Our situation is already pretty bad, but it gets even worse. Therefore we try harder, but it only ever increases our need for help. But in our lowest moment, instead of comfort, our greatest enemy shows up to taunt us.
After some very heady episodes (like “Duet,” “Cardassians,” and “Profit and Loss,” just to name a few), a suspenseful runaway train of a mystery with minimal philosophical payload is something of a relief. That’s not to say that we can’t mine its consequential narrative structure for theological connection or wisdom; of course we can, and in fact we will.
But it’s about more than just the things that happen in the episode; the important theological points in “Civil Defense” grow out of the events, yes, but also from the very structure it is composed of. The escalating and consequential nature of everything getting worse is a textbook example of a storytelling structure that we humans seem to really like.
Consequential Narrative Structure
Writing duo Matt Stone and Trey Parker have a cardinal rule of screenwriting: eliminate the “and thens.” If any story beats can be separated with “and then,” you will lose momentum in your story, Parker says; “whenever you can replace your ‘ands’ with ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’ it makes for better writing.”
Even though season 3 of Deep Space Nine was penned by different screenwriters, before Stone & Parker’s career really began and long before this axiom was ever codified, “Civil Defense” follows this rule to a T.
Consequential narrative isn’t a magic bullet Stone & Parker discovered; nor is it a structure that only “Civil Defense” adheres to. It’s something the world of narrative fiction has been working on for thousands of years; from The Odyssey to Romeo & Juliet to A Quiet Place. We like stories built up of scenes which have purpose and consequence. But why?
Therefore God made us to love story
I’m of the opinion that this story structure is effective to people because it’s written on our hearts. Far from being an accidental part of the way our minds understand stories, it’s a part of how God wrote His story onto our hearts. Indeed, God’s story is in this structure (God created humanity, but humans rebelled, therefore God sent a Rescuer); there’s no “and then…” with God. Everything He does has a purpose, and everything He does has consequence.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
—Isaiah 55:10-11, ESV
Rain falls, therefore plants grow. God speaks, therefore things happen. His word goes out, but people rebel against it, but it cannot fail to accomplish its purpose, therefore it succeeds.
He made us to love the consequentiality of His story: we look for it everywhere, because it’s the way He operates. And we find it in “Civil Defense.” And just like in the episode, it’s not all roses and sunshine for us.
But humans screwed up
Everything that happens in “Civil Defense” happens because one of our characters messed up; they drive the story, but never toward life.
- O’Brien accidentally activates an old Cardassian counter-insurgency program
- Therefore he, Ben, and Jake are forced to escape the ore processing center
- But the computer interprets their escape as an even bigger rebellion
- Therefore it locks down the station
- Therefore they try to hack their way through
- Therefore Dukat shows up to gloat at their failure
- But he becomes trapped there as well when the system thinks he’s trying to escape
- Therefore he tells the rest of the crew how they can fix the problem.
This hits home for us because we’ve messed up, too. But it’s not just a mistake; we’ve actively rebelled against the Story, trying to insert a “but” where one doesn’t belong. “God wants this for my life, but I think I know better than the God who created me.”
And predictably, it failed; Therefore, though our situation was already bad, it has become worse. Therefore we try harder, but it only ever increases our need for help. But in our lowest moment, instead of comfort, our greatest enemy shows up to taunt us.
Satan laughs at us for not being able to fix this on our own, but he suggests that he can. He shows us everywhere we’ve made a mistake, and suggests that if he is allowed to keep a garrison in our sinful hearts, everything will be better. He seeks a foothold on my desire for God.
Unfortunately, the father of lies has begun with the truth: we can’t do it on our own.
But God sent a Savior
One of the most dramatic phrases in the Bible is “But God…” Depending on the translation, it appears in the old and new testaments over a hundred times; and usually, it’s a promise that God will act to save His people, even amid the terrible situations they find themselves in (or put themselves into). “But God meant it for good;” “But God will bring you out of exile;” “But the Lord is faithful;” “But God shows his love in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Everything seems awful. It’s probably our fault, too; not yours or mine in particular, necessarily, but humanity’s. We broke the world; therefore, everything seems awful.
That’s a scene in and of itself, isn’t it? The triumphant, dramatic, decisive victory; on a field of battle, or in a courtroom, or in romance, or against our own demons. Or at the last second, against an insurmountable force of nature. We love the last-moment victories. God gave us that, because it was part of His story.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
—Romans 5:6-8, ESV
In our worst moment, He sent a savior—and not like an impotent Garak or a conniving Dukat. Like Jake, He put Himself on the line to pull us out of a fire we couldn’t survive. Like Ben, He redirected the punishment to One who could take it. Therefore, we have been set free to live life to the fullest.