Gettin' Write with Jesus?

Monday, April 06, 2009

At City Journal is a thought-provoking piece by Benjamin Plotinsky, who maintains that popular science fiction, from Superman to The Matrix, has been taking on a decidedly more religious cast in recent years.

Agreeing with Ayn Rand that philosophical ideas drive a culture, part of me initially reacted by thinking something like, "Well, that's not only borderline obvious, it's almost a forgone conclusion since Christianity saturates our culture." (Men do have free will, however. No intellectual influence determines culture.)

But as a veteran of an undergraduate major in English literature at a Catholic university, part of my initial reaction was also a deep skepticism. Some Christians are so intent on reading their faith into other people's minds and words that sometimes, it seems, so much as a mention of a right angle is treated like an allusion to Calvary. I recall at one point hearing Rand's John Galt likened to Jesus Christ at least in part due to his initials being J.G., the letter "G" being a Roman variant of the letter "C." We all know what Ayn Rand was really up to, despite her profession of atheism. Yeah, right!

But overall, I think Plotinsky is on the mark regarding what he describes. I think he also makes an interesting connection regarding when Gilles Kepel's "Revenge of God" started, as he puts it, to "begun to be felt even in secular Hollywood."

... In the 1980 [Star Wars] sequel, Yoda ... instructed Luke to "feel the Force around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!" Such language, smacking of the period's flirtation with natural mysticism, gave way in the new movies to an explanation more in keeping with our current fascination with molecular biology: the Force, we learned in [post Cold War] The Phantom Menace, was actually the product of microorganisms in the blood. It's as though Lucas, instinctively realizing the intellectual poverty of the New Age, gave it up, exchanged it for something resembling science, and then turned, elsewhere in the script, to a far older, more powerful story.
The Christ-like quality of the origins of Anakin Skywalker, usually bestowed on heroes is, here, written into a villain, but this paragraph ties together several lines of Plotinsky's reasoning, which I would summarize as something like, "During the Cold War, science fiction had a more geopolitical inspiration. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, science fiction writers were lost in terms of models for moral conflict, and this loss exposed the poverty of 'the New Age' (read: modern philosophy) as a source of either an artistic inspiration or a moral foundation for heroic fiction."

As far as that goes, Plotinsky is correct, but he doesn't go far enough. Religion, being based on faith, has, as such, no intellectual intercourse with reality. Assertions of Christ's divinity -- and indeed the whole concept of divinity -- are arbitrary and completely unsupported and unsupportable by evidence and logic. Whatever "power" Christianity has as an intellectual force, it does not lie in helping its followers understand or deal with reality.

This is not to say that Christianity is powerless, though. As Ayn Rand once noted,
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy. ("The Chickens' Homecoming," Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 46)
Her point is that the aspirations of religion, to discover truth and to learn how how to live properly, are legitimate, but its means, blind faith, contradict those ends. Consequently, religion does not deserve the monopoly it has over discussions of man's aspirations or higher emotions.

And furthermore:
Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy -- an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality -- many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man's existence. ("Philosophy and Sense of Life," The Romantic Manifesto, 25.)
We can see some of this when Plotinsky cites a work that originally inspired Gorge Lucas:
[Star Wars] doubtless owes much of that success to mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces described certain features of the "standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero." The adventure's outline was simple: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man." Many myths shared even more than this, explained Campbell; for example, "the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or an old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass." Think of Arthur, Merlin, and Excalibur.
The story of Christ, like many Biblical stories, shares many elements with (and is probably based on) the myths of other, more ancient religions. But the similarity is deeper than that. Morality and life -- Ayn Rand is the only philosopher to demonstrate how the one can be rationally discovered from the requirements of the latter -- are all about good men overcoming obstacles, including the evil of other men. (Rand's morality alone rejects the altruistic call for human sacrifice.) All good stories involve conflict for this very reason, and all heroes will share certain moral attributes as a result.

But what qualities? Our mythologies,being products of more primitive times when men had to face much more physical danger (and with much less intellectual sophistication) than we do today, make much of physical strength. But as "resourceful" Ulysses indicates, the more fundamental quality of a strong mind has been indicated since ancient times. Virgin birth is common, too, but that is a biological impossibility, and, but for the obscene doctrine of original sin, would not even be on the radar as a moral requirement.

The hero is good, in touch with reality, and efficacious. The morality underlying the story determines the answer to the question of what "good" means and of the question "efficacious -- for what?" But how one becomes in touch with reality is the really interesting question, and it explains why the science has been undercut and is disappearing from science fiction.

Science fiction is -- or used to be -- premised on the idea that the universe is intelligible to man, or, perhaps that at least physical phenomena were amenable to rational inquiry. As such, it provided a refuge (much like science itself) for many people from the irrationality of an increasingly irrational culture. The heroes were men of science, whose extraordinary capabilities were usually made possible by the application of past rational inquiry to such diverse fields as space travel, biology, and engineering.

The characters of Star Trek might appear on the surface of a planet moments after being in space on the Enterprise, but they got there thanks, ultimately, to reason. And often, a character had to think for himself to get through the events of an episode. As seen in "The Corbomite Maneuver", neither technology (nor deductive reasoning) alone are enough.

But something went wrong, and it wasn't just the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cold War provided was a life-and-death conflict that almost anyone could understand, at least up to a point. (And that point was passed, and all understanding lost, any time someone said he agreed with the ends of the Soviets, but not their means.) The Russians were the bad guys, and they were threatening our lives. Contrary to the actual implications of the altruism pervading Western culture, it was easy to gloss over the fact that "morality" conflicted with the requirements of life and spin a heroic yarn.

And once the Cold War ended?
... 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. ...
Yes and no. Yes, the writers were using a geopolitical model, but no, that's not the whole story behind why Star Trek: The Next Generation was boring. And yes, geopolitics as it was was insufficient inspiration for an exciting show, but no, turning to the Bible was not the only viable alternative. (I do not here claim that Plotinisky is necessarily saying this, either.) Neither science fiction nor anything else can help us evade moral or philopsophical questions forever, and the end of the Cold War marked the end of that refuge for science fiction writers and their audiences.

Is having one's world, or nation, or even just one's existence directly threatened by an enemy a necessary plot element for a story of heroism? No. Just watch The Pursuit of Happyness. Is having super powers? Or being armed to the teeth with lasers and nuclear weaponry? Or being born of a virgin? Or having mystical powers? No, no, no, and no. Just read Atlas Shrugged, which does have other elements of science fiction, although I would not classify it as such.

Without having time to elaborate, I would suggest that the problem being "answered" by God, so to speak, is that most writers in our culture today do not really understand heroism or romantic realism. The "good", as preached by altruism, is fundamentally at odds with rationality -- Just ask why you're expected to commit sacrifices some time -- and practicality. Since it is at odds with the requirements of man's life, its goals offer nothing personally motivating to an audience used to the pursuit of its own happiness. This is what made The Next Generation boring. Worse, when practiced consistently, altruism is deadly, as every "hero" of altruism shows, and as every deus ex machina that magically renders such acts world-saving actually attests.

And this is why writers are turning to the Bible when they run out of other movies to remake or serialize. The modern, secular philosophies held by (or that have influenced) many science fiction writers agree with Christianity that altruism is a proper morality, which means that they do not and can not see how the goodness and efficacy of a hero really do, in fact, go together. They reject reason in favor of an empty skepticism, which means they have already rejected the means by which to correct this earlier fatal error of aesthetics. And, as pragmatists, they throw their hands up and notice that lots of people find the Bible compelling, or at least familiar, and borrow heavily from it.

And then, of course, actual Christians who want to write science fiction will also be more than happy to step in to fill the modernist void.

Call it the Cold War Bubble of Romantic Fiction, if you will. There is indeed no shortage of grist for the pulp mill. But you have to understand what the essential qualities of a hero -- contact with reality, morality, and efficacy -- really mean before you will know how to find it. The alternative isn't "God or boredom," but: reason -- or self-immolation.

You know, that sounds like the kind of conflict one could write an epic novel around....

-- CAV


Chuck said...

What an excellent post. I'm one of those who used to like reading science fiction, but saw it deteriorate so badly I can't read it anymore. Science fiction writers lost confidence in reason and science, and turned to fantasy, which has swamped sf ever since. Or they write some politically correct sf, heavy on environmentalism and multiculturalism and moral relativity.

If you lose confidence in reason, it's no surprise if you turn to faith.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, Chuck.

You reminded me of a couple of things at Epcot, which my wife and I visited last October. Environmentalism so permeates some of the "attractions" that I actually got out of line for one of them rather than waste my time on the ride.

We're both scientists and, I am sure, our kids will be drawn towards it. I'll have to fight the moderns to protect my children's developing minds early on. (I would, anyway, but environmentalism is one of those fads aimed at people who wish to think of themselves as "rational". As such, it is aimed squarely at aspiring scientists.)

Mike said...

Not all science fiction authors have abandoned reason. I am having one HELL of a time being published. I couldn't tell you whether it's because every one of my stories is essentially Objectivist in nature or because I just suck at writing. Take your pick. I have self-published some non-fiction, and it sells, so the critics I care about the most (the capitalist market) were satisfied with my efforts.

Doug Reich said...

great post and fascinating topic!

If I may be so bold - I wrote post


Related to how altruism as an ideal necessitates the concept of super heroes - interested in your thoughts

Thanks again

madmax said...

Speaking of SciFi and religion, the TV series BattleStar Galactica just ended and I was shocked by how religious it was. Its not a stretch to say that it was putting forth some version of intelligent design. The show even had their own version of angels. Really, the whole thing was saturated in religion. I'm seeing faith play an important role in the show 'Lost' as well.

Isn't the Hollywood Left supposed to be secular?

Gus Van Horn said...


Well, you also have the cultural character of your market to worry about.

I have on several occasions gotten good feedback on a post here and decided to forward the link to Michelle Malkin, Glenn Reynolds, and the like, and have never gotten a link. (Instapundit once linked me on a narrowly topical post I thought was fine, but nothing special.)

The market is free, so am I not getting links because, while I'm saying things nobody else is saying, I'm not really saying them well -- or because major pundits reflect the general pragmatism of the age?

I feel your pain!


Nice post! I've considered that question VERY briefly here, too, but from a different angle.


Yes. I've heard that the series borrowed heavily from the Boom of Mormon.


Jim May said...

At some point soon, I'm going to repost my five-year-old essay "Why Liberals Can't Write Good Science Fiction" over at The New Clarion. I'm irregularly a regular over there now :)

madmax: I worked on visual FX for the Battlestar finale, and I had more than one opportunity to bite my tongue when Ron D. Moore was around. IT isn't a career-enhancing move to inform the creator of the biggest "sci-fi" show on the air that he can't write sci-fi. (notwithstanding his "Savior of Sci-Fi" plaudits in a writing magazine that made its way around the office).

Moore used to work on Star Trek NG, and his disdain for what Romantic elements remained in ST:NG likely motivated his reaction against the conventions employed therein; in his "manifesto" which was part of the initial preproduction activities, he specifically cites certain of these as being verboten for BSG.

Unfortunately for Battlestar, naturalism is fundamentally incompatible with science fiction; since this genre does not deal with "life as it is" by definition, it is at a minimum an anti-naturalistic genre, strongly predisposed to Romanticism and/or its inversion (that is, a projection of what ought NOT to happen). Naturalism necessarily reduces the science/future aspect of sci-fi to mere backdrop material -- soap operas in space, as it were -- and that's what the new BSG became.

That is why the science is just about gone from "science fiction", and why fantasy, the last genre where Romanticism is permitted, has taken over its mindshare.

My stint on BSG wasn't the first time I've worked on a TV series while being relatively uninterested in actually watching it.

Gus Van Horn said...


I've been enjoying your posts, and look forward to reading the one you mention, when you post it.


Anonymous said...


The FX were the best thing about Battlestar Galactica and the FX for the series finale were amazing. They rivaled theatrical releases. You must be very good at what you do. I salute you for that.

As for the show itself, BSG was a mix of naturalism and religion. I got hooked after the first season which was pretty good in retrospect. I watched through to the end in part because the show had good things about it but also because I was really curious to see where the Hollywood liberals were going to take this. Its for the same reason that I am watching 'Lost' through to the end.

The naturalism in the show almost made watching it unbearable at times. Its as if there was a conscious, deliberate effort to put feet of clay in every character on the show. My guess is that the writers and Moore himself would deride you if you even tried to put a Howard Roark element to one of the characters. They must all be hardcore cynics.

Moore must have really hated Star Trek because he created a show which in many ways was the antithesis. There was not one Captain Kirk-like character anywhere. And Starbuck, her character was so repulsive that I had to fast forward through her scenes as the show wore on.

And finally, the subject of religion... It was everywhere. This was a universe where god was active in managing the lives of his creation. Really, Christians and conservatives should really love this show. It perfectly captures their world view: a caring, concerned deity (although it "doesn't like to be called that") guiding his creation through the hardships and tragedies of life.

In the end, BSG was the perfect show for our era.


Gus Van Horn said...

Hear, hear!

My wife loved BSG, and I often watched it with her. Haven't seen that finale, but I will, and knowing you did worked on it will help me forget the mysticism for a moment!

Rajesh said...

John Galt likened to Jesus Christ was really funny. I guess then you could compare Ayn Rand to Britney Spears as in her initials, B and S come after A and R.

I watched the original Star Trek as a kid (in B/W- the only English language show on the only state run channel on TV) and was thrilled every time the signature tune and the "going where no man had gone before" came it gave me the goose pimples. The unambiguity of good vs evil and the technology made my day. I agree that the later series was a complete dud- give me Shatner over the bald guy any day.

The Sci-Fi I read was Asimov (laws of robotics anyone?). I wonder how you would rate him?

Gus Van Horn said...

Oddly enough, I am not much of a sci-fi reader, and watch as much sci-fi as I do mostly thanks to my wife.

But I have read a decent amount of Asimov (probably more of his non-fiction, though). It was awhile back, too, but I do remember liking his work and I loved Bicentennial Man when it came out.

William H Stoddard said...

I think perhaps you have not been following recent science fiction very closely. I'm referring to print science fiction, here, not film and television science fiction, which seems to be your main focus; you do talk about "writers," a category that at least includes authors of books. I can recommend a number of fairly recent books that have a scientific worldview, that value technology, and that seem to have a basically sound political outlook in being neither theocratic nor socialist:

Ken MacLeod's Learning the World: A first contact novel in which a very advanced human culture encounters an alien intelligent race for the first time and undergoes internal conflict as a result.

Elizabeth Moon's Vatta's War series: An interstellar war in which a key figure is a young woman from a wealthy merchant family who becomes a military leader against a pirate alliance; one of the main themes is the tension between military and commercial ethical values.

S. M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time series: Nantucket Island is transported from the late 20th century to 1250 B.C. and has to find a way to survive and preserve American values in the Bronze Age.

Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky: Another first contact novel, in which two human cultures with clashing values and institutions both become involved in the first contact with an alien race—in this case one of the aliens is a brilliant scientist who is consistently shown as a sympathetic and admirable figure.

For that matter, fantasy should not be dismissed as reflecting a simple lack of confidence in reason. I'd remind you that Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction discussed the legitimate artistic use of fantasy premises. Fantasy reflects an enthusiasm for mythology and a desire either to tell new stories about mythic beings or to invent new mythologies—and some mythologies embody praiseworthy values; consider such figures of Greek myth as Prometheus and Athene. I'd recommend, for example, Garth Nix's Abhorsen series, focused on spellcasters whose role is not to summon up the spirits of the dead, but to send them away, protecting the living from their envy and malevolence. I could name some other books and series as well, but I want to focus more on science fiction. I certainly don't just read everything that comes out, but there are a number of writers whose new books I look forward to enthusiastically.

Gus Van Horn said...

First, I did just admit not being a big SF reader. In addition, the article I am blogging is focused on Hollywood.

However, it good to know that for the SF reader, there is plenty of real science fiction to chose from, and I agree with your comment on fantasy and am glad you brought that up.

That said, I think that the take-home message is that media like television and movies do more quickly reflect overall cultural trends than books, and are, as such a better indicator of where the culture is, right now.

This is not to say that television, movies, and books can't also influence the culture. In that department, I think books carry the day, as they are better-suited for conveying intellectual arguments, and it is thinkers who set the course for the culture.

Thanks for painting a more complete overall picture of SF with your comment and for giving me something interesting to think about.

Gus Van Horn said...

One brief amendment to my reply to Mr. Stoddard's comment is in order.

Any "lag" between television and books in representing where the culture is, right now, is a reflection of market fractionation of the medium overall and not, of course, in any individual work.