There’s been some debate lately about whether or not faith still thrives in fiction. That is, there is some speculation that the existential questions traditionally allocated to the realm of faith, such as those of purpose and ethics, and which drove literature in both veiled and not-so-veiled ways for some time, is now addressed or ignored in a purely secular art form.
Paul Elie recently considered in the New York Times whether or not fiction has lost its faith. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, responded in the Wall Street Journal, insisting that it has not. Me? I’m strongly in Wolfe’s camp, and not only in literature, but in the arts in general.
I was struck by how strongly different genres of different mediums explore concepts of religious faith when I was around for a random re-watch of an old episode of Dr. Who. The episodes in question, which earned a full re-viewing by me later (what did we do before Netflix?), were the final two episodes of season 3 of the new series, in which the Doctor (then partnered with Martha Jones), finds himself in a desperate struggle to defeat the only other surviving Time Lord, the Master, as he has taken over the Earth and reduced the Doctor to a helpless invalid.
During a year of the Master’s reign of terror (which passes between the two episodes), Martha Jones escapes and wanders the entire planet earth. There, she essentially preaches to the population (nearly all of whom have been enslaved by the Master, and frequently tortured and killed), telling them of the heroic Doctor who is their only hope against the Master…the Doctor who has saved their lives over and again without their even knowing it, and who is the one person capable of defeating the Master’s evil.
The Master fears Martha enough to go after her personally…he arrives on the street outside where she is taking refuge, as one of the helpless slaves states words to the effect of “he never walks among us.” The Master belittles Martha’s faith and hope as being unable to stand against his weapons. He mocks Martha’s efforts just before he is to publicly execute her, as he learns that her plan was to have everyone on the earth, at the same critical moment, think of this mythical figure whom they had never met known as the Doctor.
Because, in his year of captivity, the Doctor has been able to telepathically connect himself with the same mental network that the Master used to persuade the people of earth to place him in his dictatorship. Thus, the Doctor receives massive power from this psionic energy being funneled into him. Essentially, the Doctor’s power comes through the prayer of the believers from Martha’s “gospel,” and he uses his power unexpectedly to, in the moment at which he has the Master defeated, utter the words which he has tried to say yet which the Master has avoided throughout the episodes: “I forgive you.” The Doctor, displaying the nature of a hero, sees the Master has someone worth saving, despite his evil deeds.
And, in the end, the Master’s refusal to be with the forgiving Doctor results in his final demise.
Season 3 of Doctor Who ended with the Doctor written overtly as a Christological metaphor. Difficult for me swallow, then, that art has lost its faith. Every medium and genre is scattered with artists who explore questions of faith and belief from various perspectives, and these two episodes of a science-fiction program are but one example to stand alongside many others.
Perhaps the issue is any delineation at all between “sacred” and “secular,” our insistence on placing artistic expression in one camp or another. I don’t believe that there is any such separation, and I am immediately suspect of any genre distinction that attempts to enforce it.
Faith is not gone from the arts. It is as powerfully stated as ever, if, as Wolfe points out, stated in a different manner, a manner consistent with our cultural evolution. That’s because the existential questions that haunted humanity a hundred years ago haunt us still, and require our attention no less than they did then. That is an integral part of the human condition, and it is the questions of that condition that the arts continue to explore.