To be sure, religions, spirituality, and sacred texts play a significant role in science fiction: the Jedi from Star Wars, the Lords of Kobol from Battlestar Galactica, Shepherd Book from Firefly, and references to the Old Testament in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are only a few of many examples. (Seriously, if you have a few sci fi geeks together and started collecting examples, you’d still be at it tomorrow morning.)
Of course, it is interesting to ask: why and how do creators of blockbuster science fiction include religion? How are religion and sacred texts imagined in futures and alternate universes? Why does your favorite fictional universe contain a religion in the first place?
The answer, in very broad terms, is that science fiction writers often create worlds inspired by the world in which they live. If spirituality, religion, sacred texts, or worship are seen as something that may be important in shaping the fictional world as imagined by the sci-fi writer, religion may end up being included in some way. It may serve as critique, as in The Handmaid’s Tale. It may serve as a symbol of hope that even in a harsh future, ethical and spiritual issues are still at least considered, as in Firefly.
Often enough, it is possible to ask the creators of modern science fiction personally why they thought religion should play a role in their fictional universe. And often enough, those who are interested in science fiction as a distorted mirror image of the contemporary world were alive when political or social situations arose that inspired a piece of science fiction. (We can be quite sure that some Star Trek episodes reflect the atmosphere of the Cold War era.) Often enough, creators and fans share a similar background.
Now, a group of historians interested in the Bible as an historical artifact have decided to read the Bible as if it were science fiction and have published some of their findings for the first time. They want to see if the diverse, arcane, and often fantastic texts of the Bible can be used as periscopes to peer beyond the texts at ancient history; they want to look at the texts of the Bible and see if they can draw some conclusions about the cultural situations of the time based on the texts’ imagery and ideology.
This isn’t an easy undertaking for several reasons. Of course, it is impossible to ask the Bible’s creators what exactly they meant and which aspect of their culture they were reacting to. Modern readers of the ancient biblical texts do not share the same cultural horizon as the texts’ creators. They do not even share a language. Furthermore, the Bible, which has been compiled over centuries, reacts not to one but to several different historical situations.
So how can science fiction be used to make sense of the Bible?
First, we can start by looking at human imagination and the human propensity for story-telling and admit that this human trait has always been there, that humans have always told stories to make sense of the world. Second, we can look at modern science fiction and note how it reacts to the world around us. Star Trek imagines a society without money – this could be a critique of capitalism. The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a society in which the exploitation of female bodies is brought to an extreme – this could be a critique of the attempts at regulating and oppressing of the female body in our society.
Next, we can check if there are some passages in the Bible that seem likely to be imaginative reactions to historical problems, too. Take some biblical prophecies, for example. They imagine brave new worlds governed by superhuman rulers in which everything is either wonderful or terrible. By comparing ancient visions of the future in the Bible and modern visions of the future in science fiction, it is possible to draw some cautious conclusions on how the ancient creators of these texts saw their world.
Frauke Uhlenbruch is a specialist in Biblical Studies and editor of the new book: “‘Not in the Spaces We Know’ – An Exploration of Science Fiction and the Bible” (Gorgias Press, 2017).