As part of our summer worship series on pop culture, today’s message features the British television show Dr. Who.
I should start with a confession: I have never been much of a fan of Dr. Who. I’d never seen more than a handful of episodes, and those were watched under the guise of being kind to my beloved sci-fi loving husband, who has been trying to get me interested in this show for years.
This show is, after all, about a time-traveling immortal space alien whose mission is to save humanity from various threats posed by other space aliens, most of which, it seemed to me from the few glimpses I saw, were generally slimy and gross. This is not, normally, my cup of tea.
But so many people I know and respect – my beloved among them, as well as lots of other thoughtful, faithful people – love this show so very much, that when I was planning this series and deciding what pop culture artifacts we should use to help us think about our faith, Dr. Who came to mind immediately.
Another way to put that is that I wanted to figure out what in the world these apparently intelligent people saw in this seemingly crazy show.
This left me at a little bit of a disadvantage, though, as I started to think about this sermon. There are some 800+ episodes of Dr. Who (if you include the original series). Where should I start? Given that I couldn’t possibly watch all of them before Sunday, I did what any self-respecting preacher does these days: I asked Facebook for help.
Well. Let me tell you. People have some strong opinions about this show. People who love Dr. Who really love Dr. Who. They pointed me toward their favorite episodes and gave me lots to think about – more than we can get into today; we could definitely spend several Sundays on this show. (We will not.)
Now, before we get too much farther, let me back up a bit and get us on the same page about the premise of this show. Dr. Who is a British show that airs on the BBC, and on PBS here. It first aired in 1963, and had a long run through the eighties, when it took a hiatus and came back in a contemporary form in 2005 and has grown in popularity since then. The main character is the doctor, who goes only by the name Dr. Who – and, importantly if you’re a super-fan, has been played by no less than 12 different actors. Ask a group of Whovians who their favorite doctor is and you’re in for a long conversation.
The Dr. is the last of an alien life form known as a Time Lord; he’s able to travel through space and time using a device called a Tardis, which, from the outside, looks like a police call box but inside – it’s much bigger on the inside – is actually a high tech time machine. The doctor travels around the universe with a companion who helps him on various missions, usually, as I said, saving the human race from alien creatures.
There’s all kinds of supernatural stuff in these stories – it’s science fiction, after all – but the doctor is not a superhero or a super soldier. He does battle mostly through conversation and interaction, and his handy supersonic screwdriver (which I still don’t really understand, and maybe one of you can tell me about later). In other words, except for the time-traveling alien part, he’s a relatively normal person.
And that’s what makes the show work for so many people, it seems. The doctor is a generally ordinary person, with flaws and feelings, who occasionally screws things up, but in general is right where he needs to be, at just the right time, to be helpful to somebody.
So. That’s Dr. Who. We’ll come back to him in a minute. Now, as far as I can tell, there are no slimy aliens or time travelers in the Bible, but this did get me thinking about the story of Esther. (How’s that for a non-sequitur?)
Esther’s a fascinating book in the Bible, in the Old Testament. It’s set in Persia, where, though a complicated series of events, Esther, a Jewish woman, becomes queen and discovers a plot by the royal court to kill and destroy all the Jewish people. Esther, a Jew herself but in the unlikely position of having some influence over the king, uses that influence to stop the massacre and save her people.
And there’s a moment in this story, a conversation between Esther and another Jewish leader named Mordecai, who knows of the plot to kill the Jews but doesn’t have the power to stop it. Mordecai goes to Queen Esther and says to her: You have to do something, you can’t keep quiet. Perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this.
That’s such a compelling line to me: For such a time as this…
Maybe all this happened, Mordecai says to her, maybe everything was leading up to this point so that you would be in this position right when we needed you so that you could go to the king and get him to stop this. Maybe you were put here for just such a time as this. Maybe it was meant to be.
That’s a loaded phrase, isn’t it? It was meant to be…
These are the questions that make time-travel stories like Dr. Who so fascinating because they make us wonder what was really meant to be, if what happened is what was supposed to happen, or if things would have turned out differently if we’d made different choices.
Was it meant to be that I left home a little late and avoided the car accident? Was it meant to be that you walked into the coffee shop at the very same time as your future spouse? Was it meant to be that the a/c broke in the sanctuary upstairs? Was it meant to be that Amanda came to be our intern this year?
What does that even mean, anyway, that something was meant to be? When we say that, do we mean that we are following some divine script written by God about our lives? If so, how detailed is this plan? Was it meant to be that I had spilled my coffee this morning? Was it meant to be that I wore these shoes instead of another pair? And what about other people? If it was meant to be that I left late and avoided the accident, what does that mean for the car just ahead of mine that smashed into the truck? Was that meant to be, too? Was it meant to be that a bunch of people died in the flooding in Louisiana or the earthquake in Italy or the war in Syria? Is that meant to be?
That’s never really made sense to me. It just doesn’t seem to me like God works like that. Seems to me that in the story of Esther, it’s not so much that Esther was meant to be there at that particular moment to save her people, not so much that she sweeps in on an a time machine at just the right moment to save the day. It’s not so much that God predicted or directed the action, but that Esther did the good that she could do in that moment where she happened to be. Seems to me that God was working – as God always does – for good, even when things were bad. For such a time as this…
When I asked people this week about why they liked Dr. Who, about why it’s such an important show, the thing people said over and over, more than anything else, is that it’s a show that is at it’s heart, believes in good. It’s a show that has faith in humanity, that trusts in the goodness of ordinary people. This is why fans love the character of the doctor so much, I think: the doctor thinks people are ultimately good, and will act for the good even in the midst of great heartache and danger and brokenness. He travels all over the universe and consistently, regular people step up and do something good. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t evil, that there aren’t people who behave badly; it is simply to say that good happens in the midst of it.
Someone told me their favorite quote from the doctor went something like this: “Nine hundred years of time and space and I never met anyone who wasn’t important.”
This is a very optimistic way of looking at the world — that individual people are important, that ordinary people work for good.
It’s also, I think, a really faithful way of looking at the world.
Because, boy, is it easy to be pessimistic in such a time as this. It’s easy, in our world, to see the bad instead of the good. It’s easy to see the darkness instead of the light. It’s easy to see the pain instead of the healing. It’s easy to feel like the world is ending, that there’s no way forward, that there’s no hope for the future.
The author of Ecclesiastes was, by all accounts, a pessimist. That passage we heard earlier – for everything there is a season… is lovely, but just before that, the writer of Ecclesiastes is going on about how tough life is. We toil and struggle and there’s nothing new under the sun and there isn’t much we can do about it.
And he’s right: life is hard. There is evil and darkness and brokenness in the world.
But there is also the goodness of ordinary people, who act with courage and selflessness right in the middle of it all. I think, as people of faith, we are called to be optimists.
I’m not talking about naive optimism, in which we ignore the reality of the world. I mean that we are called to live with hope.
There’s this passage from the prophet Jeremiah, writing to the Hebrew people in exile, giving voice to the promise of God: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
I don’t think this means that God has your whole day planned out: At 7:00 you’ll spill your coffee; at 8:15, you’ll just narrowly miss that accident, at lunch you’ll bump into that guy who will turn out to be your soulmate.
Those aren’t the plans God has in mind. It’s a wide-open future; anything can happen. Good and bad. And it will. The bad stuff will happen. But so will the good. Because the plans God has for us are plans for a future with hope.
When I asked Dr. Who fans to name their favorite episode – well, most of them gave me a whole list of favorites – but almost everybody mentioned the episode called “Vincent and the Doctor,” in which the doctor and Amy, his current companion, travel back in time to 1890, where they meet Vincent Van Gogh, and help him fight an invisible alien creature called a krafayis (because, of course there’s an invisible alien creature, but whatever. By the way, if you have some time to kill, there’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to Dr. Who creatures.)
Van Gogh, of course, will go on to be one of the most respected and well-known artists of all time, but in his own time – when the doctor visits him – he’s suffering from debilitating depression and is convinced that all his art is terrible and that no one will ever like or buy any of his paintings.
Amy and the doctor, of course, know that this isn’t remotely true, so they get him to come with them into the Tardis and travel forward through time and go to the museum in Paris where there’s a huge display of his work. And it’s this lovely moment, as he sees people enjoying his work, and hears people talking about what an incredible artist he is… it’s this nice scene about how we never really know how we’ll be remembered, or whose lives we are touching.
Was it meant to be, that Amy and the doctor showed up when they did? Was it meant to be?
They take Van Gogh back to his own time, and leave him there, feeling good about what they’d done, sure that they’d cured his depression and that he would go on to live a full and happy life. But when Amy and the doctor get back to the present day (there’s a very back-to-the-future vibe to this whole thing) they learn that Van Gogh’s life ended in the same sad and tortuous way it always had, that his visit to the future hadn’t made him better, hadn’t solved all his problems.
Amy in particular is devastated by this, and the doctor says to her: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”
And he adds: “And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
Was it meant to be? Or does God work for good in all things? Is the world dark and foreboding, or filled with the kind acts of ordinary people? Do we give into despair or do we look for the good God is doing and add to somebody’s pile of good things?
I think we know:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Perhaps it is for such a time as this that we were given this promise, that God intends for us to live with hope, hope for the present and hope for the future, hope in the goodness of ordinary people, and hope in the unending grace of God.