Books Besides the Bible: Is Science Fiction un-Christian?

Every Monday in Books Besides the Bible, Ethan Bartlett considers the value and pleasure of reading for Christians.

While I don’t know how widespread this perception is, I’ve had several people — all of them pastors or lay Bible teachers — immediately ask me something like, “Isn’t the worldview of science fiction inherently anti- or at least un-Christian, since it views science as the ultimate savior of mankind?” after discovering that I’m a fan of the genre. The first few times this happened, it took me by surprise; I had never particularly thought about the genre in this light, even though I was familiar with particular authors who did tend to assume that science would eventually replace religion and that technology would save us all.

All of the questioners were middle-aged, meaning their perception of science fiction was probably formed during or just after science fiction’s “Golden Age” (roughly the 1940s-60s), during which most of the major science fiction being published probably did share this worldview.

There’s some additional truth to this perception: historically, science fiction is an inherently optimistic genre that tends to view scientific advances as good things. While never blind to the fact that advances have their downsides, it assumes that science will solve whatever problems it creates. (I have read at least one critic, Bruce Kawan, who claims that this optimistic attitude toward the unknown is what defines science fiction; a pessimistic attitude would make the same story a horror story.)

However, I don’t think any particular work in the genre need be anti- or even un-Christian. Jonathan Strahan, in the introduction to his 2008 anthology The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, writes that science fiction is “an ongoing conversation about what’s happening in the world we live in and where we’re going.” Science fiction is about possible futures, and unless we’re confident about the date of the Second Coming (we’re not), it might do us good to look at those futures head-on.

The last story in Stratham’s collection is “Pinocchio” by Walter Jon Williams. It posits a future in which we’re hooked up to the internet all the time, we can change bodies at a whim, and immortality is simply a fact of everyday life since all of our information can be saved and transported to a new body. These ideas are not particularly new to science fiction — John C. Wright’s Golden Age trilogy and M.T. Anderson’s brilliant young adult novel Feed are two recent examples with similar premises — but where Williams goes is interesting.

After his girlfriend breaks up with him very publicly, the main character, a sort of ‘net celebrity, has a conversation with his mother:

Mom thinks for a moment. “What you should do is be nice to her,” she said [sic]. “Saint Paul said that doing good for your enemy is like pouring hot coals on her head.”

“A saint said that?”

My mom smiled. “He was a pretty angry saint.”

Leaving aside the correctness of the assessment of Saint Paul’s character, this is an interesting conversation to find within a story about the fairly far future. The assumption that a far-future culture descended from ours would still remember the religious influences on ours, and still make some use of them, is perfectly rational. This gets left out of science fiction stories somewhat frequently. I think the reasons, depending on the author, sometimes involve not wanting to deal with religion, and sometimes invovlve the naïve belief that technology will eventually replace religion.

Other stories in Strahan’s collection could support my point as well: Cory Doctorow’s story “Anda’s Game” involves an inherently futuristic social-justice problem, Greg Egan’s “Lost Continent” is about social compassion and the lack thereof, and Scott Westerfeld’s story “Ass-Hat Magic Spider” is about a simple act of kindness. Each of these is inherently futuristic, as science fiction stories should be. At the same time, these are stories about human beings, and therefore contain an element of universality.

Science fiction is a look toward the future, and as Strahan says, a conversation with the present. While its optimism can be worrying to us who believe in original sin, the presence of humanity and the prevalence of humanitarian themes throughout the best science fiction stories is not necessarily a denial of human nature, but often an affirmation of the best in us.

About Ethan Bartlett
  • http://virtualstowaway.wordpress.com Jonah Stowe

    I’ve never understood the resistance to genre fiction that still crops up among some Christians. It seems that the arguments against science fiction (or fantasy) always feel like arguments that were developed simply to fit a pre-existing personal preference. If people simply don’t care for science-fiction, that’s not an issue, but when that preference is bloated into some kind of moral position, then I’m tempted to call foul. To say that science-fiction should be avoided because it argues that “technology will save us,” must, if we deduce the implications of the argument, lead to the invalidation of many genres. Romance becomes invalid because it argues that relationships will save us, fantasy becomes invalid because magic will save us, mysteries become invalid because the law will save us. That said, I do think that science-fiction would benefit from acknowledging the future influence and significance of religion, as in Williams’s story.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    The idea that we should be against a genre like science ficition is crazy. First, there are plenty of ways in which a healthy perspective can be brought to bear… authors like C.S. Lewis and Orson Scott Card quite easily.

    But further, there is plenty to be learned from non-Christian perspectives. Studying Spinoza and Nietzsche has only strengthened my faith, and such is also the case with reading Clarke or Asimov. Walking through life with blinders on shows a distinct lack of trust in Christianity’s ability to weather the challenges of the secular world.

  • kevin

    It logical that Christianity will be around in the past
    Present and future then given that sci-fi is something
    That is possible and impossible but highly probable then
    Logic would concloude that certain aspects of say star
    Trek are possible gene rodenberry was man with a vision
    That a world where poverty, war and disase don’t exsist so in
    Other words I think Christianity and sci- fi can some what
    Go hand and hand given certain parameters
    It is well said if you eliminate the impossible however
    Improbable must be the truth live long and prosper

  • Larry Prater

    Most — but not all — of my brothers and sisters in Christ feel that if a Christian reads fiction, then it should be of a didactic nature. No ambiguities. Clear “gospel” message. At least PG-rated if it were to be a movie. Moreover, few Christians that I know read fiction at all, preferring to read devotional and spiritually-instructional non-fiction. C. S. Lewis is the prominent except, of course.

    My own devotion to sf and fantasy has always made suspect to the brethren.

  • http://virtualstowaway.wordpress.com Jonah Stowe

    @Ethan, one other thing–is science-fiction part of your studies as a graduate student? If so, what are the major texts/authors that you’re interested in/focus on? I read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy in middle school and high school, but I shifted to 19th c. British literature in grad school. I think my all time favorite sci-fi novels are the five original Dune novels, but I haven’t had a chance to keep up with what’s out there.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Ethan,

    You raise an interesting and complex point. I have ever been a fan of genre fiction: science fiction, fantasy, horror, and that nebulous middle-ground category of “weird fiction” (e.g. H. P. Lovecraft). I am a member of the Science Fiction Research Association and gave a paper at a science fiction conference this past semester. These issues are timely and relevant to me, and I’m glad you highlight them here. I appreciate your approach.

    I would first say that, of the big three speculative genres (weird fiction, a sort of hybrid, is anothing entirely), science fiction does seem to lean the closest to being less Christian in orientation. Fantasy is the easiest for the believer to work with, because the act of sub-creation (as Tolkien calls it) that goes into establishing a “secondary world” is akin to Christian understandings of God’s creation (though not 100% equaivalent); indeed, fantasy is probably the hardest genre to be an atheist in (though hardly impossible; there are many great non-religious fantasists). Horror is surprisingly amenable to Christian teaching, as it is often the easiest to articulate the doctrine of sin through such a medium (many great Gothic works do just that); of course, horror works just as well for non-believers also.

    In what most purist writers and critics of science fiction maintain, however, this is the only of the three genres in which incursions of the supernatural world are NOT allowed. An sf writer who invokes (sometimes even suggests) the presence of a supernatural world is likely to be warned that he or she is straying into fantasy. Now, many science fiction writers have science work as their primary breadwinning occupation; this means that they are accustomed to adopting in their professional lives a strictly rigorous methodological naturalism to their job, and thus they will tend to apply it to their writings. This sometimes is tainted by an unscientific optimistic scientism, a sense that science bears well-nigh salvific qualities. It is also often mixed in with a disdain for religious belief generally and Evangelical or Roman Catholic Christianity specifically. I see this often reflected in e-mail comments from SFRA members.

    That said, however, there is clearly room for Christian speculative science fiction. Several such classics already exist, such as Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Cordwainer Smith’s later Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and, more recently, the novels of Michael F. Flynn (particularly the Hugo-nominated Eifelheim). Some other works interact with religious beliefs responsibly, like James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. In one sense, Christian science fiction has no choice but to be excellent: skeptical sf writers raise the bar very high because they will only grudgingly accept religious science fiction into their canons. Were the above works anything less than classics of the genre, they would have been panned instantly and possibly not even published.

    I have not encounetered the same Christian prejudice toward scienfce fiction (or fantasy) that you describe, Ethan (horror is another story). In general, I have experienced that even very conservative Christians tend to like fantasy and science fiction, at least in practice. The overall takeaway, I would contend, is that there is room for Christian science fiction writers, as you note, Ethan. However, they should know going in that their standards (both in terms of narrative and the quality of their science) should be extremely high; anything less, and they will be playing right into the stereotypes of religious writers that currently dominate the genre and its critics.

    Geoffrey R.

  • http://stormman.blogspot.com Ethan

    Jonah: I have never had a course specifically in science fiction or fantasy, either at a graduate or undergrad level. On a few occasions I’ve done genre-related research, but this has always been a result of me tailoring a more generic project to my own interests. The article I mentioned parenthetically was Bruce Kawan’s “Children of the Light,” which is a film theory article about the horror genre–it IS excellent reading. Another academically-minded work in the field is Michael Moorcock’s “Wizardry and Wild Romance,” which is a study of the origins of epic fantasy. His chapter on Tolkien is absolutely atrocious, but the rest of the book is fantastic–it opened my eyes to a lot of lesser-known, but brilliant, fantasy, much of it published pre-Tolkien.

    Geoffrey: Considering your credentials, I’m glad you appreciate the column. In my experience, the place where science fiction and fantasy have an extremely hazy border involves the post-Golden-Age authors who start to incorporate ideas from quantum physics–Moorcock is actually one chief progenitor of this, along with other writers of what’s been called the “New Wave,” the “New Weird,” and the “New New Wave.” Because concepts like the multiverse and Schrodinger’s cat (to name the first random ones that come to mind) sound rather fantastic but are being taken seriously by scientists, the boundary can get confused. Your point about Christians writing SF is excellent, and true (I’d say Christians are called to excel in whatever they do/write in, but it would be especially necessary in SF for the reasons you list). Also, I didn’t know Flynn was a Christian–I’ve loved a lot of his short stories.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Ethan,

    Thanks. I’ll have to look into Moorcock. I’ve long been familiar with him but not actually read anything. I think Flynn is Roman Catholic of the hardcore medieval scholastic type. Both Eifelheim and many of the comments on his LiveJournal blog seem to suggest that, anyway. Great article, and everyone’s comments are helpful as well.

    Geoffrey

  • Daniel

    Great article, Ethan.

    One thing that I consider is how early Christians–or say those in the middle ages, or during the Reformation–might think of a work that speculated on the world as we know it today. What would Augusting think of the Internet? Aquanis of the Space Shuttle? Calvin of the Television?

    We are, in so many ways, living in a Science Fiction world. Yet if anyone made accurate predictions of this world long ago (or just a few predictions about how things truly are today), would it have been considered blasphemy? To fly to the moon? Communicate with people on the other side of the earth? Figure complex mathematics in a few moments?

    What about social changes–a world where slavery is all but non-existent? A world with a large number of citizens living in free and democratic states? Freedom of religion? Incredible material wealth among millions?

    Of course, there are the dark things, too–nuclear weapons, massive world wars, the explosion of pornography, etc. But good and bad, the world would have been fairly unbelievable to Luther or Justin Martyr. Would they have dismissed a “Science Fiction” story that mimics a newspaper of today as “speculations of the devil” or a “false view of human progress?”

    I really have no idea. But I find that the best Science Fiction is neither too rosy about the future and progress of humankind, nor too dark. In nearly every way, though, I’d rather live in the world of today rather than the world of yesterday…warts and all. So if I lived in the third century and read a book about today’s world, I would probably have yearned to live there.

    How would that have impacted my faith? Perhaps it would challenge it, as this world would have “saved” me from some very unpleasant realities of the third century. But in the end, this world is in many ways a merely epicurean dream…it brightens the happiness, delays the inevitable, but does not ultimately avoid it. Even the universe dies one day. Solomon, in the end, still stands as true in his estimate of the vanity of all things.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Daniel,

    If you haven’t already done so, I would commend Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim (which I mentioned above) to you: it follows a medieval scholastic philosopher as he attempts to understand the alien biology and quantum physics of an alien race he encounters in 14th-century Germany. It looks at some of the same questions you’re posing, e.g. how would thinkers of the past grapple with the ideas of our present (or future)? It seems that too often the church has been caught flatfooted by technological or sociological developments because we have been unwilling to speculate on possibilities, so when they arise, we have no response. Another reason why I think there is a need for excellent and well-reasoned Christian science fiction. Great thoughts.

    I am linking below to an article from First Things a couple years ago that surveys some of the best religious science fiction. As Ethan and all the contributors tto this discussion have noted, it IS possible:

    http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/03/science-friction

    Thanks again to everyone who’s posted. It’s been a really cool conversation.

    Geoffrey R.

  • Ethan

    That’s a great article, Geoffrey–I wish I’d read it before writing this column.

    Also, I agree with Geoffrey: this has been a very neat conversation.

  • http://linalamont.blogspot.com/ Nissa Annakindt

    While much science fiction is written by authors who deny all aspects of the Christian worldview, it is not true of all. Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards, and he is of the Mormon faith, which makes him either Christian or Christian-like depending on your point of view.

    I think the looking-ahead aspect of science fiction is a challenge that Christians need to take on. Sure, the end times can begin any day, but to God a thousand years is as a single day.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X