On Labor Day weekend in 1932, a twelve year-old boy from Waukegan, Illinois, having just emerged from a family funeral, noticed a carnival tent by the shore of Lake Michigan and went to investigate. He had heard of a magician there named Mr. Electrico, who sat with a sword in hand on an electric chair with current passing through him, making his hair stand on end.
When Mr. Electrico stood up to knight the boy, making the current pass to him, he shouted: “Live forever!”
The late Ray Bradbury, who passed away on June 5, told this story about his childhood hundreds of times, insisting that the experience set him on the path to becoming a writer-magician, a teller of fantastic tales.
On one level this is a story about vocation—a baptism by electricity—but it is also a story about time and eternity, death and resurrection—themes that would preoccupy Bradbury over a writing career that spanned seven decades.
In all the tributes that have been paid to Bradbury since his death—from lengthy newspaper obituaries to blog posts—one aspect of his life and work has been conspicuously missing: the centrality of faith.
It’s an unfortunate omission, because it obscures much of what makes Bradbury’s vision distinctive and timeless.
To be sure, the tributes rightly point out the pioneering role he played in elevating science fiction and horror from pulp magazines to the literary mainstream. His classic works—Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes—are held up as examples of lyrical prose less concerned with the wonders of future technology than with preserving a humane vision of the world.
But this begs a question: In order to have a humane vision do you have to have an understanding of what constitutes humanness?
Ray Bradbury did have such an idea, and it turns out to be deeply traditional—a marked contrast with the secular scientism of the other writers of his generation such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In The Martian Chronicles one of the characters describes the modern dilemma:
They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.
We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.
Bradbury’s embrace of faith may have seemed out of step with the gospel of scientific and technological progress espoused by his peers, but it was also the secret behind what made his tales of space exploration haunting and unique.
As my friend Michael Leary has pointed out, for many science fiction authors, humankind’s journey to the stars marks a symbolic movement from the ignorance of ancient moral values to a brave new world of enlightened freedom.
But when Bradbury’s characters travel to Mars their primary encounter is not with something alien. Instead, they encounter themselves.
Bradbury’s Mars is a mirror. Earthmen arrive like arrogant colonialists only to re-discover the seven deadly sins and their consequences. In “The Fire Balloons” Christian missionaries find the ancient Martians living in a “state of grace”; filled with awe and reverence, they reluctantly return to the human settlement to “handle our own kind.”
The perennial temptation for science fiction writers has been to think they can leave human nature behind when they head off into space—that they can re-write the structure of the human heart.
Bradbury never succumbed to that temptation and his legion of readers bears witness to the soundness of his instinct.
Late in life Bradbury described himself as a delicatessen religionist, taking insights from both Eastern and Western traditions. He also called himself a Zen Buddhist saying, “I don’t think about what I do. I do it. That’s Buddhism. I jump off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.”
But in my experience very few Buddhists speak—as Bradbury did, incessantly—of God, sin, forgiveness, grace, and redemption.
“The guy keeps writing about Jesus, but he doesn’t consider himself a Christian,” his biographer Sam Weller has said.
In one of Bradbury’s most famous stories, “The Man,” a spaceship from Earth lands on a planet only to be totally ignored. The incensed captain finds out that this is because a long-expected savior had come to the planet the day before.
At first the captain becomes obsessed with trying to disprove the man’s credentials, but when he finally becomes convinced about who the unnamed man is, he roars off in his rocket to try to catch him on some other planet.
The irony, of course, is that the captain remains oblivious to the man’s continuing presence among those he has already touched.
“The best description of my career as a writer,” Bradbury once said, “is ‘At play in the fields of the Lord.’”
Some of us hope that he’s playing there still.
Gregory Wolfe is the editor of Image journal and the director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University.