The Gospel According to Star Trek

From the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, written from Ephesus, c57 A.D.

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became a Jew; to those under the law I became as one under the law-though myself not being under the law that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law…I became as one outside the law…I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings.” I Corinthians 9:19-23 (RSV)

When I first became a fan of the original Star Trek it had just begun its first of three years on NBC-TV. There were already problems with the network stemming from the fact that the show was conceived as a message series by producer/writer Gene Roddenberry who desired to talk about race, religion, war, women’s rights, and various other topics. It was not an ordinary TV show despite having the typical makeup of an action adventure series. At the time no one realized this program would become a giant in syndication, gain millions of fans around the world, and would come back in a successful series of motion pictures and lead to the spinoff of four more Star Trek series. At this writing the original series is again being revived through the release of its three seasons on digitalized DVDs that have become best sellers. What television wasn’t ready for in the 1960s was something that hit a responsive chord with a large number of people looking for something that would deal with meaty issues unlike the The Beverly Hillbillies and similar shows, and would do so in an entertaining style.

As both a Sunday school and public school teacher at the time, I found points made in various episodes that could be used in my teaching. I was already using films such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, starring Rhonda Fleming and Bing Crosby so it was an easy transition from film fantasy and science fiction to science fiction on television. With help from Lincoln Enterprises, run by Majel Barrett, a star in the T.V. series and wife of Star Trek’s creator, I put together a slide show for use in both church and school. Having met Robert Short, author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, I borrowed from him to title my program The Gospel According to Star Trek. I was especially encouraged by Star Trek star DeForrest Kelley who read my script and gave me advice. For years I used this program in churches, public school classrooms, teacher conferences, and media conventions. I do not claim to be the only one to recognize the religious messages in the show; others who have since used the original Star Trek in American colleges and universities. The episode “Day of the Dove” was even described in a lesson for an Adult Bible Study book used by the Southern Baptist Church. “Humans and Klingons and Baptists, oh my!”

Newsweek tried to analyze the original series and came up with several conclusions that longtime fans already knew. “First, the series represented hope and reassurance about the future. There was also a realistic family feeling.” Special emphasis was given to the fact that the show contained “messages” and a final conclusion summed up why it retains international popularity: “It’s magic.”

I would be the first to admit that not all messages found within Star Trek were intentional as far as writers and actors were concerned. There was no pretense that this was a Christian vehicle and that those involved were Christians. Some of it appeared contrived as in the case of those who wrote in support of female equality knowing it would appeal to a major percentage of the viewers. Ratings will always be a major consideration in commercial television. However, the motives behind those who gave us Star Trek is unimportant. As C. S. Lewis once observed, writers do not have the total control of their plots and characters they think they do. These things can take a life of their own and God can work through authors whether they are aware of it of not. There are spiritual meanings and truths that can come through at the right time and place. It is even possible that there were some people connected with Star Trek who very much had these ends in mind.

In that first Star Trek series there is an element that first strikes the viewer in that each of the major characters has been created to represent things much deeper than what we were used to in the entertainment media. Roddenberry admits in the book The Making of Star Trek that in some cases he used names with the same deliberation of a Milton or a Dickens. Captain James T. Kirk is representative of responsibility, honor, and duty. His first love is his ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise. With deep feeling in “The Ultimate Computer” he likened the Enterprise to the sailing ships of old, “…even if you take away the wind and the water, it’s still the same. The ship is yours…you can feel her…and the stars are still there.”

Very often Captain Kirk must bring together the very divergent philosophies represented by second in command Mr. Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Spock was a model of logic and pure scientific reason, a character secretly tortured by having to suppress his more human side. He admits in “This Side of Paradise” that “Emotions are alien to me. I am a scientist.” McCoy summed up his differences with Spock in “The Ultimate Computer” when he says “Compassion, that’s the only thing no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them.” While this contrast has meant a great deal in regard to putting humor in the series, it has been a major conflict that has required Kirk to reconcile the two sides. The name “Kirk” is an old Scottish word for church and as Thomas Aquinas has advocated, it is the role of the church to reconcile faith and reason, just as Kirk often had to reconcile McCoy and Spock. DeForest Kelley, who played Dr. McCoy, was the first cast member to kindly contact me and endorse my ideas about the crew member relationships.

Lt. Uhura is another example of the importance of names in the series. “Uhura” is Swahili for “freedom”. She is representative of a future when there is a United States of Africa. I had the opportunity of interviewing actress Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura at a convention shortly after I began this program. She felt that “Star Trek was very spiritual.” To her “The Star Trek universe is much closer to my idea of Heaven than either the Star Wars universe or 200l.” She could not see herself in those futures. A strong supporter of the space program, she also described that effort like “touching the face of God.”

Fans of the show especially enjoyed the visiting of other planets and the mingling with other cultures. Here the writers used various plot lines to introduce concepts generally ignored by other television shows and often they were not very subtle about what they were doing. In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” there is a race war that destroys a planet. In numerous episodes there are examples of the evils of totalitarianism, control by machines, and apartheid. However, it is in the area of the spiritual that the greatest impact may be felt.

It was very important in the series to establish that “communication” was the key to relationships whether with fellow humans or aliens. The question is asked quite often about what makes us human. In “Requiem for Methuselah” a robot created as a near perfect female human dies because she is a machine and cannot handle love. She self destructs when she cannot make a choice between her builder and Kirk. Spock observes, “The joys of love made her human, and the agonies of love destroyed her.”

My Star Trek program worked well in my government and history classes, particularly “Omega Glory.” In this episode Kirk, Spock and McCoy are on an alternate world United States two hundred years after World War III. The villagers known as “Kohms” are the last of the Communist Chinese who had invaded America. A second group. the “Yangs,” are considered barbarians, living as the Native Americans once did and are about to destroy the last Kohm outpost. For them the phrase “Free-dohm” is a worship word. In the last act Kirk is challenged, with the lives of his crew in the balance, to explain the holy words from “the Greatest of Holies,” “Ee plebeesta nordor former pur fekteunum”. After a physical struggle with the story’s main villain, Kirk realizes what the words really mean and gives us all an excellent civics lesson.

Kirk informs the people “I did not understand the words because you say them badly…without meaning.” The Yangs are told the words were written “with a special pride never written before or since…in tall words proudly saying ‘We the people’ not for chiefs or kings, or warriors, or the rich or powerful…but for all the people.” Kirk proceeds to read what we now realize is the Preamble of the United States Constitution. We also realize the Yangs are no better than so many Americans today, those who blindly worship the constitution and interpret it to fit their personal agendas without knowing its true meaning. This is as true now as it was in the 1960s.

Star Trek often dealt with the nature of God. In “Who Mourns For Adonis” the theme of a popular book God’s From Outer Space, was explored. While this may seem far afield from Christian belief, there was the suggestion that visitors from outer space have served a purpose on Earth, and this suggests a theme in the classic book Angels by Dr. Billy Graham. “Angel” is Greek for messenger and could God’s angels sent to minister to us have at times been sent from other planets? Dr. Graham uses the phrase “God’s secret agents” for angels. In another episode, “Bread and Circuses,” the Enterprise crew visits a planet that is very like ours except that Christianity has been suppressed for two thousand years and the Roman Empire is world wide. A “new” religion is growing in which people worship the son. At first the crew thinks this means the “sun” and then later they learn that it is the Son of God, now being revealed in the world for the first time. Kirk expresses the idea that it would be a wonderful time to be on Earth. This is hardly a hidden message.

In “The Empath” a young woman is put to a test. Her whole world is about to be destroyed; however, if she is willing to give her life for the Enterprise crew, there will be an intervention by a superior race of beings who will provide her people’s salvation. She does pass the test and there is the implication that she will live again. In fact the idea of resurrection and life after death is alluded to several times within the series. The second and third Star Trek motion pictures touched on this with the very moving death, funeral, and rebirth of Mr. Spock.

There can be no doubt in the Star Trek universe there exists evidence of a Creator, of God’s involvement in the everyday affairs of man. In “Errand of Mercy” the Federation of Planets and Klingon Empire teeter on the brink of war, well past “situation red.” The solution lies not in the blaze of blasters as in Star Wars stories, it is the direct involvement of a “higher authority” more potent, more powerful than mere weapons. What makes Star Trek so unique is that usually the solution to problems is not the force of arms, it is something very basic. It is part communication and part the spirit that lies within all of us when called upon. It is the very spirit that has been implanted by God.

One cast member more than represents what the spirit of Star Trek has meant to so many. That’s Grace Lee Whitney who played Yeoman Janice Rand during the first season of the original series. Grace Lee also performed in several of the films and a couple T. V. episodes of Voyager. Her influence has been more apparent the last couple decades as a very devout Jewish Christian whose witness has won countless numbers of souls for Christ at Star Trek and other conventions. She quietly has witnessed to others and was active, before going to be with the Lord, regularly in 12 Step programs in California. Those who have heard her speak consider her a “straight shooter for God” and her book The Longest Trek is one of the most inspirational Christian publications on the market. In the introduction by Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, he refers to her as “Amazing Grace.” Both she and the book have been featured on the Dr. James P. Kennedy television show as well as on others.

Star Trek came along when there was a growing hopelessness about the future. Our cities were on fire, our college campuses were riot scenes, the nation was divided. The show talked to us about the issues we faced in a way no other TV series or film could do. Lives were influenced and there were those of us who felt a need to go to the best source of all for inspiration. Star Trek’s messages were not and never could be as strong as those to be found in the Bible. Paul revealed that he used many techniques to get his message across whether he had to speak as a Greek or speak as a Jew. I’d like to think that were he alive on the Earth today he would very much have approved of the original series. The Holy Spirit guided Paul in his writing and there are many writers out there who, like Grace Lee Whitney, are listening to this same “still, small voice” of inspiration.
Pictures:  1. USS Enterprise   2. Bridge Crew  3. Omega Glory  4. Grace Lee Whitney

Dr. Fred Eichelman

Dr. Fred Eichelman is a retired teacher and a director for Point North Outreach, a Christian media organization. He recently had a book published, Faith, Family, Film-A Teacher's Trek. Fred is a former local Republican Committee chairman and has attended hundreds of conventions from political to science fiction. He sees the two as compatible. Fred also tells us he values very much a title we gave him since he could not be a PolitiChick. PolitiDude.

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