Sacred Texts After the Apocalypse

Today, I’ve finished teaching the third in a three-year cycle of classes for a Doctor of Ministry cohort for Fuller Theological Seminary. This year’s subject matter was Fiction, Film, and Christian Spirituality. I presented the following lecture on on of my favorite novels, and one of my least favorite films.

Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (hereafter CL) is a masterwork of science fiction, standing among the most renowned novels in that genre.[1] The same cannot be said of the 2010 Denzel Washington vehicle, The Book of Eli (BE). While both deal with themes of religion and text in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America, the former does so deftly and the latter, well, less so.

Miller was a tortured genius. In the 1950s, after serving in World War II, he wrote three dozen short stories for popular science fiction magazines. Three of those, he heavily revised and published, together, as CL in 1959. He never published another word in his lifetime. Always odd, and likely suffering from PTSD, he grew increasingly reclusive in his later years, ultimately taking his own life in 1996 at age 72.

CL’s themes are many and scintillating. Not only did Miller’s own experience in WWII and the bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino affect him, so did his work as an electrical engineer and, most significantly, his conversion to Roman Catholicism after the war.

The first theme to investigate is technology. At first blush, it would seem that CL, like any post-nuclear-apocalypse story, takes a dim view of technology. But Miller is no technophobe. Here, for example, is how David M. Samuelson compares him to the greatest Christian science fiction writer of the 20th century[2]:

In CL, technology and religion run parallel, as Samuelson notes. But Miller seems less than “technophilic.” Instead, it seems that both technology and religion generate ambivalent feelings for him. On the one hand, the rise of technology destroyed much of civilization, on the other hand, the Simpletons who destroyed almost all human knowledge in the Simplification are clearly portrayed in a bad light. In the middle section of the book, “Fiat Lux,” the (re)invention of the lightbulb is a significant advance, even if it is seen dubiously by some of the more skeptical monks of the order.

Similarly, religion, as mediated by the church and the clergy, provides a plumbline for human society through the years. As Samuelson writes, religion maintains a kind of wisdom that is divorced from rationality and therefore beyond the reach of technology.  However, the religion in CL is beset by smallmindedness, retrograde thinking, and political infighting. Brother Francis, the protagonist of “Fiat Homo,” is the one man of simple, true, and abiding faith, but he is mocked, ridiculed, and stunted in his spiritual progression by his religious superiors.

One significant difference, however, can be seen even amidst the ambivalence with which Miller approaches technology and religion in CL. Whereas religion has a conservative role, preserving (and even, in the case of the lightbulb, recreating) that which has gone before, technology has a cycle of progression and regression. At the beginning of the novel, society has been decimated by nuclear technology, simpletons roam the planet, and human are basically living in conditions not much better than the 700s. By the end, everything lost has been rediscovered or reinvented, nation states are lobbing nuclear weapons at one another, and another apocalypse seems inevitable. The rhythm of the novel leads us to believe that this cycle will repeat itself, maybe indefinitely.[3]

One overt question raised in CL is how we determine which texts are worthy of our veneration. Recently, we were reading through 1 Kings at Solomon’s Porch, and I invited our resident rabbi to join me for one of the sermons. His first question was, “Why are you preaching out of 1 Kings?” He went on to explain that, while a rabbi will surely have had to read 1 and 2 Kings in seminary, that would be the extent of it. Those books are important history, but they don’t have any homiletical power. They’re a bit like an ancient grocery list. Of course, that’s exactly what Brother Francis finds, along with other scraps and blueprints, from the Blessed Leibowitz. The order then goes through the machinations with New Rome about whether the fragments they’ve discovered are sacred or not – and, it seems, they are deemed sacred in spite of, not because of, their content. They are sacred merely because they emanated from the hand of a saint.

The sacred nature of the Bible carried by Eli in BE is never questioned – not by Eli, Solara, Carnegie, nor, presumably, by the audience. It isn’t until the end, after Eli has recited the entire Bible from memory (a completely unbelievable feat, by the way), that Lombardi shelves the Bible in the Alcatraz library, between the sacred texts of Judaism and Islam. Its importance, in the final analysis, is relativized, but only after Eli is dead. One wonders what he’d think if he saw his sacred book slotted in the midst of these other sacred books.

Of course, Eli would never “see” such a thing, because, as we discover at the end of the film, he’s blind. His blindness is another unbelievable aspect of the story – it would seem to invite a second viewing, so that one could see all of the telltale clues of his vision impairment, were the movie good enough to deserve a second viewing. The problem with hiding Eli’s blindness until the end of the movie is that there is no way to exploit the many biblical allusions to blindness, light, and darkness. Thus those themes are largely unexplored.

What CL does masterfully – explore the nuances of why we hold texts sacred, and whether we should – BE ignores completely. Not to mention the magic power that Eli subtly grants the Bible and Carnegie overtly covets. Does the Bible have this magic? The way that Eli is protected in various violent conflicts would seem to suggest that it does. And no one questions this power. At least for Eli the power comes from his repeated rereading of it, whereas Carnegie simply wants its raw power. And when he does ultimately gain his prize, it does not even heal his septic leg, which would seem a relatively minor miracle compared to the multiple bullet wounds that Eli comes back from.

Christian spirituality is necessarily grounded in a very problematic text, one that is between 2,000 and 4,000 years distant from us. What we do with that text is a pressing question. We’re forced into deliberations that CL explores robustly, and BE fails to even consider. Is the Bible magic? Can a particular verse, said at just the right time, bring healing? Bring protection?

Indeed, how and why do we hold sacred a text about which we know so little? We don’t know who wrote it or when, and we are irredeemably removed from its composition. In many ways, we’re no better than Brother Francis uncovering a Leibowitzian grocery list.

But maybe, like Brother Francis, our faith has less to do with the texts we venerate than with the simplicity with which we put our faith in the one with whom they originated.

Or maybe not.

[1] In fact, the professor of my college course, “The Science Fiction Novel,” called it “the greatest science fiction book ever written.”

[2] David M. Samuelson, “The Lost Canticles of Walter M. Miller, Jr.,” Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March, 1976),

[3] Unfortunately, Miller’s unfinished 600-page manuscript at the time of his death dealt not with the monks who escaped the second conflagration in their spaceship, but was instead a “midquel,” taking place between parts 2 and 3 of CL. It was finished by another sci fi novelist and met with tepid reviews.

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