with a 1996 TV movie with an 8th actor in the role, and starting in 2005, a renewed TV series returned and has featured two actors in the role, with a third about to debut.
The Doctor is an enigmatic character who travels in space-time in an old police call box that is larger on the inside than on the outside. At times he has been portrayed as a grumpy old homeless man, a galactic hobo, a dashing adventurer, or the most ADHD man in the galaxy. With his companions, he stumbles through any series of problems usually caused, wherever he lands, by alien or inter-dimensional beings. Death is never a risk for him because his people–Time Lords–can die and regenerate 12 times, allowing them 13 incarnations.
Starting in 2000, when hope for a revived Doctor Who series was thought to be a lost cause, the UKs Big Finish Productions got permission to produce a new Audio Theater series based on the Doctor Who universe. Starting first with “Sirens of Time” featuring the 5th, 6th and 7th actors to play the role, Big Finish has kept Doctor Who alive. A short time later Paul McGann joined the ranks as the 8th Doctor, revising the role he had played only once before in the 1996 TV movie. The 5th-8th Doctors continue their work in audio with Big Finish while Doctors 9, 10 and soon-to-be 11 do the good work on TV. The great actors to play Doctors 1, 2, and 3 have passed on while Tom Baker has so far declined to return as the 4th Doctor.
The presence of the Doctor Who audio programs, featuring returning cast members and their own story arcs that fit neatly–or not so neatly–into the established continuity raises the question of Canon. Fans of the Whoniverse–a term, some argue, that includes not only the ‘official’ stories but the behind the scenes work, spin-off media, and highly regarded fan-media–argue that all of this equates to a “canon.”
Argument ranges over which stories should be included, even within the original TV series. A show that runs for more than 20 years is bound to have its contradictions. Others posit that the Whoniverse itself contains a multiverse. How else do you factor in three different official 9th Doctors like Christopher Eccleston‘s portrayal in the 2005 TV series, Richard E. Grant‘s portrayal in the BBC webcast animated series, and Rowan Atkinson‘s performance as the doctor in the Comic Relief sketch “Curse of Fatal Death?” With the 8th doctor portrayed in a TV movie, on audio, and in comic strip, do these each then lead to other possible outcomes for the Doctor? Is each official, BBC produced 9th Doctor in fact, in continuity, part of the canon?
The issue of canon for fans of Doctor Who has now found its solution in the idea of a Multiverse. Each strain and variation on the narrative functions as its own continuity. This allows for multiple forms and formats for the story to be told while maintaining all of it, contradictions included, as canon by means of a community-centered hermeneutic.
Text and Canon
The challenge for some Christians is maintaining canon in the midst of contradictions and in the midst of interpretive strategies which seek to harmonize contradictions, thus denying us the rich heritage of the text. The gospels, for instance present, us with four distinct views of Jesus. On the one hand, he is the God-like being of John’s gospel and also the very human son of man in Mark’s gospel. While each contains similar through-lines, the narratives and theologies within vary. Genesis presents two accounts of creation and the Hebrew Bible gives two reasons for the destruction of Gomorrah as either attempted male rape (Genesis 19:4-5) or the treatment of the poor (Ezekiel 16: 48-50) with early Jewish commentary referring to inhospitality as the sin that leads to the cities’ destruction.
Canon always exists in community. Variations appear among Catholic and Protestant bibles, with Martin Luther going as far as to suggest the removal of James and Revelation. But in each community, for a variety of reasons, these texts are considered to be Canon and are the narrative by which the community is shaped.
In this manner Tim Conder in his book, Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community, and a recent Emergent Village podcast, advocates that scripture be read in community. This works, he suggests, if we view scripture itself–the Canon of tradition–as being itself a community of texts. This works better, I feel, than say the United Church of Christ’s comments on scripture which view them as a ‘library of early Christian experience.’ A community of texts lets us engage in a ‘Choral Theology,’ a lifting of diverse voices in the song of faith.
In this way, what is not important is which texts are in or out or in establishing a consistent theological interpretation that dictates an optive by which we read the text. To apply this to the Doctor Who universe, what is not important is what stories or media are ‘in or out’ but instead the multiverse of texts that exist in tension. They are mutually exclusive and mutually revealing. These texts belong to the community of fans and have a shared history and narrativity.
Doctor Who fans are then a people united in a common dialogue of what it means to be a fan. To engage in the conversation is to participate in the faith of Whodom. Likewise for Christians, with so many conflicting ideas in the text and a weight of history that includes in it a variety of interpreters and interpretations, to be a Christian is not to subscribe to one view over another but to instead engage in deep listening to the text and its conflicts.
The Gospel as Multiverse
The problem of canon among diverse and contradictory texts in Doctor Who has been solved by the notion of Multiverese. In this way a handful of mutually exclusive narratives can be held together despite their contradictions. This can only happen when those who participate in the conversation realize that the narrative is common property–or common space–that belongs to the community.
Christian holy texts, in their Protestant and Catholic forms, are themselves a multiverse. Instead of presenting a unified story we are instead presented an anthology, a library–a community of texts. From the diversity of the biblical texts, from the conflicts in Paul’s writing (the so-called Non-Contested Paul and Contested Paul) to the variety of letter writers and the spectrum of apocalypses and diversity of Gospels, the Holy Book sets out not to provide answers but rather a diversity of expression.
The gospels, in this sense, begin a conversation with us. We have the option of harmonizing the texts–smoothing out their rough spots, their contradictions, and their hesitations–or allowing the text to be a Canon with contradictions. This moves past an inerrant text and to an inspired/ing text, or in other words an in-spirited text, one whose goal is not absolute truth but conversation that leads to a deepening of community held together in diversity. As Martin Luther said, scripture is not the word of God but the manger that contains it.
Diversity in this manner is important as a community-based hermeneutic will lead to a diversity of conversations and points of view. Conder says in the Emergent Village podcast that a community-based hermeneutic among ten people will lead naturally to the diversity of thought found in scholarship of the same text! Diverse canon and diverse viewpoints work as a multiverse when we realize that the complexity of the inherited text is a communal property of those engaged in the community of conversation.
If we set out to present a text of unified and absolute answers, then we are not engaging with the text’s own experiment. We can point to any number of verses to support a Bibliolatry, but to do so misses the project the text presents, a community of texts with diverse voices.
A multiverse approach to biblical reading allows us to reclaim the bible as community and place it back as an organizing and inspiring narrative without making it the absolute end all of theological and faith formation. Gospel as Multiverse does not mean we abandon the historical-critical, redaction, or other forms of criticism, but instead allow each of them to speak to us and reveal the text to us in ways that lets us push back against the text in such a manner that our own experience can speak as well.
Conder talks about his community-hermeneutic as a way for the diversity of his own worshiping community to safely step forward and speak of their own spiritual identities. To read the bible in community is to allow our community members to step forward in such a way that their own experience and identity is valid. It is permission to push back against the text when it does not line up with our experience of humanity and God.
In this manner, we can ask if a certain reading is healthy or helpful. Additionally, it allows us to bring perspectives and questions to the text not normally encountered in a way that gifts us all. This allows ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ perspectives to exist side by side in a way that enriches all participants in the conversation.