Regenerating in the Body of Christ – The Eggplant
At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).
One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.
The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.
This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.
But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.
However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.
The Rev. John Adams