Today, I am beginning a three-part series called Fangirl Theology. I will be presenting theological interpretations on three of my favorite “fangirl-worthy” works: Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Harry Potter.
I would like to dedicate this particular post to the memory of my stepdad, Robert Barnette, who passed away on October 28th. He was a big fan of Doctor Who, but I never got into it while he and my mom were together. As a result, we never got to talk about it in person when I did start enjoying it. This is for you, Rob. Rest in peace and rise in glory.
Also, an obvious spoiler warning for those who have not seen Doctor Who or those not caught up with the current season (Season Nine in the rebooted series).
I love Doctor Who.
Granted, the show took some getting used to. This was my first serious foray into the sci-fi territory, and when the reboot’s pilot involves killer mannequins, there’s an inevitable adjustment period for the not-yet-initiated.
But when I did get acclimated, I fell in love. I fell for the adventures, the timey-wimey explanations, certain companions, and the Doctor himself.
I will not digress by getting into debates about who my favorite incarnation of the Doctor is. That may be for another post at another time. I do, however, want to talk about a trait of the Doctor in each of his incarnations which I both love and fear: his Messiah-(and sometimes God-) complex.
Anytime the Doctor is on an adventure, on Earth or elsewhere in the universe, he tries to solve their problems. A famous tagline he uses in the most recent season is, “I’m the Doctor, and I save people!” And for the most part, the Doctor really does stay true to this statement. In one adventure, to save the life of a child who is “destined” to be the yearly sacrifice to an angry god, the Doctor offers up his own lifetime of memories to appease the being and save the girl. He makes himself show mercy to Davros, the creator of the murderous race of beings called the Daleks, because in doing so, he ensures that their creator instills the smallest piece of mercy in these killing machines. He saves many planets, including the Earth, from evil beings and averts many catastrophes. He bears a significant amount of the suffering of others and even takes things into his own hands when they are not his to take.
But he is a very dark Messiah. After losing a beloved companion, he almost lets an entire race of creatures go extinct for threatening humanity. He only stops when his new companion begs him to have mercy. He forces another companion to make a decision over whether or not to destroy the moon, which is in fact an egg protecting a creature and about to hatch, instead of helping her with the decision. When she realizes how close she was to making the “wrong” choice, she cuts the Doctor out of her life in rage. He is most dangerous when he is alone, because in these instances, he refuses to be ruled by any higher authority or different voice of reason, because he believes he is the highest authority and the law of the land.
Attributes like this led showrunner Steven Moffat to describe the Doctor as “an angel trying to be human.” And in the most recent season, he was someone who wondered whether or not he is a “good man.”
I relate so well to this character, because I am a human trying to be God, someone wondering not if the world is “good” but if it’s OK.
I wake up some mornings with great hope in humanity and the world around me. On those days, nothing gives me greater joy than to relish in humanity’s achievements and wonder how I can participate in making a beautiful world with them.
Other mornings, I wake up wishing the world would just burn already, and I ask if I can have the match to get the fire going.
I want to take the world in my hands and mold it gently, and I want to take it in my hands and smash it.
In other words, I have a strong Messiah-complex. I think I have the answers to all the world’s problems, and I think if people just did what I thought was right, our problems would disappear. When people don’t do what I want, I become angry and vengeful, wondering why we can’t start over with better people or a better world.
And I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world, especially during election season, who feels this way.
I am also a member of the Church, where I am taught we have a gracious, merciful Messiah who will one day usher in a new age of peace when he returns to us. Because this Messiah is the centerpiece of our theology, you would think the Church would be the place where we’re told our Messiah complexes are hilarious at best and damaging at worst. We are supposed to be taught we are not the be all and end all of this Creation, but Someone greater than us is in charge. We are called to do what we can, but we are not called to be Creation’s saviors. This mission, according to the stories in our Bibles, belongs to someone else.
Suffice it to say, I have often felt my Messiah complex encouraged, nurtured, and at times even exploited in Church. Church is the body of people I aim to please the most with my gifts, but not always in a good way. Church has often been where I strive to prove myself by signing up for as many things as possible, and it is a rare day when someone stops me. I sign up for leadership roles and mission events to prove I am worth belonging to these people. I have continued leading in places I should have left, for the sake of my health and even the congregation’s health, but I feared my loss of status in the community.
After all, if I was not a leader, I had no purpose. If I was not leading a mission project which actively “helped” or “saved” others, I was not doing enough work for God or my community, and they would disapprove of me. I also did not trust that anyone could do my job as well as I could, and I put myself at odds with people in my communities at times over how things should be done. If it wasn’t my way, it couldn’t possibly be right.
I have also felt this Messiah-complex encouraged in the labeling of enemies. Either explicitly or implicitly, groups of people, even (and sometimes especially) communities of faith, establish “insiders” and “outsiders,” those who are “us” and those who are “other.” When we do this, we allow ourselves to think we can determine the boundaries to God’s presence. This can enable us to think we, not God, are the keepers of the gates of heaven. It’s a difficult trait to combat, yet how often do we see our leaders calling this out in us?
When my Messiah-complex is left unchecked, I throw myself into ministry work the way the Doctor throws himself into cataclysmic predicaments, without regard to my own sanity or the capability of others to do this work well. I do things no one else will do the way the Doctor does things for humans they could never, and maybe should never, do for themselves. It’s like we both have a voice inside us screaming at all times, “Everything will be lost forever unless YOU, and YOU ALONE, do something.”
It’s always up to us. Not someone else. Not life, death, or resurrection. Not even God. It always has to be us, and we keep throwing ourselves into these situations until we are burned out and need a regeneration.
So, how do you heal a Messiah-complex?
I find healing the same way the Doctor has: I keep surrounding myself with people who drag me out of my own dreams of “how things should be”and plant me firmly back into the world of “how things are.”
Like the Doctor, I have companions who love me when I am at my most human and when I try to be better than God. I have companions who tell me when I’ve gone too far and when I need to let things go and be as they are. These people are my saving graces and help me realize that even if I am not always a “good person” and the world around me is not always “good,” I have the promise of love to keeping me going and learning through each new adventure. Together, the Doctor and I are learning, in a slow yet undeniable way, that we cannot be God to humanity or even to ourselves, and this is OK.
Like the Doctor, we find healing from our Messiah-complexes by finding and maintaining friends, communities, and even ministries and vocations which empower us to do all we can while reminding us we are not God. We need the Church to point us to Jesus, the Messiah full of grace and mercy, and remind us we are not called to be the world’s Saviors but imitators of the One who saved us and continues to save us.
Like the Doctor, we can help people. We can be kind and present even when all else is lost, and every now and then, we might save the day.
But like the Doctor, we are not God.
With the Doctor, we learn to accept our own limitations, our own humanity, and our divine spark. With the Doctor, we learn how to invite life, death, and resurrection into the world without controlling the final results.
We can do this without being God or Jesus, and like the Doctor, we can become all the better for it.