Butler University religion professor James L. McGrath has an interesting article in the spring issue of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum in which he explores the connection between science fiction and religion. Given my own interest in the connection between speculative fiction and fringe history, I found his discussion to be engaging, if (understandably) somewhat incomplete.
McGrath begins with Lost, which is perhaps less science fiction per se than it is a fantasy since ultimately it is not about science but rather the supernatural. McGrath doesn’t really have the space to go into the issues demarcating the differences between the overlapping genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but I think it’s fair to say that McGrath’s ideas about science fiction apply as well if not better to the other two as well. Anyway, McGrath argues that Lost represents a reflection of contemporary society’s views on life and religion, particularly in the way audiences reacted to the finale, in which the characters were revealed to have traveled to an afterlife.
According to him, those who wanted more resolution are akin to those who see the universe as “enigmas to solve” and those who were emotionally satisfied with the finale are akin to those who see the universe as an unsolvable puzzle whose value lies only in our social relationships to other people. I confess that I see nothing religious in either view, but McGrath takes a rather broad view of religion. To this end, he says that the golden light at the center of Lost’s mysterious island might “undermine venerable theosophical tenets about spiritual light” by making the supernatural literal, and he asks whether this creates a conversation in which viewers are asked to think about whether science and faith can coexist. I suppose from a Christian perspective this makes sense, though I have a hard time imagine ancient Greeks arguing about whether a glowing light cheapens the mystical power of Zeus. Plus: Didn’t the Judeo-Christian God have a burning bush of some sort that made the “spiritual light” literal?
This is prelude, though, to McGrath making a connection between religious believers looking for literal proof of faith and science fiction writers literalizing religion through appeal to aliens. He cites Star Trek, particularly the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which the Greek god Apollo is revealed to be a space alien, as well as various episodes of Doctor Who that attribute Greek mythology to alien species, and Stargate, which did the same but in Egypt. He says that these sci-fi stories give
…expression to a fundamental human storytelling instinct and a desire that our myths and stories still be true in some sense, even as we recast them within the framework of modern scientific understanding. Put another way, we long for a universe filled with monsters and magic, even if we now expect them to be delivered by scientific means.
There is obviously a close connection between this concept and the science fiction spirituality of UFO cults and ancient astronaut believers, who also try to rewrite the gods as space aliens.
Here, though, I find McGrath’s argument incomplete. He goes on to discuss various sci-fi stories that touch on alternative explanations for Jesus (which are themselves not too different from Monty Python’s Life of Brian), but because he is apparently drawing a fairly bright line around science fiction and fantasy to the exclusion of horror, he misses the longstanding literary tradition of casting supernatural and quasi-religious claims as truth claims. This goes back to the very first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, whose author claimed falsely that the text was a true account taken from ancient manuscripts. Down to this very day, movies about exorcisms, ghosts, and psychics routinely describe themselves as “based on a true story.” This must say something about our culture and its relationship to truth, but if it does, McGrath does not day.
These horrors do not necessarily take the form of science, and by excluding ghosts and demons from his consideration of Lost and questions of a “scientific” afterlife, McGrath falsely decides that “we”—whoever that might be—demand scientific justifications for monsters and magic. It is better to say that the definition of the science fiction genre requires a scientific explanation for the divine, but that this demand falters and fails as we move from science fiction to fantasy and ultimately to horror. In the reverse, this is how H. P. Lovecraft’s quasi-divine Old Ones eventually became explicitly extraterrestrial aliens as he moved steadily toward a more “scientific” basis for his stories. To exclude the horror genre from consideration is to bias the sample and suggest that the undefined “we” is more rational—and more aligned to science fiction—than the facts warrant.
“So science fiction is a wonderful window into how humans perceive religion in the present,” McGrath writes. He sees in it explorations of ontological, spiritual, and epistemological questions, and this is correct but incomplete, not to mention presumptive in its efforts to universalize the human experience through the limited sample of science fiction producers, who are disproportionately Western (i.e. Euro-American), white, and male. Science fiction might represent, for a specific audience, a conscious reflection of how some choose to engage with religion, but it is not the only or even the predominant view. In the horror genre we see the dark mirror of this, in which the supernatural is invoked as a constant and chaotic force that threatens to overturn the audience’s rationalizing beliefs about the world. It’s difficult to argue that we should celebrate stories of time-traveling to meet Jesus as inquiries into the fundamental nature of modern faith while omitting whatever the literature of the supernatural seems to say about our relationship to demons, ghosts, pagan gods, and whatever other unsightly things no longer fit comfortably in the certain type of Judeo-Christian spirituality. (Note too that claims made in fiction stories do not necessarily represent the actual view of their creators or the audience.)
To give just a couple of recent examples: The CW’s Supernatural is a horror show, and yet most of its seasons have been devoted to exploring Judeo-Christian mythology and to considering the absence of God and the bureaucracy of faith-based views of the world beyond the physical. Over on the El Rey Network, that channel’s new adaptation of From Dusk Till Dawn has expanded on the original movie to offer a bloody meditation on faith and the degree to which we are imprisoned by faiths not of our choosing or making and therefore manipulated by outside forces we don’t understand. Now, I’m not endorsing either of these as particularly insightful, but they easily have more to say than Star Trek’s brief foray into ancient astronaut theorizing.
Why should we as critics privilege science fiction’s view of faith over the darker and more Gothic take of horror? Why should either of these Western elite viewpoints reflect “how humans perceive religion in the present” more than the art of China, India, or any other culture? Or for that matter the actual expressed beliefs of actual people in their daily lives? These questions are perhaps too big for a three-page magazine article, but they deserve to be acknowledged and discussed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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