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Theology from outer space

07 June 2013

John Saxbee considers a sampler of sci-fi and religion in dialogue

Religion and Science Fiction
James F. McGrath, editor
Lutterworth Press £17.75

IF IT can be said that religion has a rhetoric of its own that sometimes seems to morph into gobbledegook, then science fiction (sci-fi) is always on hand to keep it company. And if sci-fi is an acquired taste, there is also that about religion which attracts some people and repels others. But the difference is that, whereas sci-fi is typically more fiction than science, religion claims to be more fact that fantasy; so playfulness in the one case contrasts with deadly seriousness in the other - all too often literally.

Using a range of authors to ensure an interdisciplinary approach, this symposium invites readers to explore some of the many diverse points of intersection between religion and science fiction. The book serves as an introduction to academic perspectives on this subject, suitable as a textbook, but of interest and accessible to any reader, even one who may not have read or seen all of the novels, stories, or films mentioned.

The most substantial contribution is by the editor, James F. McGrath, who focuses, first of all, on the ethical issues raised if we are ever successful in creating fully fledged artificial intelligence. He then asks what such artificial intelligences might make of some of our human religious traditions. Christianity, Buddhism, and atheism are explored in turn as options for androids.

As so often with sci-fi, this apparently frivolous exploration of mechanised morality and robotic religion prompts serious questions about what it means to be a person - and, particularly, a person made in the image of God. McGrath asks what artificial-machine persons might make of our religions, and concludes that they would soon leave them behind, and might themselves become sources of revelation for human beings.

The other essays include a study by Joyce Janca-Aji of films by Jean Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro which feature "a postmodern return to a premodern sense of humanity being intimately intertwined with the sacredness of life itself". Panentheism rules.

C. K. Robertson explores the part played by the mythic hero from cave-paintings to comic books. Apparently, St Paul in Athens has a great deal to teach us about how to relate to baby-boomers nurtured on Batman and Robin.

Eriberto P. Lozada shows how sci-fi filled the vacuum left by religion in communist China. Alison Bright MacWilliams offers thoughtful reflections on the light thrown by sci-fi on claims that scientists "play God".

Elizabeth Danna homes in on Star Trek, directed by a secular humanist, and The Prisoner, directed by a Roman Catholic, to show how both conclude that evil can be overcome only with the help of an outside agency.

Finally, Teresa Blythe describes a method for uncovering the theology embedded in sci-fi films. Many churches use film as a way into theological discussion, and this practical guide will be welcomed by them, but also by those who want to get into sci-fi as a religious resource, but don't know where to start.

McGrath insists that the aim of the book is to be representative rather than comprehensive. But, given the many genres of sci-fi, and the sheer audacity of its conceptual reach, a symposium of just eight brief essays hardly does justice to the subject-matter. For example, a key issue only hinted at by McGrath in his introduction is whether sci-fi is an alternative to religion, and whether religion is itself just an unacknowledged form of science fiction. But that would be "to boldly go . . .".

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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