Seagulls and Spirituality

April 16, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Posted in christian fiction, genre fiction, new age, pop culture, sidekick | Leave a comment


  “Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect”. new-age-heelas.jpg

         “The gull sees farthest who flies highest”.  

Bach, Richard. Photos by Russell Munson (1970). Jonathan Livingston Seagull.New York: Macmillan.

 Heelas, Paul (1996). The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.   

 Richard Bach’s 1970 allegory about the self-actualizing seagull is a spirituality classic of new age fiction. It is a three-part fable about the rare individual/bird that refuses to accept the limits imposed by nature and society. Jonathan Livingston Seagull seeks perfection from within, with da-vinci-flight.jpgultimate mastery of flight as the metaphor for attaining the highest purpose in life.  Whereas, his cohort is preoccupied with basic survival, Jonathan denounces the traditional gull path to explore new ways of flying.

Jonathan’s actions represent the first step to enlightenment presented in most new age works, This element is described by Heelas (1996) as the acceptance that “your lives are not working. You’re brainwashed”. The high-flying Jonathan later discovers from his teachers, Chiang and Sullivan, that each being is born with the innate ability to attain perfection. However, it is up to the individual to find the desire and take the steps to reach it. This message– perfection is the responsibility of the individual, not of an external supreme being–conveys another defining element of the new age philosophy (Heelas, 1996).

Bach’s text embraces the mystical eclecticism of many new age texts, interweaving religious beliefs from the East and West with empowerment messages from popular psychology. Hellas, in The New Age Movement, dubs this “Perennialism”. This theory contends there are unifying truths spanning diverse religions which must be discovered to attain wisdom.  In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, there is the Buddhist concept of reincarnation as our hero awakens at the start of Part 2 in a remote land. The seagull is changed, imbued with new insights and enhanced flying ability.

seagull-flight.jpgOr, you can read the tiny tract as a Christian fable reflecting the life of Jesus. Jonathan is born and lives like any other bird until he accepts his unique gift. Then he’s banished by a mob for being different, ascends to a heaven-like state, forgives his tormentors and returns to help guide the repentant flock. The roles of leader and teacher are accepted reluctantly by Jonathan, who sardonically refers to himself as the “Son of the Great Gull”, to chide his skeptical flock. This strong spiritual leader role is present in most texts and communes following new age principles, despite the theoretical exhortations that “you are your own authority” (Heelas).

 Jonathan reminds the flock that they must lead themselves, setting aside any law or ritual which restricts their freedom to become their “true self”. The message that “freedom is valued” is another new age cornerstone (Heelas). This 10,000 word fable presents Hindu, Muslim and Quaker communal messages of pacifism and love as thematic undercurrents at the book’s end. The teacher Sullivan’s last words to Jonathan are to “keep working on love”. The challenge is to see the good in every creature. This sentiment is another of the 7 new age elements outlined by Heelas : the self is intrinsically good.   

Finally, there are those who read Bach’s work more literally as a tale about the rewards of dedication and self-sacrifice. At this level, it is the classic self help message conveyed in “The Little Engine Who Could”: if you believe it, you can do it. “Nothing is impossible”.  

There is a sidekick in Bach’s work, “rough young Fletcher Gull”, an Outcast who becomes Jonathan’s first and best student disciple. Fletcher is 4-gulls.jpgan eager daredevil, who gives voice to the doubts Jonathan battled pre-transcendence. In the group of gulls, Fletcher is the first to conquer barriers of speed and time, yet he does so in a stumbling, dazed way. Fletcher represents the reader, with his challenge to Jonathan: “How do you manage to love a mob of birds that has just tried to kill you?”  Although Fletcher is flawed, he remains loyal to Jonathan when others accuse his teacher of being a demon. 

 I would recommend this book for inclusion in a public library collection of new age works. It offers an excellent introduction to some defining new age concepts, such as Perennialism, self-actualization, brainwashing, and the importance of freedom and individual responsibility. I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time in 2007. I warmed to the book’s gentle simplicity and was impressed by its innocent yet earnest tone. Bach’s work was totally lacking in artifice. In contrast, today’s self help or new age books are so slickly packaged and marketed, I often feel like the author came up with the promotional hook before he or she wrote the first draft.  


Trekkies Way of Life

April 5, 2007 at 12:25 am | Posted in genre fiction, new age, science fiction | Leave a comment

trekkies.jpgTrekkies (1997) A documentary film. Directed by Roger Nyland. startrek_logo_2007.jpg

It’s been almost 40 years since the Star Trek TV show’s cancellation set off shockwaves, catalyzing distraught fans to mobilize in protest. The series’ appeal evolved rapidly from its initial cult status into a multi-billion dollar franchise of today. It is a fan-driven industry which encompasses feature films, TV spinoff series, websites, clubs, conventions, retail outlets, books and a staggering array of collectible merchandise. The franchise was a perennial TV presence until the prequel Enterprise series ended in May 2005.  For the first time in decades, no Star Trek series is in production. This event was so significant that it was a lead news story worldwide.  yar.jpg

 The 1997 Roger Nyland documentary, Trekkies, attempts “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (Starship Enterprise Mission) by exploring Star Trek’s appeal from the perspective of its fans . The host of Trekkies, Denise Crosby aka “Ensign Tasha Yar”  of Star Trek:The Next Generation is a bemused, convivial host and guide navigating through dozens of interviews with trekkie fans, fanatics and Star Trek cast members. 

 I have long been aware that Star Trek is more than a classic TV series: it is a cultural phenomenon. It has enriched our lexicon, contributing catch phrases and visual icons to the pantheon of American popular culture. To illustrate Star Trek’s sway on consumerism, note how similar the  2007 flip cell phone is to the circa-1960’s Enterprise tricorder . The meaning of Star Trek expressions such as 1) “putting your shields up”, 2)”beam me up, Scottie” or the curt dismissal  3)”illogical” are so familiar that people use them as conversational shorthand to convey emotions respectively  of 1) defensiveness, 2)frustration and 3) contempt. 

After watching Trekkies, the most surprising realization is that Star Trek represents much more than a hobby and “casual enjoyment” for some enthusiasts. For these fans, Star Trek constitutes a “way of life”, delineating beliefs and practices grounded loosely in  humanistic philosophy. The series was a model of racial diversity, tolerance and cooperation; its mission stressed altruism and non-interference with alien civilizations.  It was one of the only TV series to celebrate the positive potential of technology, with scientists and engineers as heroes rather than geeks or psychos. In Trekkies , Nichelle Nicholes (Lt. Uhura) tells the anecdote of the young black girl astounded to see a black woman on TV  “who ain’t no maid”.  Lt Uhura served as role model for this child, who grew up to become Whoopi Goldberg.   

How the Star Trek message and world view are embraced by some, however  can crossover into fanaticism from fandom. One example of a fanatic in Trekkies is barbara-adams.jpgCommander Barbara Adams. The Commander gained notoriety as a Whitewater Trial juror who came to court daily in a full Star Trek uniform regalia. She considered herself to be first and foremost a Star Fleet officer with an obligation to adhere to the Academy code. Her Arkansas co-workers noted the Commander always wore her phaser and insignia, expanding to full dress for formal events. The Commander explained: “My officers should never feel ashamed to wear their uniform. We’re like anyone else in the military “.  It’s the fact that we’re speaking of an imaginary alternative relative with Star Trek military, that shifts Ms. Adams from the fan to the fanatic category 

Another example of a fanatic versus a fan occurs in the Trekkies interview  with two pleasant female hosts of the “Talk Trek”  radio show. They choke up as they confess: “People don’t realize how important a show can be”. The documentary reveals the show’s transformative power with a call-in fan who testifies that watching Star Trek helped him cope with his father’s death. The fan reported that the show’s holographic images held a promise of redemption and afterlife that fanatics.jpgoffered him solace .He spoke with religious fervor about Star Trek’s philosophy. The Star Trek message of tolerance was mentioned often by the trekkies interviewed.

Even those who are fans versus fanatics are attracted by Star Trek’s promise of a new, better world.  It offers a safe environment in which to cut loose, don alien costumes and role play an alter ego identify.  Klingons are one of the most popular alien cultures emulated at Star Trek conventions because, in the words of a fan “It lets us express a part of our personality that’s not acceptable”.   

The Star Trek philosophy is not a New Age philosophy. New Age stresses the spirituality and actualization of the self. In contrast, the Star Trek philosophy stresses collaboration and the good of the group, although it does respect the individual. There is also the Star Trek adherence to community principles such as the Prime Directive and the ruling of the Council. Such automatic deference to higher authority would not be appropriate for a New Age movement offshoot.  klingon.jpg

So how do you define a Star Trek fan versus a fanatic? The guy who wears a Klingon costume and can quote Star Trek trivia may be just a fan. The guy who speaks Klingon and pays $1500 for “speedbumps”(Klingon furrowed headgear) has probably passed over to the realm of the fanatic. For the latter group, Star Trek is the context of their life.              

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