From Hollywood to hometown: How fantasy can inform reality

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Gene Roddenberry is fairly widely known to have pulled a fast one on network censors during the late 1960s by addressing all kinds of pertinent issues of the times in his legacy future universe in “Star Trek.”

Each week, he would put his popular characters through a morality tale of some sort that on the surface would have to do with alien races from other planets, moral dilemmas derived from fast moving technology and any number of interpersonal and political dramas. When viewed on the surface level, all of these issues were harmless whimsy taking place in a vast, distant future and experienced by beings of other worlds totally disconnected from our own. But the beauty of Trek, and indeed a great deal of the sci-fi/fantasy genre is that, much like the book of Revelation, it is a striking commentary on present-day society, its biases, its leadership and its moral degradation.

Also in looking at the franchises that are most embraced by teens, is it that outlandish that most of those stories revolve around an outcast or outsider who miraculously discovers a secret empowerment that ultimately reverses his or her status from the oddball to the hero? From the X-Men to Harry Potter to Ms. Marvel (the current one), it’s the teenage self-esteem model of encouragement that many need!

But trust me, when I was a teenager, I certainly didn’t recognize that my angst needed a hero’s journey to get me through high school. I just thought the stories and characters were cool! But I did take for granted that the lessons about humanity were on target — especially the ones that were reinforced on Sunday mornings in Jesus’ words of love and grace for the whole world, backed by Paul’s admonition that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.

Even my young mind could extrapolate that all of humanity stands together as equals. And as a 6-year-old watching the original “Star Trek” on Friday nights, it just seemed natural that the bridge of the Enterprise would equally have the all-American captain (played by the very Canadian William Shatner), a Scotsman, a Russian, an Asian, a Swahili woman and even an actual alien from Vulcan (they of course put the only Southerner, the doctor, below decks).

What was intended to be an odd mixture actually seemed to those of us watching just the way the world should be. And oddly enough, what was meant to reflect the problems in society on the one hand actually molded the society of the future on the other. And it was not just on “Star Trek,” and it was not just in the realm of technology or sociology, but in vast ways, which is why so many fanatics or fans have evolved!

Now this week is one of those weird-hat weeks for me as pastor. I’m hosting a family movie event at my church the day this article is set to print, Saturday, from 4-7 p.m. at Ascension Lutheran Church on Nash Street. So the hat I’ve been wearing is movie critic and theologian as I have been studying our final movie for the summer, “Zootopia.” I’ve been bumping into people all week and reminding them about this showing today, so if you are reading this, here’s your final reminder.

In any case, if you haven’t seen “Zootopia,” it’s a wonderful flick. Disney’s Pixar does a great job with everything from casting to animation, but what is really enthralling is the story.

To be honest, this story is actually a little more reality-based than my beloved Trek with some of those same polarizing themes being examined — and it has talking animals! What is really intriguing is that this was released more than two years ago and had its inception more than eight years ago, and yet it speaks to so much that is in the news right now and on so many people’s minds today. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so; and think about the words from St. Paul I noted earlier. In fact, if you want an easier way to check it out, show up at our church at 4 and you can also eat and have a craft to take home!

It seems like I’ve been focused quite regularly this year on topics like today’s, which I like to refer to as the modern metaphor. Just a year ago, my column was geared toward the Reformation and culminated in an Oktoberfest celebration (we definitely are doing that again on Oct. 13). But it may not be so strange that in about four weeks, Sept. 21-23, I’m hosting a mini-comicon called Free Comic Book Weekend at my church with artist Louis Small Jr. in the hopes of giving an event for the creatives, the fans, the philosophers and the zealots to mix and mingle meaning, faith, reason, destiny and the divine. It’ll be a great time, and give you the chance to experience all this yourself!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 27 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.