The questions I have been exploring in my public lecture are worthy of serious consideration, regardless of whether we encounter the real-life circumstance. Asking about aliens from other worlds helps us think about those who are different from us just in earthbound human ways, in terms of varieties of culture, language, skin pigmentation, and other such things. Asking about time travel can help us to think critically about our faith and worldview, or indeed assess whether we are open to thinking critically about it. The silliness of some things sci-fi does can actually be helpful, much like the silliness of imagery in some of Jesus’ parables, which fly under the radar of our defenses until their point hits home, too late for us to stop it.
Some franchises like Doctor Who don’t take themselves particularly seriously, while in others the creators of science fiction are far less adamant about their seriousness than the fans of their work are. In that, as has often been observed, fandom can become a quasi-religious phenomenon.
Many churches struggled with declining attendance even before the pandemic. The crisis exacerbated problems that existed, but also created new opportunities for community as groups began meeting on Zoom. Sometimes attendance increased in regularity or in sheer numbers in that format. But what will it mean for the way things were done before? Could Christianity persist and even flourish in online community? Could it exist as simply a shared set of beliefs, stories, and traditions that is recognizable without there being any weekly gathering in person in specific places, never mind buildings dedicated to that purpose? Such questions might have seemed farfetched a few years ago. Today we may wonder whether sci-fi might not have already explored this and offer us the answer. Churches may look at movie theaters and sci-fi fan conventions to see what the “new normal” looks like for them and learn lessons from it, as well as looking to science fiction which featured video communications and even remote learning long before we quickly adjusted to them in response to the pandemic.
Christianity has throughout its history learned from and embraced at least some of the new ways of doing things that were developed. Christians were early adopters of the codex, the precursor to the modern book. We are liable to forget that that was new technology then, that technology is older than the digital and the mechanical. Science fiction has a long history of caricaturing Christians as resisting innovation, having nothing to offer other than quaint warnings about scientists “playing God.” Yet technologies are not morally neutral. Shifting from scrolls to books and from print to digital is not an indifferent matter. To recommend caution and discernment may meet with scoffing, but that doesn’t make it inappropriate, even if it is caricatured. Alongside those who reject the new in the name of Christianity there have always also been those who have embraced it.
Science fiction also warns us that embracing change and updating technology doesn’t guarantee we will be poised well to meet whatever happens. David Williams’ dystopian novel When the English Fall explores a scenario in which a solar storm renders our electrical technology inoperable, and society quickly breaks down, with the Amish being the only ones prepared to face this new reality.
Like everything else I have discussed today, that may never happen. The point is not about predicting the future, as I emphasized earlier. That is why the importance of Star Trek is neither in its doors that opened automatically nor its communicators that seem comical compared to today’s cellphones. It isn’t even in Octavia Butler’s vision in Parable of the Talents of an American politician getting elected based on his promise that he would “Make America Great Again.” (Yes, for those who don’t know her novels, she really does use that very phrase.) Predicting the future inevitably gets some things right and some things wrong, whether the prophecies are in a sci-fi magazine or the pages of the Bible. The point of presenting a vision of the future is in both cases to warn and inspire change in the present. The point of presenting ourselves with many dramatically different visions of the future is to help us cope with the fact that none of us knows precisely what the future holds, except that it will inevitably surprise us.
Christianity, as a religion focused in history, makes time travel to the past a particularly interesting vantage point from which to approach the intersection that has been our focus today. Christianity, as a tradition with a strong ethical component, has much to learn and to teach using the method Jesus taught, harnessing the power of storytelling and thought experiments to broaden the range of our inclusiveness and challenge us about our biases and blind spots. And Christianity, like every human tradition and system, will inevitably change in the future. It is unlikely either to simply disappear as some hope nor to persist in some static form as is the hope of others.
All three of these perspectives that sci-fi offers, on the past, present, and future, share one thing in common: imagination. While some narrow forms of Christianity may imagine that Christianity has nothing to do with the imagination, the rest of us know that that is not the case and could never be the case. To speak of a Kingdom of God in which the poor are blessed and the last are first involves an act of imagination. To the extent that science fiction fosters imagination, it offers a good training ground for this important theological and prophetic skill. But neither Christianity nor science fiction does this inevitably and infallibly. Both are prone to offer tired tropes and hackneyed McGuffins. Both have the potential to offer a vision of the future that can inspire us and bring out the best in us in the present. That is why, as someone with both a deep personal appreciation for both and a profound academic interest in both, the intersection and interplay of the two continues to hold my attention.
Of related interest: