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Science Fiction and the Bible

April 16, 2012

I was privileged to present a paper at the ORU conference on Science Fiction in the module entitled “Science Fiction and Theology.” I thought you might like to see it, so hopefully I am not wrong on that count. I’d appreciate some feedback as the terms and outline is still a bit rough… enjoy!

Perhaps nothing can capture the human imagination quite like a story. Throughout time, people have used narrative as a means of entertainment, but more importantly, also as a means of communicating truth about their experiences to their communities. As human history and culture have progressed, new and more complex forms of narrative have arisen. One of these genres is science fiction.

Science fiction stands apart from regular narrative in several ways. The first, and most important, is that it allows the author to bend the rules of reality in ways not normally afforded to storytellers. Not only can the author shape the plot and the characters, he or she can bend the entire environment at a whim, allowing for back story, allusion, or even allegory normally unavailable. Casting a story in deep space, for example, allows for different crises than a story set in rural Kansas would. As a result, the scope of enemies and conflict available to the writer expand. If the author wishes to speak about a prevailing problem in society, they might choose to re-craft society with that aspect featured prominently, such as Orwell’s commentary on government intrusion in his work 1984. Such societal commentary is allowed through clever manipulation of the environment of his characters, and enhanced through the plot and character development.

When science fiction began as a discrete genre, it is fair to say that the focus was not on character, plot, or message, but rather on producing works emphasizing fictional science. Isaac Asimov characterizes Jules Verne as one whose writings dominate this line of thinking. Verne’s works always include a detailed description of how the inventions and breakthroughs featured in his tales were plausible during the time period in which he was writing. There is an entire module at this conference devoted to the question of whether or not these types of explanations helps us produce hard science, and Verne was one of the first voices to say “yes.” He felt that a writer was being somehow disingenuous if he or she could not produce a verifiable way in which the science and discoveries of his time period could be extrapolated to the technology used in the story.

H.G. Wells takes a different viewpoint altogether in his writings. Far from explaining exactly how the science in his stories was plausible, Wells seeks to examine the results and consequences of the use of fantastic technology, pushing the genre more into the realm of fiction and less into the realm of hard science.[1] For example, The Time Machine doesn’t really give its readers a view into how the time machine itself was built. It more or less assumes that the time machine exists and constructs the narrative from there. The issues of societal stratification and others dealt with in the tome are brought to the surface by the fictional world that Wells created, but he didn’t necessarily need to show its plausibility with respect to the science of the time machine, he merely needed to do so with respect to society. This was somewhat of a departure from Jules Verne’s approach, but perhaps more narrative driven in that the links that he does retain with actual reality have more to do with the human condition than with human technology. Albeit a non-provable judgment, perhaps this commentary on the human condition is why Wells’ works have resonated unto modern times with their readers.

If Verne’s works can be classified as science-first, and Wells’ works classed as story-first,[2] then modern works could be classified along those same lines. It would be unfair to speak of these modern science fiction pieces as directly utilizing these philosophies, for there is no way to know that for sure. However, a quick overview of some contemporary science fiction will show that even today, authors and creators will either emphasize fictional science or emphasize the narrative that the science allows. Certainly, this is an aesthetic judgment and not an either-or classification. Perhaps it is better to think of science and narrative as two poles within the genre towards which a piece might gravitate.

Perhaps leaning towards the “science-first” pole is the serial Star Trek: The Next Generation. While its fans will no doubt correctly laud the famous characters and rich universe in which the plot plays out, there are some features of Star Trek that lead me to conclude that the fictional science plays a large role. Its nature as a television series provides viewers with a 45 minute experience, and, by and large, the show wraps up the conflict within that discrete time frame. Certainly, issues of character development and ongoing conflicts may persist, but the series seems incredibly engaged in mapping and exploring Gene Roddenberry’s fantastic fictional universe. Many episodes find the crew encountering an alien race which is never referenced again, or an unusual planet or stellar feature, and the show’s fans enjoy the detail in which these are discovered and catalogued.

Contrast that approach with the tack taken by Battlestar Galactica. Here I am referencing the 2004 Sy-Fy channel reboot of the older show, which was originally shown in 1978-79. Rather than taking the episodic approach of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or BSG, unfolded along a continuous timeline. It would have been difficult for a viewer to experience the series without first seeing the previous episodes; it can be compared to a 20 hour movie. The entire five-season series focused on one major conflict and unfolded the characters along one central plot strand. The fact that the show was set in a fictional universe set the stage for the types of conflict and dealt with some major themes about pessimism towards technology and the future of a humane society, but the fictional science is not ever discussed at length. It truly is a story-first science fiction series, and I think that has much to do with the amount of cross-over appeal that the show has garnered. People connected with the narrative of a small group of oppressed humans uniting in the face of incredible odds. The sci-fi setting could just as easily have been a prehistoric one, Columbian America backdrop, or Eastern European milieu; the story remained central. One cannot so easily say that about Star Trek, which is why I have classed it as leaning towards the science-first pole. There are clearly other works that could be classified and even much more to say about these particular examples that I have chosen, but time and space demands movement towards a conclusion. Perhaps even if you disagree with these examples, you can grant that science-first and story-first are two legitimate poles around which science fiction rotates.

I think that these poles are very similar to the poles around which hermeneutical approaches to the Biblical text also rotate. With any text (and I use text here loosely), including a science fiction book, science fiction television series, or Biblical book, the author intends to send a certain message. Coupled with that, the reader must decode the message, a process that naturally takes into account his or her own life experiences, biases, literary facility, and the like. This process is called literary criticism, or, when applied to Scripture, can fall under the category of hermeneutics.

Biblical interpreters disagree strongly about whether the Bible rotates around the science-first pole or the story-first pole. Of course, these definitions shift somewhat as the Bible is not a science-fiction book and in fact a book written with an undeniable religious purpose. The question is perhaps better worded as exploring how the Bible seeks to communicate that purpose.

Some interpreters see the Biblical text as written more like Jules Verne’s science-first approach. They see the Bible as containing discrete, propositional truths and that the major task of the interpreter is to glean and catalogue these truths so that they can later be systematized into something resembling coherent, logical theology. The process is not unlike an episodic television series such as I have described Star Trek: the continuing narrative of the Bible is often neglected and each portion treated separately. Some treat each book separately and the more zealous of these “science-first” interpreters will even seek to mine down to the verse level to find statements and facts.

Among the first to treat the Bible in this way was John Calvin, the famous Protestant reformer. His Institutes is a systematized, coherent theology based upon his reading of the Bible and his categorizing of the truths that he gleaned from different portions of the Bible. It seems reasonable to assume that Calvin would have granted that taking the whole nature of the Bible into account to create theology is an important process, but it is also likely that Calvin would have looked at the Scripture as a whole in order to access what modern inerrantists classify as its “self-correcting” nature. In other words, propositional facts from one portion of the Scripture can help to clarify and control those propositional facts from other portions.

This approach has lately been taken to an extreme with something called “text-centered hermeneutics” or “canonical criticism.” This view, championed by John Sailhamer and adapted from views offered by Brevard Childs, asserts that the Biblical text is the ONLY thing that matters in terms of Biblical interpretation. The human author is irrelevant. The historical situation of the audience does not matter. The only thing that matters is the text itself; the written words on the page. If the identity of the author matters, or if the history matters, the text will give the reader enough information to understand it. To me, this belief carries overtones of Verne’s insistence on plausible science—to them, the text itself forms a sort of “fictional history,” not in the sense of it being untrue, but rather in the sense that a true interpreter will see the text as the author intended it, as he created it, and without influences of history. Most Christian interpreters do see some degree of primacy inherent in the Biblical text, but text-centered hermeneutics removes all else to focus only on the text itself. Though admittedly an extreme minority position, this type of text-centered hermeneutics is gaining traction with conservative Christian scholars for its insistence on the primacy and authority of the Bible. Perhaps this group best represents the “text as science” portion of Biblical interpretation.

Dissatisfied with the limits that these “science first” approaches place on the text, and indeed even skeptical as to the ability of an interpreter to achieve the goals set by them, “story first” hermeneutics have made a resurgence. These interpreters do not see the Biblical text as mainly containing discrete, compact theological pithy statements but as an ongoing narrative, describing the relationship between God and his people. This school of interpretation is much more comfortable with ambiguity and perceived contradictions within the Scriptures, seeing instead the emotional impact and formative input that it has upon the reader as primary. For them, the text sets up a sort of story world within which the reader has full autonomy to dialogue with the text and even, for some, to impute meaning into it. Grant Osborne calls this process the “hermeneutical spiral.”

Taking these ideas a step further are Austin, Searle, and Vanhoozer. These writers discuss what they term “speech-act theory,” a way of looking at texts that gives the action of the reader an equal weight in terms of determining meaning as the speech of the author. In other words, the reader must complete the circle of meaning. Contrast this with the text-centered hermeneuts who find that the text alone is sufficient for meaning—speech-act theory highlights the role of the reader. As such, speech-act theory must also admit that a text has a wide variety of possible meanings, as it has an almost unlimited possibility of readership. Stanley Fish is among those who would even emphasize this aspect of text—the author has no idea what the text means even as it is written for the activity of the reader cannot be accounted for. The text merely gives an impetus, a stimulus, into the life of the reader and the reader completes the story by his or her own action. This is an example of an extreme “story-centered” hermeneutic.

What, then, is the proper approach to interpreting Biblical texts? Is the choice merely one of preference, as it is in science fiction? If one enjoys science first writing, then they can interact with those pieces, but does the Biblical text allow for such choosing? Does it demand of its readers to be understood in a certain way? I think that it does.

To me, both camps have certain failings. I am aware that this is a bit of a straw man as I have outlined the very edges of each pole of interpretation, but I still think that the examples are illustrative of the current in scholarship and even in modern Christian culture. The text-as-science interpreters have missed the original intent of the text by assuming it to be largely focused on systematic theology. However, if that was the intent of the text, why did the Bible include letters from one person to another, collections of poems, and historical passages? Why did it not simply read like a textbook? We do have extant examples of ancient religious documents that read much more like law—these are intended to be read with a “science first” approach, but I don’t think that the same can be said for the Biblical texts.

Similarly, extreme story-first approaches miss the universal nature of the Scriptures. If meaning is left up to the reader, then the Biblical text has no value or authority in the life of its readers. While some would concede this point, I disagree vehemently. The centrality of the Scriptures has been universally attested since their inception, and to throw that authority away and replace it with the autonomy of the reader would be to grossly misrepresent what the Christian community intends to do with the Bible—provide a central, unified, focused set of beliefs, practices, and textual experiences that all believes can share.

Therefore, I think it is important to plow a sort of middle way, respecting the authority that the Scripture has but conceding the differing impacts that it has upon believers. I think that we need to immerse ourselves in the “science” of the Scriptures where it invites us to but participate in the narrative of the Scriptures otherwise. In doing so, we will build the Scriptures more and more centrally into our own narratives, but not wantonly or casually. We should cautiously build in our responses the ones intended by the Bible, and in that we will have interpreted well. Interpreters can use didactic and theological passages when they are clearly intended as such. Exodus 34 contains one such revelation. In this passage, the Lord reveals his character to Moses and this revelation is repeated throughout the Old Testament as evidence of the Lord’s nature. As such, interpreters are safe to take a “science-first” approach with this text. However, if the interpreter takes the facts given in Exodus and utilize them as nothing further than a brick in the wall of their systematic theology, they will have missed the point of the passage. The reader MUST see how these facts had an impact upon the story of Moses and the greater story of the Old Testament, which is nearer to the story-centered approach. Further, the interpreter must utilize these insights in his or her own narrative and act in accordance with the teaching of the text—not overpowering it, but walking underneath it as a student of its truth. This coupling of science-first and story-first interpretation is difficult, requiring patience, humility, and experience, but I believe it to be the best way to understand the Bible. One cannot choose either pole; we must orbit around both to be truly ones who understand the message of the Scripture.

[1]Much of this information is inspired and adapted from Isaac Asimov’s introduction to the 1968 Del Rey Edition of H.G. Wells The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. (Wells, H.G. The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. New York: Del Rey Books, 1968. Pages 1-11)

[2]Stanley Galloway has presented a paper entitled “A Synthesis of Wells and Burroughs in Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters” and chooses Wells as a progenitor of Heinlein’s science emphasis. Certainly Wells did include science, just not to the extent that Wells did.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kyle G. H. permalink
    April 16, 2012 9:34 pm

    Your presentation was great, professor Hannon… The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools.

  2. Darby permalink
    April 17, 2012 2:59 am

    Would those who believe the Bible to be inerrant always be considered proponents of the “science-first” approach? I can see how a desire for literal interpretation and historical accuracy would cause readers to pay attention to certain aspects of the text, while disregarding the text as a whole. It seems that those readers who prefer to view the Bible as being infallible rather than inerrant would be more inclined to approach the text with the “story-first” perspective, as they likely believe that God has used Scripture as a whole to communicate his nature and the necessity of obedience to him through history. The “science-first” approach reminds me of (what little I know of) modernism–its strength is in the assumption of the authority of Scripture, but its weakness is in its refusal to accept gray areas in interpretation. The “story-first” approach reminds me of (again, what little I know of) postmodernism–its strength is in its ability to give credence to multiple perspectives, but its weakness is in its refusal to accept that anyone or anything (Scripture), should have ultimate authority in Christians’ lives. Anyway, it’s 3 am and I wrote this on my phone, so I can’t say for certain what I’m talking about at this point. Nice post.

    • May 3, 2012 2:16 pm

      Terms like inerrant and infallible are, to me, notoriously fuzzy, but I think you’re on the right track there. A compelling need to systematize facts characterizes both inerrantist and what I’m calling science-first positions. Most “infalliblists” would see more value in conversation with the text and not get so stuck on numbers, figures, science, etc.

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