Movies have a way of mirroring reality. They are cultural products, even if written by a single person. Our creative mind is formed and shaped in the reality we live. With that in mind, I have been thinking about the guys who wear red shirts on Star Trek episodes. In popular lore, they are the ones who are expendable. They show up in a single episode, maybe beam down to a planet’s surface with Spock or Kirk. And, you just know that at least one of them is never beaming back up.
That stands in stark contrast to the main characters. You can remove Spock’s brain, put it in a machine, and he’ll have it back before the episode ends. Heck, in the movie versions, you can kill him and he still comes back! Spock does not wear a red shirt.
Who are the Red Shirt people? They are the people on the periphery. They are not the stars or principal actors. Red Shirt people are stage props. You’ll probably never know their names. In terms of the story, their identities have no necessity or meaning. And that is very significant.
We imagine ourselves to be the stars in our own drama (we do not wear the red shirt). But we live in a culture where everyone is somebody else’s Red Shirt. Perhaps there are a privileged few, those whose names show up regularly in the news feed, those whose lives and opinions are supposed to be so important that we must notice them. But today’s star is probably only a few steps away from the red shirt.
The difficulty in our culture is that a large number of Red Shirts is always factored in. When we read the number of the unemployed or the number who have no medical insurance, it is a number. Red Shirts can be counted. The media like to do “human interest stories,” when they treat Red Shirts as though they were stars, for a couple of minutes. When the story is over, they’ll be lying face down dead, unable to beam back up to the Enterprise. Red Shirts.
The narrative of Star Trek (its treatment of characters) is quite common in our entertainment media. It is, tragically, rooted in the larger narrative of our culture as well. That narrative is bound up with hard work, success, and good luck. We are largely satisfied with a cultural narrative that treats losers (the lazy, unsuccessful, unfortunate) as worthy of less interest than others.
In an odd similarity, our cultural religions tend to run in the same direction. Americans are saved as individuals. Individuals are responsible to have made the right religious choice and found gainful hope of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sadly, we admit that there are many Red Shirts: they will never be beamed up.
Charles Taylor, in his magisterial Sources of the Self, noted that with the coming of the Reformation, the Church is no longer the ship of salvation, but rather a collection of rowboats.
Salvation as a collective reality (in which there are no red shirts) has lost a place in the popular imagination.
However, the faith teaches an infinite value to each soul (“the least of these”). St. Maximos the Confessor describes human beings as a “Microcosm,” that is, an incarnate reality that contains within itself the entire cosmos. And we are more than a microcosm; we are a communion of microcosms, worlds within worlds, in which the life of one is the life of all.
It has been said somewhere, “No one is saved alone. If we fall, we fall alone, but no one is saved alone.” It is possible to err in both directions in these thoughts. The individual has value and a unique role in his own life. But we are not merely, or purely individual. This is precisely the case when viewed from the angle of salvation itself. In the New Testament, salvation is incorporation, a joining into the Body of Christ.
I once encountered a woman whose son was being brought to the Church by his grandmother for Baptism. The mother was from an Evangelical background. She was willing, she said, for her son to be Baptized, but not to “join the Church.” The two were very distinct things in her mind. That conversation became an extended opportunity for teaching.
We are a culture that is comfortable with its many Red Shirts – community is time-consuming and requires an extension of the self that we have come to dislike. True Christianity raises the matter of community (communion) to an actual mode of existence. It is more than a mere moral activity – it is a manner of being.
Of course, our culture was founded and built on individualistic notions. It has always had an underclass of Red Shirts, and may very well have more now than at any time in its history. It is not given to us to change the culture (that remains a matter of God’s providence). But the Christian life must, in this respect, separate itself from the norms of its culture. Mutual responsibility, shared existence, and true communion are the only form in which salvation is given to us. No one is saved alone.
Scotty, beam us all up.
Thank you for this encouragement!
Thank you Fr. Stephen. I was raised Lutheran and becoming Orthodox in the last few years has been a blessing and a struggle. This is one of the concepts that I have had a very hard time wrapping my head around, the communion/ community of salvation. In the American culture we are all very proud of our individuality and individual rights and individual responsibilities. I am my brother’s keeper in the fact that I make a donation in the red kettles at Christmas time and maybe volunteer at the food bank now and then but that my salvation should depend on community?! No way! I have a personal relationship with Christ! Well, yeah, way… It makes praying for all, my friends, neighbors, relatives and strangers so much more meaningful. If one part of the body is ill or injured, all of the cells are affected. I learn from your insights so very much and enjoy listening to your podcast. It was nice to read this while hearing your voice in my head!
Thank you, Father. I needed to hear this today.
I tried for many years to become famous (to become a Spock or Captain Kirk, in your analogy). Thank God, I was unsuccessful.
The other problem, however, is that I still sometimes struggle with the thought of my own insignificance; if I’m simply a Red Shirt, what is the point of existing? This, of course, is modern, individualistic thinking, but despite my shame at this admission, I frequently have such thoughts. Your prayers would be appreciated.
“True Christianity raises the matter of community (communion) to an actual mode of existence. It is more than a mere moral activity – it is a manner of being.”
I worked at a megachurch where, unfortunately but not surprisingly, the opposite was lived. In fact, every ‘successful’ megachurch in America normalizes, dare I say ‘sacramentalizes’ the individuality that you speak of (e.g. the interest based small groups and self select worship venues within these churches reinforces the individual as arbiter of their own church “experience”).
Sadly, the challenges you address here face, and often consume Orthodox Christians, as well. How do we began to work past our own desire for self justified autonomy, and strive towards, in your words, true Christianity?
The aspect of communal salvation found in the River of Fire struck me quite forcefully when I first read it. That God would leave none behind was something my Protestant brain had really not considered; it didn’t sound like justice to me! While I don’t advocate for universalism, I am greatly comforted at times in the knowledge that God never leaves us. I had not recognized that level of love before. Many thanks for this writing, Father!
Excellent post. Thank you.
I agree with the argument Fr Freeman, but I will just add this caveat as a Star Trek fan. The red shirts almost always had a name, if only a last name and rank, often introduced and sometimes mourned at the end. I agree with the rest related to the stars. I would actually say that this is what has changed since the original show. I am basing this on some time wasting a couple weeks ago while watching several episodes in a row and memory. As to the Taylor’s description, I must agree that we have come apart and gone our separate ways to our own detriment. Salvation has almost become a competition. Thanks for your writing, as a Protestant it is a helpful antidote to much that is frustrating to me.
Thank you Father. Truly salvation is every man for himself in Western thought. I am amazed at how many people are so sure about who the Red Shirts are. I like to ask them how they got a seat in the Heavenly Jury Box. I do appreciate the way you addressed this issue through the icon of Star Trek.
Byron, it is not justice. The Scriptures make it clear that God’s way are not our ways. Grace is given to all for all.
As Shakespeare said…”in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation. ”
In my home parish there are many families who can trace their Christian lineage back to the time of the Apostles enduring bloody persecutions and travails over centuries. Yet, I a mongrel heathen, grafted in a mere 30 years ago is given the same grace and the Kingdom of Heaven opened to me. I have to step in.
That is not just, but it is God.
It’s a slow thing. I think we do well to immerse ourselves within the life of the Church – its prayers – etc. The “mind” of the Church lives very much in that context. One elder said that in heaven we will only have those things that we gave away in this life. That’s a start.
In all the icons of Jesus, He’s wearing a red shirt.
Now I’m imagining an Icon of Christ (the Resurrection) with Christ in His typical Iconic red tunic and an army of halo bearing saints behind Him, all in red Star Trek shirts.
Yes, He is wearing a red tunic but in Iconography that depicts Divinity which is not quite the same as Star Trek but it is still an interesting observation
Reading this, it struck me that the common English version of the Jesus prayer says “have mercy on me” but the Ukrainian version I learned as a child has “have mercy on us”.
One day I was sitting in church, listening to the priest preach about vocations. He commented that no one got to the seminary on his own – along the way people had helped and encouraged him. It occurred to me, sitting in that Eastern Catholic church when I have been a Western Catholic my whole life, that perhaps I am being pulled East not for my own benefit but for the benefit of someone else, someone of whom I’m not even aware. It was a striking and sobering thought.
After Googling some Captain Kirk quotes, I realized that my memory didn’t match up to what was actually said at the beginning of each episode on the classic series. The words that stuck in my memory were “…to boldly go…” and “…last frontier…”. I was a kid in the late sixties when this show was on the air. And I did watch it and admittedly enjoyed it, particularly the repartee between the four main characters (Kirk, Spock, ‘Bones’, and Scottie). This show seems to be an icon of the era, coinciding with the NASA missions and the eventual ‘walk on the Moon’. All the technological advances in the NASA projects seemed to be exciting and encouraged a promise for a bright future. Yet this was all taking place while the US was conducting the Vietnam war.
Somewhere in this timeline in the mid-sixties, I had asked for a telescope for Christmas, but received a ‘junior’ microscope instead. I wanted to look at the stars, but felt somewhat relegated to look down and in. I was excited to receive the gift, but was a bit stymied about what to look at since to ‘boldly go’ was to be with this instrument, an inward journey. In retrospect, the exchange of instrumentation, which was likely due to my family lacking the funds for a telescope, was providential, particularly because of the exercising of a different perspective within the era of ‘outward’ progress and acquisition.
I think its somewhat funny to think that I identified with Spock but in ‘real life’ was wearing the red shirt, regarding its iconic meaning in this (the US) society. I think I really wanted to wear the blue shirt. ‘And perhaps if I managed to don the blue shirt, maybe I can help other people acquire the blue shirt too’, allegorically speaking. Even with the advantage of seeing the world with the perspective of a microscope, I seemed to have missed the beauty of the ones wearing the red shirt.
I am grateful for the variety of our lives, because of the rich tapestry such variety gives to us. This is a gift and a grace of God. And it is the prayers of the ‘red shirts’ for us, those who are marginalized in our society, and those who deliberately make their lives marginalized as ascetics and monastics, whose prayers for us that we might be saved. Indeed together, let us all pray.
Joseph Barabbas Theophorus, Thank you for your encouraging words in the previous post. Blogging is really a new activity for me, and only have had inspiration for such avid blog reading, here. You emphasize rightly that the life we live and that life immersed in the life Christ and of the Church and Liturgy is the way to learn to speak the language of the Church. Toward that end I’m grateful for Fr Stephen’s book, Everywhere Present, which points out the distinction of perspective of the ‘one story universe’, and which helps me to sustain focus where it needs to be. We all are together in this journey to the coming Kingdom. And the Kingdom is breaking into this world and to all in it.
Seems to me the Cross is the ultimate red shirt.
Charles Taylor: is he the same Charles Taylor who has argued that modern liberalism (so-called) is in essence a religion? I’ve been meaning to look him up.
Probably, though I’ve not seen that particular point. He’s a major figure in contemporary philosophy, a Canadian, I think. Particularly strong on the history and character of secularism and modernity.
About a year ago our priest talked about St. Martin the Merciful. He shared with us two key events. The first was the well known story of St. Martin cutting his coat and giving half to a begger. The second was about St. Martin requesting dismissal from the military so he could pursue religious life. He was immediately accused if cowardice. He promised to stand on the front line fully unarmed, naked according to our priest, at the next battle to disprove the allegation and secure his release after the battle. When the enemy saw him on the front line they were shocked, feared what gave St. Martin such confidence and surrendered.
My hope is that the story can inform us, that somehow we can share our Baptismal robes with others and clothe those who are unprepared for the day of judgment, and that we must face the enemy entirely without the self-satisfied references to our skill and competence at ‘being Christian’ that can just be whitewashed tombs despite being the currency of TV evangelism. These are things I hope.
Thank you for your inspiring words: to “clothe those who are unprepared for the day of judgement, and that we must face the enemy entirely without the self-satisfied references to our skill and competence at ‘being Christian’”.
These words reflect the antithesis of my earliest exposure to ‘Christianity ‘. If I had heard them earlier in my life, I might have converted sooner. Yet nevertheless, here I am through God’s grace. I am grateful. Glory to God for all things.