Regular readers will know that it is rare for me to blog on items of outside interest, all the many non-academic interests that make life so enjoyable, British TV and radio, cinema, music, cricket, football, politics and so on. But I do make exceptions where items of personal interest intersect with the theme of the blog. The most recent episode of Doctor Who, broadcast on BBC1 last Saturday (Series 3, Episode 8), was called Human Nature, the first of a two parter with Family of Blood to follow this Saturday. It was written by Paul Cornell, who wrote the superb "Father's Day" in the first of the new Doctor Whos in 2005.
American readers will be less familiar with Doctor Who than British readers. Very briefly, it is the longest running science fiction TV series of all time, from 1963 to the present; it is produced by the BBC and is about a time-travelling alien from the planet Gallifrey called The Doctor. He travels in a blue 1960s police box called the TARDIS and has a companion, usually female. He is able to change his appearance when he regenerates, and has done this nine times. The series was cancelled by the BBC in 1989; it re-emerged briefly in 1996 for a TVM; it returned triumphantly in 2005 when it had been transformed almost out of recognition from what we were brought up with, under Russell T. Davies. The current series is the third of these new Doctor Whos, with David Tennant playing the tenth doctor.
This week's episode (30 second trailer here) saw the Doctor pursued by "the family of blood", and his only hope of escaping from them was to hide. Thus, for the first time ever, he uses the chameleon arch, in the TARDIS, to change his entire make up and transform him into a human being, his Doctor's essence now contained in an old fob watch which was not to be opened. His new life is as John Smith, a teacher in a British public school in 1913. His current companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) acts as his maid, and watches and waits until it is safe for John Smith to become the Doctor again.
The reason the episode appealed to me was not just that it was a cracking retelling of the age-old story of the alien taking on human nature and living in a particular time and a particular place, doing extraordinary things, but it was one of the best fictional attempts I have seen to work out the "emptying" of the alien's powers, to achieve kenosis before embarking on the new adventure on earth.
I recall clearly when I first heard about kenotic Christology, when reading Charles Gore when I was a student in Oxford; I remember being quite thrilled by this idea, which I had never heard in Church, and which seemed to make complete sense to me, with Scriptural precedent (Phil. 2.6-11) and intellectual coherence. I asked my Church History tutor, Geoffrey Rowell at Keble College, why more people did not see this as a solution to the profound difficulties with understanding and expressing the doctrine of the incarnation, and he agreed that it had had something of a bad press.
One of the difficulties with a kenotic Christology, I am told, is that it is extraodinarily difficult to explain what it might mean to speak of an "emptying" of what pertains to being God. In what sense is Jesus of Nazareth "God" if that character is emptied of that nature? Since I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian, I like stories that will help me to imagine my way into interesting theological ideas, and this episode of Doctor Who, for the first time that I have seen in fiction, grappled with the idea of an alien emptying himself, being transformed into a human being, and asking the question whether this is indeed the same man. Is John Smith of "Human Nature" the same person as the Doctor? He looks the same; he has many of the Doctor's traits; at night he dreams of that other life and those other adventures; but he has only residual awareness of his other identity, expressed in his Journal of Impossible Things. This short YouTube clip comes about half-way through the episode, as Martha returns to the TARDIS and has flashbacks to the key moments of the Doctor's kenosis.