On Bearings Online, we run an occasional series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. The following essay by Sara Olson Dean explores the pastor Anna character in The Expanse book series, which was adapted by the SyFy channel into a television show.
I was in high school when I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. I loved the show. In the Star Trek universe, earth is no longer plagued by poverty, prejudice, international conflict, or environmental degradation. Thanks to scientific discovery and technological advancement, humanity has evolved beyond such things, freeing intrepid Star Fleet officers to boldly go where no one has gone before. I still think life aboard Captain Picard’s USS Enterprise would be pretty great, except that all this progress has carried humanity into an age in which religion has been jettisoned as unenlightened superstition. If I were headed for the stars, I’d want to take my faith with me.
It was both a surprise and a delight, then, to meet the Reverend Doctor Annushka Volovodov — or Pastor Anna — in the pages of James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. In this vision of a space-faring future, people have settled the moon, colonized Mars, and built cities in the asteroid belt. Earth and Mars are sometimes at war. Significant cultural and physical differences divide the “inners” (who grew up in a planet’s gravity) and the “belters” (who didn’t). The primary arc of the series involves the discovery and misuse of the protomolecule (a substance engineered by an alien civilization). The protomolecule makes many things possible, but it profoundly disrupts political structures and alliances.
The story spans decades and has a large cast, but throughout the story, people are, well, people. In other words, Corey posits a future in which human achievement hasn’t brought about any great evolution of the human species. People carry their tendencies toward prejudice and violence and their religious traditions into the far reaches of space. A Mormon-built space ship is central to the story; the cast includes a missionary, a Catholic priest, and a Martian military chaplain as minor but noteworthy characters. By far the most important religious character in the book series, however, is Pastor Anna.
Pastor Anna offers pastoral care, forms a worshipping community, deals with church politics, wrestles with ethical quandaries, and navigates the challenges of ministering in a new context.
We meet Pastor Anna in the third novel, Abaddon’s Gate. She leads a small Methodist congregation on Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons). But she soon joins a collection of religious, political, and cultural figures on a voyage out to the ring gate — a creation of the protomolecule that becomes the center of human curiosity and conflict. Anna plays a central role as the story unfolds.
As a pastor (with Methodist roots, no less), I was surprised over and over by how familiar this character was. Pastor Anna struggles to be away from her wife and daughter, but goes on this venture with their blessing. She offers pastoral care, forms a worshipping community, deals with church politics, wrestles with ethical quandaries, and navigates the challenges of ministering in a new context. In particular, she has to carve out a role different from that of the overbearing, mansplaining priest who aligns himself with powerful political leaders. But as the story progresses, she finds her calling as a public theologian.
While others ask what the ring gate is, or what will happen if ships enter it, or who will claim it, Anna asks deeper questions: What does it mean? How will it transform people’s understanding of themselves, of the universe, of God? But her theological wrestling is kept firmly rooted in her day-to-day practice of ministry. In a scene I found particularly moving, she offers words from First Corinthians and the sacrament of communion to Earthers, Martians, and Belters, unexpectedly gathered as one. She counts it as the most important thing she’s ever done. Her universe is utterly different from ours. Even so, I suspect that many of the pastors I know would recognize something of their life and ministry in her (just not the space walk).
The Pastor Anna on the page and the Pastor Anna on the screen are vastly different.
I first encountered Pastor Anna in the pages of a book. But many people will first meet her in the SyFy channel adaptation. Friends who met her there received her well, noting that it’s refreshing to have a courageous and thoughtful character rooted in a life of faith. I don’t disagree. Still, the Pastor Anna on the page and the Pastor Anna on the screen are vastly different. On screen, she is well connected to Earth’s Secretary-General, having once served as his speech writer, and it is by his invitation that she is pulled into the story line; she isn’t chosen for her gifts as a strong, thoughtful pastor (as happens in the book). She continues to write speeches for the Secretary-General, rather than muse over sermons of her own. The show’s writers added nursing to her background, and this skill provides the vehicle for her caregiving; perhaps they suspect that the general public wouldn’t consider pastoral care to be a professional skill set in its own right. On screen, the things that make her most interesting and capable aren’t related to her work or identity as a religious leader. Sure, the show portrays Pastor Anna in a good light. It’s just that she isn’t so recognizably a pastor.
I suspect these differences are instructive. That the show’s writers kept her label as a pastor suggests they presume that audiences are still willing to welcome a religious leader portrayed in a positive light. But the fact that they omitted most of the things that actually made her seem like a real pastor suggests a presumption that the audience simply wouldn’t take an interest in a pastor who actually functioned like one. There are many things from the book that get lost in the television adaptation; Pastor Anna’s character is one of them.
I’d be glad to be as faithful a pastor as Pastor Anna is.
In the books, Pastor Anna offers much for contemporary people of faith to ponder. How does our faith respond to new scientific discoveries and technological advances? What perspectives can we bring to bear on the questions of our time? Plenty of people share Jean Luc Picard’s assumption that reason and science propel us beyond religion. I suspect that Pastor Anna could help us find a way to engage such dogma. As a mainline Protestant who has heard about the decline of institutional Christianity for decades, I’m not sure what sort of church I could expect to see if humans finally get around to colonizing the asteroid belt or Mars. But if it’s anything like what we see in The Expanse — Methodist congregations on the moons of Jupiter, interfaith expeditions to newly discovered phenomena — I’d be thrilled. It’s heartening to ponder the possibility that our faith traditions are rich and deep and vital enough to remain meaningful in a universe where interstellar travel — with all its dangers and moral dilemmas — is possible.
I’ll never walk in space, or live on Europa, or travel to a gate that offers a portal into other solar systems. But I’d be glad to be as faithful a pastor as Pastor Anna is. I wasn’t looking for vocational inspiration in the pages of a sci-fi series, but it was a delightful surprise to find her there, doggedly living the gospel in the far reaches of the solar system.