Review of Sacred Space by Douglas E. Cowan

Review of Sacred Space by Douglas E. Cowan July 13, 2012

I am grateful to Baylor University Press for sending me a free review copy of Douglas E. Cowan’s magnificent book, Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television. I cannot believe how long it has taken me to get around to reviewing it. But there is a good reason. This is not a book that one can or should breeze through. The author makes important and insightful observations on pretty much every page, not only about the content and treatment of religion in a wide array of science fiction TV and film, but also about the methodology of how to approach, understand, and wrestle with that treatment of religion. I highly recommend the book, and am glad to have finally finished my slow and detailed read through it, and to have the privilege of sharing just a taste of what the book offers.

The subtitle of the book provides an important clue to Cowan’s approach, which is highlighted from the preface. It may be that some of the treatment of religion found in science fiction TV series and films is superficial or ideologically-driven or little more than rehashed stereotypes. The same may be said of at least some of what has been written about religion in science fiction. But when one gets beyond very narrow categories of what religion is, and considers the “quest for transcendence” and the big questions associated with that quest, one will find that there is as much depth and richness to what writers of sci-fi incorporate as there is in any genre of literature, television or film – and perhaps more.

The first chapter begins with the movie Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. Sagan himself is perhaps as famous, at least in some circles, for what he said and wrote about religion as what he said and wrote about science. Many reviewers of the movie treated its content simplistically – either regarding Ellie’s journey in the machine as simply a trip to heaven, or treating it as a scientific antithesis to such a trip as traditionally understood. The ambiguity, depth and nuance that can be perceived by taking a broader view of the human “quest for transcendence” is highlighted in the chapter – and illustrated by the movie’s famous opening sequence, which zooms out from Earth to place our own status as human beings into perspective, and at the same time bring into focus our steps towards transcendence and our continuing explorations.

The next major stopping point regarding Cowan’s methodology is to bring in the social sciences, which have been his key tools throughout much of his academic work. Scholarly investigation of the category of transcendence has often been characterized by reductionism or a simple equation of “transcendence” with the “supernatural” (pp.10-11). But in fact, transcendence covers much more than this – from the exploration of human limitations (and our quest to overcome them), to the personal development and accompanying rites of passage, to our conception of our relationship to the unseen order (p.13).

Already in his first chapter, Cowan’s prose impressively pinpoints the crux of a matter with language that is insightful and evocative. For instance, in asking what happens to our sense of transcendence when science progresses and necessitates changes in our thinking about the world, Cowan writes, “It is not that transcendence disappears so much as that it relocates. The boundaries that constitute the current limits of the quest are reset. Transcendence, then, is not a function of immanence, but of boundaries, and in every boundary lies the hope of passing beyond” (p.19). Or again on the next page, beginning a discussion of storytelling, mythmaking, and humans as Homo narans, Cowan suggests that “Cinema and television have taken the place of more traditional storytelling media in our society. The big screen is the meeting place for the clans, the small screen the campfire around which family members gather” (p.20).

In the first chapter Cowan not only begins to give the reader a taste of the delightful way that his treatment of the quest for transcendence will find expression, but also provides indication that no group – from Christian fundamentalists to technological transhumanists – will either be omitted from discussion or allowed a free pass to avoid critical scrutiny. All movements which relate to transcendence, whether seeking to circumscribe and domesticate it or explore and predict its future direction, get a treatment that is fair, balancing the need to be sympathetic and the need to critically analyze and expose to the light of scholarly analysis.

Chapter 2 uses stories of artificial intelligence to explore some of the interesting subjects related to human and possible machine transcendence: the nature of consciousness, of personhood. Cowan observes that “rather than using Blade Runner [and the same can and will be said for most other science fiction shows and movies] as an opportunity to question the boundaries of humanity and under what conditions we can (or should) transcend them, or viewing it as a way to interrogate our assumptions about the unseen order and how those assumptions shape and condition our behavior, many critics use it as a kind of archaeological dig site, a cinematic landscape within which they claim to excavate all manner of biblical symbolism and theological meaning” (p.61). The treatment of works of sci-fi in terms of alleged Biblical symbolism is singled out for a great deal of well-deserved criticism in Cowan’s book, and as he writes a couple of pages later, “The major problem with analyses like these is that they produce maps without meaning, interpretations devoid of insight. That we can overlay all manner of theological detailia onto any number of films – that believers can, as it were, baptize these products in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – in no way indicates why they should or how those layerings deepen our understanding of the film” (p.63).

Chapter 3 focuses on extraterrestrial life, taking as its starting point the movie Contact. Cowan takes a conservative Christian critic of the film’s depiction of religion and faith as a “caricature” to task, emphasizing that real life examples abound which exceed anything depicted in the movie. In discussing this topic, Cowan brings to the center of attention another key issue that comes up in many treatments of religion in science fiction, namely the dismissal of certain spiritualities or the depiction of them as lacking in authenticity, which itself reflects an arrogant presumption regarding one’s own theological outlook and its normativity. Later in the chapter, in connection with a discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and the attempts of some to once again hijack the film as Christian allegory), Cowan adds, “although science fiction does not abjure religion, it points out in no uncertain terms how limited, how pedantic, are our terrestrial religious notions” (p.88). With this statement made, the devastating criticisms of examples of Evangelical Christian science fiction, when they appear later in the chapter, come as no surprise.

Chapter 4 compares the treatment of religion in H. G. Wells’ classic novel, War of the Worlds, and in movies based on that book. There is great attention to detail – from the direction of a shot that includes the military and clergy, to a minister referring to the aliens using a personal rather than impersonal pronoun.

Chapter 5 focuses on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and examines a wide array of the show’s diverse religious expressions. The chapter concludes with a paragraph which sums up the gist of the chapter more effectively than I could in my own words (p.169):

To be sure, Deep Space Nine‘s presentation is not uniform. It is filled with non sequiturs, logical inconsistencies, and unanswered questions – much like the sacred narratives that frame our own offscreen attempts to capture the human quest for transcendence. But, rather than offer little more than the butt of an occasional joke in the midst of the technological enlightenment of the twenty-fourth century, the Ferengi, the Klingons, the Bajorans, the Cardassians, the Jem’Hadar, and the Vorta illustrate the complexity of the relationships that exist between believers and their gods.

In chapter 6, Cowan turns his focus onto the Stargate series, noting the connection with the writings of authors like Erich von Däniken and Zechariah Sitchin. Sidestepping the all-too-easy route of simply viewing Stargate as a critique of “false gods,” Cowan notes how even the characters who reject the reality (or better, the divinity) of the “gods” that are the Goa’uld are nonetheless involved in humanity’s quest for transcendence (p.177). Likewise, noting the ease with which von Däniken’s claims can be debunked, for Cowan the interesting question is why those views and other mythological ones persist and are reconfigured in science fiction in the way that they are. Key concepts in the history of religion and the quest for transcendence are discussed, and at key points in the chapter Mircea Eliade serves as a prominent conversation partner.

Chapter 7 focuses on Babylon 5, with its exploration of diversity not only through alien but also human characters, and its suggestion that both across species and within our own, achieving uniformity is not a realistic aim, and thus our focus must be to find ways to live in harmony and work together. Writer and producer J. Michael Straczynski is quoted about his viewpoint – he is an atheist, but he recognizes that religion is a human expression that is not going away, and so he incorporated it into and explored it within the show (p. 203). Within the show, there are characters who give voice to skepticism, while others appreciate the quest itself even if that which is sought may not exist (see e.g. p.206). The show also wrestles with the more difficult aspects of religious freedom, such as the issue of parental right to refuse treatment for a child because of their religious beliefs, in a manner that refuses to allow simplistic answers to be provided unchallenged (pp.208-211). And in its treatment of the Vorlons, an ancient race whose origins are lost in time immemorial but who previously visited and guided various species, we encounter once again not only the mythology of ancient aliens, but also an opportunity to reflect on the nature of religious experience and the key role of our interpretative framework in characterizing such experiences.

Chapter 8 focuses on the reimagined and rebooted Battlestar Galactica. As has been characteristic throughout the book, Cowan refuses to engage in simplistic identifications of characters or groups in the show as symbols of this or that. Instead, he explores the show’s storylines to ask more profound and fundamental questions, such as about the nature of the sacred itself, and the role of human agreement in defining it.

Chapter 9 brings some of the threads that run through the book together one last time, in particular offering further criticism of the attempts of religious believers to “colonize” various science fiction stories by turning them into symbols or parables of their own belief system. After this chapter concludes, Cowan offers a filmography listing the shows and films covered in the book, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

Although undoubtedly Cowan speaks the truth when he writes that “in this volume, I have only scratched the surface of what science fiction offers in terms of the human (and, perhaps, non-human) quest for transcendence” (p.270), nevertheless, as someone who is deeply interested in this field, I must say that I feel that Cowan has scratched further beneath the surface, and across a broader area, than most of those who have written about religion and science fiction – myself included. His critique of the superficial attempts to interpret science fiction in terms of “Christ figures” and various other sterotypical types and symbols is very much needed in a field where much of that sort of thing can be found not only in popular or devotional literature but even in scholarly works. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and I expect to interact with and use Cowan’s work time and again in my future scholarship and teaching in the domain of religion and science fiction. I hope that if this is an area that interests you as much as it interest me, you will get hold of a copy of Cowan’s book and read it for yourself, because (to echo Cowan’s words) in this review I have only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.

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