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A Solar System and Cosmos Filled With Life? – A reflection upon Ben Bova’s “Farside” and “New Earth”

bb-farside

Ben Bova’s contributions to science fiction are monumental. A six-tme Hugo Award winner (!!), he is established as one of the most successful and entertaining authors of our time. I have quite enjoyed a number of his works, though I have at times been critical of his portrayal of religion. Bova’s major series, the “Grand Tour,” follows human exploration of the solar system (and at some points, beyond). The series is constructed in such a way as to not require readers to follow it chronologically. They are interlinked and interrelated, but not interdependent. Here, we’ll look at two recent books in this series which look at the discovery of an Earth-like planet. There will, of course, be major plot SPOILERS for both books in what follows.

Farside

After telescopes on Earth discover an Earth-sized planet relatively local to our own Solar System (ten light years away), the race is on to learn more about this planet. Farside portrays the struggles of a number of people in their efforts to build an observation base on the dark side of the moon. Jason Uhlrich seeks his Nobel Prize in his attempts to be the first to observe and chart the planet.

Life has already been found within the Solar System, and now two rivals rush to be the first to discover it in the great beyond of the stars. What is interesting is to note some of the assumptions that go into Bova’s characterization of life beyond Earth. First, one primary assumption seems to be that where there is water, there must be life. Second, life should be expected in all corners of the universe.

These assumptions are the subjects of much debate within the scientific community around the possibility of life on other planets and the origin of life. Regarding the former, there are those who do believe that life will be found in abundance throughout the universe. After all, given that we exist, life cannot be all that improbable, right? The other primary way of thinking is to argue that life is, in fact, quite rare in the universe and our own existence is a wonderfully improbable jackpot win.

bb-neNew Earth

New Earth picks up some time after the events of Farside. Humanity has sent an expedition to “New Earth.” Upon arrival, there is a great mystery: “New Earth” is eerily like Earth itself. It turns out that a machine known as a “predecessor” has created the planet and grown these human-like aliens as a way to break it to humanity that there is, in fact, more intelligent life “out there.” Moreover, there is a catastrophic event coming towards the whole arm of the Milky Way which will wipe out these intelligent species, and humanity needs to help preserve themselves and the other species.

Though skeptical, ultimately all the members of the expedition are convinced, and the book ends with the message reaching Earth and the gearing up to proceed on this mission given by the Predecessor.

Reflection

There are, of course, any number of things that one could nitpick regarding the plausibility of the scenarios Bova envisions (one would be the rewiring of Uhlrich’s brain to “see” via hearing and touch… how does that work?), but here we’ll focus on two aspects of the work: the plausibility of life outside Earth and the mythos of the benevolent alien.

In Farside, readers who haven’t surveyed the body of Bova’s work discover that the Solar System itself teems with life: life once flourished on Mars, and its vestiges remain; on Jupiter, creatures soar in the skies; life is found elsewhere throughout the System. Bova’s vision of the origin of life seems to be that if there’s water, there may be life. Yet one has to wonder about the plausibility of life forming on a planet like Jupiter. How might biochemical interactions with delicate balances of material be maintained for long? What of the distance to the sun? The origin of life requires all kinds of factors to be “just right” and it simply is not enough to fudge the numbers by saying “It could have happened this way.” To develop a hypothesis around ad hoc assumptions is faulty.

Intelligent life, as explicated in New Earth, is even more problematic. It is easier to have single celled organisms than to have the complexity needed for intelligence. Even granting a naturalistic scenario, the conditions must be even more tuned for life and allow for the nurturing of that life for extremely long periods of time. The universe is indeed huge beyond belief but one has to wonder if even that immensity is enough to repeat the conditions which occur on Earth.

Of course, in the end, one must acknowledge that these are tales of science fiction, not proposals about how science fact might be. There is a certain sense of awe and wonder involved in considering whether life could exist all over the Solar System. It seems to me, however, that if that is the case, it probably got there by means of Earth–blown off the surface of our planet by an asteroid and traveled through space to Mars and possibly beyond.

Another major theme found in both books is what I dubbed the “Myth of the Benevolent Alien.” There is a kind of pervasive battle in science fiction between the notions that aliens want us dead or that aliens are going to be ultimately some kind of saviors of humankind. New Earth brings this benevolence front and center: some unknown life form created these “Predecessors” to find and aid intelligent life. It’s a scenario filled with wonder and hope. But it’s also a scenario which I’ve found time and again in materialistic literature.

The way this story goes: wherever possible, life is certain. It’s a kind of appeal to a fantasy of a godless universe wherein it may be possible to find hope and meaning in the stars. As one character (I believe it is Grant) said in Farside: Ad astra! (To the stars!). Second, the actual inherent implausibility of life both leads to this longing (we don’t want to be alone) and to a search for meaning (how did we get here?). My own answer is that theism provides a more plausible explanation of both the longing for meaning, meaning itself, and the way in which life arose. Interestingly, however, the atheistic accusation that theists are engaged in wishful thinking is perhaps mirrored through various declarations made by naturalists themselves (see the post linked above and in the links below).

Bova’s novels thus serve as a way forward in this discussion. By illustrating our longing and loneliness through the fulfillment of our desires (the discovery of life and the notion that we are not alone), Bova grants readers their wishes. However, we ultimately come to realize that these are indeed just wishes. Perhaps, one day, a “New Earth” will be discovered. But even if that happens, it will not be enough to satisfy our loneliness, nor will it answer our ultimate questions. Theism is the ultimate antidote to loneliness, the ultimate answer for our questions.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Materialists: Where is hope? Look to the stars!- I analyze one aspect of materialism: the way that some look to hope in the “beyond” of the outer limits of the universe. Hope, for materialists, may come from the stars. Our salvation may lay beyond our solar system, in benevolent aliens who will bring great change and advances to us.

Our Spooky Universe: Fine-Tuning and God- The incredible circumstances which allow for life to exist and thrive on Earth are the cause for not merely fictional speculation, but actual reflection upon our place in the universe and how it might relate to the transcendent. Check out this post which surveys the evidence for the existence of God found in “fine-tuning.”

Sources

Ben Bova, Farside (New York: Tor, 2013).

Ben Bova, New Earth (New York: Tor, 2013).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi- a Christian reflection on the most recently completed Star Wars series

sw-fotjStar Wars is not normally where I go to begin discussions about worldview. The most recently completed mini-series, however, “The Fate of the Jedi,” was full of material for discussing worldview perspectives. Here, I will only touch on a few of the many themes the series brought up. Some of these include world religions, objective morality, and theism. Of course, there will be HUGE SPOILERS for the Star Wars universe prior and up to this point. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM POSTING COMMENTS FROM OTHER STAR WARS STORYLINES.

I’ll not be summarizing the plot of the Fate of the Jedi series, which you may find by following the links for the individual books here.

World Religions and the Force

A huge part of the early stages of Fate of the Jedi involved Luke Skywalker and his son, Ben, traveling around the galaxy and visiting other various Force-using schools. These different Force-using schools paralleled, in many ways, various world religions. For example, the Baran Do Sages held onto a kind of gnostic way of knowing, where secret knowledge was preserved by a select group of masters to pass on from generation to generation. Another example is found in the Mind Walkers, who try to separate body from soul in order to walk in a completely different reality. Not only does this also seem gnostic in its bent, but it also reflects the notion of the extinction of the self found in some Eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. There are a few other schools that the Skywalkers visit throughout their travels, and each has aspects of at least one world religion reflected therein.

Of interest is that the way the series approached the various parallels to world religions is that many of them appeared to be fairly obviously wrong. That is, they had a feel of wrongness to them, but they also seemed to get aspects of reality wrong. The Mind Walkers, for example, allowed their bodies to waste away while they experienced their own way of entering into the Force. One cannot help but sense a kind of aversion to this belief system, in which the body is so totally denigrated. Some of their comments also reflected a lack of concern for distinctions between good and evil. Yet again, this is a distinctive of some Eastern religions, and it is a way in which they are factually mistaken. Those who fail to make distinctions between good and evil, between reality and the mental life; they are operating under a mistaken view of reality.

The Fate of the Jedi, then, does not teach a kind of religious pluralism. Instead, it eschews pluralism for showing that some belief systems do not work. They simply do not line up with reality.

Redemption and Betrayal

The character of Vestara Khai is an extremely interesting figure. She may be the most complex character since Mara Jade. A Sith, she is captured by the Skywalkers, who initially do not trust her whatsoever (and for good reason). Yet, in a kind of typical story of conversion in the Star Wars universe, they begin to turn her to the Light Side of the Force. She realizes that her own life has not been based upon good, and she also acknowledges a distinction between good and evil. Her realization is centered around her relationship with her family and friends (such as they are). For a little while, it seems that Vestara is a true convert.

Yet the reader knows throughout that although Vestara has changed her whole way of viewing the universe, she is not entirely a convert. She still puts herself first. In fairness to her, she does so thinking that she is putting others first, and she often does seem to prioritize the needs of Ben–whom she’s come to love–over herself. But when push comes to shove, she betrays the trust of the Skywalkers in the most dire possible way, by giving away the secret identity of a loved one and dooming her to a life of dodging the Lost Tribe of the Sith. A commentary on the darker side of human nature, Khai’s life in the books also begs the question of where one goes from there: what redemption may be in store for someone who seems to have ruined all chances at salvation?

Prophecy and the Celestials

The notion of prophecy is found throughout the Star Wars universe. There was the prophecy of the “Chosen One”; later, prophecies revolved around the Sword of the Jedi and the Unification of the Force. Each of these prophecies were expected to be fulfilled. In the Star Wars universe, prophecy is the product of the Force. One wonders, however, how this plays out with what is an essentially impersonal force. It seems that in order to give revelation, there must be some kind of personal reality; for prophecy relates to the actions of persons.

Ultimately, readers encounter the Celestials–a group of beings (Father, Son, and Daughter… and later Mother) of extreme power. These beings are tied into the whole plot of the expanded universe books of Star Wars in some ingenious (and sometimes a bit questionable) ways. Although these beings may appear to parallel a kind of pantheon, it becomes clear that they are not. They may be seemingly eternal, but they are also contingent: it was entirely possible for them to be destroyed. Again, it is not these beings who drive reality; it is the Force. The Force is the power in the universe, the ‘all in all’ of the Star Wars universe. Yet, as I’ve argued above, it is hard to envision the force as entirely impersonal. It delivers prophecies and sometimes even answers the call of those in need. The “Trinity” created and driven by the Force ultimately drive the Force themselves in many ways.

Conclusion

The Fate of the Jedi series explores a huge number of issues related to worldview. I didn’t get to nearly all the major issues, let alone the minor ones, which come out throughout the series. Of interest is how the series clearly brought up world religions in such a way as to avoid pluralism, but rather provided ways to distinguish between truth and falsehood in religion. Prophecy begs for a personal being, yet the allegedly impersonal Force provides it. It was great to experience the Star Wars universe in such a way as to have it bring up so many issues of worldview in often thoughtful and, frankly, thought-provoking ways.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

“Fitzpatrick’s War”- Religion, truth, and forgiveness in Theodore Judson’s epic steampunk tale- I take a look at the book Fitzpatrick’s War, a novel of alternative history with steampunk. What could be better? Check out some of the worldview issues brought up in the book.

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

Source

Troy Denning, Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi- Apocalypse (New York: Del Rey, 2012).

Disclaimer: The images in this post are copyright of the Star Wars universe and I use them under fair use. I make no claims to ownership of the images.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth – A Christian review of the book

Divergent-VRVeronica Roth’s Divergent has been hailed as “the next Hunger Games.” It has hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List. The series is on the cutting-edge of young adult literature. Here, I’ll examine the book to explore several themes in relation to worldview within the book. There will, of course, be SPOILERS in what follows.

Factions/Divergence

In the world of Divergent, Factions are the way of order. The people of the city of Chicago came together after a cataclysmic event (left largely unexplained in the book) to try to restore order. The thought was that they would split people into various Factions which each held to a certain primary guiding principle to combat evil and wrongdoing. For example, the Candor Faction felt that lies were the primary way in which evil entered the world. Deception was how anger and hatred could be brought into the world again, with dire consequences. Other factions-Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless-follow a similar structure of thought: each is constructed around the notion that a specific weakness led to the destruction of the world.

However, Tris, the main character of the book, is Divergent- she does not fit well into any one faction. Those who are divergent are considered dangerous because they are not as fully in line with the thinking of a faction, which makes it harder for them to be conditioned behaviorally to fit into any of the differing paradigms. Thus, they are not only dangerous to the system, but also dangerous to life: they might ruin the system which has protected those inside it.

The notion that humans would divide into different groups which each see a certain facet of human nature as dangerous for the thriving of the species is intriguing. It did seem a bit of a stretch for me to believe that people would willingly divide up into such factions and focus on nothing but those aspects of the human psyche, but it helped to drive the plot and it is perhaps more believable in light of Roth’s statement (through Tris, of course) that each faction began to mock even the good aspects of the others. For example, those who were in Dauntless like Tris would often mock the perceived need for Tris to take an extra step to care for others; or they would laugh at the difficulties with telling lies some people had (“You should have been from Candor!”).

Human nature in Divergent is shown to be more complex through those who are themselves divergent. They see beyond the narrow limits of each individual faction and are therefore immune to the conditioning others succumb to.

Family

Throughout the book, Tris repeats the mantra: Faction before Family. However, the mantra does not play out in reality. Instead, Tris find herself continually longing for her family and the familiarity of her former faction. Although she also finds herself becoming loyal to her new faction, the Dauntless, Tris is ultimately saved by the reunification (however brief) of her family.

The theme is rather poignant, for it suggests there is something to the notion that the family is the proper realm of interaction. It’s not that everyone has a perfect family in the “real world,” rather, the point is that in an ideal situation, everyone would have a support structure within a family. This support structure would be a place for ultimate refuge.

Choice

The book’s cover focuses on choice: it is one choice that defines who you are forever, it says. That choice, of course, is which faction to join. But when push comes to shove, so to speak, towards the end of the book, it turns out that a whole series of choices define you, not just which faction you want to belong to. It is not one choice that defines Tris and the others; it is the choices they make in times of crises, alongside those choices they’ve made throughout their lives, which ultimately determines who they are.

The concept of choice in the book resonates alongside the notion of divergence. After all, the Divergent are those who cannot be neatly categorized into any of the factions. Their choices, it seems, have a bit more freedom, or at least freedom from conditioning. I can’t help but think of the choice made in Eden that led to the Fall. Before that fateful choice, humans had a very wide range of choices available to them; afterwards, humans became bound to sin and much more narrow in their vision. In seeking freedom, we became bound; in trying to open more opportunities, we limited them.

Conclusion

Divergent is a very interesting book written by a woman who professes her Christian faith. The book is very dark at times and there are many more themes I could explore. The interest in “choice” and “divergence” related to human nature and sin is fascinating to me. I’m interested to hear your own thoughts on the issue, so be sure to leave a comment below!

Links

Divergent- Anthony Weber over at Empires and Mangers, one of my favorite sites (and one you should follow!), reviewed the YA Book Divergent. He examined it from a worldview perspective. The book is being made into a major motion picture and has been hailed by some as the “next Hunger Games.” That means we’re going to run into it everywhere. What questions can we bring to the table? There are SPOILERS in this linked post.

Be sure to check out my other looks into popular books (scroll down for more posts).

Source

Veronica Roth, Divergent (New York: Katherine Tegen Books, 2012).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint” by Nadia Bolz-Weber: Book Review

Pastrix3Nadia Bolz-Weber is an edgy, hard-hitting, and often witty pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Her latest book is filled with autobiographical stories and a number of anecdotes which focus around the subtitle: they are often cranky, sometimes beautiful, and they reflect a sinner-saint.

The book traces Bolz-Weber’s path towards the ministry through her years in recovery from alcoholism to her starting a church: “House For All Sinners and Saints” and the struggles and triumphs she experienced throughout these events. I’ll not summarize the entire contents of the book but rather I have selected one story to give a brief sample of how the book flows.

The most poignant story in the entire book, in my opinion, is that of Bolz-Weber’s relationship with Chris Rosebrough from Pirate Christian Radio, a very conservative Lutheran (from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod [LCMS]) who runs a very conservative radio show. He is, in many ways, all that Bolz-Weber would oppose. And Rosebrough often criticized Bolz-Weber on his show. Then, one day, they had a chance to meet and they talked through the core of Lutheran theology: salvation by grace. Bolz-Weber wrote, “[The other people witnessing their meeting] saw us share a thirty-minute public dialogue about our own brokenness and need for confession and absolution, why we need the Gospel, and what happens in the Eucharist… God made my enemy my friend that day” (113).

Later, Bolz-Weber experienced criticism from her “own side”–liberals [her word, I'm not trying to use it in a derogatory fashion]–and talked with Rosebrough [who is, again, staunchly conservative] about it. They didn’t have to agree on the issues to carry on a conversation about God. “Chris [Rosebrough] doesn’t agree with me [about various issues]… But the one phone call I got in the middle of being attacked by my own tribe was from someone who is on the other side of the issue entirely… [H]e knew what it felt like… [He] said that he loved me and would pray for me. His enemy” (119-120).

Awesome, heart-stopping stories like this are scattered throughout the book. But they are in-between stories that will surely polarize readers. One is a story about a transgender girl turned boy and how Bolz-Weber helped hold a ceremony to help recognize “Asher”‘s new name and identity as a boy. Another story is about her time away from Christianity in which she worshiped a “goddess” instead.

Pastrix ends on a note about Bolz-Weber’s vision of church. Mary Magdalene becomes her foil as she reflects upon the meaning and purpose of church. She wrote, “Like Mary Magdalene, the reason we can stand up and weep and listen for Jesus is because we, like Mary, are bearers of resurrection, we are made new” (201).

Evaluation

There are no words minced in this book. The f-word is sprinkled throughout (and even featured twice in one chapter title). Bolz-Weber continually describes situations or feelings as “s***.” She is completely unapologetic in her approach in this regard.

This raised red flags for me. What does the Bible tell us about the Christian life, and does it say anything about the requirements for teacher, overseer, elder, and deacon?  How might Bolz-Weber apply these to her life as a pastor? No, I’m not saying that as a woman she shouldn’t be a pastor–I’m firmly egalitarian. But I wonder about how she would take a passage like James 3 (specifically 3:1-2; 9-10):

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check… With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Teachers are called to a higher standard. James noted that obviously people stumble, but that does not mean that we should give up or simply embrace whatever wrong behavior we are engaged in. “This should not be!” I wish Bolz-Weber had engaged with this issue in her book.

Another huge issue with the book for me is Bolz-Weber’s exegesis. It seems to me her preconceptions about what the text should mean often shape how she reads it. Specifically, this relates to the question of sanctification. Are Christians really in the process of being made new? If so, how does she reconcile this with the way she seems to conceive of “sinner-saint”–a valid concept–by which she seems to simply mean that one does not even have to try to change? She wrote:

Repentance in Greek means something much closer to ‘thinking differently afterward’ than it does ‘changing your cheating ways.’ Of course repentance can look like a prostitute becoming a librarian, but it can also look like a prostitute simply saying, “OK, I’m a sex worker and I don’t know how to change that, but I can come here and receive bread and wine and I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God.”

It seems her primary point in this passage is that God’s grace is firm and sure and we, as sinners, can hold onto that. But I can’t help but feeling Bolz-Weber misses the mark at an astonishing margin in that she never discusses the need to go beyond that. Paul discussed various types of sins in 1 Corinthians 6, and then he went on to say “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” That is, God’s work does not simply end with justification, it continues on into sanctification. We are sinner-saints in the sense that we are yet sinners but God has saved us; but also, we are being made saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. We are to flee from sin, not ignore it.

Bolz-Weber’s entire autobiographical account does speak to the way that the powerful message of grace changes someone, but she never draws this point into the open. Moreover, when she speaks about the life of others, sin is often treated lightly or even entirely ignored. It seems that she is fully willing and able to apply the Law to her own life, but she does not universalize it; she does not make the Law applicable to everyone. Thus, it seems to me she fails to properly preach Law and Gospel.

Pastrix, was a book I really wanted to love. But… I didn’t. There are a number of great insights and anecdotes scattered through the pages, but ultimately readers have to slog through gobs of unnecessary cursing, shock-value stories, and more to find them. One moment, it had me cheering along with Bolz-Weber; the next, I found myself confused about what she was trying to communicate. Ultimately, the book left me wondering who, exactly, the intended audience was supposed to be. It’s not the type of book I’d hand to someone to try to convince them of Bolz-Weber’s view. Nor is it the type of book that I, as someone who agrees in part with her, particularly enjoyed. It seems to me the audience is ultimately those who already agree with her on basically everything. That isn’t a problem, as it is perfectly acceptable to write books that preach to the choir, but I am left confused as to why Bolz-Weber actually did write Pastrix.

Throughout the book it seemed that she was trying to convince me of something, but it never really became clear what that message was. There are times when I really did “get it.” It was like she grabbed that which is Lutheran in me and just played it for all it was worth. But then she failed to make it universal; it applied to her, but she never made Law and Gospel universal. She would discuss intense need for grace which is free and abundant and ever-flowing. She would point out how we need not do works to access this. But then, so often, it seemed she would conflate this with the notion that Christians are not all called to move away from sinner and towards saint. There seemed to be no sanctification in the work. It was all about the initial call to grace; but little about the enduring, sanctifying work of the Spirit.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins- A Christian look at the book

catching-fire-collinsThe film version of Catching Fire is on the horizon (see my reflection on the movie), and as we approach the release, I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look into the book. Here, I will consider some major themes in the work and their relation to Christian belief and practice. Check out some links at the end of the post for my other writings on the Hunger Games series. Be aware: there will be MAJOR SPOILERS in what follows.

Pragmatism 

Katniss Everdeen often seems to be trying to operate under the moral system known a ‘pragmatism’–the notion that we should do what works. Sometimes, she may even border on egoism–the notion that self-interest drives what is morally right and wrong. Very often, in her first person narrative, she comments on doing things because she has “no choice” or simply because it seems to be what other people want in order for her to survive. One example is when President Snow comes to visit her in order to coerce her into attempting to help quell the rebellions which seem on the verge of breaking out across Panem, the world of The Hunger Games series. Snow himself senses this drive for self-preservation that Katniss has, and he masterfully uses it to manipulate her to his ends.

However, Catching Fire does not leave Katniss alone. She is unable to consistently hold to the moral position that her inner dialogue seems to filter her choices through. In fact, her moral decisions, in practice, often reflect virtue types of ethical theories more than egoism. But she doesn’t always or even often seem to be aware of her own moral virtues. Suzanne Collins writes Katniss in such a way as to be a believable character: her moral choices are often messy.

Katniss is confronted by the inconsistency in her own moral system–that of seeming self-preservation over all–when she is confronted by two women refugees who are fleeing from the violence in their colony (see pages 134-150). Katniss reacts initially in a way which begs for self-preservation, prepared to defend herself by killing. But then, when she discovers the reality of the situation, she actually feeds the women, listens to their story, and believes that there may be hope. The pragmatist would have turned the women in as traitors; Katniss feeds them and sends them on their way, but not before fashioning a new crutch for the one who is injured and teaching them briefly about how to survive in the wild. Her moral reality is much more complex than she herself realized.

Human Moral Worth

Although the topic is only hinted at, Catching Fire poignantly portrays the horror of objectification of the human being. Finnick’s backstory–as one of the other people who is forced to go into the Hunger Games–gives disturbing insight into the objectification of humans and the grim realities of the negative effect it has on the people involved. Finnick Odair’s story is interesting, because he was one of the youngest people to “win” the hunger games. His good looks made him popular, despite his young age of fourteen. Thus, people kept sending him things to help him. Collins writes:

The Citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since [his victory].

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him… He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company… but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back. (209)

The licentious people of the Capitol are confused. They value human beings as means for their own pleasure. Hence the absurd celebration and pomp and circumstance of the Hunger Games, which trivializes an event that is really the vicious killing of children. Moreover, they eagerly await a young man to get “old enough” for them to use his body for their own ends, paying him with gifts or secrets for the pleasure his body might give them. The book is not explicit in this regard; but the implication is there.

Reality Confronts Falsehood

In fact, it is the people of the Capitol who are the real egoists. They are self-obsessed to the point of egotism as opposed to mere egoism. Their moral code is that whatever satisfies them is right. Collins, in Catching Fire, gives us a long, hard look at ourselves. How easy would it be for us to fall into the same pattern of thinking as the people of the Capitol? The book is disturbing because of how close it is to home. Human trafficking is an increasing problem, even on our “home turf.” Yet people look the other way. Children are increasingly exploited, but again, only a few are crying out. 

Like the people of the Capitol, we are only concerned with ourselves. If something isn’t directly bothering us, we tend to ignore it. That’s an issue for someone else, after all.

But the real twist is President Snow. He and his cronies are in charge of preserving the illusion. He is in charge of maintaining the false reality. And in Catching Fire, Katniss finally starts to truly realize the extent of this evil. It is one thing to confront the evils going on around her; it is entirely another to confront those who are determined to keep the system in place which perpetuates the evil.

Conclusion

I am looking forward to “Catching Fire.” I am hopeful that it will, like “The Hunger Games,” preserve the raw emotion of the book and lead to a number of thought-provoking conversations. Catching Fire is a phenomenal work that ultimately confronts us with ourselves. It forces us to wonder: are we just as oblivious to the wrongs around us as the people in the Capitol?

Links

Christian Reflection on The Hunger Games Trilogy- I discuss the entire Hunger Games Trilogy, with a number of comments upon the themes and events found therein.

The Hunger Games Movie: A Christian Perspective- I wrote about the movie, “The Hunger Games” and provided some insight into what Christians may take away as talking points from the film.

Do you like The Hunger Games? Check out my evaluation of Ender’s Game both in movie and book form.

Source

Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire (New York: Scholastics, 2009).

The image is the cover of the book and the property of Scholastic Press.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe” by Harry Lee Poe

eeapmu-poeEdgar Allan Poe. His name immediately calls to mind images: a black raven haunting one’s thought, the beating of a heart driving one mad, gruesome, macabre deaths. It also brings to mind thoughts on the man himself: twisted, slightly mad, alcoholic, broken.

Are these images of the man’s work and life accurate? Harry Lee Poe (a cousin of Poe’s) argues that they are not. Instead, this kind of imagery is a result of both the popularization and the character assassination of one of the great American literary giants.

Harry Lee Poe’s work, Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a fascinating journey into the mind, times, and works of Edgar Allan Poe.

The Myth of Edgar Allan Poe

It is interesting to note that from the time he died, Edgar Allan Poe’s person was the target of a character assassination which would give rise to the popular portrayal of him as a dark, haunted drunkard. Rufus Griswold, a man who portrayed himself as a minister despite having never been ordained, published a work which has remained in the popular consciousness through the present day. In it, he falsified information about Poe and heavily edited a number of letters from the author in order to portray him as the dark, fearsome man he is often imagined even today. Harry Lee Poe exposes this mythos by noting the work of Arthur Hobson Quinn, who in 1942 published the letters Poe wrote alongside the altered letters Griswold used to make the image he created.

Thankfully, Edgar Allan Poe’s (hereafter EAP) image has been recovering in scholarship, but the damage at a popular level continues to be seemingly ubiquitous. The image of Poe as a brooding man matches what people wish to see when they read his works of horror and thrills. However, Harry Lee Poe (hereafter HLP) notes that there is much more to EAP’s body of work than is often known.

The Broader Poe

EAP’s body of work had its share of horror and mystery, but it also featured humor and satire, science fiction, and beauty. Remarkably, EAP contributed to the formation and even creation of entire genres which are extremely popular today. His science fiction was, at the time, known as “hoaxes” because no actual genre existed in order to encompass them. He also wrote the first detective mystery works to be known in literature. He was innovative and unique in his contributions to literature. He truly stands easily among the literary giants of all time.

The distribution of his works is also worth noting. EAP intentionally wrote in a number of different ways about a number of different things. HLP documents his major tales, numbering each under headings of genre. The results are surprising: EAP wrote more humor and satire than he did horror. Yet he is largely known today only for the latter (24-27). It is worth looking at Poe’s entire body of work in order to understand the man.

Mystery and Reality

One of the central parts of Poe’s work involves the writing of mystery stories. As has been noted, EAP was the first to write in the specific genre of detective mystery stories. EAP’s use of the mystery story shows that he assumed the problem of evil as a very real difficulty. However, the concept of a detective mystery story, in which the reader, through the characters, seeks to solve the mystery and find the one who committed the crime. In short, there is a broader concept of justice involved in a mystery story. Unless there is justice in the universe, the problem of evil cannot present a difficulty for one’s worldview, for evil could just be a given.

EAP, who had written horror stories already, moved the blood and gore from the climax of the story (horror) to the beginning (mystery). The rest of the story would not be about the blood and gore, but about righting a wrong: “injustice cannot be allowed to continue… the sense of justice assumes the basica rationality and order of the universe so that Truth may be discovered. The reader wants to know the truth” (115).

Beauty and Love

The concept of beauty was central to EAP’s work. He used the concept to evoke a particular feeling related to the injustice of crime, but he also saw beauty as a way to point beyond the mundane. “Beauty constituted to Poe evidence that human experience is not bound by time but belongs to eternity” (83).

The different varieties of love are exemplified throughout Poe’s works. Affection, friendship, and passion are developed by HLP to explain EAP’s concepts of how these related to the world at large. Each of these concepts could be forces for the positive or for ill. Affection, friendship, and passion could each become corrupted, and each would lead to devastating results if one allowed this to happen (86ff). Love provided a difficulty for EAP, for he saw that it may tell us about something beyond the world: it may inform us about God. But if it could be perverted, does that suggest an outside source from which love sprang, which we corrupted (107-108).

Eureka

Perhaps the most interesting portion of Evermore is the discussion of EAP’s own views as he expounded them in his work, Eureka. In this work, Poe examined the mystery of the universe. He held that the universe had a beginning and was actually expanding. He argued that light and electricity belonged “to the same continuum.” His view was close to the modern theory of the Big Bang. Yet EAP thought of this around a century before the latter came into vogue. Because the universe began, “Poe concluded that a God exists who created the universe for his pleasure. Love and Beauty provide a glimpse of God… Pain, suffering, evil, and death are the contingencies of physical existence that are left behind” (55). EAP saw the universe as a grand story, which was “the plot of God” (ibid).

The reasoning behind EAP’s amazingly prophetic vision of cosmology was found in his own observations. He noted the difficulties presented by the notion of an infinite universe, including the fact that the night sky had places where there were no stars to be seen (known as “Olber’s Paradox”).

In Eureka, EAP postulated a deity. It seemed intuitively obvious to him that if the universe began to exist, God must exist. Given that his own observational evidence led him to the conclusion that the universe began, he concluded that God exists. Moreover, he posited that this deity would have to design the universe and guide its expansion from a primordial particle (152). However, this deity was essentially pantheistic, which was his solution to the problem of evil. Each individual person would become Spirit individualized. God would become all-in-all, thus bringing holiness to all.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Beliefs?

HLP argues that EAP may indeed have become an orthodox believer late in life. Having already come to the conclusion that God exists and that the universe had a beginning (itself something EAP noted matched remarkably with the Biblical account), Poe would come forward at a Sons of Temperance meeting. HLP notes that such a move cannot be abstracted purely as coming out against alcoholism (something EAP struggled with himself). Instead, the group was explicitly evangelical in nature. Coming forward would be similar to someone today coming forward at a Billy Graham meeting (166). Those interested in Poe’s beliefs must therefore come to one of two conclusions: either he was “the charlatan and scoundrel that Griswold said he was” or “he had a conversion experience.” The Sons of Temperance taught explicitly evangelical Christianity, which would suggest that if EAP was genuine, he had come to accept a more evangelical, orthodox faith before he died.

Conclusion

Few works have intrigued me as much as Evermore has. Edgar Allan Poe has been a favorite of mine for some time, but I admit that I had bought into the stereotypical picture of the man as much as anyone else. Having only really read his horror and some poems, I have not had a complete vision of his actual body of work. Harry Lee Poe does an exemplary job of showing how EAP explicitly viewed his works as a growing body of interconnected themes, seeking to find the mysteries of the universe.

Edgar Allan Poe was a visionary. He was a great American author whose writings paved the way for hundreds of years to come. He was also well ahead of the science of his day, and similarly had already deduced the theological conclusions well before others had attempted to do so. Harry Lee Poe has presented a convincing, thorough look at EAP’s entire body of work. Having done so, he makes the man even more interesting than the myth. Edgar Allan Poe’s explorations of the mysteries of the universe leaves me profoundly interested in the man and his body of work. I highly recommend Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe to you.

Source

Harry Lee Poe, Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2012).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card: A Christian reflection

enders-game-novel-coverEnder’s Game by Orson Scott Card has been receiving increased attention of late due to the upcoming movie based on the work. For my thoughts on the movie, check out my look into the film. I read this book about ten years ago, and have since listened to the audiobook and re-read the book. Here, we will delve into some major themes which run through the novel. There are major plot SPOILERS ahead, so you have been warned.

The Children

Ender himself is a child. Yet throughout the book he ranges from trying to simply be a child to an admiral. He has a calculating, almost “killer” mentality and cannot bear to lose. He insists on excellence. Yet he is shaped by his past, while trying to avoid it. When he is confronted with a situation of survival–or at least one he perceives as such–he reacts with the cold efficiency of a practiced soldier. He escalates the scenario to the point that the “enemy” can never cause harm to him again.

Ender has been selected to be the future leader of Earth’s International Fleet, which is heading off to the worlds of the “Buggers” (also known as the “Formics”) to destroy them. The Buggers are a race of sentient creatures who have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed humanity both times.

Ender’s brother, Peter, is a sadist. There is no other way to describe him. He loves to inflict pain and scare people. He uses his power to attack the powerless. The scenes in which Peter abuses his brother and sister, Valentine, are disturbing. He also tortures animals. He is evil… or is he?

Valentine is perhaps the paradigm of good in the book. She was “too soft” to be the commander of the International Fleet. She ends up reforming Peter to some degree, though she loses some of herself in that process.

There are a number of children with whom Ender interacts with in Battle School, and they range from friends to enemies. He ends up killing one of them, Bonzo, in self-defense, though he doesn’t learn he actually killed him until much later.

Death, Evolution, and Ethics

The death of Bonzo leads to a number of interesting moral issues. Did Ender step over the line? He continually thinks in terms in which he needs to destroy any possibility of an “enemy” coming back to hurt him, but this mentality is fostered by those who have trained him. Ender has to learn to become a military leader, and he is guided in this learning by Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham. They guide him, but they do so with a distinctly hands-off approach in which they try to teach him he can rely on no one but himself. This gives Ender a kind of do-or-die mentality that becomes literal a number of times throughout the book.

Bonzo’s death is viewed by Graff as a necessary sacrifice for the fate of humanity. Both Ender and Graff reflect a kind of evolutionary morality wherein the strong survive. They view the war with the Buggers as yet another aspect of this morality. If it comes down to it, it may be that either the Buggers or humans can survive. Graff and Ender seem to agree that this means that humans must be the ones to survive; they are tied to their evolutionary mentality. They must choose to survive.

Yet the book does not seem to actually endorse that kind of morality, for it leads to an untold amount of suffering and indeed the destruction of an entire species of sentient beings. Not only that, but when Ender encounters more knowledge about the Buggers later, he mourns with the Buggers who lamented over the fact that the two species could not reconcile.

Just War and Genocide/Xenocide

The fact that the Buggers did not know what they were doing gives Ender’s Game a spectacularly unique way to look into the issue of “Just War.” The Buggers don’t have writing, they haven’t developed spoken language. Instead, they have a kind of “hive mind” which allows them to communicate instantly across space. The Queens control all the various workers, which are almost extensions of themselves. Because of this radically different culture, the Buggers did not even realize they were attempting to exterminate other sentient creatures until after the second war. After that, they did not attempt to mount another attack.

Was this lack of effort a realization that humans were sentient? Was it an offer of peace?

Card seems to write that it is, though he never makes it explicit in the book. Yet humans have been attacked and nearly destroyed twice by these aliens, so they mount a counter-offensive. Ultimately, this counter-offensive destroys the Buggers entirely. It is an act of genocide–in fact, it is xenocide, the destruction of an entire species.

However, Ender continues to think that what he is doing when he is commanding the International Fleet is just a game. They never inform him that he is commanding the real army. He ends up making a decision which destroys the Bugger homeworld, and with it, their entire civilization. It kills all the Buggers [except one, as we will see].

One is forced to grapple with the questions that this raises. The fact is that the Buggers attempted to exterminate humanity in order to populate Earth as another colony. But it is possible that they didn’t know what they were doing, and stopped once they seemingly realized humans were sentient. Conversely, humans didn’t know what the Buggers were doing in not attacking. For all the humans knew, the Buggers could have been preparing themselves to attack again with better weapons and even more superior numbers.

I think this book would be a great one for bringing up discussions of Just War, because it doesn’t portray it as a black-and-white issue. Is it possible for war to be just? The issues Card raises here will foster some great discussion of that very question.

Redemption

Yet the book does not end with the destruction of the buggers. Ender goes to colonize one of the planets, now devoid of intelligent life, which make perfect colony worlds for Earth’s overflowing population. The realization that he has destroyed an entire species haunts Ender, but he chooses to go to one of the colonies with his sister.

While he is the governor of this colony, he discovers that one Bugger has survived. A queen larva had been hidden by the Buggers in such a way that only Ender could find her. She shares the memories of the Buggers with him. Here we see one of the most poignant scenes in the book:

If only we could have talked to you, the hive queen said in Ender’s words. But since it could not be, we ask only this: that you remember us, not as enemies, but as tragic sisters, changed into a foul shape by fate or God or evolution. If we had kissed, it would have been the miracle to make us human in each other’s eyes. Instead, we killed each other. (322, cited below)

Ender publishes a work which reflects on the Buggers.It begins a new spiritual/religious movement, which has someone called a “Speaker for the Dead,”  who speaks the truth about people who died, no matter how painful it would be. The teachings of this faith are from Ender’s book, which reflects the need for harmony and  truth.

Ultimately, redemption is left open. Ender travels the stars in search of a place that the Buggers can be planted such that they live on. He seeks to undo the evil he caused. We are left with the last line of the book: “He looked for a long time” (324).

Other Themes

The concept of overpopulation is found throughout the book. People are limited to only two children. Ender, however, is a “third,” which means that the government had to explicitly let his family have another child. The complexities of this issue are only touched upon, but couuld help drive discussion in a small group or reflection for an individual.

Religion only makes a few passing mentions in the book. It is largely feared/suppressed in the book, though the “Speaker for the Dead” becomes a new religion or kind of spirituality. It is unclear of how this religion is specifically apart from any other religion, but it seems like it is because the teachings come from the “Speaker for the Dead” as a kind of religious text.

orsonandmeConclusion

Ender’s Game is a highly compelling tale of justice, war, and horror. The complexities of human nature are not often explored in such a straightforward way as is done in the novel. Is Ender a hero? Is he a savior? Or is he just a poor child thrust into increasingly intense situations? What is justice, is it possible to have a just war? These themes and more will come up in discussions of the book. It is a classic, and for good reason. I highly recommend the book, and I’ll be one of the first in line to see the movie. The book explores a number of extremely important themes, and it does so in such a way that leaves the answers open-ended. Readers are almost encouraged to think about the topics themselves and come up with reasonable answers. 

I can’t help but share the picture on the right of me (about 7-8 years ago) with Orson Scott Card. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.  I found Card to be a gracious, wonderful man who was perfectly willing to sit down with a fanboy teenager and discuss heady issues about philosophy, teaching children about moral issues, and science fiction.

Be sure to check out my look at the movie.

Source

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: Tor, 1991).

Links

Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber- I take a look at how science fiction has dealt with theological topics, with a particular focus on dialogue about religion.

Be sure to check out my other looks at popular books [scroll down on this link for a number of posts].

Also look into my reviews of several popular movies.

There is No Combat Without Movement- A very different look at Ender’s Game which explores the use of military tactics in the book.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Abortion, fundamentalists, physicalism, and evolution: Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and some contentious issues

I have already written on Sawyer’s Calculating God and how it presents–in great detail–the teleological argument. However, Sawyer’s scope in this masterwork of science fiction was not limited merely to a discussion of heady philosophical and scientific arguments for the existence of God. Instead, he touched on a whole spectrum of controversial issues, giving answers that were often embedded into the narrative itself, and always thought-provoking.

Fundamentalism, Religion, and Abortion

Sawyer lumps fundamentalism in with the discussions about abortion. Unfortunately, fundamentalism is portrayed in the worst possible light, not unlike in the work of Ben Bova. The religious fundamentalists here are extremists bent on destroying anything that counts as evidence against their worldview. As such, they are first introduced as blowing up an abortion clinic (86-87). Frequent readers of my site know that I write often from a pro-life perspective but also that I am very much opposed to violence in this opposition. Unfortunately, such principled opposition is not portrayed as an option in Sawyer’s work.

Interestingly the discussion of abortion in the book–intentionally or not–reveals some important details about the abortion debate. The alien, Hollus, notes the irony in being “pro-life” while also killing people who perform abortions. Yet in this discussion, Hollus reveals something of note:

Hollus looked at me [Tom Jericho, the main character] for the longest time. “These–what did you call them? Fundamentalist extremists? These fundamentalist extremists believe it is wrong to kill even an unborn child?”

“Yes” [Tom responded].

It may take a moment, but think about it: Sawyer expresses incredulity at this notion through the alien Hollus, yet in what may have been a Freudian slip, calls the unborn “children.” Yes, of course I’m opposed to killing an unborn child! In fact, this dialogue reveals exactly what is at stake in the abortion debate: if the unborn is not a human person, then who cares what you do with it? But if it is, then what relevant status difference is there between a child who is located inside the mother as opposed to outside the mother? Again, I’ve written more on this issue elsewhere, but it is important to note that even in expressing incredulity about this, there is a revealing phrase: child. It is an unborn child killed in abortion.

Disturbingly, the book touches on an issue very relevant to the personhood debate: children who are screened for disabilities. In one scene, Hollus is confronted by a child with Down’s Syndrome. He notes nonchalantly that a similar disease is almost always “screened for” in the wombs of the alien mothers (115-116). Unfortunately, this exact thing is happening right now. Unborn children who are shown as having Down’s Syndrome are being aborted inside their mothers at an alarming rate. I can’t help but see this as a modern eugenics movement: killing those we deem unworthy of life for a genetic reason. The logic that this entails is even more disturbing.

Of course the same fundamentalists who bombed the abortion clinic were also out to destroy any evidence for evolution. They sought to destroy a fossil exhibit which they saw as an affront to God. Thus, I can’t help but think that the way Sawyer presents fundamentalists is a bit disingenuous. Not all fundamentalists are incapable of reason and violent. Indeed, almost no fundamentalists are like this! Thankfully, there are positive examples of religious persons in Calculating God, including Tom’s wife.

In one poignant scene, Tom–who is dying from cancer–struggles with the fact that he has been confronted with evidence for the existence of a god. He considers famous atheists who purportedly went to death, all the while denying God’s existence to the end. Yet Tom himself gets down on his knees to pray. When he does so, though, he considers the words of someone from his past: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” He can’t help but react violently against this:

Such bull. Such unmitigated crap. I felt my stomach knotting. Cancer didn’t happen for any purpose. It tore people apart; if a god did create life, then he’s a shoddy workman, churning out flawed, self-destructing products. “God,” [he prayed] “I wish–I wish you had decided to do some things differently.” (230-231)

Interestingly, in the book, cancer turns out to actually have a purpose… in the sense of being a side-effect of something great: the ability to fuse genetic codes with other intelligently designed species. Here it seems Sawyer has employed a great deal of imaginative techno-babble to explore the notion of a physical god, but it also has hints of a greater good theodicy akin to that of Swinburne.

Physicalism

The discussion of physicalism in Sawyer’s work is very brief, but enlightening. There is a variety of substance dualism here in the sense of emergence. That is, in Sawyer’s fictional world, intelligence and “mind” emerges from matter once complexity reaches a certain threshold. This is similar to the theories of emergence theorists like William Hasker. I can’t help but find this a bit strange. The people who argue for this type of theory are frequently the same who are very hostile to the notion of anything beyond the physical realm, yet they argue that something aphysical can indeed “emerge” from matter itself. Surely this is a leap of the imagination! That matter has creative force simply because it can reach a certain level of complexity seems to me patently absurd.

Not only that, emergence suffers from a second major problem. Namely, if our “mind” is simply a product of complexity in matter, then our “intelligence” is entirely supervenient upon physical complexity. Indeed, our intelligence is a product of that complexity and therefore cannot operate independently of that matter. Therefore, it is hard to see any kind of properties that our minds would have that would be capable of maintaining free will or even rational thought on this theory. Indeed, I have trouble seeing how this theory would be any different from physicalistic monism.

Evolution

The simple notion of evolution is a given in the book. No, it is not friendly to any who are unwilling to accept the notion of “macroevolution,” as the term is used in relevant literature. All the intelligent beings depicted in the book had evolved from a (potentially distinct) distant ancestor.

Darwinian evolution is simply assumed as truth in Calculating God. Or is it? The deity presented in the book is not very conducive to undirected evolution via natural selection and chance. It is portrayed as hurling asteroids at the planets where life was developing in order to press a “reset” button on the creatures that were currently dominant there. It also shown that this deity prevented other catastrophes from happening on these planets, thus interfering with natural selection. Indeed, the evolution depicted here is eerily similar to intelligent design, wherein the process is guided by a deity with a specific aim.

Indeed, one could argue that the entire book is an argument for intelligent design, albeit divorced from much of the theological framework that many of that movement’s frameworks operate within. Yet I can’t help but find this part of Sawyer’s argument (if, indeed, the intention is to make the argument that theists have it all wrong) is completely off. After all, the “god” of Sawyer’s universe is imperfect and concrete in the sense of physically existing. But this works against his concept of deity as being capable of coordinating the events it brings about. Granted, he could perhaps continue to increase the power of this deity beyond what is clearly outlined in the book, but there are hints that the deity is capable of knowing what is happening on places where it is not present, that it is capable of knowing what will happen with certain directions for evolution, and what will happen at the end of the universe. These work against the notion of God as a kind of blundering physical entity that just happens to be supremely powerful. Indeed, the god of calculating God may not be as hostile to Christianity as it initially seems. It serves as a pointer towards the true God of spacetime.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason”

Check out my other post on this book: Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe- I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God (New York: Tor, 2000).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!

Fine Tuning

The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.

What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.

Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:

“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].

“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”

The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?

God Exists… but?

It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.

God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).

So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).

Now what?

Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?

Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.

So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.

Other Issues

I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy.  For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife).  I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.

Links

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe- I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Fitzpatrick’s War”- Religion, truth, and forgiveness in Theodore Judson’s epic steampunk tale

fw-judsonThe roar of our guns was more than my ears could hear. The slaughter in the two rivers was more than one man’s mind could absorb… A sort of madness over came us; we had an infinity of bullets and an infinity of Chinese before us. Every one of our men felt he was killing thousands… Death ran wild. How terrible it is, I thought, that the Yukons should be so good at this. (Judson, 319-320)

Fitzpatrick’s War is a phenomenal read. Theodore Judson takes elements of history, steampunk, and religion and mixes them together to make a compelling story that presses through the imagination the need to contemplate issues of ethics, religion, and warfare. I realize that many of my readers will not have read this book, so I have included an overview of the plot, from which I have edited a few major details for those who want to read the book afterwards. After that, we’ll look at many of the extremely interesting themes found throughout this masterpiece. There are, of course, SPOILERS in this look at the book, starting immediately with the overview.

Brief Overview of the Plot

Fitzpatrick’s War is written as an autobiographic tell-all from the perspective of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce. He is writing about Lord Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, a man who, like Alexander the Great, had conquered the world at a young age and also died young. Bruce was a close friend of Fitzpatrick (whom he calls Fitz) and so reveals a number of less-than-flattering aspects of his personality in his account of the life of the former ruler. It describes Fitzpatrick’s rise to power, his preparations for war during behind his father’s back, and his post-war rule.

Fitzpatrick is revealed as a man who lusted for power and ruled ruthlessly. He participated in assassinations, set up deaths, and mercilessly slaughtered his enemies. He used biological and chemical weapons and burned his enemies to the ground, all simply because of a desire to conquer the world. He had delusions of grandeur, envisioning himself as a kind of modern Alexander who would outdo the other man in every way.

The Timermen are another major player throughout the book. They are mysterious in their motivations and have supreme power over all space travel and most communications. Bruce reveals a number of unflattering details about these people as well.

The book has been edited by Doctor Professor Roland Modesty Van Buren, who is hostile to Bruce’s recounting of the events. Van Buren does not believe that Bruce is telling the truth about the great Fitzpatrick and believes he is instead attempting to make his own name live on through his lies.  Thus, the book is footnoted throughout with Van Buren’s corrections to Bruce’s “lies.”

Religion

Religion is pervasive throughout Judson’s work. The characters constantly quote from the Bible to justify their positions which frequently seem unbiblical and evil. Although the society at large seems to think highly of the Bible, the United Yukon Church itself seeks to take over all religion and has repressed other expressions of religion for quite some time.

Yet Bruce is fully aware of how the Christian faith is being abused throughout the work for evil ends. In one scene, he is speaking privately with Fitzpatrick, who asks Bruce whether God can love someone who will wreak such evil on the world. Specifically, he asks about King David in the Bible. Fitzpatrick wants to know whether he himself is like King David and why God would love someone who so frequently strayed from righteousness. Bruce realizes that it is here that he could have influenced Fitzpatrick to turn from the great evils he would perpetuate. Yet, coveting power, Bruce makes the decision he would regret for the rest of his life and backs Fitzpatrick’s notions of glory and God. He writes:

I would today give up my soul if I could go back to that moment and tell Fitz he could still turn back from his awful destiny. I grant that he had at this date already committed murder. It was equally true that he had not yet made his oceans of blood… The world could have still been saved from his wrath… (204)

Instead, Bruce caves into his own lust for power and desire to please Fitzpatrick. He tells Fitzpatrick:

God loves you… There are a few special men… who, like David, walk through History as Angels walk through thunderstorms. Those about them become wet with sin, while they remain untouched. They may seem to be bad men, these special ones. If we judge them by the standards we hold ordinary men to, they are the worst of men. Ordinary standards do not apply to them. They are doing God’s work here on earth, and as we do not know God’s motives or His ends we cannot judge His servants… You [Fitzpatrick] will be said to be God’s beloved. (204-205)

Bruce regrets this discussion with Fitzpatrick for the rest of his life and struggles with the notion that he can be redeemed.

Fitzpatrick himself seeks a kind of syncretism of all religions, but realizes that it will not ultimately work. He keeps his old tutor, Dr. Flag, around mostly to feel superior about himself. But he had initially attempted Dr. Flag’s project of making all faiths equally valid. One discussion in the book is particularly revealing. Dr. Flag is expounding upon the notion that all religions are essentially the same, but Marshal Jeremiah Truth Hood challenges him on this notion:

“Sir, am I to understand you believe all major religions profess the same core beliefs?” [Hood Asked]

“Yes…” [replied Flag]

“Then that would mean, let us say, that the Chinese and the Arabs share the same beliefs on marriage and family?” asked Hood… “Can we say,” asked Hood, “that Arabs and the Chinese value life to the same degree? Or is human life another secondary question?”

“I mean specific, general matters. You see, such as treating others well.” [Responded Flag]

“You say cultures are essentially the same,” continued Hood. “How would you explain, sir, the different Histories of North and South America? Both continents are inhabited by Christians. The majority in both continents are of European descent…” (364-366)

Hood’s point is well taken. The fact of the matter is that all religions are not the same and to say otherwise devalues the religious persons themselves. The way that Judson presents this dialogue allows for some real insight into the issue: how is it possible to say that, at their core, all cultures or religions are the same when they are so radically different?

Evil, Repentance, and forgiveness

There is great evil in the world, and Bruce’s world is no different. Much of the evil is caused by Fitzpatrick and the war which he created in his lust for power.

Ultimately, Fitzpatrick is reduced to a broken, suspicious man who becomes incapable of even doing the simplest tasks on his own. Marshal Hood is greatly distressed over his own incapacity to make amends for the evils he had done during the War. Hood is sitting with Fitzpatrick and several other Lords when they watch a video from an aerial shot of China and see the destruction their war had done to the country. The bodies  were strewn about and death was everywhere. Bruce, too, feels the need for repentance: “There were no words in my vocabulary I could utter that could justify this abomination, no act of contrition that could ever take away what I had done” (410). Hood himself begins quoting from the Bible, Joel chapter 1. He relates the evils they have done to the crimes that Joel cries out against. Later, Hood is found among the Chinese, trying to help them by growing food and feeding them. It was his way of making amends.

Bruce himself finds forgiveness only through his wife, who speaks with clarity on God’s will and his grace. It seems to me that this theme of forgiveness is grounded thoroughly in the Christian notion wherein people are to forgive each other. We act as God’s agents here on earth, and so we are called to repentance and forgiveness.

Charlotte

Bruce’s wife, Charlotte, is a paradigm example of a powerful, spiritual, loving woman. Van Buren, the hostile editor of the book, has several choice words to describe Charlotte, whom he believes is overstepping her bounds by attempting to be equal to Bruce. She often seems overbearing, but ultimately she strives to be equal to Bruce, and to temper the poor qualities of Bruce’s character. Charlotte is Roman Catholic, a religion which is violently oppressed in Yukon, until Fitzpatrick allows for religious freedom to endorse his own pluralism. Charlotte’s character is important throughout the work as one who provides the positive example of womanhood and the equality of men and women.

History and Doing History

History (always with a capital “H”) is an area of extreme interest in the world of Fitzpatrick’s War. Fitzpatrick himself continues to utter a recurring theme: History is written by the winners. Above, there was a discussion of King David. Fitzpatrick in that same conversation presses the notion that King David rewrote the history books in order to paint him in the most positive light. Later, in his own life, Fitzpatrick would do the same thing. He had the greatest poets and historians of his age come and write histories about him which were highly favorable in their portrayals of himself.

There is active repression of historical knowledge due to the fact that the culture at the time the book is set in believes that the “Electronic Age” (20th and 21st centuries) was a blight upon all History. During one scene, Bruce is being questioned about the Electronic Age and readers discover that only one history exists from that period. The reason is because “[A]ll other Histories of that era were perverted by the strange ideologies of the day…” (35).

As one who has studied historiography (and written on the method regarding Jesus), I can’t help but think of all the issues these discussions raise throughout the book. Interested readers should check out the post linked in the parentheses for one brief account of historiographic method.

Conclusion

I have read few books which have had such a great depth of knowledge about so many subjects as is demonstrated in Fitzpatrick’s War. The book is just phenomenal, and it touches upon so many areas of great importance for Christians and non-Christians alike. As with all great fiction, it does this without becoming overbearing, but instead focuses upon the story. Judson develops wonderful characters whom the reader can relate to, love, or loathe. He explores heady themes with wit and precision. I highly recommend this book to my readers.

Links

Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber- I explore two excellent science fiction books alongside each other to see how they speak to religious dialogue.

The Presumption of Pluralism: How religious pluralism devalues all religious persons- I discuss religious pluralism, a topic which is brought up throughout Fitzpatrick’s War and show how it fails.

Check out more of my looks at popular level books. (Just scroll down to see more!)

Hieropraxis is an excellent site which focuses upon a number of cultural issues and how they relate to Christianity. I really cannot recommend this site highly enough.

Empires and Mangers- Another phenomenal site which looks at many popular level works from a Christian perspective. The posts are consistently fantastic. I encourage you to follow this site closely.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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