Star Trek, the Hobbit, and the Meaning of Christmas
One of my favorite characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation is Q, a being rather like Mister Mxyzptlk in Superman, who can alter reality and usually uses his powers for mischief. I suspect that his character was invented as a parody of god: immensely powerful but capricious, occasionally fixated on heavy-handed moral lessons, and generally a nuisance. He does, after all, introduce himself as “omnipotent.”
Despite the screenwriters’ own heavy-handed moralizing, I find Q’s antics enjoyable. My favorite episode is when he has his power taken away (omnipotent, my foot) and has to deal with being an ordinary human; as one would expect, he is the whiniest, rudest, most ill-adjusted man around. Without his brute power, he just can’t deal.
Every time I watch that episode, in between chuckles, I think to myself, “I’m glad my god isn’t like that.” If you actually look at the story of God becoming man, you’ll find something quite different from Q’s petulance. God wasn’t kicked out of Heaven; he willingly chose to refrain from his power and make himself as vulnerable as possible.
That didn’t just mean a normal adult human. That meant coming as a baby. God was laid over Mary’s shoulder and burped. Isn’t that a bizarre thought? It sounds blasphemous – many people think it is. And it didn’t stop there. God went through puberty; he was once a thirteen-year-old boy. What a frightening idea!
Jesus did come down to save us. The Incarnation and the Resurrection cannot be separated. But I think it’s worth spending a little time just on the Incarnation at Christmas, because as Protestants we tend to focus solely on the Easter story and forget how crazy Christmas really was. This wasn’t a god or an angel taking on human form for a few days. This was divinity literally mating with humanity – taking our humiliation into his eternal nature. Going the whole nine yards.
Why is this important? Because the screenwriters on Star Trek are right: a God who’s only mighty and superior because of his power isn’t much of a God. In order to be truly great, a God must also be capable of passing through humiliation, suffering, and vulnerability, and emerging victorious. And how do you overcome those things? Through love. Through sacrifice. In all the religions of all the world, only one god has passed this test. That’s where Easter comes in. God didn’t show up in human form whimpering for us to save him. He took on our weakness so that he could defeat it for us.
I was watching the appendices for The Hobbit a couple of days ago, and one of the crew mentioned that the point of the story was that even an ordinary person could change the world. They were close, but they missed Tolkien’s actual point. Tolkien, you see, was a Catholic, and Catholics tend to place much more emphasis on the Incarnation. Tolkien’s hobbits, who as Middle Earth’s most ordinary of peasants changed history; and his wizards, who held angelic power in vessels of clay, were meant to prefigure a deeper and more mysterious theme: that sometimes, vulnerability itself can be a kind of strength.
It is, like so many wonderful mysteries, a paradox: out of weakness we are made strong. But it is true. The strongest things in life – things like love and hope and trust and sacrifice – come from a place of weakness in us, come when we have lost control and have to decide how to act without it. Only they can save the world.
The paradox of the Nativity has been expressed many times in many ways. G.K. Chesterton noted the strange charm of the folk tale where an old woman carries the moon in a basket on her back, and how it finally came true when a manger held the god who made the moon. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Its inside is bigger than its outside…In our world… a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
And of course, this theme of vulnerability-as-strength finds its epitome in Easter, when death itself, when immersed in love, became literally life-giving. As I said earlier, the two events cannot be separated; the story is all of a piece. But just at this moment, near Christmas, let’s stop and appreciate the strange beauty of a God who, instead of standing far off from our day-to-day ickiness and aches like a pampered society lady, came down and waded into the sewage to pull his children out of it (there’s another movie reference for you). And instead of God being sullied, the sewage was sanctified.