Dark Water starts off with a twist: Danny dies within the first five minutes. And he dies, as Clara describes it, a boring and ordinary death.
GRAN: It’s a terrible thing. Just a terrible, terrible thing.
CLARA: It wasn’t terrible.
CLARA: It was boring.
CLARA: It was ordinary. People just kept walking with their iPods and their shopping bags. He was alive, and then he was dead and it was nothing. Like stepping off a bus.
GRAN: He deserved better. And so did you.
CLARA: I don’t deserve anything. Nobody deserves anything. But I am owed better. I am owed.
Clara isn’t a stranger to death-she lost her mother as a teenager and of course during her travels with the Doctor she has witnessed numerous deaths-some very gruesome. She herself, has also faced death on more than one occasion. Yet she has also helped the Doctor save an untold number of lives. She reminded the Doctor there was another way to end the Time War and she has helped save the world and universe. She-the impossible girl-has done so many amazing things. And yet, Danny-the person she loves- dies by getting hit by a car. Danny-who had survived a war zone dies a simple death. There is nothing particularly heroic or memorable about getting hit by a car. Yet, Clara isn’t willing to accept that he is dead. She wants Danny back, and she feels that she is owed at least that much. How many times has she saved the Doctor? How many times has she had his back?
None of us will face homicidal aliens, Daleks, or a mummy soldier. Yet we will all face the death of a loved one. If one watches the news-it seems as if those of us in the western world are facing numerous catastrophic dangers. Terrorist attacks, deadly illnesses, brutal murders (because regular shootings, especially in low income neighborhoods are so blasé and not noteworthy), kidnappings, etc. are presented as very real risks, but the reality is that for a good number of us, our loved ones will die a boring, ordinary death: Old age, health problems, accidents; deaths that might warrant a paragraph in the local newspaper/website. Deaths that are so ordinary-that they are largely ignored except by those directly affected. And while the world happily moves on, we are left struggling to make sense of a new world without our loved ones.
And of course, some of us like Clara, will feel as if we are owed better. Growing up Pentecostal, we were taught to treat God with the utmost reverence. We weren’t to question why certain things happened-they were all part of God’s plan. Even in many mainline denominations, stating that one is owed something by God would be pretty presumptuous. We are to accept that life is unfair and move on. To question God, to demand that things be different is viewed at best as misguided and at worse as blasphemous. But damn it, sometimes the pain is just so much that we have no choice but to cry out in agony and anger. And based on various theological understandings of God, which in one form or another construe God as manipulative, puppet master, God deserves our anger.
Clara knows the Doctor and she knows how he would react if she asked him for help in bringing Danny back-or she at least thinks she knows his response. As a result she feels as if she needs to manipulate and threaten the Doctor in order to get her desired response. Her grief and anger, have in fact, alienated her from the Doctor. He is no longer a friend that one can confide in and ask for help, but someone that needs to be forced into helping her.
Clara’s response is borne out of grief and anger, but it is also based on a misunderstanding of the Doctor. She’s seen how cold and uncaring he can be, and even though he has thawed a bit since the beginning of the season, she still feels as if she needs to try and control him in order to get him to help her. Her understanding of who the Doctor is, directly impacts how she approaches him while she was in pain and grieving over Danny’s death.
In a similar way, our notions of God impact how/if we turn to God in the midst of our suffering. Some of us have grown up with a theology that states that God is in control of everything-nothing bad or good happens without God’s permission. In this theological framework, God at best, allows someone we care about to die or suffer, and at worst actively caused said death or suffering. We our left questioning, “Why did God allow/cause this to happen?” While some people do gain comfort from an all-powerful God-others wonder how God could be so uncaring and heartless. How can we trust and seek love from a God that seems to act like a cosmic puppet master, deciding when some will die, saving others, etc? This God deserves our anger and perhaps our hate.
Other theological frameworks focus on God’s anger and humanity’s sinfulness. Death and suffering is viewed as a punishment for humanity’s sin. For instance, natural disasters are interpreted as God’s punishment towards a nation living in sin. The hurricane that killed hundreds of people, including infants and children, occurred because of the legality of abortion or because of the LGBT community’s instance on living a life of “perversion.” Individuals die, because of some sin they had not repented of. Instead of viewing those who die from suicide as being in unbearable emotional and mental anguish, they are portrayed as sinners who refused to look to God for help and sustenance. Those who die from illness or poverty, have only themselves to blame for somehow disobeying God. This God needs to be appeased and feared.
For others God is a heavenly Santa Clause watching our every move and keeping track of how “good” or “bad” we are. If we manage to stay on God’s nice lists, than we and our loved ones will enjoy God’s love and protection. But if we get on God’s “naughty” list-than we can expect God to withhold love and protection from us.
And of course in my blog post, Kill the Moon, I talk about a God that seems to arbitrarily decide when to get involved with the pain of humanity and when to respect humanity’s “free will” and allow things to unfold.
DOCTOR: Clara? You asked me what we’re going to do. I told you. We’re going to hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die. If there is anywhere. Wherever it is, we’re going to go there and we’re going to find Danny. And if it is in any way possible, we’re going to bring him home. Almost every culture in the universe has some concept of an afterlife. I always meant to have a look around, see if I could find one.
CLARA: You’re going to help me?
DOCTOR: Well, why wouldn’t I help you?
CLARA: Because of what I just did. I just
DOCTOR: You betrayed me. Betrayed my trust, you betrayed our friendship, you betrayed everything that I’ve ever stood for. You let me down!
CLARA: Then why are you helping me?
DOCTOR: Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?
So much of our theology is based on fear and appeasing God. But what if like Clara, we have misunderstood the level of compassion God has for us? Clara thought she needed to manipulate the Doctor in order to convince him to help her, so when the Doctor reveals that the previous scenario hadn’t actually occurred, she is left wondering where their relationship stands. When the Doctor insists that he is going to help her despite her actions, she is shocked. The Doctor cares about her. He is willing to try and find Danny and bring him back from the dead-even though he is not exactly sure such a thing is even possible. Yet he is willing to try because he cares about her. He loves her. Clara under-estimated how much the Doctor truly does care for her.
Likewise, so many of our ideas about God severely underestimate how loved we are. When it comes to death and suffering, God is seen as the cause or as a being that we need to fear and appease in order to avoid pain. God’s love is directly tied to our actions. When we do good, God loves us more, when we make mistakes or sin, than God loves us a little less. This idea under-girds traditional understandings of the afterlife. God loves us and wants to be with us-but first we have to accept doctrinal statements that weren’t completely formulated until the fourth century. God’s love is conditional and limited. As a result, our interactions with God are about avoiding punishment or trying to get God to help us, protect us etc.
But what if God isn’t an angry puppet master, who for some reason or other, decides that one person will die while another lives? What if we understood God as our companion in our suffering? What if we let go of defining God primarily in terms of power and instead focus on God’s love and desire for relationship with humanity? Christians- often offer theological notions that simply support the lopsided power structures dominant in our world. To minimize or even question God’s omnipotence, is seen as discarding a central, necessary tenant of Christianity. But why do we desire an all-powerful God so much-one who cause or at least wills bad events to happen, one who decides when and where to get involved in the suffering of humanity?
The Doctor is betrayed by Clara. He saw how far she is willing to go in order to manipulate him and get what she wants. Yet he essentially dismisses her actions as unimportant. He doesn’t demand an apology, he simply tells her that his love for her is greater than her betrayal. Of course he will help her, even though he thinks what she is asking is impossible, of course he will stay by her side. Steven Moffat, through the Doctor, seems to understand the nature of love, yet somehow we insist that God’s love is based on power, control, and fear. God doesn’t cause our suffering. God’s heart breaks when we are in pain. And when we get angry, curse God, etc God isn’t ready to strike us down with a lightning bolt, or humble us. God is willing to listen to us, to hear our pain, and when we calm down, God reassures us of God’s love. When we behave in ways that are terrible, when we hurt others and hurt God, God loves us. Of course God hold us accountable, but accountability is not necessarily synonymous with punishment. God is a God of love and grace. And no matter what we go through or what we do, nothing will ever change God’s love for us.
What if God, like the Doctor wonders, “Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?” Do we think that our actions, our emotions, our pain could cause God to love us less?