A theological reflection on using Doctor Who in Preaching, offered at The John Rylands Library in Manchester, UK:
With only 20 minutes or so to explain the vastness of theological thought expressed in Doctor Who, I’d rather not spend the remaining 4:30 waiting in anticipation of what might happen when the clock reaches triple zero. It fades to black. What you are watching is the way we began each of the four Sundays of our Doctor Who Sermon Series at Broadmoor United Methodist Church in Shreveport, LA (Thank you, Angie Cason!). I am Rev. Matt Rawle from New Orleans, LA. I am an elder in the United Methodist Church. For four glorious weeks we hosted a Doctor Who sermon series, which used Doctor Who as the lens through which a congregation could think about God’s relationship with time and identity, primarily. So, for a few minutes I would like to share with you what the congregation experienced during this series.
I’d like to start with a few assumptions. First, the BBC will find you, so it’s best to pay royalties from the very beginning, and we did, months before the series began. The nonprofit royalty fees granted the temporary rights for character use in publicity and the right to publically show episodes of Doctor Who. Second, as a Christian in general and a clergyperson in particular, I think it is extremely important to accept and renarrate culture using a theological lense. There are times to push back against popular culture, times to hold no opinion about pop culture, and times to accept and renarrate the gift of what we make of God’s world. This language is borrowed from both Sam Wells, author of “Improvisation: the Drama of Christian Ethics” and pastor of St. Martin of the Field, and Andy Crouch, author of “Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Culture.”
So, how did we incorporate Doctor Who within the life of a Christian congregation? First, we created a worshipful atmosphere. The doors of the sanctuary were painted like the TARDIS, offering the “bigger on the inside” illusion when worshipers entered. Upon entering the sanctuary, worshipers would hear the ambient music from the show until the countdown ran on the screens. The altar was draped in TARDIS blue, and just behind the altar was yet, another TARDIS. It was clear that something very different was happening. Secondly we offered a common ground between those who know Matt Smith to be the 11th Doctor, those who think Matt Smith is the 3rd Doctor, and those who have no idea who the Doctor is. So, we held a Friday night movie night so that the congregation could together watch the episode that would be referenced that coming Sunday. Third we crafted the series around what was happening in the life of the congregation.
The first Sunday was Trinity Sunday on the liturgical calendar, so naturally I talked about the TARDIS. Ok, so I invited the congregation to think about the Trinity using the TARDIS as a guide, more or less. The Trinity and the TARDIS are similar in at least two ways. First, both are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. Of course, the inside of the TARDIS is a different dimension than is the outside. The Trinity is bigger on the inside in the sense that it is a picture of God’s economy, not necessarily God’s essence. I am very much in accord with our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters who recognize the mystery of God’s inner being. The Trinity is a “ceci nes pas une pipe.” It is a picture of God, not the full essence of God. But what is the picture of exactly? This is the second commonality between The Trinity and TARDIS. From the outside, the blue box is a picture of the Doctor moving through time and space. Likewise, the Trinity is a picture of God moving through created time and space.
Imagine a two dimensional world—“Flatland,” if you like. Now imagine a three dimensional object, say, your index finger, passing through it. From the two-dimensional point of view, the finger would look like a fluctuating circle. A fingerprint is an identifying feature, but to say that a fingerprint looks like the finger which left the mark, would be shallow. Or to use theological language, God, who created time, moves through it as relationship, as Saint Augustine would say, as The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that they share.
Now, the second Sunday works better as point number three in hindsight, so the third Sunday we discussed Identity. How is it that the audience accepts that the 11th Doctor is the same as the first? Each doctor has a different look, different temperament, different companion, different sonic screwdriver, even an different set for the TARDIS’ interior. I invited the congregation to close their eyes and think of what “I” is. Do you see a picture of yourself? Do you imagine a younger you? Maybe you see a word like “success,” or “failure.” I asked them to journey with me as I thought out loud, so to speak, about what the notion of “self,” might be. Are we who we think we are? I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that’s not quite true. Are we who others say we are? That doesn’t sound right either. Are we what we do? If I steal a pencil am I forever a thief? Maybe I’m a their until I ask for forgiveness? If I do something heroic, am I hero? Maybe I’m a hero until I fail? So, is my identity what I’ve done last? That doesn’t sound like the Gospel.
I am convinced that the audience accepts that 11 is the same as 1 because he remembers; therefore there is an intimate connection between our identity and our memory, at least, this is what scripture suggests. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus commands. But it’s not just about remembering Christ. Our memory of Christ is not salvific; rather it is Christ’s remembrance of us. The thief on the cross was right. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What caused the flood waters to stop raining from heaven? God remembered Noah. “Run, you clever boy, and remember,” Clara profoundly says.
On the second Sunday, which is a better third point, I invited the congregation to ponder “time,” and of course, we watched “Blink” that weekend. What a great introduction to the whibbly-whobbly nature of time. We live our lives within the linear progression of cause and effect. I asked them to imagine what an uncaused effect would look like. The first answer is usually creation itself. Fine answer. I happen to think that an uncaused effect looks something like water into wine, or 5,000 people fed with twelve baskets left over, or Resurrection. Some have asked me that if Jesus died and was raised in AD 33, then what of the poor folks who died in AD 32. Why do we assume that salvation works according to cause and effect? Sin and grace gets quite “sticky” when we think of it as cause and effect. Salvation is a dance or a process, if you will. I happen to enjoy reading Paul quite literally when he said that through Christ God has reconciled all things, which would include time, itself, which is why Prevenient Grace is Truth–God moves toward us before we move toward God. Whibbly-Whobbly from human perspective.
Sometimes the “altar call” goes to far. It is certainly real, it is certainly powerful, and I certainly don’t want to discount a radical conversion experience; rather I simply want us to understand that this moment at the altar is a moment of understanding or clarity of what God has already done for us, and it is a moment of remembrance and thanksgiving. Remember, we have already agreed that “Identity” is not what I have last accomplished, good or bad. To say that God would not save me until I came to the altar, makes the God who reconciled all things seem far too passive. Salvation is to dance with Christ each day–to remember what God incarnate has accomplished through life, death, and resurrection, and in so doing, live into the Kingdom God has established. Conversion is a gift! It is a gift from God helping us remember what Christ has done–it is not salvation itself. It is true that in Christ all things are made new. I’m simply saying that this doesn’t happen just once. It should happen every day. When you wake up in a world in which time itself has been redeemed, every day should begin with a conversion of heart and an offering of thanksgiving.
We finally brought everything together on the last Sunday as we gathered around the Lord’s Table for communion, and I opened the sermon with River Song’s words from Forests of the Dead. Her remembered self, so to speak, says from the computer mainframe, CAL, “Some days are special. Some days are so blessed. Some days nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while every day in a million days when the winds stand fair and the doctor comes to call . . . everybody lives.”
That is the life that the Good Doctor, or the Great Physician, if you will, came to initiate. We gathered around the table and I reminded them that when we break bread together, we are breaking bread in the presence of the saints, so in a way, Holy Communion is a time machine, so to speak. Gathered around the table is God and the body of Christ, in shared and mutual adoration; or it is a manifestation of the Trinity itself, using Saint Augustine’s definition. Holy Communion gives the church her identity. Holy Communion is where God, Time, and Identity all come together as one.