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Progressive Revival

Last Friday, my family went to see the new Star Trek movie.  We really enjoyed the renewed
adventures of Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise.  We weren’t alone.  The audience in the nearly full theater
loved the film.  And it proved a
happy surprise for Paramount–Star Trek pulled
in twice as much in opening weekend box-office sales than the studio had
predicted.  Indeed, the new movie
wound up having the strongest opening in the venerable series’ history.

The next day, two CNN anchors discussed the movie’s successful
release–but insisting how they weren’t “trekkies,” ad infinitum.  One of them said, “I just don’t get
it.  I’ve never understood the
popularity of Star Trek.  The co-anchor agreed.  Then, unbelievably, the male anchor
invited people to twitter him to “explain” the appeal of Star Trek.

I hope his Twitter account didn’t crash.

I have to confess: 
Although I’m not a complete trekkie, I once played Nurse Sistine Chapel
in a homemade Star Trek flick.  But you don’t have to be a hard-core
trekker to love Star Trek and “get”
it.  There are probably about a
million answers to the anchor’s question to the “why” of Star Trek. 

My “why” relates to–perhaps not unsurprisingly to my
readers–theology.   And it
doesn’t fit in a tweet.  When I was
growing up in Baltimore in the 1960s, the world was falling apart, people
divided, anger in the streets, riots ripping through neighborhoods.  Yet, every week, my mother would sit my
brother, sister, and me on a blanket in the living room to watch Star Trek.  There, on the screen of our new color TV (with twelve
channels!), an unfailingly optimistic view of the universe unfolded in front of
us.  Unlike the world we knew, full
of fear and worries of atomic holocaust, Kirk and Spock took us to a place
where few dared to go in the mid-1960s–a hopeful future.

A hopeful future has always been central to progressive
faith.  “Progress” implies that
there exists a future worth working for–the world can and will be better than
the world we now inhabit.  Over the
course of the twentieth century, it has been harder and harder to hold onto the
belief in a hope-filled future, an optimistic vision of history.  So much poverty, so much violence, so
much environmental degradation. 
The once-proud doctrine of “progress” in relation to history fell into popular
disrepute–leaving theological space for darker visions of an apocalyptic future
and visions of end-times politics.

Of course, the original series had a corny view of human
progress.  Nevertheless, Star Trek opened my young imagination to
ideas of pluralism, racial acceptance, inclusive community, and universal
peace.  Perhaps my older cousins
encountered these things in the politics and utopian movements of the 1960s,
but I found them first in a television series where they were embodied in
stories of a white guy from Iowa, a Vulcan, a Swahili woman, a Russian, and an
Asian gay man. 

My church talked about a hopeful future, too.  But we weren’t very good acting on
that vision–unable, for whatever reason, to walk our talk.  We had the right words about a human future of inclusive
community of universal peace, but never really pulled it together when it came
to turning words into living practices of faith.  I always think that is why mainline churches struggled so much
in the 1960s.  We had the right
theological stuff, but somehow failed to translate it into the world.  We spoke about a hopeful future, but secretly
had begun to doubt its power to transform human lives.  The energy of hope moved away from the
progressive religious communities that had seeded much of the twentieth century
with optimism–and, as a result, mainline churches became increasingly
irrelevant to a world still pining for positive future.

The new Star Trek still
presents a progressive future, but one tempered by the fact that optimism is
often born by a realistic engagement with human loss and suffering–that the
road to the future is sometimes paved with fear and mistakes.  But–and this is an important but–we
still get there.  In the new Star Trek, Kirk and Spock still save the
universe (at least most of it), still embrace the “other” (despite racial
tensions), and still make peace (especially on their own ship).  They are shaped by the lessons of the
twentieth century as they move bravely into the twenty-third.  In the process, the future looks pretty
good and worth working for.

A hopeful future is the place I pray that our faith
communities can finally–and boldly–go.  

And, hey trekkers, don’t get too irritated with me:  I’m a theologian, not a movie critic.  

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