Are the Bible and the Qur’an like TRON?

This image has been circulating on Reddit and elsewhere:

I think it is an interesting comparison to think about – as one who has blogged on more than one occasion about the relationship between religion and both the original Tron movie and the sequel Tron: Legacy.

On the one hand, it certainly is mistaken to think that Tron depicts what goes on in computers, or that the Bible or the Qur’an gives scientific and historical information, other than in a highly pictorial, metaphorical, symbolic manner, if at all.

But it would be wrong, because of this, to conclude that people have not found Tron, or the Bible, or the Qur’an, to be useful texts to interact with when reflecting on bigger questions than the technical question of how computers work or other matters of science or engineering. No computer scientist would use the Tron movies as a textbook for constructing, programming, or using computers. But they might usefully make reference to it in asking philosophical questions about the nature of software, artificial intelligence, and other such matters.

Once again, I am reminded that there are both religionists and critics of religion who mistake the genre of sacred texts, and in the process seem to end up failing to do justice to the way even movies can be useful and important without being literally true. If one takes them as things which are supposed to provide factual information, then there is a problem. But is that really why you went to see Tron? Is the problem not with anyone who may have gone to see the movie – or turned to a religious text – with the wrong expectations, expecting it to be something it isn’t?

As a science fiction fan and a professor of religion, I find the image that sparked this post interesting, but I am also concerned that it perhaps simply plays into the hands of those prone to fundamentalism. There have been those who have criticized science fiction itself because of individuals and groups that seem to take its depiction of the future, or of aliens among us, as literally true.

Isn’t it more helpful to emphasize what sci-fi and religious texts are and are not capable of, what they can and cannot legitimately be used for?

Is that what the poster image shared above does? Or does it reflect the problem more than the solution? What do others think?

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  • Anonymous

    Isn’t it more helpful to emphasize what sci-fi and religious texts are
    and are not capable of, what they can and cannot legitimately be used
    for?

    Helpful for what?

    I think this sort of pointed statement of fact is necessary in the current US environment.

    I wish it wasn’t.  If the modernists won the fundamentalist-modernist controversy 100 years ago(or had gained much ground since then), and 70% of pastors didn’t still reject human evolution, there would be no need for images like this which state things that are patently obvious to non-fundamentalists.  Also, notably we would not have or need the much more strident speech of the new atheists.  The new atheist movement exists almost entirely because Christians haven’t kept their own house clean, and I think it is a absolutely necessary critique if not always the most charitable.

    When we no longer have the people as important as the  chair of the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Environment and Economy tell us we don’t need to worry about global warming bacause  God promised not to flood the earth again, then images and billboards like these will be doing more harm then good.  Until then, this type of image is really far too tame for the nature and scope of the problem IMHO.

    Now, maybe you’re reacting more to r/atheism (which is wild and wooly) rather then this image (which IMHO is quite tame).  Is r/atheism useful for anyone but atheists? No, I don’t think so, but it’s not supposed to be.  I’ve used the analogy of a “gay bar” for r/atheism.  It’s not for you. It’s a place for people who can’t even get a sign with only their name on it put on a bus because our mere existence is deemed too controversial.  It’s a place for such people to complain and whine about the culture they live in, to poke fun and vent.  Sometimes I think they go too far, and when I hang out there I spend a good amount of my time reminding people that the real danger is unevidenced surety and tribalism and not religion itself, but r/atheism exists because it is fundamentally necessary. IMHO steam is better blown off there then elsewhere, even if I cringe to watch other people walk into the “gay bar” atmospere without understanding what it is they just walked in on.

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Wow, I’ve been visiting a gay bar without realizing it. Thanks for the heads up! :-)

      I tried to get across in my post that there is a way of understanding the poster that is really saying something useful and important – and another way of understanding it that is an insult to Tron and thus to be resisted. I really was hoping more for a discussion of that, and not really trying to suggest that the poster intended the latter rather than the former.

      If you don’t agree with me on that, hopefully we at least agree on the more essential matters – like the importance and coolness of Tron, for instance?

      • Anonymous

        If your point is that “answers about the universe” is broad enough to just barely include “questions about the nature of existence”, then I agree.

        I think still it’s important to note the Bible at it’s most useful only contains the questions, and clearly does not possess enough authority to contain “the answer”, at least not in any sort of straightforwardly available way, and therefore I’m having a hard time coming up with a way of taking the image that does harm to Tron.

        Also I’m fairly sure Tron has very little to say about “how a computer works”(I recall there were a very few details in the first film that fit).  It does however raise some interesting questions about the ethics involved with creating and destroying strong AI agents, but those types of questions are all really statements about “how a human works” and “humans concerns and desires.”

        If the image said instead:

        “Looking to the Bible or Koran to find questions about human hopes and desires about the universe is like looking at Tron to find such questions about human hopes and desires related to computers” then we’d have something interesting to talk about.  I’m just not sure trying to find such meaning in this image is possible without stretching it quite a bit.

        I’ll take you up on a tangentially related statement from the text:

        Once again, I am reminded that there are both religionists and critics of religion who mistake the genre of sacred texts…

        First I will respond with your own words:

        And so the metaphorical approach seems to me to imply that the authors
        of the Bible used language metaphorically which their contemporaries
        would presume was meant literally. They did so without ever informing
        their readers that they were using the language metaphorically. And so
        they willfully deceived their initial readers, it seems.

        I assume therefore you’re not implying Paul was a secret gnostic after all, writing metaphorically a deeply mystically infused book?  If not, what then justifies our categorizing the work he and his contemporaries seemingly intended as primarily literal as instead a text which is to be primarily valued as a mystical composition?  It seems to me the genre of the text as written and your claimed “true” genre of the text are quite at odds, enough so that your rather dogmatic categorization of the work seems downright uncharitable.

        Tron was written as an allegorical and existentialist work.  You can kind of claim the same for Revelation and maybe Job, but Romans certainly doesn’t seem to have been written that way.

        • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          When I referred to the “metaphorical approach” in the excerpt you quoted, I was talking about those who claim that the biblical authors used language like a dome over the earth or the heart as seat of thinking metaphorically, when all their contmeporaries would have assumed they were talking literally. My own view is that they used the best (or at least one good) understanding available in their time, and often assumed it was literal. We should not make the mistake of making it a virtue of taking literally what they did only because they knew no better.

          To be clear, I agree with the poster, understood in the manner you suggest it is supposed to be. Because people were taking it in two different ways in some online discussions I saw, I wondered whether your interpretation or that of others was the author’s intended meaning.

          • Anonymous

            That’s precisely how I thought you were using the quoted section.  My late night rant included many assumptions I did not spell out, so perhaps now that I’m well rested I’ll try again. ;-)

            You said:

            Once again, I am reminded that there are both religionists and critics
            of religion who mistake the genre of sacred texts, and in the process
            seem to end up failing to do justice to the way even movies can be
            useful and important without being literally true. If one takes them as
            things which are supposed to provide factual information, then there is a
            problem.

            I’m trying to make sense out of that statement when coupled with the fact that Romans specifically seems to me to have been written in such a way that his readers would have seen the work as something to be taken as literally propositionally true.  My question is on what basis do you feel justified saying that others make not just a choice you don’t agree with, but a mistake when they seem to correctly identify the genre of Paul’s writings, evaluating them in relation to their intended purpose, and either accept or rejecting them as written?

            My use of your quote on the raqia was only to say I don’t think you would claim Paul was deliberately writing a “Christain mystic” work using terms that would clearly confuse his readers with his highly propositional language,  so I’m left wondering how your assertion of mistaking the genre of sacred texts squares up with the genre the text is written in, particularly in the case of the highly propositional Paul.

  • Speer

    McGrath, you are a closet atheist.

    Do you really think nobody knows?

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Either you are wrong, or my closet has see-through walls. Would you care to elaborate?

      If you would classify someone like Paul Tillich as an atheist, then I can understand that you would out me in the same category. If you would not, however, then I must wonder what on Earth you mean.

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