Theology and Science Fiction (James McGrath) -- Review

THEOLOGY AND SCIENCE FICTION (Cascade Companion). By James F. McGrath. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. Viii + 113 pages.

                I love both theology and science fiction.  Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Stargate SG-1, Dune (books not movie), just to name a few of the franchises I have embraced over time. So if someone chooses to write a book that treats theology and science fiction together in a way that respects the integrity of both will have my attention. James F. McGrath is just the person to engage both with insight and wisdom, so that we can move beyond borrowing from a franchise for a sermon illustration to true integration.

                McGrath is a biblical scholar and blogger who has a strong interest in science fiction. He is a New Testament scholar and a professor of religion at Butler University. He deals regularly with science fiction on his blog and teaches about the relationship in classes at Butler, but this is his first full length book on the two (and hopefully not the last). I know from reading his blog that McGrath is a true fan of science fiction, and that love of science fiction comes through in this book. It’s especially seen in the decision to focus us attention on Dr. Who and Star Wars, along with regular visits to the Star Trek Universe.

                The forum for this study of the intersection of theology and science fiction is a series of companion books published by Cascade Books (Wipf and Stock). It is written for a general audience rather than a scholarly one. There are occasional footnotes and a fully stocked bibliography, but it’s generally free of academic jargon, making it both readable and accessible.    

                The book is composed of six chapters that explore the relationship of science fiction and theology, with a seventh chapter providing the reader with three brief short stories that McGrath has written to illustrate how theology can be expressed in terms of science fiction. Not to give any spoilers, but one of those short stories deals with time travel and Jesus. Each chapter is accompanied by a set of discussion questions making this an excellent source for study group interested in how these two relate.

                In his introduction McGrath defines both science fiction and theology, so that the reader is fully aware of the parameters of the conversation. Regarding the definition of science fiction, he makes a distinction between fantasy and science fiction. While there might be overlapping elements between the two, they differ in this specific way -- in "science fiction, the quasi-humans may be called aliens rather than elves, the monsters will likewise be alien animals, and instead of casting spells that fire lightening, one will use a laser rifle" (p. 5). In science fiction there is a sense that a scientific explanation is possible. As for theology, he admits that it's difficult to pin down. For the purposes of this book theology does not envision just one view of God but many possibilities. Thus, the definition used here is "systematic thought about one's own beliefs about the divine, spirituality, and/or other religious matters" (p. 3). 

                With definitions established, tenuous as they may be, McGrath embarks on his exploration of the intersection of these two forms of thought. He begins with a most interesting chapter on canon—both the canon of science fiction and scripture. Those of us who work in the field of religion know the importance of canon. We want to determine what is considered primary and what is not. The same happens to be true in science fiction—and the question is who gets to decide the canon? On the theology side this has always been a contentious issue—God or church?  Something similar occurs with science fiction. This is where McGrath brings in two of his primary conversation partners—Star Wars and Dr. Who. Is it George Lucas or Disney who determines canon when it comes to Star Wars (and yes, despite the spiritual overtones of Star Wars, he treats it as science fiction and not fantasy. It's a fascinating chapter, worth the cost of the book to read!

                In Chapter 2, McGrath explores the reputation that science fiction as being anti-religious, and there is some evidence for this. While this charge is probably overblown, science fiction writers often suggest that so-called gods encountered in space, turn out to be aliens instead (some of whom are capricious and malevolent). In this genre religion is often put into the category of superstition, which science seeks to overturn. However, science fiction does raise questions about what constitutes the divine? McGrath points to the Q Continuum on Star Trek as one expression of the question. Q is definitely beyond humanity in terms of intellect and power, but does this make him divine? Then there are the Goa'uld on Stargate, which are revealed to be false gods, but to their adherents they may be capricious but their power is overwhelming. Beyond questions of divinity there are questions of creation/origins and salvation. Are aliens in need of Jesus? What about time travel? Science fiction writers may tend toward skepticism regarding religion, but important questions are raised.

                If science fiction raises religious questions, theology can raise questions for science fiction. As McGrath notes, just as some science fiction writers have denigrated theology, so some religious folks have tried to return the favor. Some religious folks have termed science fiction as "nothing short of satanic, encouraging people to believe in flying saucers, and to take an interest in their pilots who, according to these authors, are deceitful demons" (p. 51). Of course, there are writers such as C.S. Lewis who have written science fiction (Space Trilogy). Despite the aversion to the genre on the part of some, many of us love it. Having some guidance on how to speak of faith in science fiction terms is a real value. Putting important questions and issues in terms of science fiction can allow for their exploration in less direct terms. McGrath wants those of us who do theology or preach to engage with science fiction in ways that respect the genre. We need to do more than drop a Star Wars illustration into our sermons or try to find Jesus in Star Wars. Both theology and science fiction need to have their integrity respected.

            With this foundational work completed, McGrath discusses how theology and science fiction intersect with philosophy and ethics. Questions like whether an artificial intelligence might have a soul is one possibility. What about clones? There are numerous science fiction stories dealing with clones, so does a clone have a soul? What happens when the transporter is used on Star Trek—is the soul transferred? What about questions of after life? What if life-spans can be expanded indefinitely? Or, what about care of the environment? Both science fiction and theology deal with such issues—but do they approach the issues differently? How so? Science fiction allows us to explore interesting questions that have deep philosophical and ethical implications. 

              In a sixth chapter McGrath explores how the two can dialogue and even come to a synthesis. The point of the book is that the two entities not only interact but do so as equals. As a teacher of religion, McGrath wants to see integration between the two. He wants to encourage those who do theology to consider using science fiction as a vehicle of this exploration. He would like science fiction writers to engage religion and theology with respect and interest. Most specifically science fiction can help theology wrestle with the question of what is a god? The challenges posed by science fiction are directed not only at conservative theology, but also liberal forms. Regarding liberal skepticism of the "seemingly impossible," science fiction might challenge this sense of impossibility. Then there is the whole question of how we treat the alien—both the human version and the non-human version!  There is no need for the two to be at odds, at least not in principle. Yes, there will be challenges to both, but that needn’t lead to conflict.   

             With the final chapter laying out some expressions of how theology might be explored through science fiction we're brought to a point of appreciation for how the two can intersect. None of the stories are complete, but offer intriguing points of departure. There’s the one about Jesus and time travel and another that deals with first contact with a species that may have already embraced a component of Jesus’ message.

                I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Of course his engagement with the franchises that I have special affinity for was helpful. A reader may wish that one or another franchise was engaged that wasn’t engaged, or a theological issue could have been further developed. Nonetheless, for a book of this size much was accomplished. Though, I was surprised that he didn't engage with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which has strong religious overtones. After all, Captain Sisko is the Emissary of beings considered divine by the people of Bajor who inhabit a wormhole near the planet. Of course, this is a brief book that doesn't seek to go into the details of science fiction works. Rather it seeks to illuminate the way in which the two could intersect positively.

             So, if you like both theology and science fiction, whether you're a professional or not on either side, this is a book you'll enjoy. 


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