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The Theologian's Spreadsheet

by Greg Slade

How do we describe science fiction? My brother once called it, "The Theologian's Spreadsheet." Just as business people use electronic spreadsheets to answer questions like, "What if we drop our retail price by $5.00 and sales go up 10%?" science fiction writers ask themselves, and their readers, "What if we discover a faster-than-light drive? What effect will that have on society? How will the people we are affect the people we become, given this technological change?" These questions explore, not just interesting stories about "the future", but the deepest questions about existence, the nature of the universe, what it is to be human, about how humans do (or can, or should) act when moral dilemmas are posed by technological or sociological change. As such, much of science fiction, whether written from "religious" points of view, or from agnostic or atheist points of view, raise essentially religious questions. That is, science fiction is a way of asking the same questions religions ask and seek to answer.

One night, I was on-line to an electronic bulletin board system which had quite a few science fiction devotees in its user community. I had been posting a few science fiction stories, as well as some articles on Christianity, and Christian viewpoints on various issues. One of the other science fiction fans on the board sent me a message, knowing I am a Christian, asking how I could possibly like science fiction when it was so opposed to Christianity. I was a little taken aback, never having seen any inherent difficulty in reconciling my taste in fiction with my convictions. I reassured him that it is entirely possible for a Christian to entertain the possibility of extra-terrestrial life without having the entire Christian world-view fall apart (see C.S. Lewis' essay "Religion and Rocketry", in Fern-Seed and Elephants.) However, as I thought about it, I realized that one of the reasons I like science fiction so much is because of my faith, not in spite of it.

Many, if not most, of the best science fiction authors grapple with what I call "ultimate issues." The reason good people suffer, the presence of evil, the meaning of life, the destiny of man, the nature of personality, and a host of other issues. Many, if not most, of the science fiction books I like best start off with some improbable assumption, or at least an assumption we find improbable now, and go on logically from there. In essence, science fiction starts with an author asking the question, "What if..." Some science fiction stories, like C.S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy, are overtly religious. C.S. Lewis asked the question, "What if there is life on other planets, which did not fall into sin as happened on earth?" His answer provides a tantalising glimpse of unfallen life. Other works, like James White's The Genocidal Healer, while not overtly religious, nevertheless ask religious questions. White's question revolves around the need for forgiveness. "How can people maintain relationship after having done something inexcusable?" The answer White eventually arrives at sounds amazingly close to Christian orthodoxy, although perhaps non-Christian readers might not see it that way.

Attitudes of science fiction writers towards religion vary wildly. Some stories are overtly hostile. In Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" (in The Nine Billion Names of God) a spaceship discovers that "the Star of Christmas" was a star which went nova, destroying the civilisation of an entire solar system in the process. This is supposed to prove that God, if He exists, is capricious and unjust, rather than good and just, as the Judeo-Christo-Muslim tradition believes. In David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, Jesus Christ is dismissed as a dangerous madman.

Not all science fiction writers are quite so hostile to religion. In The Shield of Time, Poul Anderson explores the consequences of the church either controlling the state or becoming controlled by it. In North by 2000, H.A. Hargreaves explores the difficulties facing a clergyman who tries to live up to his calling in the next century.

Some writers raise religious questions without necessarily discussing any organised religion. Spider Robinson creates, in his "Callahan's Place" stories, the kind of loving, supportive community which churches are supposed (but frequently fail) to be. The movie based on Barry Longyear's "Enemy Mine" brushed against the universality of moral teachings like "the Golden Rule". In Short Circuit, the robot "Number 5" suddenly becomes sentient, in circumstances accompanied by three (admittedly subtle) clues that sentience (and presumably a soul) is provided by "the Man upstairs", and goes on to develop his own code of morality, including his own version of "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

Still other writers use their works to put forward existing religious beliefs. C.S. Lewis' works are written from the perspective of Christianity. George Lucas' Star Wars film series seems to be an exposition of New Age beliefs. The movie Brainstorm explores death in terms very similar to reported Near Death Experiences. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, in a sentiment familiar to humanists and New Agers, Captain Kirk concludes that the place to look for God is within the human heart.

Finally, some writers create new religious beliefs. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, is an obvious example. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land sets forth its own religion, although few perhaps, have given it visible form. The Ghostbusters movies portray the supernatural as being subservient to its own set of laws, and capable of being affected and controlled by technology. (Of course, in Ghostbusters, the supernatural angle was played for gags, but even so, it is based on specific premises about what the supernatural is and how it works.)

There can be no question that science fiction deals with religious questions. While many stories contain an antagonistic view of religion, they are still dealing with the same questions. Science fiction and Christianity are not mutually incompatible. Rather, science fiction, like any other field of thought, is just one more field for Christianity to contend with other belief systems. The questions may be posed in different terms, but they remain the same questions: "Brothers, what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37 NIV)

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[A Fresh Path to the Grave – And Beyond][Strangers on the Border Between Two Strange Lands][Christian Symbolism in <cite>Buffy the Vampire Slayer</cite>][The Theologian's Spreadsheet][Christian SF?]

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[A Fresh Path to the Grave – And Beyond] [Strangers on the Border Between Two Strange Lands] [Christian Symbolism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer] [The Theologian's Spreadsheet] [Christian SF?]