Seeking God in Strange Places
The idea of finding a Christian moral lesson in TV science fiction could occur only to people who take both religion and science fiction seriously. In The Truth Is Out There, Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth deploy a considerable arsenal of philosophical and religious learning in demonstrating that this popular genre is a privileged vehicle for conveying fundamental moral truths.
To put the book’s overall thesis in its simplest terms, the supernatural elements that define science fiction are the fictional equivalent of miracles in religious traditions that provide moral revelations to souls who are open to them. Although the authors stop short of finding an explicit Christian message in any of the six series they discuss—Dr. Who, Star Trek, The Prisoner, Twilight Zone, X Files, and Babylon 5—their claim is that all six are informed by the moral imperative, shared by other religions but especially central to Christianity, that tells us to reject sinful impulses toward sacrificial violence and revenge in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation. Although none of the creators of these series had a specifically religious orientation, in all six cases the fictional world provides a scene on which the characters and through them, the spectator, find opportunities for spiritual enlightenment.
The authors begin with the claim that science and religion are not only compatible but that “the systematic, rational investigation of nature”— science—“is essential to making religious beliefs reasonable and persuasive.” As the authors must know, the objections to this position run the gamut of religious thought from Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum to the Scopes trial. Nor is it beyond contestation that in both ancient Greece and early modern Europe “[science] seized hold of the minds of thoughtful people within the framework of a religious, theological orientation,” except in the tautological sense that at the time(s) when science arose, “a religious, theological orientation” was the only intellectual framework available. Yet we can forgive the authors for neglecting these subtleties in a work whose double burden is to get sci-fi fans interested in religion and to interest the religious in sci-fi.
The fact that science fiction has been virtually coeval with scientific observation itself and the technical advances it has provided gives rise to the suggestion that science poses a challenge to traditional narrative forms. This is demonstrated by the ancient examples offered in the Introduction, Plato’s Timaeus and Lucian’s True History. What distinguishes Plato’s cautionary tale of the downfall of the hubristic island kingdom of Atlantis from the Biblical episode of the Tower of Babel is that the pride to be chastised is a reflection of technological superiority over others rather than of the social unity that inspires the builders of the tower to challenge God. Conversely, the authors interpret Lucian’s imaginary trip to the moon (which they contrast with the Irish monk Saint Brendan’s voyage to a “promised land” beyond the boundaries of the known world) as a sign that the fulfillment of the “quest of the anxious soul . . . cannot be found in this world” (italics the authors’). These two ancient texts define respectively science fiction’s dystopian and utopian sub-genres: the transcendence of normality can bring us closer to moral truth, but it can also make it easier for us to ignore it.
Within this framework, the informative and elegantly written presentations of the six series, including detailed accounts of a good number of individual episodes, whet the reader’s appetite for further review of these works—a course of action greatly facilitated by the appearance of many of these series on DVD. The series are discussed in roughly chronological order, beginning with Doctor Who, which ran from 1963 to 1989, and ending with the 1990s series X-Files and Babylon 5. In between, along with the relatively obscure The Prisoner, are two of the most enduringly popular of all TV series, Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, which began respectively in 1966 and 1959; the original Star Trek has spawned four sequel/prequel series, whereas the original 1959–64 Twilight Zone episodes are continually replayed on cable.
The authors insist that despite Gene Roddenberry’s overt hostility to religion, his Star Trek protagonists implement a type of Christianity in action; Roddenberry himself stated that each episode was a “morality play.” The trio of Spock (intellect), McCoy (emotion), and Captain Kirk (“spiritedness”) represent Plato’s three parts of the soul but are very nearly described as an analogy of the Christian Trinity—“the three are so deliberately integrated on the show that they almost function as one whole being;” Freud’s superego-id-ego triplet might be equally appropriate. Kirk and his buddies travel the galaxy teaching the golden rule by example; “each of the main characters . . . repeatedly shows himself possessed of such a great and self-sacrificing love as to lay down his life for the others.”
The otherwise unconnected stories in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone are described as centered on the tenacity of sin and the possibility of grace. On this occasion, the authors take the audacious step of declaring Christianity as a superior explanatory force than other world religions for its unique doctrine of original sin, by which we are already “tainted” from birth: “it therefore does not just tempt us as an outside force but infects and perverts us from within.”
In the chapter subtitled “The X Files as Apocalypse” the authors expand their concept of revelation to include paranormal phenomena such as alien abductions, at least in a fictional context. The tension between mystical Mulder and skeptical Scully allows the team to explore such signs of transcendence, which are compared throughout the chapter with the symbols of the biblical book of Revelation, without requiring us to take them for real-world experiences. It is the watchword of this series, the truth is out there, that supplies the book’s title.
But the most “biblical” and apocalyptic of the six is the last, Babylon 5, which the authors read as a history of the Logos. The series’ creator, Michael Straczynski, is described as an avid reader of both the Bible and ancient philosophical texts from Plato to Plotinus, and his characters engage in long discussions in which moral ideas are applied to an epic of war and redemption, most notably in the saga of G’Kar, “the moral fulcrum” of the series, whose original hatred for the enemies who have defeated his people gradually turns to reconciliation and who undergoes a partial martyrdom that has many points in common with the Passion.
The book’s conclusion, along with a well-informed, provocative sketch of television history, somewhat surprisingly develops a jaundiced view of “mass culture” reminiscent of the Frankfurt school of Adorno and Marcuse. For the authors, these six series, whose creators “stood askew to the dominant trends of the times,” stand out as rare oases in the TV wasteland. They note that five of the six were forced off the air after only a few years (the perennial Star Trek’s original run was only from 1966 to 1969). Yet in view of the extended time at its disposition to develop character and theme, the “serial” genre is a potential if rarely exploited vehicle of seriousness—the two words, as the authors point out, are related. More importantly, science fiction’s expansion of the imagination to a “lofty view” beyond the bounds of everyday experience provides a powerful means to focus our attention on the place of the transcendent in our own lives. The reader may find a bit disconcerting the authors’ confident description of TV programming as “the struggle between art and trash,” but will come away from this book with a desire to experience the works lovingly described in its pages and with the conviction that they have indeed identified a moral truth “out there” for those who seek it.
Eric Gans has taught French literature, critical theory, and film at UCLA since 1969, and written a number of books and articles on aesthetic theory as well as on Flaubert, Musset, Racine, and other French writers. Beginning with The Origin of Language (1981), Gans developed the concept of generative anthropology and has written five other books on the subject, including Originary Thinking (1993), Signs of Paradox (1997), and the forthcoming The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day.
Posted: September 9, 2007
Did you see this one?
William F. Buckley, RIP
Gerald J. Russello, Editor
Website Exclusives (2007–2008)