One of the characteristics of a postmodern world is that spirituality is regularly injected into the public sphere, most frequently through popular culture. And popular culture often does a better job of capturing the reality of spiritual responses better than the church has typically done. I recently came across an example of this through a comparison of two different pop culture characters: Dean Winchester of Supernatural
(photo on the right) and Gaius Baltar of Battlestar Galactica (photo on the left)
On one level these two characters could not be more different. Dean Winchester is a blue collar monster hunter who fights against evil. Gaius Baltar is a genius scientist who inadvertently plays a prominent role in the near-genocide of the human race. Yet they share a very similar journey. At the beginning of each of their respective series, each character is a hardcore, angry atheist. Through a steady string of adventures and eye-opening encounters, however, each character gradually progresses through agnosticism and into a form of faith that each acquires in the fourth season of their show. They each come to their faith in different ways and for different reasons. And their varying responses to their journeys represent two different spiritual responses.
In the episode, "Are You There God? It's Me, Dean Winchester," Dean's brother Sam suggests that they now have proof that God exists (this is because Dean encountered an angel). Their conversation unfolds as follows:
DEAN: Proof that there's a God out there that actually gives a crap about me personally? I'm sorry but I'm not buying it.
SAM: Why not?
DEAN: Because why me? If there is a God out there, why would he give a crap about me? . . . Why do I deserve to get saved? I'm just a regular guy.
SAM: Apparently, you're a regular guy that's important to the man upstairs.
DEAN: Well that creeps me out.
Dean is the person who is so aware of his own faults and who sees his place in the universe as being so insignificant that he can't fathom that God would pay attention to him, let alone love him.
Compare this response to that of Gaius Baltar from the episode "Escape Velocity":
"I'm not a priest. I've never even been a particularly good man. I have, in fact, been a profoundly selfish man. But that doesn't matter, you see. Something in the universe loves me. Something in the universe loves the entity that is me. I will choose to call this something 'God.'"
If Dean Winchester is creeped out by the attention of God, Gaius Baltar embraces it. Acutely aware of the sins of his past and rather than see himself as unworthy of divine attention, he is deeply moved by the thought that he could be forgiven, that he could find redemption for his crimes.
Anyone who spends much time in churches or around people who are spiritually seeking will recognize these two portraits -- that of those who find themselves shrinking away uncomfortably from the gaze of God and those who find themselves reveling in it.
Given the sordid past of American television, that it is the medium regularly presenting us with models of spirituality like these and others is itself a cause for wonder.