Four Ways Doctor Who Reflects Our Rapidly Changing Conception of God
The New Reformation in Christianity, well underway but in no way winding down, will change how the faith looks in the decades and centuries to come. The movement has myriad streams, working their way into demoninational divots and cultural understandings of God. Ken Wilson and I wrote about some of these changes in Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance.
When cultures experience massive philosophical and religious shifts, their conversations work themselves out, in part, through art, literature, film, music, and so on. And, perhaps more than any other show in the English-speaking world right now, Doctor Who embodies the tensions of our God-thoughts.
The Doctor, a 2,000-ish year old alien Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, has long served as a metaphor for God in the British (and a growing American audience’s) imagination. As our conceptualization of God changes, the way we experience The Doctor naturally changes too; and, as with religion, some adherents don’t like the updates.
Here are four key ways I see The Doctor reflecting our collective conversation about God:
1. The gender of God is on the table.
The late Episcopalian mystic, Phyllis Tickle, liked to say Christians have a rummage sale every five hundred years or so. We keep and refine what is central to our faith and throw out superfluous doctrines that keep Christianity from flourishing and achieving what it’s meant to: helping followers love God and each other the best we can. A key item on the table this go-around is the gender of God. I’ve blogged about the evoloving theology surrounding God’s gender here and here (ignore the political aspect if it hinders you).
Ever since the 2005 re-boot of Doctor Who there have been calls for The Doctor to be a woman and/or a minority. The blatantly misogynist Steven Moffat, showrunner and head writer from 2010–2017, declared that having a female Doctor “didn’t feel right.” His last casting was Peter Capaldi, a grisly, grumpy white-haired Scotsman. Ratings tanked. Capaldi (a brilliant actor in his own right) and his storylines might’ve been great in another time, but not in 2013 as a character enmeshed with our God psychology.
Enter new showrunner Chris Chibnall, who cast Jodie Whittaker as The Doctor. Finally, in 2018, the show has a female face. This story update runs parallel to Christian denominations pushing forward changes in our liturgies and ways of talking about God in order to better reflect a God who is above gender — a God who is neither male nor female, and who is both male and female (conceptions of which are culturally defined). This makes both God and The Doctor genderqueer — God being neither/both and The Doctor incarnating as men and women. (For a good theological exploration of the genderqueerness of God, see Mihee Kim-Kort’s book, Outside the Lines.) Jodie Whittaker was cognizant of this when helping design her Doctor costume: “I just love the androgyny of it, without it being masculine, and I think that’s a really important line to find and quite a difficult one as well.”
As expected, controversy abounds. People who view God more akin to an old grumpy man — or at least to a swaggering man like David Tenant’s Doctor when he said, “just walk around like you own the place” to Martha, his black “companion” — take to Twitter, moaning about the “good ole days” of Doctor Who.
2. God’s acceptance of queer sexuality is on the table.
The Doctor, like God, is portrayed as somewhat asexual. So when the Doctor is seen in a romantic-type relationship it tends to bug some people on a subconcious level. Fair enough; no metaphor is perfect. Though one could argue there’s a simlar metphor running through the Song of Songs, but I digress …
Who the Doctor loves — including romantically — represents the Western conception of who is acceptable and worthwhile, and what kinds of sexuality are acceptable and worthwhile. This article from 2013 details some of the Doctor’s loves — including platonic loves — and doesn’t even get to Bill Potts from series ten (2017). Bill was the first openly lesbian companion. Thankfully the series introduced her character well — her sexuality didn’t become the central narrative or really much of any ado. It was just one feature of her lovable self.
When Russell T. Davies, a gay man, re-booted the show in 2005, he included LGBTQ+ characters from the get-go, and even insinuated the Doctor might be bi (cue the flirting between bisexual Jack Harkness and the Doctor alongside the Doctor’s love for Rose Tyler). Heck, in series one episode two Chris Eccelston’s Doctor flirts with an evolved tree alien. Matt Smith’s Doctor kissed Rory, smooched the personified T.A.R.D.I.S., played the coquet with Amy, and romped around with River Song (his wife).
The Doctor’s pansexuality aside, the character has not been seen on screen in a romantic relationship with someone of the same presenting gender. That might change in the coming season. Fans speculate about the nature of the friendship between Yasmin and the Doctor (see #thasmin on Twitter), and the outfit Whittaker deliberately chose is covered in rainbows (scarf, t-shirt, and the lining of her coat). She says: “Sometimes I look at other female characters and their costumes just don’t look that comfy. But with this we could create every detail from scratch and give things a meaning or purpose. One day, I might be able to tell you what it all means, but for now everything is a secret between me and Ray [the designer], so I’m not allowed to say.”
It’s no secret that the full inclusion of LGTBQ+ people is a central point of discussion and turmoil in many Christian denominations. Who does God love? Who does God fully accept? Does God care that we have attractions to and sex with people of the same gender? The-Doctor-As-God replies everyone, everyone and no — and that’s really frustrating for some fans, while thrilling to others (myself included in the latter). Let’s play with these ideas through the art of television and test how they feel — see if this Doctor/God is more attractive, genuinely good news for the oppressed, and a better image of our evolving understanding of The Divine. The controversy is a given, and the backlash as strong as the cheers, but I think in the end we’ll see this Doctor’s pushing the ball forward on the inclusiveness of God to be more emblematic of what we hope in our deepest hearts God is actually like.
3. The goodness of God is on the table.
Speaking of what we hope God is like, our collective Western Christian conception of God’s goodness has grown leaps and bounds in the last decades. Maybe I should say White Western Christian, because African American churches have always known this about God. God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!
Prior to Jodie Whittaker, the Doctor has been conceived of as a psychopath. In a panel interview for the Guardian, one man writes: “The Doctor, even in his most pleasant of incarnations, has had a singular trait — he is a psychopath. Not the serial-killer type of psychopath, but the Steve Jobs type. A benign psychopath who, for reasons as yet unknown, has decided to use his intelligence for the benefit of others … Unfortunately, from the outset, I felt Chibnall either doesn’t get the fundamentals of the Doctor’s inherent psychopathy, or has decided to write it out, making Whittaker a kinder, gentler, touchy-feely, kid-friendly Doctor.” In “The Angels Take Manhattan” in series 7, River Song (whom I adore) says: “One psychopath per T.A.R.D.I.S., don’t you think?”
Now, it can certainly be argued that the Doctor is not a psychopath, or that the mythology around the Doctor’s psychopathy has changed and morphed as our feelings about the character (and I would argue, about God) have changed and morphed. But there’s always been an element of that edge to his (because it was always a his) personality. With Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor, at least in this first series of hers, that edge is gone.
In Christian circles, we’ve started wondering similar questions about God. The Reformation of 500 years ago stressed the sovereignty of God — there are aspects of God we are not supposed to question. But the last few decades astute New Reformation Christians have asked things like, “What kind of God commanded the Canaanite genocide?” or “What kind of God asked Abraham to kill his son?” A psychopath, seemed to be the answer.
Recent scholarship tells us the Canaanites were never eradicated, so the genocide didn’t factually happen. Perhaps the story came about because an oppressed people (Jewish people during the Babylonian exile) told stories of strength to encourage themselves under duress? And the sacrifice of Isaac has been seen as YHWH’s way of ending child sacrifice, since child sacrifice was rampant in the Ancient Near East at the time.
As we reinterpret the actions of God in the Bible through the eyes of scholarship and lenses of oppressed people, we start to see a God who is neither a psychopath nor a autocrat … but one who invites us to question and reflect and try to make meaning of confusing stories through the lens of a God-Who-Is-Love.
Many Western Christians who grew up in the early-to-mid twentieth century were taught to view God as a distant authoritarian with little-to-no interest in our daily lives — unless it was to be angry at our shortcomings or boss us around. But that is not the God being re-discovered the last few decades as we’ve pressed in further. Perhaps this change, then, is also reflected in how we view the Doctor. Maybe we can see the empathy and compassion in him/her all along, and the old psychopathy underlying the storylines can be dialed down as we discover a Doctor who is ever-loving of humanity, and ever-hopeful of our capacity for redemption. Because I’d argue that aspect of the Doctor has always been there, and is now surfacing as the character’s core.
Love, in all its forms, is the most powerful weapon we have because love is a form of hope and, like hope, love abides in the face of everything.” — Whittaker’s Doctor, “Demons of the Punjab”
4. The humanity of God is finding its more traditional equal footing.
Way back in 451 C.E., the Church declared Jesus both fully God and fully human. It became part of the Chalcedonian Creed, one of the most significant historical creeds of the Church. However, the emPHAsis has been on the divine sylLAble the last few hundred years …
… until recently, when the West began rediscovering the full humanity of Jesus. I was once at a church conference where a speaker said, “Jesus had erections!” like it was some kind of revelation. It was completely awkward and displayed just how revolutionary a thought it is for some Christians to talk about the humanity of God. God ate food! God got grumpy! God got horny!
Of course, to be fully human Jesus experienced the entire range of what it means to live — to make mistakes, fail, be irritated, fall in love … even be wrong. (See his interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 where the woman challenges his racist assumption and he amends his thinking.) Post-2005 re-boot, the Doctor is seen as having regrets — most especially surrounding the Time War. But it seems Chibnall is writing a Doctor who is more vulnerable. I thought this article from The Atlantic was outstanding in its insights to the radical change found in Whittaker’s portrayal of the Doctor.
It seems natural that any show running as long as Doctor Who would need updates from time to time. And it seems natural that any show with a messianic figure like the Doctor would need amending as our cultural understandings of the Divine evolve. But I will say this: I feel both excited and sorry for Jodie Whittaker and cast, because they embody symbols deeply embedded in our human psyches. Anytime you mess with significant sacred symbols, some people will be ecstatic and others will be livid. Like, hot lava livid. And that social anger will be projected onto those embodying the changes. It’s worth doing, and I applaud them for the courageously prophetic act of helping us re-imagine society and faith and what it means to be human. But I hope they surround themselves with people who are kind to off-set the backdraft, and I hope they sear Whittaker’s Doctor’s words from “The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos” into their own minds and hearts: “None of know for sure what’s out there. That’s why we keep looking. Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you. Constantly.”