In “Serenity,” the pilot episode for Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Shepherd Book looks like the show’s biggest misfire. Though he leaves his abbey to seek the world, this monk seems unprepared for the conflict, moral compromise, and violence he encounters. In his final scene, he confesses to another character: “I think I’m on the wrong ship.” Anyone who has spent time around most pastors (“pastor” translates to English as “shepherd”) would roll their eyes.
Perhaps, in this story, Whedon hadn’t yet found the voice he wanted for Book. Or perhaps he focused more on the Western myth he appropriated for his story arc. Religion usually intrudes on the frontier, taming the wild spirit and bringing the emasculating effects of urban civility. As Lee Marvin caterwauls in Lerner and Lowe’s cowboy musical Paint Your Wagon: “When I see a parson, I gotta put my arse on a wagon that follows the tail of a crow.”
More likely, Whedon, an avowed atheist, probably didn’t know many religious professionals. As one pastor I know says: “God calls those He most needs to keep an eye on.” Far from the blandly beatific figures much loved by mockers like Richard Dawkins or George Bernard Shaw, most pastors I’ve known struggle to maintain staid public faces for their parishioners, then in trusted company, prove able to cuss and tell bawdy jokes as well as any sailor on shore leave.
By the second Firefly episode, “The Train Job,” Whedon evidently twigged to this, and incorporates it into his mythos. Though an early comment makes clear that Book regards the smuggling vessel Serenity as his new mission field, later in the episode, he knows a crime boss by name, and proves able to help organize a breakout from a guarded police facility. This only presages how complex the character eventually becomes.
As the series progresses, Book demonstrates familiarity with military protocol, and in one episode, proves to have an ID card that gets him preferential treatment on a military vessel. He knows how to use firearms, and though he must first construct a convoluted moral justification, he proves both willing to shoot to defend his colleagues, and quite the sharpshooter. Combined with his well-marbled physique, these showcase Shepherd Book as a man of action.
Yet he is no mere actor, nor is his Christianity a veneer. In times of stress or fear for his life, he reaches first for his Bible. He is able to quote Scripture and conventional forms of theology, and when River Tam tries to critique the Bible from a scientific perspective, he provides a strong defense of why we should not read Scripture literally. In short, despite his violence, he also makes a good poster boy for modern Christian humanism.
Like much of Firefly, this is not new; Whedon didn’t so much break new ground as adapt myths in a spirited, inventive way. The Avenging Christian has good standing in Western Mythology, in movies like Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider or albums like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The preacher, normally a civilizing influence, must conform himself (it’s always a man) to the ways of the savage West, keeping one foot in the frontier, the other in the church.
Notably, the Avenging Christian is always a man of mystery. Both Pale Rider and Red Headed Stranger feature a protagonist known only as “Preacher.” Firefly identifies the character only as Book, a presumably a characternym for his Biblical influence, with no first name. A concluding scene in the sequel film Serenity shows Book’s tombstone with the first name Derrial, but the comic books Whedon wrote to complete his story arc reveal this is a lie.
These comics reveal what the TV series only implies, that Shepherd Book became a Christian to deal with his overwhelming guilt. Like Augustine or Francis, Book needs God as a path to make peace with his own past. But unlike these and other church leaders whose testimony make up key parts of their ministry, Book keeps his past secret. He proves quite the raconteur about monastic life, but turns evasive about anything that came before.
In essence, Shepherd Book presents Christianity not as a form of thought, but as a way of life. Faced with the vastness of space, he turns to God as a source of continuity that brings him safely through the tough times. And if he doesn’t always live up to the highest Gospel ideals, he at least proves that it’s possible to live for something greater than ourselves.