The third part of the theological science fiction starting point list (Part 1and Part 2).
Contact – Carl Sagan (1985)
The American cosmologist, Carl Sagan, penned this novel, originally meant to be a film script, which examines humanities first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Sagan described himself as agnostic, with his Gifford Lectures (which focus on natural theology) collected together in the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. One of the key themes running through this book is how, if at all, empirical reality and subjective experience, can be related, something that often forms part of the discussion between science and religion.
In 1997 the novel was released as the feature film, Contact, staring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. If you’re not into reading, then the film raises the same sorts of matters, perhaps stressing the science and religion relationship a little more.
A Wrinkle in Time is the best know of these books, but all of them deal with concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, faith and reason, and the wonder of the universe set within a science fiction world incumbent with a Christian worldview and powers. (I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet while writing an essay on principalities and powers in Paul’s letters and found the imagery in the novel striking).
There have been various attempts to create film and other media versions of A Wrinkle in Time with various degrees of success, and with different approaches to dealing with the religious elements of the book and the family dynamics of characters. For example:
The Sparrow (1996) and The Children of God (1998) – Mary Doria Russell
In the tradition of James’s Blish’s A Case of Conscience, these two novels feature a Jesuit expedition to the first intelligent alien life discovered by humankind. It is an intelligent treatment of not just the interplay of faith and reason, but on a deeper level of theodicy and divine providence. The title of the first book refers to Matt 10:29-31 and God’s omniscience:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (NRSV)
Developed from Clarke’s short story, Guardian Angel (1946), the story depicts the peaceful invasion (or conquest) of Earth by aliens known as Overlords. They usher in an apparent utopia, but ultimately human identity and culture suffer. One of the features of the story is the appearence of these benevolent overlords, whose appearence resembles demonic figures from human cultural memory.
The Parafaith War (1996), The Ethos Effect (2003) and Adiamante (1996) – L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Prolific author L. E. Modesitt Jr. has a number of books that pick up on religious and ethical contexts. Modessitt isn’t overly religious as noted here in one of his blog posts but sees religion forming an unavoidable part of society for better or worse (Religion and Civilization):
So, as much as I may complain or point out the notable shortcomings of religion, and organized religion in particular, it appears that healthy societies require some theological basis, at least at the current level of human ethical development. The question then becomes to what degree religion should influence government, law, and behavior. Personally, I think the Founding Fathers got it right, but I mean it in the way they wrote the Constitution, and not in the activist way in which too many true believers seem to think that freedom of religion means the freedom to compel others to behave according to their religious beliefs or the freedom to enact laws that in some fashion or another effectively institutionalize those beliefs.
The three books of his that I’d recommend are:
The Parafaith War: Set in a future where humanity has colonised space but is divided between different approaches to society and government. In the novel the protagonist, who is from the “liberal, progressive” Eco-Tech Coalition, is sent to infiltrate and subvert the expansionist, “fundamentalist” society know as the Revenants of the Prophet. As he does that he discovers the human face of the enemy.
The Ethos Effect is set in the same universe as The Parafaith War but follows the journeys of a former Taran Empire officer who is recruited by Integrated Information Systems, an organisation that seeks to ethically shape the diverse human societies. The book explores both personal ethics, as well as wider social ethics.
The final book, Adiamante, continues the ethical theme, this time building a code of social ethics that is tested in the face of ireffutable force. A mixture of reflection on various developing technologies, as well as how that might shape human societies.
A few weeks back I did a guest lecture on “Science, Technology and Human Being” in the Laidlaw postgraduate course R202 God’s World: Theology and Science and Theology. I framed my discussion using a trajectory through science fiction starting with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” through to contemporary narratives, focusing on the hopes and fears expressed about science and technology at different points in that trajectory.
As part of that, I offered the students some starting points for engaging with science fiction writing with overt theological themes and characters. This wasn’t a definitive list, but somewhere they could start if they were unfamiliar with science fiction.
Here’s my first part of my list of starting points.
James Blish – A Case of Conscience (1958)
“This is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race that has no religion yet has a perfect, innate sense of morality, a situation which conflicts with Catholic teaching.”
For a related story, Ken MacLeod’s 2005 short story “A Case of Consilience” plays on Blish’s story for another take of the proclamation of the gospel in an alien context. You can read the story in a number of science fiction anthologies or at the link below:
Space explorers find a planet where the population is in a state of bliss. Upon investigation, they discover that an enigmatic visitor came to them, whom the spacemen come to believe is Jesus. One decides to spend his life rejoicing in the man’s glory. Another uses the spaceship to try to catch up to the mysterious traveller, but at each planet he finds that ‘He’ has just left after spreading his word. Other members of the crew remain on the planet to learn from the contented citizens, and are rewarded by the discovery that ‘He’ is still on the planet.
A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
A series of three connected episodes over thousands of years in a post-apocalyptic future where the church preserves scientific knowledge in a new “dark age” and civilization rebuilds itself.
It was only when I was about halfway into the act that I thought, “Oh, crud, this is the same area Canticle explored.” And for several days I set it aside and strongly considered dropping it, or changing the venue (at one point considered setting it in the ruins of a university, but I couldn’t make that work realistically…who’d be supporting a university in the ruins of a major nuclear war? Who’d have the *resources* I needed? The church, or what would at least LOOK like the church. My sense of backstory here is that the Anla-shok moved in and started little “abbeys” all over the place, using the church as cover, but rarely actually a part of it, which was why they had not gotten their recognition, and would never get it. Rome probably didn’t even know about them, or knew them only distantly.)
Anyway…at the end of the day, I decided to leave it as it was, since I’d gotten there on an independent road, we’d already had a number of monks on B5, and there’s been a LOT of theocratic science fiction written beyond Canticle…Gather Darkness, aspects of Foundation, others.
As an aside, Babylon 5 has some fine theological pieces woven through it. I’d recommend:
By its very nature science fiction is speculative, providing a safe space to ask critical questions about our current world within imaginative environments used to focus upon those questions. As theologian Stephen May comments,
[s]uch invention can either suggest a universe as strange as possible (with equally strange creatures inhabiting it), or one like ours – except for one vital difference.
Stephen May, Stardust and Ashes: Science Fiction in Christian Perspective (London: SPCK, 1998): 15.
These speculative environments allow the anxieties and hopes surrounding science and technology to be articularly by the wider community, even if they don’t consider themselves ‘science fiction’ fans. Australian media scholar Lelia Green comments:
The widespread fascination with the interface of biology and technology, and the potential for fusion between the two, is a continuing theme of contemporary narratives. Through films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix, our society tells itself stories about what it is to be human in a world where humans are increasingly influenced by, and dependent upon, technology and technocultures. Here the myths of loss and longing are play out in the context of technologically driven futures, where machines can feel feelings and have roles with more humanity in them than the ‘people’ characters do. A recurring theme of these narratives concerns the merging of the human with the machine, and questions of the essential nature of humanity. These are boundary issues. The fascination may, in part, be attributable to questions about how much technology compromises the essentially human: not a pacemaker, nor a bionic ear; not a test-tube conception, nor cultured skin—but the suspicion is that there is a boundary beyond which it is unsafe to go. How far is too far?
Lelia Green, Technoculture: From Alphabet to Cybersex
(Crowsnest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2002), 167
Science fiction is therefore a rich source for theological reflection, not only from writers who weave religious characters and ideas through their work, but also as a space to think theologically about God, humanity and the world around us. Recently, James McGrath at Butler University (who blogs at ReligionProf) has been doing some excellent work in promoting this through both his own monographs and edited collections. These move beyond simply pointing out religion in science fiction texts to beginning a theological conversation coming out of (and returning to) those texts.
When I was in Denver in August I visited the Denver Art Museum as part of the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture conference that was meeting in Boulder. Part of that involved visiting a number of curated installations, many of which showcased indigenous artists and their work.
Walking to the Denver Art Museum
Tucked away in one of the galleries was an installation based around the game “Never Alone”. I’d noticed this game before online, but had never seen it played. In the installation there were a cluster of consoles set up for people to play the game, with one wall showing the game play of from one of the consoles at any given time. Players were a mixture of children and adults, and all seemed to connect to with the game and its characters. On one of the walls there was a description of the history of the game as well as some still photographs of it.
What is unique about this game, is that it worked with indigenous people in Alaska to create an engaging game that told their stories, as opposed to simply appropriating them without permission as in the Civilization VI controversy with their inclusion of a Cree Civilization option (see Cree Nation headman unhappy with Civilization 6 portrayal)
From the art installation at DAM
You can see the trailer for the game here below:
Yesterday, I got a notification from Steam saying the game was on sale. To be honest, I’d forgotten I was going to buy it, so I immediately jumped over to the Steam store at got the game, the extra DLC and the soundtrack. At less than $NZ5 on sale it’s a steal. See the link below:
I’ve been sick at home for the past few days so have been spending some time movie watching. Not feeling like anything overly heavy, and indeed something that I could pick up the plot of again if I fell asleep, I gave the Mythica series a go seeing as I had the DVDs lying around.
It was cheap and cheerful. Think Dungeons and Dragons or some other ‘sword and sorcery’ form of popular culture. All the standard tropes were there: A rag-tag band of heroes seeking to save the world; an ancient evil to be overcome; standard character class mix (á la DnD Dragonlance series) – a warrior (Caramon?); a half-elf rogue/ranger (Tanis?); a magic user (Raistlin?); and a priestess (Crysania?); characters learning to trust each other and work together; endless journeying across wilderness and in caves and tunnels (Tunnels and Trolls anyone?); lead character (Marek) being tempted by the “Dark Side”; and an ancient mentor (Kevin Sorbo hamming it up) passing on his mantle to his apprentice
There are five films in the series, with the first four having the heroes attempt a quest and each time being thwarted by the villain seeking the ancient evil, and then the last film there’s the final clash between good and evil and everything works out.
The Mythica website bills the movies as “Mythica is the most ambitious indie fantasy project ever undertaken. The series is comprised of five feature films, shot over two years on location in Utah, USA.” A portion of the films’ financing came from Kickstarter too, and the films represented original content created for the ConTV network which serves content to the Comic Con audience.
You can get a feel of the films from the trailer.
It unashamedly feels like the Hercules or Xena TV shows if they had better special effects and longer story arcs. The acting is passable – thought uneven, the effects show their budget, and the villain lacks motivation, but the characters are willing and if you are prepared to take it as ‘cheap and cheerful’ it’s a fairly enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, romp playing to its fanboys and fangirls. You will be yelling a lot at the screen though.
However, my most enduring thought through the films was that it was like a movie version of the mid-80s video game ‘Gauntlet‘ where an elf, warrior, valkyrie and wizard team up in ‘hack and slash’ adventures to raid dungeons, defeat the bad guys, collect treasure and build experience. I half expected a voice to boom out in the movie, “Elf, your life-force is running out,” which would be appropriate as the elf character tends to get pincushioned by arrows and bolts in every movie.
Each year I do a module in an undergradute Christology course that focuses on cinematic portrayals of Jesus, and I’m getting ready to do that again in late September. So, I’m looking at my DVD and digital media collection of films (and a few TV series) that deal explicitly with the portrayal of Jesus and those around him, and wondering what to add to it.
A quick survey of the bookshelves in my office gives me the following films:
Over the next few weeks I’ll be adding to these. I’m particularly interested in locating some Jesus films from non-Western contexts, as well as trying to locate some of the very early cinematic portrayals of Jesus like the 1903 The Life and Passion of Christ (of which a painstakingly colourised version can be found on YouTube below).