Spiritual Space: Finding Faith in the Sci-Fi Stars

Spiritual Space: Finding Faith in the Sci-Fi Stars November 10, 2014

interstellar-photos-pictures-stillsThere is something in the stars that stirs us. We see the infinite space crease and fold and stretch and twist, the sky both so empty and so full. We see its inky depth set with legions of light, and it turns our minds to higher thoughts—who we are and why we’re here and what’s out there—and if something in all that space might care for us. Even nonbelievers can feel a hint of the transcendent when stargazing. It’s in the stars where science and faith blur, where even the most skeptical of us can be overwhelmed with awe.

“I might botch the quote, but I just kept thinking about Einstein saying, ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind,’” said actress Anne Hathaway in Time’s cover piece on Interstellar. The skies are where we first pondered both. Ancient scientists set our calendars by them, ancient storytellers created strange and marvelous tales about them. The Greeks set their gods among the stars. The ancient Celts are thought to have worshipped them.  And, of course, we Christians believe that the stars played a central role around Bethlehem a couple millennia back.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that so many star-hopping, physics-twisting, sci-fi movies have also been so imbued with spirituality. In fact, Time’s cover treatment of the new film Interstellar is initially steeped in the language of faith.

Big cosmology has become our secular religion, a church that even atheists can join. It addresses man of the same questions religion does: Why are we here? How did it all begin? What comes next? And even if you can barely understand the answers when you get them, well, you’ve heart of a thing called faith, right?

Interstellar is both a hard-core humanist and deeply spiritual tale. But honestly, the movie’s been out only a few days and I don’t really want to spoil it for everyone by getting into too many specifics yet. So instead of diving deeply into Interstellar right now, let’s take a look back at some of my favorite space-centric sci-fi movies and the spiritual kernels they contained.

Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): A spaceship lands in the heart of Washington D.C. A humanoid visitor disembarks … and is immediately shot by a nervous soldier. Whoops! The visitor, Klaatu, is actually a pretty nice guy just trying to save the world from destroying itself, and is eventually killed for his trouble. Sound familiar? It should. Screenwriter Edmund North meant Klaatu to be a Christ-like figure, and indicated as much in ways subtle (such as when he stole the clothing of a “Major Carpenter,” a nod to Jesus’ profession) and obvious (as when he apparently rose from the dead and was spirited up to the sky).


Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Strange pods start showing up in a small community. The citizens are slow to grasp their meaning at first, but the pods are up to no good: Each one can give birth to an almost exact doppelganger of a nearby human, switching places with them and furthering the strange, alien race. This is one of the creepiest movies the 1950s produced and asks its audience what it means to be human: The pods can reproduce their human victims almost exactly—from what they look to how they act to even what they remember. So why do they seem so … off? They lack human emotion, it seems. A human soul.


2001-a-space-odyssey-v04-silver-ferox-design-copy2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Considered by many to be the best science fiction film of all time, 2001 is a truly unique work filled with mysterious obelisks, bone-using ape-men and a seriously disturbed computer. The movie, particularly its psychedelic conclusion, has sparked much debate and a whole “Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey” article on Wikipedia. But according to director Stanley Kubrick, the core of the movie is inherently religious. “On the deepest psychological level the film’s plot symbolizes the search for God, and it finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.

Star Wars (1977): Luke Skywalker, a kid from a backwater planet, is thrust into a massive galactic conflict between the evil Empire and the plucky rebellion … and he’s told by a strange, old hermit that the key to the whole war might be something called “The Force.” The original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) was soaked in eastern religious (mainly Taoist) sensibilities, what with its mystical Force and its emphasis on the balance between good and evil. But the series turns out to have some Christian overtones, too. Indeed, the saga is essentially the story of the corruption and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker—a man twisted by sin and saved by grace.

gravity_poster.jpg.CROP.original-originalGravity (2013): This was one of my favorite films last year. It essentially tells the story of Dr. Ryan Stone and her struggle to get home. In a piece I wrote for The Washington Post last year (and now sitting on faithstreet.com), I suggested that Stone’s trip home was a trip out of her own spiritual hell. She’s at the coldest circle of that hell when she seems ready to freeze to death—and she begins to contemplate how sad it is that she never learned to pray. In that moment, she’s visited by an almost angelic-like visitor and finds a new will to live. She is reborn. I wrote that, “In Christianity, we all believe that we ‘live’ in death—even when we’re still physically very much alive—until our belief in Jesus, and his love for us, pulls us out of it. It’s one of the central paradoxes of our faith: In life, death. In death, life.”

We’ll talk more specifically about Interstellar next Monday, I think, when more folks have had a chance to see it. Until then, it might be fun to think about your own favorite sci-fi flicks. What do you see in their stars that stirs you?

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