Popular Culture as Common Ground: Doctor Who as a Third Space for Interreligious Dialogue

People who know me well know that I am a pretty big fan of the British Sci-fi series Doctor Who. And by pretty big fan, I mean grade-A certified Whovian who watched the 50th anniversary special in 3D at a movie theater in San Francisco. At an earlier point in my life, I probably would not have admitted this – or done so only begrudgingly. But, after publishing an essay on the show and even toying with writing a Master’s thesis on how the series handles theological anthropology, I’ve come to embrace my inner geek and love the show unrepentantly.

For theological and philosophical geeks alike, this whimsical sci-fi drama is full of great food for thought. In episodes like “Rise of the Cybermen” and “Age of Steel” (season 2), the Doctor is confronted with what it means to be human in light of cyborgs who have human brains but no emotions. In “The God Complex” (season 6), the concept of faith – from religious faith (in this case, Islam) to faith in a philosophical system (the idea of retreat and cowardice) – is challenged by an alien minotaur who feeds off faith and fear. The show is in an on-going conversation about just-war (is there such a thing?), and how one engages with the “Other” – from other humans in different times and places, to very un-human alien creatures (see “Planet of the Ood” and “Midnight” in season 4).

Interspersed within this fun and oft-times campy family television series are big questions about the meaning of life. What does it mean to be human if one has no emotions? If one feels no pain – but also no joy? If one has lost individuality and creative expression? Is a human brain in a metal body enough to constitute a human being?[i] And, depending upon how one answers that – what, then, does it mean to be human? How do human uniquely experience life?

The show wrestles continuously with the concept of “the good.” The Doctor – the title character and enigmatic protagonist – is a 1200 year old alien (Time Lord, to be exact) who has lived through many wonderful and terrible moments. His life is marked by the cataclysm of war, and as a result he spends his days whirling through time and space, seeking to do the most good where he can. But what does it mean to do “the good?” While he is celebrated by some communities (the Ood immortalized Doctor-Donna in song), he is hated by others (like the Daleks) and is even called the “Destroyers of Worlds.”

Fanciful as these made-up worlds are, they are opportunities to engage is discussion about the meaning of life, the meaning of “the good,” and why the stories we tell matter. Doctor Who, for those of us engaged in theological and philosophical conversations, is a neutral third space. It isn’t the real-world debates on whether or not the American invasion of Iraq constituted a just war – or more currently, if military action in Nigeria would be justified in order to retrieve the 200 kidnapped girls. It is not, for example, wrestling with “the Other” within the controversial and emotionally charged perimeters of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In its very un-reality, Doctor Who creates a neutral space where issues of ethics, theology, and philosophy can be engaged apart from the sticky mess of real-world politics.

This might seem counter-productive; why wouldn’t we want our students to be engaging the real world issues of today? Isn’t that part of the point of a university education? In my experience, many students (and adults!) are emotionally invested in the conflicts which divide our society and our world. Before we can lead students into useful conversations about these intimate issues, they need practice (for lack of a better term) in engaging less hot-button issues. Communities who can disagree well in a third space are primed to take those lessons of disagreement and discussion into emotionally-charged spaces.

And, let’s all admit, using popular culture as a touchstone for theological and philosophical debate and discussion is more fun than a text-book case-study. It’s entertaining to analyze the scrapes and scandals in which the Doctor and his rag-tag crew find themselves mired. It’s exciting. For example: what does one make of the Sontarans, a warrior-race who have a culture of never backing down from a conflict, and the Doctor’s insistence that they must be given the opportunity to choose peace, even if their culture dictates that they will refuse it?[ii] Is the offer of peace still a real offer? Is the Doctor engaging in just war? Fanciful as it may be, these discussion of ethics in pop culture matter.

Part of my work as a University chaplain and interfaith encourager is to help students disagree well. I work to equip them with the tools to ask better questions, engage in respectful dialogue, and hold the tension of their differences. As students begin to think critically and engage the big questions, pop culture is a natural third space for that engagement. Pop culture is the language in which our students are already immersed. We, as those who accompany and guide them, should pay attention.

I am a Doctor Who advocate. This is my bias. I have found many wonderfully rich conversations about meaning-making, ethics in practice, and theological conundrums elegantly drawn from the last seven seasons (not to mention the Classic series which ran from 1963-1989). I have delighted in its whimsy and seen student enthusiasm light up when we share this common passion. Doctor Who isn’t the only pop culture third space – Star Wars, Star Trek[iii] and Battle Star Galatica all afford excellent conversations about ethics.[iv] AMC’s The Walking Dead, is another very popular option, as is Showtime’s Homeland. Because pop culture trades in human stories, it is fertile ground for thoughtful dialogue about how we share and differ in our responses to difficult situations.

Those of us with the privilege of working to shape new interfaith leaders know how important it is to equip students with the tools to disagree well. It is important that they know how to wrestle with the big questions of meaning-making and what “the good” means in their lives. It means preparing them to disagree well in a world increasingly polarized by ideology. What better place to practice these skills and ask these questions than in the shared language of popular culture? What better place to engage the big questions while being reminded of the wonder and beauty of the stars?

There is much to do. We have whole worlds to encounter and engage. So, in the words of the good Doctor, “Alons-y!” – Let’s go!

Images courtesy of Flickr’s Creative Commons.

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[i] I wrestled with this very issue in Time And Relative Dimensions in Faith: Theology and Doctor Who

[ii] See “The Sontaran Stratagem” and “Poison Sky” from season 4

[iii] Here is an article linking the new J.J. Abrams films with real-life policy making;

[iv] Science Fiction is particularly good for posing hypothetical ethical conundrums which students of a variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds can tackle. Just war and issues of bioethics abound.

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6 thoughts on “Popular Culture as Common Ground: Doctor Who as a Third Space for Interreligious Dialogue

  1. I will be part of the Baylor University conference on faith and film in October and have submitted my proposal for a presentation on genre film as a context for interreligious dialogue, an approach I’ve used and written about previously.

  2. I have a whole tumblr blog concerning the very things you mention, (see my about page). In St Paul’s day the Gospel was preached to Greeks but in today’s world of internet technology and social media it is Geeks that need to comprehend the “Good News”.

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