How many sci-fi writers can dance on the head of a pin?

James Herrick's "Scientific Mythologies'

3 minute read
Luke Skywalker: The new Jesus?
Luke Skywalker: The new Jesus?
While rummaging through a local bookstore, I came across an illustration of a flying saucer on the cover of Christianity Today (February 2009), along with the tagline: "Science fiction mythmakers' road to redemption." That was my introduction to James A. Herrick and his fascinating if tendentious work, Scientific Mythologies.

Herrick, a professor of communications at the fundamentalist Hope College in Michigan, is a Christian apologist who has seen the dark side of the Force. Herrick is clearly troubled by what he sees as the eroding boundaries between science, science fiction and New Age spirituality— a new trinity that, to him, represents a challenge to the very future of the Christian myth.

Herrick shakes you up right from the beginning. In a question on the 2000 British census, he reports, 390,000 respondents indicated their religion as "Jedi" (from the Star Wars saga). To put this factoid in perspective, Herrick notes that "only 270,000 adherents in Britain listed their faith as Judaism."

This author has certainly done his homework. (He's amassed 625 footnotes in just ten chapters.) In Scientific Mythologies Herrick gives us one heck of a ride through the literature of science fiction, from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne through Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. He notes the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon's contention that a technological age requires a new mythology, and he mentions the speculations of writers like Erich von Daniken (who imagined ancient astronauts) and Ray Kurzweil and Lee Silver, who see humans becoming godlike as technology frees us from our biological limitations.

Looking for heaven in all the wrong places

"The culture-shaping force of science fiction storytellers may be more significant and more widespread than we imagine," Herrick declares. "Pop-culture fiction," he adds elsewhere, "not academic nonfiction, is now the cutting edge of public discourse on spirituality."

Herrick sees us looking for heaven in all the wrong places. "Salvation is to be found in God and not in space," he insists. Herrick seems to dismiss a major implication of the watershed of material he has compiled: that humanity's conquest of space— in unifying the globe through telecommunications, photo images and international exploration— might provide a pathway toward peace on earth and goodwill to all.

A brighter approach

For all his research, Herrick seems unaware that his is not the first work to examine the religious implications of science fiction. Robert Short's brief but intriguing 1983 work, The Gospel From Outer Space, showed the similarities between the Christ story and Superman and Spielberg's E.T. In Star Wars, Short observed, "Many of the teachings Ben Kenobi and Yoda give to Luke about the Force sound as if they could have been taken directly from the teachings of Jesus." Short also discussed the spirituality behind such movies as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. But whereas Short's approach was lighthearted, Herrick is troubled.

"Human spiritual well-being, and thus the humaneness of civilization, depends in large measure on which narratives hold sway in our souls," Herrick declared in Christianity Today. Maybe so, but science fiction has always tried to sound a note of warning to society (think of Huxley's Brave New World). And such works may be necessary in the fast-paced future that our children will inherit. Science fiction also provides lessons that are in a sense Biblical, such as Star Trek's quest for universal fellowship, and the concept of sacrifice for the sake of justice.

Such important lessons may not come from scrolls or prophets, but they need not replace the Word of God— only retell it in a new vessel, for a new age.

What, When, Where

Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs. By James A Herrick. InterVarsity Press. 288 pages; $23.

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