I have now written a fan fic on Shepherd Book. In this story I have him back in time to the contemporary church in 2009 where is explaining his action on board Serenity to a group studying the emerging church.
From outer space to the margins of the contemporary church
They had some tough and intriguing questions they wanted to ask him. Obviously they all wanted to know about his mysterious past. Was he really a shepherd? Or was he an impostor – a wolf in shepherd’s clothing - perhaps someone recently released from prison or an Alliance operative seeking redemption? The theories were numerous and some quite bizarre, but the students’ curiosity could easily be disguised in a simple request to hear his testimony and find out about his conversion experience.
Some members of the group wanted to interrogate him about the way in which he justified his use of firearms. They’d heard that he advised that although the Bible condemned murder it was ‘somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps’.
Others were puzzled by the fact that even though he came from the future he seemed to represent a bygone age. To be honest, while they were relieved that their descendants knew the parable of the Good Samaritan, they were disappointed that in 500 years time Christianity would still be characterised by patriarchal images of God, fundamentalist sects and sermons about hell-fire and damnation. They saw this as a warning and wanted the interview to focus on how this situation could be avoided.
So, they had drawn up a list of questions, twenty-seven to be precise, and were anxiously awaiting his arrival in the lecture room.
A hush descended as he entered, smiled at them and took his place at the lecturn. He had not brought any notes – or a PowerPoint presentation. He was dressed in clothes that denoted his vocation; he carried only a light rucksack and a well-worn (and torn) Bible.
‘Shepherd Book’, the convenor said, ‘welcome to our gathering. We’ve been looking forward to meeting you and we have many questions to ask you.’
‘Friends’, Book said in a gentle voice, looking round the room, ‘I hope that I don’t disappoint you, but I’ve come prepared to answer only one question.’
The room held it’s breath. One sceptical member of the class thought that Book was about to come out with one of those pithy sayings of his, which some held in awe as words of wisdom, but which she considered to be merely clichés that he used to avoid actual conversation.
‘One question’, spluttered the convenor, ‘but we’ve compiled quite a list.’ Book took the sheet of paper from his hand and read it silently.
‘Ah, here’s the question’ he said, pointing part way down the page. ‘How might church emerge on board Serenity? I can answer that by telling you a story that starts in a garden …’
After looking round at each of the mystified faces, Book walked away from the lecturn, sat down on a chair, motioned for the others to move their chairs so that they were closer to him and, when everyone was ready, he began his tale.
‘The garden was at Southdown Abbey, where I tended fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Watching the miracle of growth is a delight – though being a gardener does involve backbreaking work and dirty hands – and sometimes things don’t go according to plan. It is hard to put this into words, but I knew that the time had come for me to leave the sanctuary of the Abbey and to venture out once more into the ’Verse. At times it felt like a move from The Order into … total chaos, especially in the hustle and bustle of the crowds at Eavesdown Docks. But it was there that the gardener in me recognised the first tender shoot of church emerging through the words and actions of one of the most caring people I have ever met.
‘Kaylee really paid attention to me; she observed my interest in ships and my indifference about the destination. In addition, she perceived something of my identity – of who I was - that I hadn’t fully realised myself. This helped me to begin to put into words my reason for being there. She was someone who had faith in people and, I would suggest, also in the One in whose image folk are made.
‘Once on board the ship it was plain that we were a very mixed bunch. I met the rest of the existing crew - the gruff captain with the very well hidden tender heart, the goofy pilot and his Amazon-like warrior wife, the loudmouthed hired gun and the high-class prostitute. Fellow newcomers included the extremely proper young doctor hiding behind dark glasses and the quiet chap (Dobson), who looked like he was doing his best to just blend into the surroundings.
‘This was the second shoot – and it would grow to produce many beautiful and fragrant flowers. It would have been wonderful if everyone on board Serenity was like Kaylee – it’s easy to be nice to those who are kind. However, this was something more – this was the chance to be part of a community of very diverse people, people you don’t immediately warm to, people who would disagree with you and challenge you, but, people who through some indescribable process would become family, people who would learn to trust each other and people who, in the captain’s words, “ain’t always looking for the advantage”. This is the sort of community from which church emerges.
‘I was able to offer this community some of the vegetables and herbs that I had brought with me from my garden. The first meal we shared together – though not without its uncomfortable moments – was enriched by this food and as Simon expressed his gratitude to me I requested permission to offer a prayer of thanks. The captain refused to allow me to say grace out loud. So I said it silently, and the others sitting at the table at the time – Kaylee, Simon, Jayne and Dobson – bowed their heads. I don’t know what they said – perhaps some words remembered from their childhood, or a cry from the heart for their needs at that time – maybe they just took the chance to enjoy a moment of silence – but they had the choice to acknowledge God and they took it.
‘Over the months that we lived together the time we spent around the table produced other fruit. It was there that we shared food and told stories. It was there that relationships grew and agreements were sealed. It was there that we made decisions. Of course, the captain would argue that he made of all of the decisions; in reality he always listened to what we had to say and weighed up the alternatives carefully. Whether we were aware of it or not at the time we would each be thinking about the action that was taken and this would stimulate us to reflect upon our beliefs and priorities – another sign of church emerging.
‘I learnt so much from living amongst these people – but most of all I learnt how to be a friend. A sensitive friend both to those who were open to the beliefs that I held and to those who had closed every part of themselves off from God. I also discovered how to recognise the voice of God whether it came through the sensuous and spiritual Inara, the crudely worded common sense of Jayne or the frightening psychic insights of River.
‘I took inspiration from another shepherd, one who had let Jesus down, but who responded to the Lord’s call to “follow me”. The disciple Simon Peter who set out on a journey to an unknown destination, and was continually transformed – or converted - by those he met along the way (like Cornelius, Acts 10).
‘Well, do you think that I am pushing it too far to say that church might emerge on board Serenity?’
Book paused briefly, then continued: ‘Perhaps that says more about your definition of church than anything else. If you were expecting Sunday services to be held, Jayne to sing hymns and the captain to answer an altar call then you will be disappointed. But if your definition of church is a community focused around Jesus maybe you will acknowledge that the seeds that might one day grow into church were already present.’
The time passed quickly and the long awaited session was over. Nodding his goodbyes to the students Book was escorted from the room, leaving them pondering all that they had heard and learnt that morning.
One thing puzzled them, where had that particular question come from, no one could remember suggesting it.