Shepherd Book and the Subject of Knee Caps
If you are unaware, Faith & Fandom was birthed from Firefly. Originally, the 1st book was going to be just devotionals on Firefly called, “By the Book: A Shepherd’s Guide to Firefly.” I had been reading these books on philosophy and Firefly called “Finding Serenity,” and “Serenity Found,” and the idea just shifted into, “I can do this with my own heart and perspective.”
As you can tell, the direction shifted dramatically. The book went from focusing on one pop culture property to fandoms vast and wide. But Firefly, and more specifically Shepherd Book, have remained in the forefront of my mind. Even at the most recent church service I did at a con, I was still showing the “you don’t fix faith” scene. It’s been a long time since I've written about Firefly, and now that my oldest daughter and I are watching the series together for the first time, I’m coming to it with fresh (and a bit sleepy) eyes.
One of the lines that struck me most deeply comes from the episode, “War Stores,” where Mal and Wash are captured by Niska. The crew needs to take up arms to save their friends, and Shepherd Book starts strapping on weapons.
“Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killing?”
And Book replies,
“Quite specific. It is however somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.”
I remember the first time I saw that scene. I clapped. I still smile every time I think about it. Book’s heart and attitude there is admirable. He knows his boundaries and his comfort zone. He knows what is permissible for him and what public perception of him is. He isn’t going to let a situation that is a little less than standard for a man of faith to stop him from helping his friends.
People often have a self-imposed standard on what is good and right for ministers, and even Christians in general. They have ideals on how they should look, behave, or act. Many of these ideals can be found in scripture, but oftentimes, people adopt their own concepts of what is proper and appropriate from their own pasts and preferences. We live in a world where many Christians and Christan leaders are less focused on following where God leads and more focused on fitting the model and image of what Christianity looks like. It’s less about being Spirit led and more about keeping in step with what’s socially acceptable. This is where the problem comes in. You can’t follow where God is leading if you are going to let the approval of people set the boundaries of where that goes.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” - Galatians 1:10
Shepherd Book constantly left the crew scratching their heads wondering about his past. Even more baffling was the way he broke away from the perceived notions of what a pastor/shepherd should be. Shepherd Book walks into Inara’s shuttle to bring her a meal, not condemn her. He takes up arms to free his friends from captivity, not just sitting on the ship to pray for them. He bench-presses with Jayne, the foulest dude on the ship (who my daughter is also named after) rather than belittling him. When he finds River shredding his Bible and poking at the credibility of his belief structure, he sits down and discusses with her calmly rather than crying out that he is being persecuted. He did that because his goal was to have the approval of God, and not let other people’s guidelines stop him from doing what God was leading.
Jesus was the trendsetter at this. His unwavering obedience to God often looked nothing like what the religious leaders of His day modeled. Jesus often found himself rebuked for going into areas and committing actions that didn’t fit the preprogramed socially acceptable means for the religious elite and their self-righteous standards.
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” - Luke 5:21.
But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” - Matthew 9:34
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” - Matthew 12:2
“And so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”- John 5:10
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. - John 5:16
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” - Luke 15:1-2
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” - Luke 7:39
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” - Matthew 9:14
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” - Matthew 9: 3
“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” - Mark 7:5-9
The broken, the sick, the hurting, the lost, the lonely, and so many others would have been lost and abandoned if it was just left up to the religious leaders doing everything the right way in their own eyes. Our world today is in the same shape. If we leave it to Christians, Pastors, and Churches who are doing everything “right,” people will be left abandoned and further convinced that neither Christians nor the Church actually care about them.
The pharisees of Jesus day, like the churches of today, were waiting for people to come to God in the proper means. They wanted them to show up with their lives all cleaned up, ready to start fresh. But you know what? Forget proper. There’s nothing proper about the holy and perfect son of God coming to a sinful world, hanging out with wretched people and then dying.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” - Philippians 2:5-8
None of that’s proper, but that’s what love looks like. That’s why the song Reckless Love hits with so many people. God said forget what’s proper and sent His salvation in a way that made sense to no one at the time. Religious action alone looks proper, but love crossing the boundaries of what we expect isn’t.
While under investigation, Commander Harker points out the oddities of Shepherd Book’s efforts:
Commander Harker: Pirates. Pirates with their own chaplain. There’s an oddity. Shepherd Book: Not the only oddity this end of space, commander, where things aren’t always so plain as on the central planets. Rules can be a mite fuzzier.”
And as Mal questioned book in “Train Job”:
Mal: What about you shepherd? How come you’re flying about with us brigands? I mean shouldn’t you be off bringing religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some such? Shepherd Book: Oh, I got heathens aplenty right here.”
Both Mal and Harker both recognized that by their perception of religious propriety, Book had no business where he was, but that’s what real love looks like. Going where it’s unexpected, where it’s needed most.
In the 7 years I’ve been doing Faith & Fandom, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative responses, nasty attitudes, and ugliness. But more often than not, it hasn’t been from the unbelieving community, but from Christians. These Christians were offended that I was bringing Jesus to Comicons (events they themselves were at). These same people thought that there’s no way these subjects or cultures could intersect but had an amen ready every time their pastor mentioned Lord of The Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia in a sermon. Not to mention the Christians who were offended that I would write Bible studies about subject matters they found offensive.
I understand their perspective, but I want to be that love and light in an area where it’s not already present. I rarely set up my booth at Christian events for that purpose. I’d rather be where an abundance of the message isn’t.
One event a couple summers ago, I set up the booth at a Christian concert in my town. As always, I had a list of the subject matters in each book printed on the table. A mother came by my booth with her 14-year-old son. As she read the list, she gasped out loud. Book 1 had a chapter on Grand Theft Auto V. She loudly inquired, “How could you write a Bible study on such sinful material?” I looked at her, I looked at her son, then I looked back at her and asked, “Does your son own this game?”
She sheepishly replied, “Well..yes.”
I asked her, “Because it’s a mature rated game, that means you have to be 18 years old to buy it. Did you purchase the game for him?”
She didn’t even speak, just quietly nodded.
So, I said, “GTAV is one of the most popular games in the world. In its initial release in one day it made more money than the entire domestic box office run of Avatar. That was the initial release. It’s also been remastered and released on other systems, further expanding its reach. Kids all around the world are playing this game. Since he’s playing a game you purchased him, which you yourself find sinful and offensive, wouldn’t you want him to have something that he’s connecting with that could help point his heart and focus back to God?”
She literally bought one of everything at my table. We have to go where the need is. Yes, the area of need might seem like a fuzzy step, but that’s why you let the Word of God be a light for your path. Because if you know people are in need, you go there. In John 8, we see this picture of Jesus responding to someone who was guilty and being condemned by the religious community in her area. She wasn’t just being looked down on. They literally dragged her out after being caught in the act. They were violating her privacy, her dignity, and her self-worth.
“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”” - John 8:2-11.
This was a woman who likely have been ignored by the religious leaders when it came to her time of need, but they sought her out to condemn her and bring judgment on her. The religious leaders wanted to see Jesus act as they acted and do things the way they did, but in turn he showed them that he was there for mercy. He was there to defend. He was there to love. His demonstration made it clear that he was on her side. He brought no condemnation, but still loved her enough to tell her that she needed to leave behind the life and choices that had brought her there. He didn’t just blindly excuse her actions, but He knew she needed more mercy than rebuke at that time.
In the episode “Heart of Gold,” the crew goes to rescue and protect a house of prostitutes from a power-hungry man in the region bent on claiming his unborn child. Hanging around Inara is one thing, but as a pastor/shepherd (or even as a man), putting yourself in a house full of prostitutes is an extremely fuzzy area. But this was people in need, and he knew he could help even if it was an uncomfortable situation.
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them.” - James 4:17
Shepherd Book knew he needed to show up to help, but he also guarded himself. The minute he got there, he separated himself from everyone behind a bar, and the first woman that approached him he just looked away and said, “No thank you.” However, the young lady was coming to ask for prayer and scripture. Guaranteed, he didn’t think the first thing he would be approached for would be to actually be a spiritual encouragement, but it was.
That’s the thing. When we put ourselves in the places we are needed most, we don’t need to have all the answers or to fix every situation, but rather be who God has already called us to be. That requires us to authentically be ourselves and let people see the love of God living in us. True, Shepherd Book was more comfortable shooting a dude in the kneecap than having a conversation in a brothel, but it was the fact he showed up where he was needed. He stayed and encouraged them when they were most frightened, and he also helped them bar the windows and secure the building. Going in the places we are needed most is equal parts spiritual focus and practical help. He even knocked armed men over with a firehose in the middle of a gun fight.
I’m not telling you to go out and commit sin. I’m not telling you to rebel against what you know and feel a biblical conviction to be true, but what I am telling you is that sometimes, our opinions, traditions, and the perceptions of others can get in the way of us doing what God truly is calling us to do. Some of the greatest moments God has used people have been the somewhat fuzzy times. The times when they had to stand on their own. The times when no one else understood what they were doing. You can’t expect other people to understand what God is calling you to do until you actually show them by living it out yourself. When we step into the somewhat fuzzy areas, we make it easier for the people distant from God to be able to see Him a little more clearly. Here’s to taking the steps God calls you to, no matter how clear or fuzzy they might be, and for you to be fruitful and encouraging in your heathens a plenty.