The media world exploded yesterday when Pope Francis announced the Catholic Church would baptize aliens, if any ever asked. Reaction ranged from the amused detachment of the Daily Mail to subtle mockery from the Internet news site, The Daily Beast.
It is important to note that Pope Francis used aliens as a funny illustration. He wanted to demonstrate the complete openness of the church to all seekers. The media took the sound bite out of context and ran with it. While the media doing this kind of thing is not new, their actions demonstrates a deeper problem in the popular cultural mindset on a number of different topics. First, they showed their complete ignorance of Christian theological discussion on aliens (yes, it does happen). Second, they assume the church and Christians are either apathetic or hostile to the idea of science, science fiction, and the possibility of alien life.
Indeed, the basic popular cultural assumption is that Christians consider the possibility of aliens a threat to Christian theology. Much of modern science fiction attempts to make that assertion. Underlying that thought process is the idea that aliens represent a higher scientific achievement and therefore can’t be compatible with the Christian faith as found in the Nicene Creed.
This attitude displays not only a willful ignorance of the history of Christian theology on the subject, but it also displays a complete denial of major works of science fiction written by Christian writers. Their work of imagination, like all good science fiction, is often very philosophical, and dare I say, theological. Allow me to give you a quick survey.
One caveat—this list is not meant to be a full coverage of all science fiction written by Christians. I’m only including the works that are my favorites. Some people will add to this list, and I invite them do so below. For example, I’ve not had the pleasure of reading the work of Orson Scott Card, whom many would include here.
The first science fiction writer is C.S. Lewis. Sadly, many focus on his Narnia books and Mere Christianity. In my opinion, they are not even his best work. That crown goes to the Space Trilogy, a ground-breaking work that very few people acknowledge except to say, “Yeah, I’ve never read it.” That’s too bad. Lewis gives us an amazing picture of how possible alien life-forms on other planets (Mars and Venus) might fit into Christian theology. I’m amazed at the depth of conversation these books cultivate when I discuss them with others.
Newberry award-winning author Madeline L’Engle broke all sorts of rules with her fabulous book, A Wrinkle in Time, when it was published in 1962. I seriously doubt this book would ever get published in the current YA market because it is strange (and wonderful) beyond description. L’Engle tells a story of crazy angels quoting Psalms and children discussing theology while they travel through space. All the characters in the book love science. The kids’ parents are scientists who study the working of the universe. All of this happens with the Creator in mind.
Gene Wolfe is one of the most underappreciated writers in the modern popular culture. Need proof? Neil Gaiman considers him a mentor, teacher, and master. In a just world, Wolfe would have all the popularity of George R.R. Martin. Many of his books explore the idea of aliens, science fiction and Christianity (motivated by his Catholic faith). However, Wolfe explores these themes in profound ways in the Books of the New Sun and Book of the Long Sun. There is no way I can describe, in this short article, the depth of theology, reflection and imagination these books contain. All I can say is, if you want a story based on exploration of space, technology, and Christianity, these books will fill the bill.
Ray Bradbury, while not strictly an Orthodox Christian, explored the theme of Christianity, science, and aliens in many of his short stories. Indeed, a biographer once wrote that Bradbury’s imagination was mostly fueled by the Christianity of his youth, even as he explored other religious traditions. The Martian Chronicles really go into breathtaking theological depth.
Finally, there is the jaw-dropping A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, a conflicted Catholic. The book is essentially about a Jewish scientist turned Catholic who is about to be elevated to sainthood. The Catholic order of monks he founded keeps his legacy alive in a United States blasted by nuclear war. These orthodox Catholic monks protect scientific knowledge while the rest of the world falls into darkness. As a final war looms, they make plans to send off the remnant of humanity into the stars with Catholicism and science as its guide.
All of these writers and their stories explore, with a Christian imagination, science, science fiction, and alien worlds. They destroy the idea that scientific progress is hindered by Christianity. They challenge the notion that aliens would disprove of the Christian faith. Finally, through the power of story, they challenge the idea in geek culture that religion somehow hinders the imagination of science fiction. This idea should be consigned to the skubulos pile where it belongs.
So, what do you think? Do aliens and Christianity work together? Science? Sci-Fi? Your thoughts below…