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One extremely popular form of speculative fiction is science fiction. It is a broad genre, deserving of its own distinctness beyond fantasy or other forms, mostly because it has the potential to grapple with apologetic themes in not only a more compelling way, but also by striking directly to the heart of the matters at hand.
Science fiction is a complex “what if” statement. It allows us to contemplate aliens and
their worlds, utopias and dystopias of our own human making, and interference into our normal world
by what for many is considered the “enemy” of religion. But is science truly the enemy of religion? I
think not, and great evidence to this effect can be seen in the genre of Sci-fi.
There is more to it than the sub-genre of Christian sci-fi, with entries like L’Engle, Lawhead, or Rousseau. For example, beyond the obvious connection of Christ-like heroes in all fiction like John Connor, Neo, or Superman; a long list of strong realistic religious and moral characters exist in even the most popular entries. Shepard Book is
the resident Christian preacher on the Firefly class ship Serenity, various characters in The Stand, including the villain recognize God’s hand in the world, and even Dana Scully of the X-files was rarely seen without her iconic cross necklace.
Similarly, faith is often a theme in sci-fi. The film Signs was in many ways less about an alien invasion and more about a family’s struggle with faith in the face of loss, and the Dune series of books and films asks us to ponder what the line between messiah and antichrist might be in a far-future of interstellar travel and advanced biology, wherein the “Orange Catholic Bible” is now only the text of an obscure sect.
Finally, sci-fi challenges our notions of science and reality, and thus we must respond as Christians where we can. C.S. Lewis’ underrated Space Trilogy deals directly with the idea that earth may be alone in its fallen state against the rest of creation, while Planet of the Apes suggests that evolution is an ongoing process that may make us a mere footnote on this Earth.
Science fiction challenges us scientifically, socially, and yes, also spiritually. And that is a very good thing!
The 1999 Film Fight Club is more than a depiction of an ‘everyman’s’ realization (Jack, though he is
never named in the film) that he has a second divergent personality (Tyler Durden) that is his fantasy self;
an anarchist and a cult leader. Rather it is a high-contrast examination of the dual nature of every human,
and how each of us must struggle at some point in our life with the themes of identity, secrets,
enlightenment, self-destruction, redemption, our own inevitable death, and the possibility of resurrection
as a new being. This is all done without the benefit of a Christian world view and so is quite dark and
hopeless in tone, all despite the use of some minor religious imagery and overtones, including monastic
chants during emotional weakness, and lines like “Every evening I died and was born again,” in reference
to Jack’s hobby of touring self-help therapy groups for which he does not qualify.
In one of the most intense scenes at precisely one hour into the film, Jack is being restrained and
chemically burned on his hand by Tyler who says:
“This is the greatest moment of your life and you’re off somewhere, missing it. Listen. Our fathers
were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to
consider the possibility that God doesn’t like you. He never wanted you, in all probability, He hates
you. We don’t need him. F* damnation! F* redemption! We are God’s unwanted children? So be it!”
This line is different from the original script due to the actor Brad Pitt’s improvisation, presumably, but
the idea is that God’s hatred is better than his indifference. This brings to mind Revelation 3:16 imagery,
about not being lukewarm, but in this case is a reversal wherein it the non-existent person of Tyler is
actively struggling to become the dominant personality against Jack. It is this moment in which Tyler says
to him that he must “Know – not feel – you are going to die.” This desire of Tyler to become the
resurrected and full-time identity of Jack is clear by the end of the film, and it is only by Jack’s
willingness to risk death by shooting himself that he frees himself of the other.
As Christian viewers, we can see the fundamental flaws in the core assumptions of the film’s chief
philosophizer Tyler. The case is built that “we are a generation of men raised by women” and “we are the
middle generation of history. We have no great war, we have no great depression. Our great war is a
spiritual war, and our great depression is our lives!,” but this is an assumption built on a hopelessness of a
God who can hate his creation. We know that we are not “the same decaying organic matter as everything
else,” but rather the “very good” pinnacle of creation after which God stopped. We have purpose, we have
hope, and we have a future, and when we die to our sinful selves and are resurrected in Christ – it is not
Tyler Durden, anarchist, adrenaline addict, and terrorist who controls our heart, but the living God and
creator of all life.
(Or... Everything I Need to Know about Religion I learned from Games!)
Oh hey, it's a thing I did... A few months ago I spoke to the UT Dallas "Reasonable Faith" (http://www.originsdiscussion.info/) group about God and video games, calling it "God Mode Activated!"
Here, for your enjoyment is a video version of that talk.
Lunch at the “Head of the RiverCcafé” was our kicking off point for the walking medieval tour of Oxford. What a wonderful cap to the week! We began at Christ Church, which had an interesting Lewis Carroll connection and contains the Oxford Cathedral. Medieval expert Dr. Parker’s tour had numerous stops and points, via the old wall, the first colleges, then the later additions and on to modern times by way of the Bodleian, much like a walk through time in Oxford from the tenth century up to now. Effectively ending at the GK Chesterton library, a work in progress still. In all a far superior tour to the one the tourists get. The drizzle and rain was no deterrent for us, if anything it served as the mists of time to teleport us back to the days of Saxon Oxenaforda. There is nowhere in America that such a tour could be conducted. It reminds me that there is a depth as well as a breadth to history.
Such deep history is the kind that we must seek in apologetics, especially cultural apologetics. Anything less is simply a glancing blow at history, a fad, even. Is America a fad? I don’t know, but I do know that to write with deep truth and ancient truth, one must access this kind of deep history at the least. Perhaps that is why the Iinklings were so successful? Who could not be inspired in such a place as oxford, and how could genius coupled with community in a place with such deep history not eventually produce such works as those we have read? I am inspired to write voluminously and within my community I have worked to establish over this last year. I am inspired to set goals and revisit abandoned projects and lagging projects before this summer is out. And most of all, I am inspired to “read for my degree” even more than “study for it” as is the American attitude, and I am pleased to have had this mighty “dreaming spire” of a class be the tent stake marking the precise middle of my program.
This time next year, when I have graduated and begun the next phase of my life, who knows where I will be? Oh that’s right… the one in whose name I do all this in the first place knows.
(Author’s Note: I close this particular journey with this thought... The Inklings were influenced by their environment, their relationships, their own selves, and the calling they had to be what they were created to be. I pray today that I can be so productive in my life. Not for fame or fortune, but for purposefulness. I have entered a new phase of my academic life, no, more than that… finally begun to realize my calling as an apologist, and I am renewed, refreshed, and inspired by this trip in ways no other has done. After five trips to Europe, three of which took me to Oxford, I know that I could live there, work there, and be a part of it. But even if that is not to be, I know in my heart that Oxford will always be a part of me, and remains my favorite city in the world – the world for which I am still so sad.
Dr. Jason Lepojärvi’s lecture challenged us with love, Lewis, and veneration. Apparently a previously unknown letter from CS Lewis emerged not too long ago which revealed his opinion on the veneration of Mary, a topic he had seemingly (strategically?) avoided in his writing for the public. He essentially said that while there was probably nothing wrong with it, we should also probably avoid doing it. Dr. L pointed out that this may be at odds with his philosophy to simply “love more.” But, I have difficulty with this assumption, and see no conflict. To my knowledge, unless Lewis specifically defined veneration as a form of love, then we cannot equivocate the two, and to do so is an error of kind. Especially since he was a Protestant, and the question really is about a Catholic practice (or so it seems from the letter).
This is the jumping off point for Dr. L and his initiative to define Christian religious terms with a new foundation, and a worthy pursuit! Though it seems to me that Mary is an odd place to begin. I was reminded of the Coronation of Mary at the gallery, and the discussion about her as a human, necessary to Jesus’s humanity. The sanctification of the saints and veneration of same are not an emphasized practice in my denomination, and so I have always given it wide berth as Lewis apparently did, but I would give my opinion if asked in person or by email. Therein is my chief horror and objection. Is it moral for us to be parading Lewis’s private letters and making them the subject of scholarship when he never intended those letters to be published!? I really don’t think it’s appropriate at all!
Eating lunch at the eagle & child pub, I extracted the hobbit: love letter game I’ve been carrying around with me all week and posed the question. As I dealt the cards which depicted the modern movie version of the hobbit characters (including the anachronistic Legolas and Tauriel actors!) I was reminded of how easily our work can become perverted in a generation. Indeed, it was not JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit upon which the game was based, but rather Peter Jackson’s Hobbit – a prequel to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings that was on the table. Is the usage of Lewis’s private letter (or perhaps I should say jack’s?) Against himself as scholar akin to the warping of the text required to adapt The Lord of the Rings to an action film? I don’t actually know.
Dr. Ward’s lecture on surprised by joy did not help me to resolve the issue. Like fuel to the fire, it was a very good argument that Lewis’s personal testimony work is not harmed by the mere two pages of personal description regarding his conversion, but rather strengthened by the need to enjoy the work rather than contemplate it. In sharing Lewis’s conversion, we can certainly apply and overlay our own experience, and join with Lewis, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a gap in the story. While I am comfortable with this very English interpretation of the very reserved work of the English gentleman Lewis, I am also reminded that he was a private man, reserved in many ways, including a secret marriage to Joy Davidson, and a hatred of travel – and cannot bring myself to abide the publication of his private letters for research, especially to find “blind spots” in his work. Ultimately, though a great man, he is just a man, creation, sinful, and flawed, and we should respect the wishes of the dead – especially those in living memory – or else risk destroying the reputation that made him great in the first place.
I’d never taken a train from Oxford to London Paddington, though I had tried once. An unexpected problem on the tracks forced us to take the bus. But not this time!
Dr. O stated that walking is the best way to see London, and I’d definitely have to agree, though I’m not sure my feet do. We passed Hyde park, the site of the Tyburn Tree where Elizabethan era Catholics were slain, the marker by St. Martin in the Fields, commemorating Martin of Tours, and ate at the Crypt Café, a real café that is in the crypt of the church, a surreal but truly unique experience!
The National Gallery (not to be confused with the British Museum) is a true national treasure. Paintings from around the world and throughout history hang there, but our points of focus were from the medieval period. The two pieces we focused on were the Saints and the Cross Crucifix and the Coronation of Mary. The art here, we were reminded by dr. O, was religious in purpose, meant for a church, and now displaced. Such pieces like the crucifix, are in danger of obfuscation by modern teaching. As a student of art history, I was surprised to realize that I too was guilty of this sometimes.
My first thoughts were of the technique and the historicity of the work in this wing, my eyes flicking to the placards for context and description to determine my personal value for the work instead of approaching the piece with contemplation and Christian imagination. Instead of thinking about the piece as an evidential artifact of the iconoclastic debate and its fallout on realism as depicted by middle age art, I was reminded that the piece was telling the story of Mary’s son, the human incarnation of god made possible by his use of a young woman at a time when it could have meant her death under the law. Focus was not on the divine Jesus, but on the dying Jesus, the son of man who is the only mediator for our sin.
The Coronation was also worthy of deeper contemplation (and enjoyment!) Depicted is a multi-cultural gathering of saints, a picture of heaven and the crowning of the “queen mother” Mary by king Jesus as possibly referred to in revelation. Easy to dismiss as a depiction of an obscure medieval belief or possibly misinterpretation of scripture, it serves as a stark reminder how much has changed. I am convicted to remember that the middle ages were an era of deep devotion and seeking of holiness. The church was ingrained in the very fabric of every man’s life, and the church was not merely a community center to be picked from among many as today, but the “community’s center.” Church buildings were built across generations, money was given for future edification in the architecture and art – not current enjoyment such as to buy a new carpet or repaint the worship center. It was a literal building of the eternal kingdom of heaven. Powerful.
If that wasn’t enough of a reminder, Westminster Abbey drove it home. It was my third visit to the Abbey, but no less awe- inspiring today than another. I dare say a hundred or a thousand visits would not temper the clear veneration (or rather worship, since veneration is intended for created things) of God intended by the (veneration of the) art and architecture within (and by) the very building itself! Our chief reason for going was of course to see the Lewis memorial marker that was recently placed by the efforts of Dr. Ward as chronicled in CS Lewis in Poet’s Corner, but who can stop there?
Honesty time. It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around such markers, in fact until only a few days ago through the miracles of social media, I was corrected in my thinking that Lewis’ body had been moved to the poet’s corner from his grave at holy trinity church, Headington quarry. It has not moved. I must admit that it shocked me a bit to realize I stood by him and didn’t know it, thinking in my error that I was only standing by Warnie, but no, he remains there where I squatted by his marker near the kilns, and not in London as I had thought. My assumption was born out of a failure to appreciate the purpose of the marker, and this means that I will have to go back into my copy of Poet’s Corner when I get home.
(Author’s Note: I have done so, and am no less baffled, but in a different way. It seems my confusion was either born from a (lack of?) Choice on the part of the author(s) to omit that particular detail, or else a sort of “high church” illiteracy on my own part as an evangelical southern Baptist protestant to have understood the purpose of the marker. It seems I may have made this error elsewhere! Darwin is not buried in the floor but outside! So then, have I really stood by Michelangelo in Santa Croce? Napoleon at Les Invalides in Paris? Rin Tin Tin at the Paris Dog Cemetery? – well as it turns out yes to all of those, but I need to be more careful. Louis Pasteur was moved from Notre Dame in 1888 to his namesake institute, and while shortly after Shakespeare’s death there was some talk about removing his remains from Stratford to Westminster abbey, the idea was soon abandoned! The 1741 statue is just a memorial. Yikes! Moral: one should not jump to conclusions regarding the location of the dead due to the presence large monuments!)
We concluded our day at Westminster (Roman Catholic) Cathedral (not to be confused with the Anglican Abbey) and a sung mass, followed by dinner at “the Shakespeare” pub, which was fantastic, having just seen him at the Abbey. (Ahem, his memorial that is -- See above!) Then, half of us took the tube to the train and it was an early bed. I was glad for the following day’s lectures to rest my feet, which is why I write this entry a day late!
Dad and I spent the day at the Ashmolean. Again, it is a featured location, or perhaps I should say character?, in my novel in progress. Dinner was at the café rouge, a sort of French themed English franchise (French-ise?) That was actually better than some of the French food we ate last week if I’m honest, which calls into question its authenticity? Regardless, since there was a much appreciated gap in the itinerary for free exploration of Oxford, I chose to take dad to the good ol’ Ashmole.
What I like most about the Ashmolean is its approachability and navigability. Compared to the louvre for example, there is much more that can be experienced with a smaller museum. I once read that 80% of the collection is in storage at any given time, and I believe it, since I saw many things today I did not see three years ago when I was here with Lisa. It reminds me again of how personal experience changes things. I will see different things from the next person, I will walk a different path in the museum, and treat it differently for having been there before. What is new to me I will treat differently than if I had seen it first on another trip. This time, the early writing, clay seals, and money really spoke to me because of research for my writing that I had done in the intervening time.
I wonder how much of the university experience (including the much different museums) 70 years ago affected Lewis and Tolkien as they worked and researched and played in the environment of learning that oxford fosters? The sculpture of the satyr and nymphs in the Ashmolean reminds me of our discussion of sweet Mr. Tumnus who might not have been so innocent in his motives, and the connection between those “horny bards,” (scholars?) Such as rape, pedophilia, and the worship of the flesh as a god in Greek times snaps into focus. How terrifying really is the image of little Lucy alone with a satyr in the woods who admits to “dancing” with dryads and escorts her to his home, even mentioning the bedroom. Lewis takes us to the edge of impropriety, but in such a way that the young reader might miss it, while still understanding the betrayal that almost was, while the learned and perceptive adult might actually understand the possible horror that could have been narrowly avoided by the fawn’s conscience overriding his nature. Did Lewis gaze upon such a statue? He certainly read and taught such things. Again it is the influence of others and of things that captures my mind tonight.
I could write of such discussions and connections that were made tonight at the café rouge (among we classmates and our professors), the above being one, but I know that if I tried I would twist the reality into a fiction, misquote, misattribute, and misspeak. So I will instead stay silent, but to say that I know that the connections made tonight are now internalized, and will inevitably come out. If not in this journal, then somewhere and sometime else.
The first itinerary activity was to meet Dr. Holly Ordway in front of the Radcliffe camera to go together to the Kilns. I was reminded vicariously of my own first moments in oxford in 2012, when I was led by a colleague in our group past the large round “rad cam” in the middle of the open cobblestone courtyard to the south of the old Bodleian, (north of St. Mary's, and between Brasenose College to the west and All Souls College to the east. It was originally built in the early 18th century to house the Radcliffe science library, and is now a reading room.) Is there anything more iconic of Oxford than this?
I’d never been to the kilns except through the descriptions given by Ryan Pemberton in Called. To stand in the home of the prolific Lewis whose writing I have come to value greatly in the last year of studies was a treat. I do not over-value the relics of history, especially those like the restored home of the kilns, but I learned today that the house itself is completely renewed (but for one doorknob) and refurbished through an American institution which uses wardens (my own prof. Dr. Michael ward being an aptly named one), to keep the house from the time of its restoration to today. I like this. Rather than it being a museum or shrine to a man, it is a working breathing, living house of productive study. This is phenomenal.
Dr. Jonathan Kirkpatrick conducted the tour and also a wonderful lecture in the carriage house (added later) on Lewis and classicism, both of which drew me into Lewis’ world like I had not been before. Warnie Lewis came alive to me! As a loving brother and a secretary to Lewis, but also an alcoholic, his struggles felt real standing in that home. Lewis’s difficulties with Mrs. Moore suddenly made sense in that little home with nowhere to hide, and his custom-built steps to his private room spoke an essay’s worth by its very existence. Even the bus ride there and the relatively short walk from the road drove home how far he would have walked each day to and from work, a time to think and compose his essays in his head. And then his late discovery of joy… Davidson that is, who when blocked by Lewis for chasing down some armed garden thieves with her gun purportedly said “...D**n it, jack. Get out of my line of fire!” Life was had there at the kilns.
I must not forget to mention the tea we had though! I daresay it beat out yesterday’s or at least equaled it, but perhaps there was a modifier being in Lewis’s home, listening to dr. Holly Ordway’s lecture on the definition of fantasy and secondary belief within the context of Tolkien’s work, which was I know was a great influence upon her and her conversion experience from her memoir not god’s type. Where was this model when I was teaching “the history of fantasy” lesson to my arts and technology grad students at UT Dallas? I will need to update that presentation should I teach that curriculum again someday when I take up professoring again! Dr. Kirkpatrick’s lecture focused on Lewis’s treatment of thick and clear religions, with special appearances by Bacchus and Mr. Tumnus the satyr (Lewis uses “fawn”) I had not considered as images of the classical in Narnia. My take-away opinion of the satyr (specifically pan) as “horny bard” played well with the discussion, but I refrained from being overly gratuitous in the context. It turns out I needn’t have worried, in fact the discussion turned precisely to the use of “adult content” in apologetic literature, and we were reminded that the bible is not rated g, or even PG-13 really, but a good solid R. Lewis’s use of the image works on multiple levels I hadn’t considered.
A theme occurs to me as I sit writing in my 1970's dorm room surrounded by a 970’s (or so) founded oxen-fording and reflecting upon 20th century men and women. We are all affected by our environment, (though certainly not merely products of it!) And as such, it is no wonder we are intrigued by the pursuit described in Bandersnatch to try to find the connections between influences. Lewis had a wardrobe, was it "the" wardrobe?!, the “Bird and Baby” aka "Eagle and Child Pub’s" original sign which now hangs at the kilns practically depicts Tolkien’s description of Bilbo’s flight from the mountain goblins or Frodo’s escape from Mount Doom. Coincidence? Lewis’s affinity for pen and ink allegedly allowed him to think of the next line, and the permanence of those indelible marks (somewhat like those in this book) are so very different from typing on a keyboard.
(Author’s Note: perhaps the point is this: How much of Lewis would we have without Warnie? Without Tolkien? Without the inklings? Impossible to know.)
A "proper" English breakfast at Keble College started our day. The dining hall is one of the inspirations for the harry potter films allegedly. I can see why. There was some small drizzle as dad and I walked to St. Michael at the North Gate, the city church of Oxford. It was wonderful to worship there. The “Very Reverend Robert A. Wilkes”, vicar and city rector, spoke with us for some time about the church, what it meant to be appointed by the Lord Governor and not the parish, and generally about being Anglican in today’s world, both before and after the service. This was a very formulaic but genuine service that felt very Catholic to this Southern Baptist missionary kid. I wonder what differences in the perception of Imago Dei this kind of worship reflects. The service was followed by a tea reception for the attendees. I have to say it was as good as any tea I’ve ever had, even for England! After, we were permitted an unchaperoned tour of the Saxon tower, and I took the vicar’s information, seeing as the church is featured in one of my novels in progress. I will now have to rewrite parts for accuracy, and am looking forward to it and thankful for the chance to really experience that place and worship with them there.
We ate at a favorite Thai place of mine, off Gloucester Green, then swung by Tesco to grab some food for the week. With some time to spare, we spent the afternoon at Blackwell’s bookstore, another location that I featured in my oxford-based novel, and I took some important perspective shots for reference to check against my chase scene down St. Giles and broad street. I was reminded how compact everything is, something my mind had expanded out in the last few years since being there, and having looked at google maps as reference. Indeed, there is nothing like being there in person, and since I’d not planned to write a novel about Oxford the first times I was there, this trip has already been invaluable to me for setting me straight on certain details which I will need to fix as soon as I get home! I’ve also picked up from Blackwell’s the newest Lovett novel first impressions about jane Austen, a modern heroine, and a mysterious hunt for a lost novel (presumably Austen’s?) Set in oxford! So that will be fun to read here.
Rebekah has reserved some tables for us at “The Bear,” the oldest pub in Oxford (and lowest ceiling as I recall), so I’m off to meet the rest of the group! Here’s to some good fellowship!
(Author’s Note: Good fellowship was had! Since I didn’t mention it later on I’ll note two things now. 1. It was clear from the start that this group was going to have good community. We took the time to self-organize and go around the table to each talk about our education, our hobbies, our family, and reasons for being in the HBU MAA program. Within the hour we knew each other well enough to feel like we were proper friends and not just classmates, a real inklings group in the making! 2. I read from the beginning of Lovett’s “First Impressions” there, for as fate would have it, one of the early scenes I’d been reading was set in The Bear pub! I learned later that even Blackwell’s itself where I’d purchased the book was mentioned (and slighted a bit!), and that the love story in its pages was deeply entrenched in the city where I had bought and read it. A marvelous pick!)
Adam L. Brackin, Ph.D - Doc to his friends - is an independent media consultant, writer, and sometimes professor. His teaching and research interests include: Social Media, Transmedia, & ARG, all forms of non-linear & interactive narrative, story mechanics models, and video game studies & design.