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. 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:
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.