Fangirl Theology: Doctor Who, the Church, and my Messiah Complex

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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).

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I love Doctor Who.

For those who have read some of my past posts, this is not a surprise.

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.

An Exchange Between a Frustrated Millennial and a Fatal God

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artcorner.com My favorite symbol of death and resurrection

In a recent post, I described a severe morning panic attack I experienced over a month ago.

A week after that attack, I was in Harrisonburg returning a book to the local library for perhaps the last time, and internally, I was mourning the loss.

At this point, I had lived in Edinburg, a middle-of-nowhere country town about 40 minutes away, for almost 2 months, and I continued to mourn both my move away from the town I called home for the past 4 years and my graduation from seminary. I also continued to live into the transition of the new joys of my engagement to Bryce and a new job as a church secretary.

But the transitions, both the joyful and the heartbreaking, were still hard to navigate. Instead of feeling joy and excitement for the future ahead, I felt anxious, sad, and a bit miserable. I worried about my stress levels, my relationship with my fiance, my work competency, my adult competency, the unsettled state of the new house, our future wedding, and the upcoming Rally Day at my Episcopal congregation (which I had agreed to do when everyone else said we didn’t have to.)

Here I was in front of my beloved Harrisonburg library, realizing I would probably never check out books from it again, and I felt the deepness of this loss  weighing upon me with all of the others.

So as I walked away from the library, mourning the loss of my past home and fearing what the future held, I once again cried out to God, and once again, it contained a lot of frustration.

Excuse you, God, but why does everything feel uncertain and scary? 

I want you to tell me that everything will be OK.

Actually, no…I want more than that. I want you to guarantee that everything will be more than OK. I want everything to be perfect, because if it’s not, then it’s wrong. 

I thought if I followed you, things would go well for me, but I’m beginning to realize this was never part of the promise, and that irks me.

So where is the happiness and the guarantee for things to go well? Why won’t you promise me that much?

Believe it or not, I got an answer, but it wasn’t one I liked.

The answer was this:

There is no guarantee for things to be perfect, because I have called you to die, and you continue to see death and dying as imperfect and wrong. You continue to cling to the hopes, dreams, fears, and failures to which I call you to die every day.

I have called you to die in order to enter everlasting life, but I didn’t say this life would be easier. Those deaths will lead you to life, but not the one you expected. 

You have to learn to die in order to live, to let go of your enslavement to your own expectations in order to live into the beautiful, terrible reality that is real human life.

Here it was: the call to let go and learn to open my arms and let life be what it is. This is a call to die to my desire to be perfect, my desire to be God, and my seeming need to control my life and the lives of others.

I know it is so very necessary, and I also know it is so very difficult.

This is where church actually helps me, though.

Each week at Emmanuel Episcopal, as we prepare to receive the Eucharist, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, and when he finishes the story, the congregation is asked to proclaim the mystery of our faith. And as a group, we chant:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

It’s not a mantra I only say on Sunday. It’s what I have to tell myself every single time I want to be the one in control, when I refuse to die to myself and my ways. Every day I have to tell myself:

As Christ has died, so must I die. As Christ has risen, so will I rise. As Christ is returning to us, so will I return to this life and the life to come.

Thanks be to you, God. Now please, help me be a bit more OK with this.

Trent

When I saw my cousin Trent this summer, it was the first time I’d seen him in 5 years.

The last time I saw him, in the summer of 2008, he was 11. He kept drumming on every single surface in my grandmother/his great-grandmother’s house with his hands like he was preparing to be a world-class percussionist. He picked blackberries and baked blackberry pie with Juma. When I was at work at the Renaissance fair, he would take my camera and take goofy pictures of himself. He wore my aunt Brenda’s (his grandmother) wigs around the house and at one point wore a wig, a pair of sunglasses, and a throw around his neck, walked outside and to Juma’s front door, and tried to convince his Granny that he was someone selling Girl Scout cookies. And he helped me pull a prank on our cousin Michael.

This summer of 2013, he was 16. He had grown immeasurably and it freaked me out that he was now taller than me. We kept trying to fight each other on the beach (with his height and strength, I was easily defeated). During a nightly family walk on the beach, as my boyfriend and I stood hand in hand, he came up to us and asked if we were going to get married. He gave everyone big hugs. He rode the waves with our cousins. He poured Mountain Dew on top of an alligator’s head to see how it would react.

I figured I’d see him again the next time I went to the beach, maybe in a year or two. I could not have possibly known that it would be the last time I’d ever see him.

My mom called me on New Year’s Eve with the news. A car accident. Trent didn’t make it. The goofy cousin with the contagious smile was gone. I heard the words but I didn’t believe they were true. I still don’t believe it.

What I do know is that my heart is broken. For my family. For his brother Trevor and his sister Savannah. For his mom, my cousin Erin, who shouldn’t have to bury her youngest son. For his grandmother, my aunt Brenda, who shouldn’t have to bury her grandson. For my Gammy, his great-grandmother, who shouldn’t have to bury her great-grandson.

None of this is fair. None of this is ok. None of this is the way it should be.

I have no inspirational words. And I refuse to say this is part of God’s plan, because I refuse to believe in a God who plans horrible things like this. I refuse to believe it is God’s plan for a mother to bury her son, and grandparents to bury their grandbabies.

All I have to say to my family is this: I am so sorry. I loved Trent and wished I could have had more time with him. I hate that we are going through this. And I will love and hold and support you as well as I can. We’re family, and distance doesn’t change that. Because one thing I do believe, is that love is stronger than death and fear.

To my family, I offer you my love, support, prayers, and strength. To Trent, I will miss you dearly. To my community, please hold us in your thoughts and prayers as we navigate these rough waters.

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