Real faith in a sci-fi world

Andy Rau

Earlier this week, I had the chance to go hear George Murphy speak at Calvin College about a topic I can never resist: science fiction. His lecture was titled "Real Faith and Fictional Worlds," and in it, Murphy talked about the increasing respectability of science fiction, the way that religion is (and often isn't) portrayed in it, and the sorts of theological questions that science fiction can address better than other genres. Murphy is both a pastor and a physics geek, so he's about as qualified as they come to talk about a topic like this.

You can listen to the audio of his lecture here (WMA format).

I won't repeat everything Murphy had to say, since you can (and really, you should) listen to it for yourself. But one of his main points really caught my interest--his analysis of the two different "risks" that come with trying to portray religion realistically in science fiction. There are basically two extremes that sci-fi writers can drift into:

  • By far the most common way to deal with religion and Christianity in science fiction is... to not deal with it at all, by having it be conspicuously absent from the sci-fi world you've created. (Think Star Trek, where the human Federation heroes are invariably a-religious, supremely rational, eminently reasonable people, and religion is reserved for crazy alien races like the Klingons.) The problem with this is that whatever you, the sci-fi author, think of Christianity and religion in general, it's utterly unrealistic to imagine a future human society in which religion does not play a role.

    Murphy observed, and I definitely agree, that this tendency to imagine religious-less science fiction universes is on the decline these days, with shows like Battlestar Galactica (and before that, Babylon 5) putting it front and center in the plot. (And speaking of religion and science fiction, as a Frank Herbert fan I feel duty-bound to point you to reports of an upcoming Dune movie—it doesn't get more religious than that, although it probably could get quite a bit more Christian than that.)

  • The second extreme is a trap that would-be Christian sci-fi writers most often fall into. Attempting to correct the absence of religion in most sci-fi, they go to great effort to portray Christianity—but they often try to vindicate Christianity through their fiction with overly didactic or triumphalist plotlines. (Think Left Behind, which has many sci-fi elements in it—although its plotline aims to show that Christianity is correct, it isn't very convincing because it's trying to preach a message rather than portray religion as it realistically works in people's lives.) In this case, you've portrayed religion all right—but you haven't portrayed it in a way that readers can relate to.

There was much more to Murphy's talk, but those are the points that got me thinking the most. If you're a sci-fi geek, it's definitely worth listening to his lecture. And now, by Kahless, go forth and enjoy your weekend!

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Books, Theology & The Church, Theology