Thursday, July 21, 2005

Particle Beam Transporter

I have never been a “Trekkie” but I can appreciate the enthusiasm with which people have followed the Star Trek show (saga? movement? revolution?) over the years. There was a kid in my neighborhood growing up who was the most committed, devoted, knowledgeable Star Trek fan I have ever encountered; great guy. Kind of resembled Leonard Nimoy, ears a little pointy, pale skin, cerebral.

Alas, James Doohan, the actor who portrayed the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer Scotty, frequent recipient of the now famous request, “Beam me up,” died this week at age 85. Scotty’s most notable role in the story was to supervise the Enterprise’s “particle beam transporter,” which if I understand correctly (and if I don’t, and you’re a Trekkie, please refrain from educating me), allowed crew members in trouble to be whizzed back to the ship instantaneously, or something like that.

At any rate, Doohan, whom you can imagine became fairly subsumed in his character over the years, told relatives that he wanted his ashes blasted into outer space, as was done for Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. “He’ll be there with his buddy, which is wonderful,” said Doohan’s agent and longtime friend. Houston-based Space Services, Inc, which specializes in space memorials, plans to send a few grams of Doohan’s ashes aboard a rocket later this year. The remains, which will be sealed in an aluminum capsule, will eventually burn up when they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere (“James Doohan to be sent to his final frontier,” AP, July 21, 2005).

I have become fascinated with the way people think of the afterlife and especially with the popular conceptions of “heaven.” What keeps this from being a purely amusing fascination is the extent to which many Christians syncretize pagan and new age beliefs into their understanding and outlook. When an athlete dies, for instance, eulogists declare happily that “he’s now on that big playing field in the sky.” Or, in the case of Mr. Doohan’s agent, his deceased client, by virtue of his ashes being shot into space, “will be there with his buddy.”

On the one hand this is all sort of harmless. Most of these “after-life expectations” are so vague as to make no real philosophical commitments: there is a “great beyond” that is a “better place” and that’s where all but the most vile people will spend eternity. It makes people feel good to affirm this positive scenario.

But on the other hand, most particularly when Christians abandon the quite specific and concrete doctrines of death, judgment and resurrection, it is distressing and dangerous. Perhaps that sounds dramatic or over-stated, but when you read the New Testament there is an enormous attention paid to death, resurrection and the Christian hope of heaven. When we water this down and adopt pagan platitudes in the place of historic, orthodox Christian teaching, we abandon, in many ways, part of the core of our faith commitment.

I’ll be writing more about this in the weeks ahead. I tip my hat to the great Star Trek story. And I would remind us that “beam me up” does not a theology of the afterlife make.


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