God in Science Fiction: Evangelism or Idolatry?

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I believe in God. This is a somewhat unpopular stance in a geek like myself. Secular humanism is generally the order of the day in SF, but, of course, if I was content to follow the herd, I wouldn’t be head writer for this site, would I? Suffice to say, however, that given the obvious rationalist bent of the genre as a whole, religion was kind of a taboo for most of its history.

That’s not to say the subject never came up, of course. Generally, though, golden age SF tended to just ignore it completely as a thorny hornet’s nest there was no real point in stirring up. In the silver age, it tended to pop up more often, either in the form of some goofy futuristic made up faith (Dune), a sort of universal secular humanism (Known Space), New Age hokum (Stranger in a Strange Land), or as a subject of abject derision and scorn (Atlas Shrugged). Of course combinations of any or all of the above were pretty common: Dune, for example, was both made up *and* derisive.

This isn’t to say that Religion was completely avoided in literary circles. Philip K. Dick spent about half his career exploring religious themes in a generally positive - though weird and occasionally disturbing - manner. There was a minor, generally unpopular 1950s genre of Christian SF. CS Lewis did his Space Trilogy. But examples are relatively few and far between, and you’re really more likely to have Heinlein and Asimov stories about people who create fake religions for their own materialistic aims, be they political, pecuniary, pernicious, or progressive.*

Media SF tends to lag a generation or so behind literary SF - or at least it used to - so for the most part, religious topics were avoided, though there were rare exceptions: The General in “Conquest of Space” turns into a religious fanatic and tries to kill everyone; his son, more of a protestant rationalist, saves everyone (Details here: http://www.republibot.com/content/saturday-afternoon-b-movie-crapfest-%E... ) and you get a token mention of Divine Intervention in both “War of the Worlds” and “When Worlds Collide,” but outside of the very Christian George Pal, I can’t really think of anyone who was doing it. Certainly not doing it consistently. A decade later, Star Trek took a guardedly antagonistic position: Spock says the gods evolved, the Greek gods turn out to be ancient astronauts, “Scotty doesn’t believe in gods,” a parallel earth had a parallel Jesus, which is played up as a positive, but the duplicitous meaning is obviously ‘How can God have two ‘only begotten sons?’ There’s Vol and Landru and Oracle and no end of technology impersonating gods. Lucifer himself turns up in one episode and we learn the charges against him were trumped up, in fact he’s just a misunderstood political prisoner. Hell is referred to as a “Fable” in the pilot, and Bones refers to the Bible as “Myth.”

And that’s just limiting ourselves to TOS. The list goes on and on and on. Clearly, Mr. Roddenberry had some issues with the Judeo/Christian/Islamic God, but I don’t take particular umbrage at this because he obviously had issues with capitalism, the United States, Jews, not ripping off writers, and pretty much damn near anything else you’d care to mention. Conversely, God is clearly running around behind the scenes in about a fifth of the episodes of The Twilight Zone, and though He’s portrayed as having a penchant for ironic Greek tragicomedy, He’s also portrayed as a generally positive presence. Battlestar Galactica (The original one) had Angels show up and reveal that they evolved from humans.

Now, I’m not saying media SF *shouldn’t* have done this, I’m not saying Glenn Larson shouldn’t have used his show to sneak Mormon concepts into middle-America’s living rooms. I’m not even saying Roddenberry shouldn’t have taken a poke at us believers now and again - it was his show, he had the right to do it, I’m all about free speech, and a little opposition tends to keep us honest - I’m just saying all this to set up the generally negative or hands-off approach religion got in the world in which I grew up.

Science Fiction-loving religious folks of my generation grew up feeling a bit spurned by the genre, and that’s not an entirely bad thing: assuming you’re mature enough for it, It forces one to question their beliefs, separate the important stuff from the cultural baggage/drivel, and generally you come out the other side stronger than when you went in. Assuming your faith survives, of course.
As a result of this, however, I think that there’s a tendency among us believers to overcompensate, to be a bit too emphatic in our support for shows that deal with religion in a central fashion.

For instance, much of my initial flush of giddy love for Babylon 5 revolved around the fact that you had recognizable religions still behaving in a recognizable fashion in the 23rd century: Sinclair was raised by Jesuits. Ivonova was a Jew. Garibaldi was raised Catholic, though he was now an Agnostic. There was a small group of Catholic monks on the station. Rabbis visit the station and play an important role in the stories on two separate occasions. There’s a Baptist preacher who gives the somewhat-Unitarian Sheridan some good advice. Furthermore, traditional religion is portrayed in a realistic and generally positive fashion.

So is the show evangelistic? Certainly not: Creator/writer/producer Joe Straczynski is an athiest. Though we get one instance with Kosh that implies at least some of human religion has been manipulated by aliens for their own personal ends, this doesn’t impinge on the core tenets of faith, and Straczynski doesn’t appear to have an axe to grind with religion. He doesn’t believe, but he’s also not trying to present a Straczynskian utopia the way Roddenberry tried to present a Roddenberrian utopia. Joe knows that religion is important to people, and will continue to be so, and when/if we spread into space, we’ll take our beliefs with us. He presents religion as - if nothing else - one of the common ties that bind us together and help us build communities.

I’d say this is a positive portrayal, and I’m still in support of it.

Lately, however, I’ve been wrestling with the portrayal of God in both the new Battlestar Galactica and Kings. Our own Charlie Starr has written an insightful and well-thought-out article about how the God from Galactica is quite clearly our God, or at the very least an icon of Him. (Read it here: http://www.republibot.com/content/science-fiction-university-galactica%E... ) God is a major character in Kings, and He is clearly intended as the Old Testament portrayal of God; He is quite clearly Yahweh.

I’ll leave aside the interior reasons for the depiction of God in the shows. Each one has their own reason and motivations for portraying God thusly, and for making Him such a large part of their story, but it’s not particularly germane to the issue that’s lately been jumping out at me. On some other sites, people have taken issue with the idea that there was too much God in Galactica, or that God didn’t turn out to be a Roddenberryist computer, or that God should only be in SF aimed at evangelizing people, not for serious fans like ourselves. (The best of these is here http://ideas.4brad.com/battlestar/battlestars-daybreak-worst-ending-hist... and my own response to it is here http://www.republibot.com/content/battlestar-galactica-%E2%80%9C-worst-e... ) Though these objections are certainly worthy of consideration, I don’t think they’re germane either. No, the problem I’ve been wrestling with is this:

In our rush to embrace any positive portrayal of Monotheism in SF, we end up worshiping the portrait and not the real God.

Think about it: Television is not real, it’s just entertainment. If the subject of God comes up, it’s being filtered through several levels that distance it from reality before it gets to us. Firstly, there’s the writer who writes *his* (or her) idea of God, then there’s the producer who gussies it up to fit his artistic vision, then there’s the suits and censors who futz with it for standards and practices, you know, to make sure it’s not offensive or too preachy or what have you, and then it gets broadcast in 2-D, and then you, yourself see it, and filter it through your own perceptions of God, which may or may not be based on the Bible, which, itself, is a kind of filter.

There’s a whole lot of levels there.

Philosophically speaking, we’re entirely dependent upon our senses and our thoughts, but our thoughts are shaped by things we take in through our senses, which, of course, includes what we read and hear and learn, and these thoughts, in turn, shape our judgment of our senses, in essence, shaping our perspective. As such, we can never *See* an object, rather we see the portion of the visible spectrum that’s reflected of the object to our eyes, where it’s converted to a series of electrochemical impulses, which are then interpreted by the analytical portions of our brain as “Blue” or “Azul” or “Blau” (Depending on our culture) before being passed on to the more learned portions of our brain which judge it “Pretty”/Zeimlich/Bassez/Bastante or “Ugly” /Hasslich/Vilain/Feo depending on what we’ve learned in life up to that point.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The same thing is true of God Himself. God Is. We accept that, but this side of Heaven, we can never see Him. All we can see is our perceptions of Him, filtered through our perceptions and our preconceptions. Moses wanted to see God directly, and was told that it was impossible, that such a thing would literally destroy him. He was permitted only an obscured glimpse, and barely even that. Taken metaphorically, this supports what I’m saying: that we see only through a glass dimly, mere reflections of reflections of reflections of God, and these endlessly retconned by our own minds.

Now, as all the great Western faiths agree, God has condemned idolatry. It behooves us, then, as believers to take great care that our imagined impressions of God don’t turn into idols of our own creation that we worship.

This is a difficult concept: Imagine a pagan who worships the sun. He goes to the temple of the sun, and basks in the glorious light filtering through the stained glass windows. One window is particularly beautiful, and portrays the most gorgeous representation of the sun ever made by man. As the sun shines through the window, he thinks “How marvelous this is,” and he worships the window, he praises the colors it throws down, but he ignores the real sun behind it.

Or, as G’kar said in Babylon 5, who said “If I take a lamp and shine it toward the wall, a bright spot will appear on the wall. The lamp is our search for truth, for understanding. Too often we assume that the light on the wall is God. But the light is not the goal of the search; it is the result of the search. The more intense the search, the brighter the light on the wall. The brighter the light on the wall, the greater the sense of revelation upon seeing it! […] What we perceive as God, is the byproduct of our search for God. […]Sometimes we stand in front of the light and assume that we are the center of the universe. God looks astonishingly like we do! […]If we allow ourselves to get in the way, we defeat the purpose.”

The bottom line is this: We believers must worship God, and not our own opinions of what God is like. To do otherwise is idolatry, albeit a rather subtle and insidious form. I believe - and you’re free to disagree with me here - that as believers it is part of our job to gradually rid ourselves of preconceptions, of cultural baggage, of codicils and councils, of priests and preachers; to ignore the icons and break the stained glass windows and worship God in as pure a fashion as we can manage. This is, of course, really hard to do, and of course it is our own preconceptions that get us going and start us on our way to the Truth. But then no one ever said mature faith was easy. Quite the contrary: “When I was a child, I thought as a child, but now that I am grown I have cast off childish things.”

With all this in mind, I fear that there is a tendency to recognize something familiar - the Cylon God, or the God of Kings, or Aslan for that matter - and to mistake that created, fictional thing for the *real* God, and then worship that (unlikely), or incorporate this fictional rendition of God into their own devotions, thereby adding yet another filter to our already horribly muddy perception of God. (More likely)

Does this mean that God shouldn’t be depicted in Science Fiction? Of course not. Free Speech = Good, and of course our preconceptions are they key in the lock on the door we have to open to start our journey. Some of my brothers and sisters in the faith have taken issue with this, feeling it is disrespectful. Sometimes it undoubtedly is, other times it isn’t, other times it’s too close to call (As in Kings), I don’t think we can make a blanket generalization as to whether it’s a bad thing or a good thing. In the end, it is *just* a thing. The message is not the messenger, after all.

It is our responsibility not to confuse the messenger with the One who sent the message.