Q+A for "The Theology of Battlestar Galactica"
The hugely successful sci-fi series, “Battlestar Galactica” (BSG), is sooner to conjure up images of Cylons and intergalactic battles than images of faith. However, in his new book, “The Theology of Battlestar Glactica,” professor and chair of the Theatre Arts department, Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., analyzes the rich, theological nuisances within the series. The Loyolan was able to speak with Wetmore about the inspiration behind his book, which will be discussed further at tonight’s Faculty Pub Night, at 5:30 P.M. in the Van der Ahe Family Suite.
1. You are a professor, involved in the various aspects of theatre, a comedian and an author. Are there different motivations for each hat you wear?
Yes. I like doing a lot of different things – writing, acting, teaching, comedy, stunt work – and so I do them all. When I started my career, I didn’t want to limit myself to a single area, as I enjoy them all too much. It also gives me the freedom to pursue different projects that use different parts of the brain or different aspects of my work. To spend all day writing about Japanese theatre and cinema and then head to a comedy club to perform that night keeps both experiences fresh and interesting. Right now I teach a class in stage combat at LMU, so I spend 75 minutes sword fighting with students. Ten minutes after that class ends, I teach a class on theatre and theology. It’s great, and the fact that I do both infuses both classes with more energy and focus.
2. What made you want to be an expert of Japanese theatre?
Like most other things in my life, I fell into it by accident. I have always enjoyed Japanese culture, but when I was living in England, I did some work with a modern Japanese theatre artist. Japan has this incredible modern theatre that was unlike anything I had seen elsewhere and yet was also just like the theatre I had been doing. So I ended up focusing on Japanese and African theatre in grad school.
3. What kind of cool secrets can you tell me about your book, “The Theology of Battlestar Galactica?”
I don’t know if there are cool secrets about it. The book began life here at LMU. As a faculty member here I began taking classes in theological studies, figuring since I was at a Jesuit university, why not take advantage? I ended up completing a master’s degree in theological studies, and my thesis was on BSG and theology. I was, and am, particularly interested in how popular culture reflects our own values, concerns and cultural conflicts back at us. Plus, I completely geeked out on BSG when it first aired on television but was also amazed at how much contemporary American culture, philosophy, religion and society was packed into this sci-fi show: terrorism, the abortion debate, the war in Iraq, the role of dissent in a society at war, the cost of sacrifice, class differences – it all played out on the screen every Friday night. So the book had its origins in my work as a student at LMU. I expanded my master’s thesis into the volume that [McFarland & Company, Inc.] then published.
4. Can you tell me some ways you have incorporated American Christianity into this book?
I don’t really incorporate American Christianity into the book. Instead, the book looks at how the religious aspects of the cultures depicted in BSG (human, cylon and the Baltar cult) reflect concerns and debates within American Christianity. So the book looks at how the faith traditions within the show deal with salvation, exile, prophecy, apocalypse, resurrection and messianism, while also demonstrating the shaping influence of belief on society. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the program was when it explored the conflict within America’s stated values and beliefs and our practices. For example, when the program was on the air, our nation was debating whether or not it was legitimate to use “enhanced interrogation” –which was our euphemism for the fact we were torturing people – on supposed terror suspects, especially if we believed they knew of impending attacks. The show featured one of its main characters, Kara Thrace, torturing a human-like cylon to gain information about a coming attack. This torture led to a discussion about souls, whether or not cylons possessed them and was it therefore legitimate to torture a sentient being with a soul, regardless of reason. If ones believes in the values of this nation and the teachings of Christianity, torture should be anathema. Yet the president who said his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ was the very one ordering the “enhanced interrogations.” On a contemporary drama series, this sort of thing would have polarized audiences. Through the distance of science fiction, however, the show could not only debate the issue of the use of torture, it could also debate the idea of a soul. Name another television program that could do that without seeming “preachy.
5. How do you compare theologies within “The Theology of Battlestar Galactica?”
The show itself presented three different theologies: human polytheism, Cylon monotheism and the birth of a new faith – the monotheistic cult run by the character Baltar, who may or may not be a prophet. In each episode, adherents of these faiths would make faith statements, quote from sacred texts, carry out rituals or reflect upon ultimate reality. I gathered all of these, and the first half of the book is an exercise in comparative systematic theologies: What do these faiths believe, how does that belief manifest in action and ritual and what does it tell us about this faith and about the people who hold it. The second half of the book is an examination of recurring themes in the series that echo American Christianity (itself a problematic term): sin, salvation, messiahs, resurrection and the role of Judas.
6. Religion and science fiction seem like such contradicting topics. How do you manage to relate and incorporate both of these subjects into a 200+ page book?
Actually, I suspect I disagree with your premise. I am not certain religion and science fiction are contradicting topics. Both are ways of explaining the universe to us. Science fiction frequently employs religious tropes (think the Force in “Star Wars”), and science fiction is filled with explorations of a religious nature. There are more Christ-like figures in sci-fi than in any other genre – hell, Keanu Reeves alone has played at least three (Neo in the “Matrix” films, John Constantine – check out the initials – in “Constantine”, and John Carpenter – those initials again – in the remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still”). Sci-fi allows for miracles, resurrection and the possibility of contact with something greater than ourselves. It can teach morality and ethics, and can shape our understanding of the world. The distance that science fiction narratives creates allows us to broach religious topics that might otherwise prove controversial or polarizing when we want to discuss the issues, not fight for our beliefs.
7. Is there a specific episode in the series that directly inspired you to write this book?
No, no one episode stands out; although, as in any television series there are better episodes and not so good episodes. For the novice, start with the miniseries that launched the series. It explains everything. The other thing I would note is that, like all great texts, every time I break out the DVDs and watch the series again, I find new things in it – things I hadn’t noticed before, but also in the decade since the series first began, both the world and I have changed as well. So there are new issues that leap into focus that would not have in 2007, for example. That’s the sign of a great show – it stands up to the test of time, and I engage it in new ways every time I encounter it. So the short answer to your question is the whole series inspired the book.
8. What is the most important lesson you want your readers, especially your students, to know about?
That there is much profundity in the popular culture they consume every day. That films and television shows and songs mean things, and more importantly, they do not just mean but they generate meaning, depending on who is watching or listening to them. “Battlestar Galactica” is a theological text – it makes statements and claims about the nature of reality. So does, “The Walking Dead”, “Breaking Bad”, “American Horror Story”, “Duck Dynasty”, “Major Crimes”, “Glee” and many others. These shows tell us about ourselves and how we view the world. So I would encourage my students to watch them critically and move beyond the simplistic, child-like response of like/don’t like and really engage these texts for what they say. Reflect on the culture around you and, since I teach mainly students who want to be a part of the creation of that culture, to think critically about their art, their stories, the texts they create and the meaning that they generate.
9. Do you plan on writing more books in the near future?
I have written four since this one and have several more “in the works.” I have books on Asian theatre, Shakespeare and zombies all coming out soon. Again, part of the pleasure of having so many interests is that I always get to work on something new and exciting.