by Jeff Cunningham
Over the holiday, actor Ron Glass passed away at the age of 71. He’s well-known among Browncoats and geeks as Shepherd Derrial Book from Firefly and Serenity, and a long career in television stretching from Barney Miller to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Those who were fortunate enough to work with him and to know him, however, knew him for his contagious laugh and uncommon kindness. I was fortunate enough to meet the man at a small Orlando comic and fandom convention about ten years ago. It was my first time at a con of any kind, much less approaching anyone for an autograph. Mr. Glass immediately made my companions and I feel right at home, and treated everyone like they were his own grandkids. As best as I or anyone can recall, no one has ever heard or known him to have said a cross, unkind or critical word to anyone, deserving or no.
It’s these kinds of people, it seems, that we miss the most when they pass on, gentle souls who soften the tone in any room, and remind us of times in our lives when we were all a little better-behaved, and make us wonder if maybe we shouldn’t follow their example. Indeed, one of his most famous roles was that of a sort of pseudo-Christian minister, providing spiritual guidance– and, at times, gentle reproof– to fellow travelers aboard Serenity, and serving as the voice of compassion and faith in the show’s narrative.
Now, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Ron Glass and Derrial Book were two separate, different individuals. At the same time, however, the character of Book was heavily influenced by Glass’ own Buddhist faith and outlook on spirituality. As a practicing Christian, in fact, I feel no hesitation in saying that he taught me a deep, profound truth about belief– one that everyone, believer or not, stands to benefit greatly from. At Mr. Glass’ passing, I felt it would be appropriate to say a few words about that lesson, because I feel that following someone’s example and remembering the lessons they taught us is the best way we can honor them after they leave us.
The Shepherd’s Final Sermon
At the news of his passing, people all over the internet, including his former co-stars, were often heard to quote his final line from the film Serenity. Lying mortally wounded as Captain Malcolm Reynolds is powerless to help, the Shepherd seizes Mal’s hand with his last ounce of strength, yanks the jaded captain in close and gasps, “I don’t care what you believe– just believe it!” and dies.
But just what should we seek to believe in? We can all agree that blind and unquestioning belief is dangerous (see: 20th-century fascism). How can we know that we’re believing in something “good” and aren’t just being carried away in something destructive?
I suggest that the first question we should ask ourselves is “is it substantive?” That is, is there really anything to it, a real idea or value that ennobles our fellow man, or does it just “give us feels,” to use internet parlance? Ask yourself: Does it promise virtue (or the appearance of it), yet ask for little for nothing in return?
There is a crucial difference between something that is good and something that just feels good. The danger of platitudes, sophistries and calls to “hold hands and sing Kumbaya” is not that they’re “too positive” or “naive,” it’s the same danger that those… ah… “mid-twentieth-century political rallies” posed of intellectual and moral bankruptcy. They are all deliberately vague, and misdirect from their complete lack of substance by filling the void with overwhelming emotions. Once you consent and agree that the Emperor’s new clothes look really spiffy and spread #FEELS across social media, you also surrender a part of your free will. Sooner or later, you can be convinced into saying and doing truly horrible things to your fellow man, because it’s “right” or “they’re the bad guys, so they deserve it.”
This particular wrinkle in human nature was practically on parade during the 2016 United States presidential election. Ordinary people from every party suddenly were advocating truly terrifying measures– including suspending the Constitution and rule of law– in order to address the “threat” that the “other side” posed, to make sure that they got their way, or because they didn’t get their way in the end.
Don’t ever tell my mother I ever quoted her, because I’ll never hear the end of it from her, but she always told us growing up that “it’s not always right to be right.” When we believe in something because it’s seduced us with the offer of strong emotions that make us feel more alive, and prop up our own insecurity and self-esteem with self-righteousness, we’re more easily blinded to the ethicality of our own actions because we’re “right,” and nothing else matters to us. All too often, people are easily scammed into devoting all that they have and all that they are as a person to causes at the expense of values.
So, was I too soon in referencing the election? Then, how about something safer: Serenity. Consider three of its characters, which together comprise a good portion of the spectrum of mankind’s attitude towards “belief.”
The first is the Operative: Like most of the people who drove me to take a break from social media during the election, he is utterly consumed by a vision… nay, a delusion, of what he calls “a better world…a world without sin.” This illusion that can’t possibly be, which he has made his goal and his cause in life, isn’t achieved by ennobling or uplifting people to be their best selves, it’s one where all those pesky “other” people (substitute all the names that Democrats and Republicans called each other during the election) have simply ceased to exist, presumably for reasons too atrocious to contemplate.
It’s quite fitting that he has no name, because his all-consuming devotion has indeed stripped him of his humanity just as surely as the Pax that created the Reavers. So far has he fallen that he’s now not only aware that he places his cause before his values, he also no longer cares that his actions couldn’t be more opposed to a hypothetical world without sin. Here, in this shell of a man who openly admits to murdering children to achieving his vision of a “better world,” “social justice,” or “world peace” or “freedom” or whatever, we have an example of the dark peril of giving oneself up wholly to an empty cause by corrupting belief into zeal.
Some of us take more after one Jayne Cobb. To date in the Firefly canon, no one has ever accused him of being passionate about any cause or idea. He never fought in the Unification War. In fact, this aversion to loyalty itself is written into being a part of his character. As a mercenary, prior to his employ aboard Serenity, we’re led to believe he went wherever he listed, bashed in heads for whoever paid, and lingered wherever booze and loose women were to be found. Over the course of the show, the audience gets to see the beginnings of a conscience and sincere concern for his crew develop, but we’re reminded all along that his loyalty only goes as far as his paycheck. Here, we have a man like so many today, who centers his life around not having a center, but instead is constantly in pursuit of the fleeting, carnal pleasures of life– like an addict, leading every bit as meaningless and unfulfilling an existence trying to increase the frequency and intensity of these ultimately empty pleasures.
Then, there’s Mal. We’re led to believe from the pilot episode’s flashback to the war that he once “believed” in something, in a sense. His was a belief that buoyed him up to the point of irrational cheer in the middle of a hellish battle. While not as extreme nor as far gone as the Operative, it nonetheless had very little foundation to it. This may be why his joking and wide grins fail to rub off on and uplift his comrades under fire: because they sense their emptiness, and thus his efforts lacked the sort of real power that could have helped them all find their courage again.
Reality is served to Mal, courtesy of an Alliance barrage and an accompanying notification that his own command has just surrendered the battle and perhaps the entire war. In a moment the shallowness of Mal’s “belief” is exposed to him and all the world. The night leaves him a changed man, and not for the better– the captain in Firefly is a bitter, jaded man. We never see him unburden his soul and explain the exact nature of his grudge, but those of us who can relate to his condition can certainly guess. Maybe he blames God for not running things “fairly.” More likely, he’s angry and embarrassed at himself for being too naive and “falling for” hopeless and Quixotic notions, and resolves to never again be so deceived.
Then, one Shepherd Derrial Book enters his life. This man, this preacher, should be the absolute last man that Malcolm Reynolds would want in indefinite residence aboard his ship, when you really think about it. Yet, he keeps Book on, all the while claiming “you’ll never convert me,” yet constantly placing himself in situations (perhaps even creating them) where the subject will come up. There’s a sort of tension between the two, and if anything, it’s Mal, not Book that’s the source of it, that keeps the conversation going.
It’s as if there’s some part of Mal that misses having hope– indeed, actor Nathan Fillion, who plays Mal, stated that he bases his portrayal of the captain on the theory that each of the other characters in the crew represent a part of him that he lost in the war– and he’s hoping, in some way that he’d never admit to himself, that Shepherd Book will “prove him wrong” and validate the belief he abandoned.
Book, for his part, meets Mal’s goading and at times cruel, challenging snipes with patience (save for one momentary lapse in the Dark Horse Comics series Those Left Behind, but he’s only human). He never gives up on Mal and the rest of the crew, and accepts each of them– from the amoral brute to the haughty courtesan– for who they are. He’s the very picture of patience and long-suffering, especially when it comes to Mal’s stubbornness. Perhaps he sees in Mal a bit of himself at a lower point in his life (supported by original graphic novel The Shepherd’s Tale), and hopes to restore the man in the same way that he was restored and made whole again.
After years of receiving rejection and harshness from him, Mal finally begins to be humbled, and in his desperation on the run from the Operative, he turns to the Shepherd that never gave up on him. Finally, at this pivotal moment in the story of Serenity, both men are candid with one another, and the Shepherd lays out his hand of cards:
Book: Only one thing is gonna walk you though this, Mal. Belief.
Mal: You know I always look to you for counsel, but sermons make me sleepy, Shepherd. I ain’t looking for help on high. That’s a long wait for a train don’t come.
Book: When I talk about belief, why do you always assume I’m talking about God?
Shepherd Book reveals at last what he’s been trying to teach Mal all along: not just belief, but what we should believe in. All this time, whether it was cooking meals for the crew of Serenity, spotting and working weightlifting sets with Jayne, or just listening to them, he sought to show them by example what’s worth believing in, worth living for, and ultimately worth dying for.
If we believe in something truly virtuous (and not just trendy), it tends to inspire us to be better people. A value or an idea– regardless if it’s tied to religion or not– that is worthy of our belief will encourage us to battle our inner demons and give a little more heed to our better natures. A truly worthy cause doesn’t fill us with righteous rage and indignation, but tempers us, and helps us to see our fellow man in a kinder light. It motivates us to take meaningful action, to give of ourselves instead of the far easier path of clicking a PayPal “Donate” button. When something is actually good and actually has merit, while it can certainly move us to stand up and speak out, it more often moves us to speak softer, not louder, in its name.
Lastly, true nobility lasts and stays with us for as long as we’re willing to entertain it, as opposed to hashtags and social media campaigns that die out and are forgotten once everyone’s bored with them. Whether it’s a knight’s code of chivalry, old-fashioned gallantry, or just keeping one’s word, belief in something like that–and only that–has the power to exalt every man and woman, and empower them to do things beyond the reach of ordinary men. You might even say “it makes them mighty.”
This is the belief that seizes hold of Mal’s heart as he holds the dying Shepherd’s bloody hand in his own. As the life fades from his friend’s eyes, he emerges from his years-long crisis of faith, galvanized by what he witnessed in the video log left behind on Miranda. Gone is the harsh, jaded man who brandishes a weapon at his own crew, replaced by a true leader who no longer demands that they do their job, but instead asks them to be their best selves. Malcolm Reynolds is forged anew, now driven by an unshakable conviction that the victims of Miranda and what happened to them should not be allowed to be covered up and forgotten, and that someone must “speak for them,” even if he has to do it alone.
At last, the Shepherd finally has his convert, because in that moment, Malcolm Reynolds is transformed by his belief into something greater, stronger than ever before– which, I’d like to think, is all that Book ever wanted for his friend. It’s that kind of belief that we should find and seize hold of, because it has the power to elevate us above the carnal and base and make us into men, and to make men (and women) into big damn heroes.
So, here’s me raising a glass (feel free to join in) to Ron Glass, the man who showed us all by his example both on and off the set what real, authentic belief is really all about, and how we get there. I’d encourage you to share in the comments below a belief that has in like manner made you a better person, gotten you through a rough spot, or enabled you to do the impossible.
Ronald Earle “Ron” Glass