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'Star Trek' as religious voyage; With plenty of enterprise, a college professor uses the popular TV and film series to teach issues of faith - and to discuss how religion fits into modern life.

With a doctorate in theology and a collection of 137 "Star Trek" action figures, Lois Daly was probably destined to teach a course called "Star Trek and Religion."

An unusual combination, perhaps. But not illogical, as Mr. Spock might say.

This semester, students at Siena College near Albany, N.Y., learned what fans of the show have known for years - that underneath the tight uniforms and campy dialogue lies a serious examination of major themes, including religion.

"What I wanted to do was teach students to take religion seriously," says Daly, 41, the college's dean of arts. "Pop culture is one way of doing that."

From her most undean-like of offices, Daly glances at her collection of action figures and explains that metaphysics plays a natural role in a show that explores "the

final frontier."

Daly's class, which alternates video sessions with readings in theology, is no walk on the Holodeck. Daly's students must read dense theological tracts.

"The class is about opening up what religion means in the late 20th century," she says.

Daly's is one of several courses around the nation exploring the deeper implications of the popular TV show. An Indiana University course also examined the show's links to religion, and a Pennsylvania college recently offered "Star Trek and Modern Man."

With the recent release of the movie "Insurrection," "Star Trek" is more popular than ever.

One much-discussed episode is "Rightful Heir," from "Star Trek: the Next Generation." It poses an interesting question for Christians: What would happen if the prophesied Second Coming of Christ actually occurred?

As the episode begins, Worf, the Starship Enterprise's hawkish security chief and a member of the Klingon race, is beginning to doubt the ancient stories about Kahless, the warrior hero at the center of Klingon myth, and yearns to believe in the legend that says Kahless will one day return.

Miraculously, someone appears. This is the distant future, so Worf doesn't have to rely on faith; he performs a DNA test. The result: It's Kahless, in the flesh. Worf's belief is restored, even after he learns that the would-be Kahless is a clone. The episode's message? It's about faith, and whether physical evidence is

necessary to sustain that faith.

Daly says she became fascin-ated with what she calls "Star Trek's" "cultural refraction" - the way it mirrors present-day conflicts and prejudices. Her collection of action figures became a natural adjunct to that fascination. Not that she thinks of them as religious icons.

"I just like the way they look," she says.

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