It is virtually settled wisdom by now that Christianity in the developed world is already deeply into a watershed environmental shift. The age of Christendom, in which the faith was considered a cultural bedrock, has given way to a decidedly secular age. Missionary strategies and practices that were standard operating procedure for generations, and extending well into the adult lives of many Christian leaders, are now useless artifacts.
As we retool for a new and dauntingly unfamiliar season in the life of the church in North American and Europe, we will always do well to gain as deep an understanding as possible about the marketplace in which we operate. I repeatedly encourage Episcopalians in central and southern Illinois to ask themselves: What anxieties keep my neighbors up at night?” What are the ways that people itch that the gospel can scratch? What do they already tend to believe about questions of ultimate meaning? What is the narrative, the organizing myth, that defines the categories of their thinking? Where do such beliefs offer a toehold for orthodox Christianity, and where do those beliefs need to be evangelically challenged? When do we, like St. Paul in Athens, announce the identity of the unknown God (Acts 17), and when do we, like St. Boniface among the Teutonic tribes, take an axe to a sacred oak?
Popular media — novels, films, television — can be useful tools in this endeavor. With proper attention, they offer information, not just about the story that they communicate, but about the larger cultural environment in which they were created. They reflect popular culture: values, trends, perceptions. For example, the television program M*A*S*H shows us rather more about American culture in the 1970s than it does about life in an Army field hospital during the Korean War. Media are therefore an invaluable source of insight about what the populace in our post-Christendom mission field are already inclined to believe and feel about issues of ultimate meaning, whether packaged as spirituality, theology, religion, or whatever. Media also tell us how Christianity, and Christians, are generally perceived. There is usually a gap between what professing Christians think Christianity is and what non-Christians think it is.
Late last year, I discovered The 100 as I searched for something to pass the time while working out on my treadmill. It is purveyed by the broadcast network The CW, but its 58 episodes spread over four seasons are available for streaming on Netflix. The 100 is loosely based on a series of novels in the young adult genre by Kass Morgan. A fifth season is set to air this spring.
The story is set roughly 100+ years from now, 97 years after a nuclear holocaust (caused by an artificial intelligence gone wild, we later learn) has presumably destroyed life on Earth, and made it uninhabitable. When the cataclysm takes place, there are 12 inhabited satellites in Earth’s orbit. These stations join one another to form one super-satellite called the Ark.
A century later, the Ark has more than 2,000 inhabitants, led by the third-generation descendants of the original space travelers. The plan is to remain in orbit another hundred years, with their descendants venturing to the ground after the effects of radiation have sufficiently deteriorated. But the engineers report that the mega-craft’s oxygen-generating system is failing, and they actually only have a few months left. The leaders decide to send 100 teenage offenders, those who have been spared the mandatory death penalty for any crime because they were minors, to the ground to see if it might be safe earlier than had been thought.
There are science fiction clichés such as glowing butterflies and mutant two-headed deer, but the narrative focus soon shifts to interpersonal drama, with 100 teens trying to navigate both their new physical environment and their new social environment. For a while, there’s a Lord of the Flies-like dynamic: Will there be order or chaos? Will a leader or leaders emerge who will command the allegiance of the rest?
Before the end of the first episode, however, we learn that the Ark denizens are not, in fact, the sole remnant of human life. There are human beings, technologically pre-industrial, but well-adapted to their environment, whom the teens dub Grounders. There is conflict, attempts at rapprochement, treachery, and more conflict before, some weeks later, the survivors of a calamitous explosion on board the Ark make it to the ground and rejoin the understandably disgruntled youth whom they had used as lab rats.
There are no overt references to Christianity in The 100, nor is there any sign of continuing Christian practice among the Ark community or the Grounders. Is this by conscious intent on the part of the screenwriters, or does it merely indicate that they operate in a non-Christian milieu?
There are, however, a few dim artifacts that reflect the fact that it is indeed Christianity that our culture has left behind, and not something else. “Oh my God” as a casual expletive is ubiquitous. In times of moral ambiguity, when agonizing decisions need to be made (which is, more or less, every episode), characters frequently express a hope that “there is a forgiving God.” An attentive ear will pick up biblical expressions that have become embedded in the cultural vernacular without any conscious awareness of their etiology, such as “O ye of little faith.”
This is not to say, however, that religion, understood generically, is absent from Ark society. There is, in fact, a sort of religion observed by those who eventually call themselves Arkadians, both while in space and on the ground. It is not very well-defined by the screenwriters, but does have a few very loose ritual resemblances to some forms of Christian practice and piety. “May we meet again” is a ritual phrase that takes account of the tenuousness and potential sudden shortness of life in their environment.
There is a vague presumption of some sort of afterlife, and ritual words at the time of death that speak of crossing from one shore to another. It is also a religion for which there are both true believers and more nominal members tantamount to backsliders. One wonders whether the creators of the show recognized the fact of an inherent religious impulse among human beings, but — having no particular religious compass themselves — were maladroit about articulating someone else’s.
Among the Grounders, however (who are, remember, cast as primitive by the screenwriters and sometimes looked on as savages by the Arkadians), religious belief and practice is rather clearer. In fact, religion and politics are intimately fused. The 12 Grounder clans live in a loose federation, professing fealty to a succession of Commanders.
Commanders come from those who have a rare but visibly distinct sort of blood (night blood), and the succession is enabled by the transfer of a small device called the “flame” from the back of the neck of the dead Commander into the back of the neck of the successor. This operation is performed, both actually and ceremonially, by a priest-like figure known as the Flamekeeper. Thus, the spirit of the Commander, which is presumed to be definitively wise and knowing, is passed from one to the next, in a succession going back to the first commander, Beka Promheda. There is a temple, a sacred space that is the province of the Flamekeeper, and contains artifacts of Beka Promheda. This is the well-developed mythology of Grounder religion and politics.
In the course of Season 3, however, it is all demythologized. Viewers learn that Beka Promheda was a brilliant and wealthy research scientist named Becca, who was also in earth orbit a century earlier when the nuclear conflagration happened. Instead of joining the Ark, she returned to the ground and establishing her leadership among the survivors. The reason she and her successors are styled Commander is that was the rank indicator on the spacesuit she wore. The name of the capital city, Polis, is a corruption of Polaris, which is how her landing vehicle was labeled.
The flame is actually an AI device, engineered by Becca, that passes on stored knowledge. Night Blood was genetically engineered by Becca to be radiation resistant. However, what the Grounders fiercely hold as faith is dramatically unmasked by the Arkadians as simply science. Connections, of course, to contemporary conversations about science and religion are abundant, and reflect the widespread confusion in our society about the proper relation between the two.
Along the way, though, we encounter an alternative to both the Arkadian and Grounder religious systems. It is discovered by Thelonius Jaha, who at the outset was the Chancellor, an elected leader with broad powers. Jaha purveys this new faith with evangelical fervor, first among the Arkadians (in a Great Commission paradigm, the Jews?) and then among the Grounders (the ends of the earth?). This all begins when he encounters a hologram called A.L.I.E., which shows him a City of Light, where there is no pain or suffering, and to which anyone who swallows a small disk-like device (yes, about the size and shape of a communion wafer) is given access. Even death is conquered in the City of Light. Those who have once connected to it and subsequently die in real life remain alive in that environment.
A.L.I.E. is eventually revealed to be an amoral AI, in fact the very entity that had caused the nuclear disaster a century earlier, that is bent on destroying not only individual human autonomy but physical human life, by absorbing everyone into the City of Light, which is just a cyber environment, an attractive but false reality (and reminiscent of that in the 1999 film The Matrix). Again, as with the Grounder religion, that which is spiritual and transcendent is revealed, via science, as just another hoax.
Even more interesting, perhaps, is the presence of a handful of Christian tropes or memes, but without any attribution to Christianity. While Jaha is busy recruiting converts to the City of Light, there is a scene in which people line up to “take the chip” from Jaha, who places the communion wafer-like object on their tongues, which they then swallow. For one accustomed to eucharistic liturgy in the Catholic tradition, there is an immediate moment of recognition. But it all takes a gruesome direction when, at the behest of the malicious A.L.I.E., her followers use crucifixion, not as a method of execution, but as a form of torture, to compel certain behavior. One cannot but also notice that there are 12 spacecraft that come together to form the Ark, and 12 clans that form the Grounder alliance. The number 12 is of deep significance in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Of course, the very metaphor of the Ark should not escape notice.
On a more obscure level, one of the episodes, which features a particularly bloody massacre of Grounders by Arkadians, is titled Hakeldama — field of blood — which, in two of the synoptic gospels, denotes a location associated with Judas Iscariot; indeed, there was a strong theme of betrayal in the sequence of events leading to the massacre. On a related note, one of the tenets of the Grounder religion is that “blood must have blood,” which is curiously congruent with the Torah’s lex talionis.
Then there are Christian theological themes that are not explicitly confirmed, affirmed, or challenged, but are simply present, part of warp and woof of the story. Even some of the scientifically conditioned Arkadians (especially Clarke, a young woman who is one of the original 100, who emerges over the course of the seasons as nearly messianic) take baby steps in practicing the Grounder faith, but only, in the end, to exploit it, and reveal the superiority of science over faith. The God of the gaps is present on steroids in The 100.
Yet, there is always — among the Arkadians, from whose perspective the story is told — a genuine yearning for transcendent meaning to life, the germ of spirituality. Community matters to them. Over and over again, there are references to “my people” or “our friends.” (Of course, community has a dark side, which is clannishness.) The characters are forever facing the ubiquity of moral ambiguity. Despite the Arkadian leaders’ persistent expressed desire to be the good guys, to see themselves as basically good, over and over again they either succumb to xenophobic tribalism or are forced into Jack Bauer-style moral dilemmas. The notion that there are often no good decisions persists. And in such a context, it is interesting to note the recurring idea of atonement via capitation — one person bearing guilt or shame or suffering so others don’t have to.
Finally, one can almost imagine Paul writing to the Galatians (3:28) or Peter in his first epistle (2:9-10) in the voice of Octavia, also one of the original 100, who in effect goes native as a Grounder and emerges as a warrior-leader, and who, at the end of Season 5, substantially succeeds in her vision of “Wonkru” (“one crew” in the Grounder language, which is a pidgin/creole version of English) — one new people formed from among the 12 Grounder clans and the Arkadians.
As one might imagine, there are plenty of narrative surrogates for social issues that consume us here in the pre-holocaust 21st century. The arrival of the technologically sophisticated Arkadians in territory occupied by the more primitive Grounders certainly evokes the shameful legacy of migrating “civilized” populations encountering indigenous “savages” in the Americas, Africa, and Australia in the centuries after Columbus. Among the Arkadians, there is certainly a strong presumption of privilege, and a temptation to regard the Grounders as subhuman. The siren song of tribalism, the urge to dehumanize the other, is alive and well in The 100, in all directions, and commentary about our cultural conversations on racism and immigration is not hard to spot. Issues of class envy and political-economic privilege among the newly landed teens emerge in the very first episode.
In the category of for whatever it’s worth: As might be expected, given trajectories in Western culture, the non-normativity of heterosexuality is completely taken for granted in The 100. There is no mention of marriage at all; there are couples and families, but no wives or husbands. There is plenty of sex, and there are children, but no pregnancy. Among the Arkadians, there is only rare and offhand mention of the eventual need to reproduce. On the Ark, there was a ruthlessly enforced one-child policy.
What does The 100 tell the church about Christian mission in this era? The good news is that human beings have an innate hunger for transcendent meaning, for purpose in life. There is also abundant evidence that the human condition is painfully tragic. Even those who sincerely want to be a good person are usually unable to fulfill that aspiration. It should not be inordinately difficult to lead people to the realization that they need a Savior who can satisfy the hunger that is already in their heart.
The challenging news is that people are also innately suspicious. They have repeatedly been burned by charlatans and hypocrites who exploit their hunger for transcendence, but cannot deliver the goods. The 100 is shot through with such representations of religious faith. We are all tarred with that brush, deservedly or not. Christianity is widely perceived as simplistic, anti-scientific, and moralistic. Our missionary task is to either successfully refute those perceptions or subvert the basis on which they are formed.