Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Theology and Science Fiction

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Theology and Science Fiction

Article excerpt

THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE FICTION by James F. McGrath. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016. viii + 113 pages, bibliography, no index. Paperback; $17.00. ISBN: 9781498204514.

Is there a Creator God who made all that exists out of nothing? Has God evolved along with the cosmos? Are godlike beings actually advanced aliens whose science and technology appear supernatural? Will humans develop godlike power? Will we be superseded by artificial super-intelligences? Will robots develop souls? Will Christianity survive encounters with extraterrestrial cultures in the spacefaring future? How will earthly religions change in centuries to come? What if some alien worlds never fell from grace? Such big questions have long been raised by philosophers and scientists, as well as by theologians and science fiction writers.

That science fiction and theology intersect in many ways may surprise, but it shouldn't. Both often express a sense of wonder, and even awe. Both seek self-understanding and awareness of our place in the cosmos. Both are fascinated with the Other and the New, with intimations of the sacred, the transcendent, the divine--with the Mystery beyond human knowing and imagining. Both are curious about life and death, origins and endings, the deep past and far future. Both address changes and continuities in ideas, beliefs, values, and practices. Both address our hopes and fears, anxieties and dreams. When science fiction writers wrestle with moral questions, with the search for "forbidden knowledge" or the powerful possibilities and pitfalls of "playing God," with utopias or dystopias, with vivid apocalypses or epic, multigenerational journeys, with demons or messiahs from the heavens, they signal a deep debt to the Bible as an ancient and continuing source of images, characters, plots, tropes, and themes for storytelling. I have long used my training in biblical exegesis in the analysis and interpretation of science fiction (and scientific) texts; this is but one reason why I found the background of the author of this brief but stimulating discussion so appropriate.

James McGrath is a New Testament scholar and science fiction enthusiast who previously edited a wonderful collection of scholarly essays, Religion and Science Fiction (2011), as well as Religion and Doctor Who (2013). The slim volume under review (there are only 92 pages of text, with the first and last pages of each chapter filling only a half-page or less--not counting a short preface and three concluding, very short fictions) is full of interest and insight. Each chapter ends with questions for reflection. Mary Shelley completed her incredibly influential novel Frankenstein in 1817; it at once established science fiction as the literature of the modern age of science and technology and set it upon a century-spanning trajectory of engagement with the world of myth and religion. Sadly, there was no space for McGrath to reflect on this, nor to provide much context or description of texts the reader might not be familiar with.

In his helpful introduction, McGrath defines his terms and the limits of his study. He regards Ian Barbour's famous four-fold typology of science-religion relations as useful for his purposes. I would agree that it makes a good starting point for analysis, although the model is quite problematic from a history of science perspective. In his second chapter, McGrath offers a good introduction to the nature of canonicity with respect to the Bible, Star Wars, and Dr. Who. Also included are practices such as pilgrimages and ritual clothing, which cut across the worlds of religion and science fiction/comic book fandom. "Science Fiction against Theology and as Theology," the focus of chapter three, is a fine discussion deserving of a book-length analysis. Antireligious science fiction is not really addressed, nor satires such as John Kessel's Good News from Outer Space (1989) and Marcos Donnelly's Letters from the Flesh (2004). …

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