In his latest “Books Besides the Bible” column, Christ and Pop Culture’s Ethan Bartlett discusses the way that many Christians, in his experience, have expressed skepticism of or displeasure with science fiction as a genre. Both the column itself and the discussion in the comments are well worth reading. My own experience has included Christian scoffers and fanboys in relation to SF. As Bartlett and the commenters make clear, there are plenty of Christian SF fans and creators out there. One of my favorite blogs is James McGrath’s Exploring Our Matrix, not least because he has spent considerable time exploring the theological implications of my beloved Doctor Who. By the same token, as commenter Geoffrey R. said, there are many SF enthusiasts who champion the aspects of the genre that celebrate or endorse an explicitly atheistic worldview. Another of my favorite sites, io9, covers the intersection between religion and science in our culture, and while the bent of the staff overall can’t be characterized as “anti-religion,” I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that the stance of most writers is unsympathetic. Bartlett locates the tension in the relationship of Christianity to SF in the collision between religious eschatology (which anticipates the End Times and God’s judgment) and scientific humanism (which anticipates a progressive evolution of the species). That is certainly a component to it. The column also mentions that there may be a generational gap between older folks who grew up with SF as a pulpy, inconsequential waste of time and a younger generation that has grown up with SF as a legitimate, dramatic form in which social issues and interpersonal dynamics can be dealt with seriously. That is also a component. There’s another one that I didn’t see mentioned, though.
In America, evangelical Christianity frequently emphasizes reading the Bible literally: that is, understanding the events depicted as accurate, historical narratives. A related aspect of evangelical hermeneutics is the premise that God’s Word is inerrant: there are no inconsistencies, corruptions, or failures of communication contained within the Scripture. I.e. It means what it says it means, and what it means must be the unreconstructed, absolutely True dictates of the Author. The result is that while many episodes in the Bible can be used to illustrate nuggets of wisdom, or demonstrate correct, ethical behavior, these are more or less inseparable from the purpose of the Word to reveal unalterable, inarguable Truth directly from God to his people. I’m not going to debate the merits of these theological positions, but I will simply observe a consequence of its emphasis in American Christian teaching:
A lot of American Christians have no imagination.
Yeah, yeah, hyperbole, gross generalization, etcetera. I perceive a direct link between the fact that a lot of evangelicals take the Word primarily at face value and the fact that a lot of evangelicals cannot conceive of genre fiction (especially SF) in terms other than a series of plot points and expressed character traits. If a protagonist in a science fiction tale says that he’s an atheist and that everything in the universe has a rational explanation, you could take that as the viewpoint of the author. You could also take it as the viewpoint of that character. And even if the structure of the story aligns itself more closely with that viewpoint, there may still exist other interpretive possibilities within the paradigm of the story. What a literalist Christian might get out of the story is that the main character is an atheist and therefore the story is atheist claptrap, which means it’s bad, period. Is this wrong? Probably. Ignorant? Almost definitely. But it’s not simply that this understanding and interpretation of a science fiction story is shallow and unimaginative. Its lack of imagination is a key part of the training that many Christians receive as they’re taught how to understand the most important book in their lives: the Bible.
To clarify: I’m not arguing here that literalist interpretations of Scripture are shallow and unimaginative. What I’m arguing is that what may be a theologically valid approach to Scripture is not an intellectually valid approach to literature. It seems to me, though, that the way a lot of Christian readers understand the “Truth” of a fictional narrative is consonant with how they understand the “Truth” of the Scriptures.
I think this is a big reason why a lot of Christians get hung up on “objectionable content” in narratives. The mere presence of something unchristian is tantamount to an indulgence in sinful conduct. God’s Word may contain vile behavior and troubling implications, but that’s okay, because most Christians think of God as ultimately good and holy and incapable of doing anything — including depicting sin — that could possibly be ascribed to sinful motives. If he inspired it, it must be worthwhile. Not so with human authors. Human authors, by virtue of being human, are sinful, fallen beings. Representations of sinful behavior have their origins in the mind of the author, and, unlike God, the motives of humans who spend their time imagining and depicting this behavior are deeply suspect. An icon depicting the violent crucifixion of Christ is holy; a motion picture depicting anarchists shooting up an building lobby is sinful. Both representations might have spiritually noble motives, but because one is not a literal re-presentation of a Scriptural Truth, it is to be distrusted or condemned.
Setting aside conventionally objectionable content, the literalness of words and images remains the emphasis of so much “Christian” criticism. If the words and images in themselves do not reveal a Truth that can be immediately, unambiguously connected with received doctrine, then it must not be valid. This is how science fiction remains problematic for so many Christians. Science itself is based upon the consistent application of human reason; science fiction is most often concerned with the ways in which the advances of human knowledge (whether in the form of technology, biological evolution, or analysis of behavior) impact and potentially alter the dynamics of human drama. Rather than dealing with mystical or inexplicable phenomena (as horror and fantasy do), science fiction can tend to demystify the observable universe or offer explanations for previously inexplicable phenomena. Even if the characters are inveterately “human” in their capacity to surprise, change, or remain enigmatically isolated from easy interpretation, there is associated with SF in the minds of many people a sense of “naturalism.” Even if they use words like “fantastic” or “weird” or “unbelievable” to describe the genre, a lot of people intuitively grasp that SF tends to lean more heavily on rationality and possible iterations of this world rather than irrationality and worlds that do not operate according to the laws of this universe. These generalizations are not always true, and there is considerable crossover, but consider how the quasi-metaphysical Star Wars series holds to these assumptions about SF, because even before the Force was explained in terms of midichlorians, it was understood as a natural, though oft-unobserved, part of the universe. It may be mysterious to the non-Jedi characters, but it is presented as nothing more than an integral component of the other natural, lower-case-f forces of the universe. In short, it falls under the purview of scientific investigation, and it is governed by a sense of rationality.
That’s why it’s not surprising that a lot of Christian leaders cautioned parents that allowing their children to watch the Star Wars films might be harmful — the idea of the Force was obviously influenced by Eastern religion, and they were very concerned that kids might internalize it as Truth. In this incredibly literalist reading of the Star Wars films, the Force isn’t a sign of higher, spiritual Truths that can be playfully interpreted as dovetailing with Christian theology; it’s nothing more or less than what it appears to be: a non-Christian religion, which is therefore suspect and potentially harmful.
This line of reasoning does impact other speculative genres as well, of course. Not too long ago, hypersensitive Christian parents threw themselves into hysterics over Harry Potter, because Harry Potter might lead kids to dabble in witchcraft. Again, this is an incredibly literalist reading of the series. J.K. Rowling, though she openly acknowledged her Christianity, did not make it a selling point of herself as an author, whereas fantasists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein are known — the former especially — as apologists. It’s much easier to grasp the Christian elements of The Chronicles of Narnia when the author is known for writing Mere Christianity than it is to grasp the Christian elements of Harry Potter, whose author is known for writing… Harry Potter.
None of this is to say that superficial elements of storytelling can’t be correctly read as endorsements of an anti-Christian worldview. Philip Pullman is an aggressive apologist for atheism, and his Dark Materials trilogy is known for articulating that viewpoint. Similarly, the work of Stephen King is rife with Christian hypocrites and violent, right-wing evangelicals, and anyone familiar with his expressed personal opinions will recognize that he writes those characters into his fiction because he personally despises them and wants his readers to share his contempt and horror at their beliefs. Yet even these works can be reclaimed and creatively interpreted by doctrinally conservative Christians who are willing to engage imaginatively with them. But that would require setting aside the tools used for their Scriptural hermeneutics and developing a much more sophisticated approach that is appropriate for the stories at hand. Literalist readings won’t cut it.
As established earlier, this is not the only factor at work in the enmity between some Christians and science fiction. Yet it’s pervasive. What can be done? Should churches simply stop teaching literalist doctrine so that their members can fully appreciate the possibilities of science fiction? That would be silly. Instead, what I think might be beneficial is that Christians whose literalist tendencies do bleed over into their relationship with fiction develop the tools necessary to understand literature (and narratives in other media) on a deeper level. A consequence of this arts-driven re-alignment in perspective might be that the theological conversation shifts as well. This might be another, much more covert reason for resisting science fiction narratives.
If Christians recognize that correctly or deeply understanding non-Biblical narratives requires them to adopt a more critical, non-literalist approach, and if this approach reveals Truths to which they were previously blind, it may be that the same or similar approaches to the Scripture could reveal Biblical Truths to which they were previously blind. This may not threaten Scripture itself — after all, if it’s inerrant, then what harm can an individual reader do to it? — but it may create a wedge between the “obvious,” literal meaning and larger Truth that readers may begin to grasp. Notice that embracing non-literalist interpretations doesn’t negate the existence of what is literally evident on the page; instead, it frees the reader to consider different perspectives on what is in front of them. Developing non-literalist approaches won’t necessarily change the literal, unalterable Truth, but it may allow readers to approach the Truth from different angles. I don’t think a lot of Christians are comfortable with this arrangement, because they may think it creates an inherent instability, as if the Truth is somehow being undermined. A straight-laced, literalist reading of anything will essentially be a one-to-one ratio of meaning-to-truth. Though this is doesn’t allow much flexibility, at least you always know where you stand. But engaging different meanings doesn’t necessarily change the Truth; maybe standing in one place breeds atrophy, not stability. Requiring the reader to move around a bit in order to see the Truth from different perspectives isn’t necessarily unstable; it just requires a bit more exercise.☕