On Worf and Your Bible
25 years ago this fall, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) debuted on network TV. It’s a momentous occasion for Trekkies, and it coincides with the completion of a Netflix journey through the entire series that my wife and I have taken over the past year. While I remember watching TNG on TV as a kid – the series premier is one of the most vivid memories of my youth (stop judging me!) – I’m surprised at how much more I enjoy the show now than the first time around. This is true for several reasons, most of which I’ll save for a future post rather than lengthening this post into a novel. But one part of TNG that I’m enjoying even more this time around is Michael Dorn’s character Lieutenant Worf.
A member of the Klingon race, Worf is a fish out of water throughout the series, and many episodes center on his struggles to remain culturally Klingon while living among humans. For those who don’t know, the Klingons are a violent and aggressive race who are preoccupied with glory through warfare and who would rather die than ever be shamed or dishonored. In fact, in some episodes it’s suggested that a Klingon who lives into old age (rather than dying in battle) has humiliated his family. And while I don’t know whether the show’s writers or Michael Dorn deserve credit for this, one of the most fun things about TNG is knowing that whatever happens, Lieutenant Worf will always initially react the way one would expect a Klingon to react in a vacuum. If he or his friends are insulted, he wants to fight to the death. If he’s frustrated, he needs to fight to let it out. If he’s hungry, he eats with a zestful abandon that the human characters on the show might find barbaric. Worf is the perfect Klingon.
More importantly, since Worf is the perfect Klingon, Worf makes understanding the New Testament far easier.
I’m serious. Look, there are cultures on earth where honor is more important than life itself. Cultures where the shamed or dishonored are expected to commit suicide to redeem their name, or where those who have shamed a family name should be killed by members of their own family for the greater good (Google “honor killing” if you’re unclear about this). Obviously, such cultures are somewhat inscrutable to those of us in the United States, where the concept of shame is fuzzy at best, and that’s a major problem inasmuch as every culture depicted in the bible was arguably such an honor-based culture. And therein lies a hidden beauty of The Next Generation: Worf makes such cultures accessible to the American observer.
If you really want to understand the cultural context of your bible, Worf is of immense value. Understand: I’m not arguing that every culture in the bible is as bloodthirsty as the Klingons (although some, such as the ancient Assyrians, arguably were). I am arguing, however, that the importance of a Klingon’s name or family honor directly parallel concepts indispensable to truly appreciating the cultural context of scripture. And while this matters slightly in grasping the narratives of the Old Testament, those stories often have enough historical context that we can navigate them without Worf’s help. But the New Testament is an entirely different matter. We often lack much context to Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels, and most of the books of the New Testament are simple letters providing almost no context whatsoever (the book of Acts helps with some of these, but not all). And that, dear friends, is where Worf can help: when you read one of the New Testament letters, imagine that it was written by Worf to other Klingons. It’ll totally change your understanding of the letter in all the right ways.
Don’t believe me? I’m planning to explore specific examples of this in greater depth as part of a new topical series (and don’t worry, I will also continue the Evangelicalism Makes Me Uncomfortable series; I just want to add a little variety), but for now, permit me to throw out one quick example.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is mortified by immorality tolerated within the church in Corinth. As we read the letter in English today, Paul’s opening in verse 1 (“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles”, NASB) sounds more like he’s introducing a new topic than a statement of outrage, and the fact that Paul doesn’t repeat his comment comparing them to the Gentiles elsewhere renders the accusation easy to overlook. But if you envision a Klingon cultural context and envision that sentence coming out of Worf’s mouth, it all changes. Instead of a peripheral observation made in transition, verse 1 becomes a statement of outrage so provocative that it would be unproductive if not impossible to repeat it later in the chapter. To accuse a Klingon of acting less honorably than one who isn’t Klingon would be fighting words; for Paul to state an equivalent provocation to the Corinthians is a rebuke too shocking to be missed. Paul doesn’t ease into this part of the letter; he begins with an inflammatory (and humiliating) accusation and uses the rest of the chapter to make his case. The end result is that Paul’s advice creates a moment of crisis for the honor of the Corinthians, and leaves them only one path to restore that honor.
In sum, understanding 1 Corinthians 5 through Worf’s eyes shifts the emphasis in the chapter, and illuminates a forcefulness in Paul’s approach otherwise lost to modern American eyes. Thus 1 Corinthians 5 is easier to understand via an assist from Star Trek.
Making sense yet?
Believe me when I say this little game expands one’s understanding of pretty much the entire New Testament (and even in many parts of the Old Testament). Take my advice, and give this old show another chance. I know those of you who aren’t Trekkies are worried that watching Star Trek: TNG will make your eyes bleed, but what really matters is that it makes the New Testament easier to grasp.
Star Trek: The Next Generation has been making the bible easier to understand for 25 years. Who knew?