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Relativism is Boring (or Why Sci-fi Needs Religion)

star-trek-2Jeffrey Overstreet was kind enough to link my post Slumdog Millionaire — Transcending Karma at his site a while back. It remains one of my most frequented posts. I find myself continually coming back its underlying thesis, which is this:

A biblical worldview is, in the dramatic / narrative sense, more viable for an author than any other worldview.

Before I unpack that, let me reference the article that got me thinking about this again.

In How Science Fiction Found Religion, Benjamin A. Plotinsky suggests that one of the reasons “popular fantasy has become increasingly religious at heart” is because of the erosion of geopolitical intrigue. “During the sixties and seventies,” Plotinsky writes, “popular American science fiction looked to the stars and saw a Cold War there.” Thus, sci-fi franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars both portrayed “a universe caught between two great rivals, one free and democratic, the other hierarchical and autocratic.” Whether it was Klingons or Imperial stormtroopers, the anti-American archetypes abounded.

Then came the collapse of Communism.

When the Soviet Union began to thaw in the mid-eighties and collapsed entirely in 1991, that neat good-versus-evil scheme resonated less, and mainstream science fiction started to cast about for alternative star-trek-1inspirations. Often it failed. Star Trek, for example, continued to imitate geopolitics as it launched a phenomenally boring new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in 1987 (it would end its run in 1994). The Federation and the Klingons were now at peace, and the Enterprise resembled a spaceborne United Nations, a bustling enclave safe enough for the crew to bring children with them. So yawn-inducing was the galaxy that the show frequently sought to introduce drama with a device called the “holodeck,” a virtual-reality entertainment area where the characters could cavort in more exciting locales—the Wild West, say, or 221B Baker Street.

So the further the screenwriters steered the U.S.S. Enterprise toward peace, the less dramatically engaging the show became. Nothing like evil to spice things up, even if that evil is synthetic. Thus, the “holodeck.” But how gripping can artificial evil really be?

Plotinsky suggests that this absence of real political bad guys is one of the reasons sci-fi has migrated away from geopolitical themes and back towards religion. Of course, religious themes aren’t exactly new for science fiction.

Science fiction of the written kind has long taken advantage of the cultural power of the Christ story. In fact, two of the twentieth century’s most popular sci-fi novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, were overtly messianic, a fact noted by the sizable critical literature that exists on the books.

But while messianic images crowd spec-fic literature, it is their underlying assumptions, I think, that empower and sustain much of the dramatic narrative. Saviors istar-wars-1mply a need for salvation. So whether it’s Neo or Harry Potter, Superman or Luke Skywalker, their draw is in the felt needs of their audience. While the sci-fi messiah figure summons deeper cultural mythologies, as Plotinsky points out, it is this insinctive notion of ultimate good and evil, of heaven and hell, generation and degeneration, that whets our existential appetites. In other words, it is not just the absence of geopolitical villains that has caused a renewal of biblical imagery in sci-fi, it is the ongoing spiritual and intellectual validity of the biblical worldview.

Which brings me back to the point of this post.

Messianic figures are inherently part of a biblical worldview. Now, by biblical worldview I do not necessarily mean a worldview that is theologically detailed and orthodox in every aspect. In the simplist sense, a biblical worldview is a perspective or set of assumptions that generally coheres with how the Bible frames reality.  This includes, among others, things like  belief in a Supreme Being, moral absolutes, that human beings are imperfect, and that one day we will give account of our imperfections. Of course, people differ in their views about God and the afterlife. But the fact that a person believes in a God and an afterlife is the start of a biblical worldview. The messiah figure, whether found in primitive myth or Christian theology, is rooted in the belief that there is real evil, that we are suffering under that evil, and that a Person can empower us or rescue us from this plight.

  • Atheistic worldviews do not produce messiah figures because humans have no need of gods; we are complex animals — not sinners — who must simply evolve
  • Relativistic worldviews do not require messiah figures because there is no ultimate right or wrong; sin and evil is entirely a subjective experience that cannot be imposed upon me by another
  • Pantheistic worldviews do not demand messiah figures because sin / evil is an illusion that must be transcended; the only real evil is the belief in evil

This is why, in my Slumdog post, I suggested that the Indian author intentionally avoided using themes like Karma and jettisoned a Hindu worldview in favor of a more westernized one. Why? Hindu scholars have estimated that the average person will require approximately 6,800,000 incarnations before they can become perfect. Practically speaking, a genuine Hindu worldview guts life (not to mention a story) of any dramatic necessity. We all eventually migrate toward perfection and merge with the Universal Self. Sure, I might be 5 million incarnations away, but I’ll get there. Ho hum.

The reason that the Judeo-Christian worldview is more viable for authors than, say, a relativistic worldview, is not just because it is more compelling, but because it jives with reality. Whether or not they import stark biblical language or imagery, fictional worlds that involve moral absolutes are more interesting than those that don’t. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was mired in war. Why? Because Evil existed. And because it existed, the players were on one side or the other. We didn’t root for Frodo because he was cute and had furry feet, but because he was on the right side. In this sense, a relativist could not have written Lord of the Rings.

The naturalist might believe life is a colossal accident, and that when we die we return to Nothingness. But if that’s the case, not only will my existence be irrelevant, so will my stories.  The struggle for survival has little consequence — in the existential or fictional sense — if there is no afterlife, if nothing really eternal is at stake. Ultimately, for the naturalist, the only real dramatic tension is how long she can stave off the inevitable advance of cold complete annihilation. Boring.

As I see it, the reason that speculative fiction literature regularly incorporates biblical imagery is not just because of our interminably religious impulses, but because those impulses jive with reality. C.S. Lewis once suggested that our yearnings and spiritual hungers correspond to something that can satisfy them. I hunger for vanilla ice cream or root beer because those things exist. Likewise, our hunger for salvation is evidence of its existence.

Life, like good stories, has something at stake. It’s why messiah figures are so prolific in spec-fic literature and resonate so powerfully in our psyche — there are real forces that we need saved from, and a real Person who can save us from them.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Xdpaul March 9, 2009, 2:29 PM

    Holy CBA-approved epithet! I’ve been trying to say this for the past 15 years or so. Thanks for making me look like a stuttering boob!

    It is no secret that the majority of science fiction novels are written with a naturalistic worldview with a spiritualist theme. In other words, there is a great deal of popular science fiction (I’m looking at you, Arthur C. Clarke!) that assumes a somewhat detached “scientific” approach but adopts the spiritual tropes of Christian faith in advancing a decidedly non-Christian theme. It is a sometimes subtle swap of truth for versimilitude.

    Thus, one of the major “new ideas” of science fiction is that of the “Omega Point.” This is a spiritual time in the far-distant future when mankind takes the next great evolutionary step forward, which involves mankind becoming a unified, peaceful, “whole” society, no longer in need of atonement, but having achieved its own “At-One-Ment.”

    I could give you a list of novels a mile long that feature the Omega Point in some fashion but see Childhood’s End for an early, and great, example of it.

    The Omega Point, however, is a poor substitute for conflict. Originally, it served as a novel, if somewhat depressing, RESOLUTION to the international or intergalactic conflict in the plot. As the Cold War and threat of nuclear annhilation waned, the Omega Point began to take up more of the plot space (Compare 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2010: The Year We Make Contact, for example) and its spiritual implications became source for drama.

    But not very good drama. The fact is that the Omega Point had already demonstrated itself in literature to be a very bad thing, as illustrated in 1984, A Brave New World, or even Animal Farm. Those who did not evolve and assimilate to the Borg-like “new and fulfilling” norm, were ruthlessly, thoughtlessly broken or eliminated.

    So the Omega Point in science fiction (I’ve most recently seen it employed and explored in great detail in Blasphemy) is a real-life “bad” that is often portrayed (sometimes gracefully) as fictional “good.”

    Because there’s a new movie out, I don’t want to write a spoiler, but I will say that the best, most realistic example of the sort of destructive magical thinking required for a belief in the Omega Point is shown in the graphic novel The Watchmen.

  • Prez March 9, 2009, 2:34 PM

    Good thoughts.

    I just have a small issue with the analogy of root beer and ice cream. You crave them not because they exist but because you’ve tasted them and enjoy them. Before one first tries ice cream, I doubt one can really have a hunger for it – one has no idea of what it tastes like or how much one likes it (or needs it :).

    Not that your point isn’t important, but the analogy seems a bit sloppy.

  • Mike Duran March 9, 2009, 2:57 PM

    Okay, Prez. I’ll concede that analogy is a bit sloppy. Perhaps if I make it more general, rather than specific, it’ll assuage the muddiness. The hunger for food corresponds to the existence of food and the act of eating. Our teeth, saliva, stomach and bowels all speak to the fact that we were meant to eat. Likewise, we hunger for sex because mating is possible. We hunger for love because love can be requited. It could even be argued that our desire for utopia — a place of tranquility and health — correlates to Heaven. Likewise, our desires are a clue to the existence of other things, things that fulfill those desires. Thanks for stopping by and allowing me to clarify.

  • Prez March 9, 2009, 3:07 PM


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