Since this will be the last new blog post before the fact I wanted to remind everyone that the annual AML Conference is this Saturday, February 27 in the library at Utah Valley University. It’s a great opportunity to meet people, hear fascinating presentations, and share interesting conversation. If you can make it, I highly recommend the event. Registration starts at 8:00, so get there early.
On to the post proper.
Despite its reputation for hostility toward organized religion, science fiction has a storied history of directly addressing issues of ethics, philosophy, spirituality, and transcendent experience. As often as not the harsh treatment of institutions of religion is designed to point out that meaningful experience comes from the inside out, not by being pushed down from a homogenized organization. We discover who we are and what we believe (or at least who we want to be and what we hope is true) by personal exploration, not prepackaged dogmas.
Sf is just as hard on corporations and government institutions—and for largely similar reasons.
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about science fiction’s attempt to debunk religion is how close so many of its writers come to describing things that I consider gospel truth. In the very act of describing how religion gets it wrong, they end up offering some compelling dramatizations of very Mormon doctrines.
Arthur C. Clark was probably the most generally recognized with 2001 A Space Odyssey wherein he describes God as nothing more than a super-evolved man—a startlingly Mormon claim. Of course we differ radically in the details. God is more than just a biologically or technologically advanced man; he is more importantly, a morally advanced man. Simple evolution or Humanism are shallow reflections of eternal progression in much the same way that communism is a hollow fake of communitarian united orders.
Which is why it’s a shame that Mormon authors cede so much of the direct interrogation of the core questions of religion to writers who don’t really understand what the real thing looks like from the inside, and in the process let them define the terms and concepts—most often, shallowly. We allow relatively simplistic and self-congratulatory deconstructions of institutional religion with nary a counter argument about the very powerful and intimate experiences of real personal faith.
I believe we have a responsibility to directly address issues of personal faith and spirituality in our art. If we have truly experienced plain and precious things we ought to be more active in sharing them. Not pearls before swine, but comforting those in need of comfort; not standing atop our Rameumptoms and pointing mocking fingers, but meeting people on their own terms and using accessible metaphors.
I understand the injunction against propaganda, but that’s not what I’m advocating. I think Mormons shy away far too much from direct engagement with issues of personal spirituality and what that means for us as we deal with the struggles of daily life. I’m talking about intimate understanding, not institutional attacks or defenses. I happen to like science fiction because it allows the kind of cognitive distance that facilitates direct engagement with the core questions precisely by dint of separation in time, space, or culture from the here and now. Sf readers not only tolerate the strange, they actively seek the exotic and unusual precisely in order to expand their own range of view.
As Dr. Michael Collings (or perhaps it was our own Lee Allred speaking of Dr. Collings) suggested at the recent symposium on science fiction and fantasy at BYU, the fantastic genres are collectively a literature of hope—fantasy shows us that the transcendent is possible, science fiction offers practical methods for making hope real, and horror shows us what happens when hope fails.
While sf can make such exploration easier, the fact is that every genre seeks to explore the exotic as a means of understanding the mundane. Historicals abstract us in time and place (and often culture). Mystery takes us places we can’t go and puts us in company of people most of us can’t know, then asks us to discovery fact (if not truth) by direct mental investigation.
Thoughts on a couple of sf novels that garnered wide praise and acceptance in the mid-1990s—
: For me one of the most engaging presentations of tantalizingly close-but-no-cigar criticism of institutional behavior comes from James Morrow’s wonderfully absurd novel Towing Jehovah. God has died and his two mile long corpse has fallen into the North Atlantic. The Catholics are scandalized because 1) god is dead, 2) he has a body, and 3) he is most decidedly male. On the other end of the spectrum the atheists are scandalized because it turns out there was a god after all and the proof is floating in the ocean for all to see. Both sides have the same goal—hide (or destroy) the evidence before anyone notices so they can protect their social, political, and economic empires from the deeply inconvenient truth of the reality of god. Between those extremes are many others with varying degrees of horror, mania, and pragmatic opportunism looking to interfere with the Vatican’s efforts to use an oil tanker to tow the body to an Arctic ice cave out of sight and mind of the public.
On the one hand I have to giggle—a corporeal and distinctly male god causes me no heartburn (though a dead one is a bit of a problem), and I love seeing ministers of corrupt philosophies scrambling to protect their disproven assumptions despite the undeniable evidence. On the other hand, the criticisms are a tad too glib and the caricatures a bit too smug for comfort. He gets so much right—but for entirely wrong reasons. Unfortunately, the sequels to Towing Jehovah turn this fun, initial frolic at everyone’s expense into a more pedestrian (though exceptionally clever and pithy) anti-religious rant by an atheist for other atheists that boils down to “I don’t believe in god, and besides it’s all his fault.”
A Mormon couldn’t have written (or at least published) that particular book, but it is a shame that one of the more entertaining deconstructions of popular notions of deity came from the pen of a proud atheist. Do we steer clear of it out of a sense of propriety? Are we afraid to engage the question in public? Don’t we have something good to add to that conversation?
: A more difficult novel for me was Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. It’s a well written and extremely well-told science fiction novel set fifty years in the future where a team of eight Jesuits mount an expedition to a distant inhabited planet when the governments of Earth don’t have the political will to do it through traditional channels. The story is told from the point of view of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who is deeply committed to both his religion and his god, and who sees the opportunity to be the first to visit another inhabited planet as evidence of both god’s works and his glory.
The plot revolves around the disastrous aftermath of the failed expedition. When government representatives of Earth finally arrive on the planet Rahkat several years later, they find Sandoz in a brothel and witness his violent murder of a local child she opens the door to his room. He is both physically and emotionally damaged and offers no explanations for his circumstances or actions. The story is told as interweaving threads as his Jesuit order tries to get him to explain his ordeal alternating with flashbacks that provide the detailed back story. The threads come together when we see what actually happened as Sandoz faces a Vatican inquest—essentially an ecclesiastical trial where he must explain and justify the reports offered by the authorities.
The Sparrow is essentially a story of Emilio Sandoz’s trial of faith and his attempt to find a context for understanding and accepting the atrocities he sees and experiences on Rahkat—trials that end with his serial rape by beast aliens who then immortalize their experience in extraordinarily beautiful songs broadcast to the public. Though he had an intellectual understanding of the tortures and depravities his forbears in the order experienced in the name of pursing the greater glory of god, that knowledge proves insufficient when the experience becomes personal. He feels abandoned by his friends, his order, and his god.
This novel broke my heart because it came so very close to a deeply powerful reconciliation of ugly events with the idea of a loving god. In fact, though Emilio struggles to find any kind of peace or acceptance that God would allow these things to happen to him, he actually does find at least a moment of separation and retains his desire for hope even when he can’t find evidence of its reality. That hope is reflected as a quieting of his rage and a calmness toward his accusers, and the novel ends with his feelings left ambiguous.
Unfortunately, the only ideas given actual voice by the characters over the last thirty pages are the hopeless ones. On finally describing the facts of his rape, one of his accusers whispers “My God,” and Emilio replies:
“Do you think so, John? Was it your God? You see, that is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself…The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
This basic refrain repeats several more times with the culmination that the only answer is that God “…observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.” The image that the sparrow still falls even if God does note it ends the scene.
The fundamental choices offered are either that he is absent, vicious, or disinterested. The best the novel can manage is that God exists, but is so self-absorbed that he can’t be bothered to intervene. At first I was angry at Russell because she didn’t seem to understand the mind of faith. I felt cheated and betrayed that she found no hope in God.
As I’ve thought about it a little more, I think it’s more likely that she offered the most compassionate answer she could based on the cosmology she understood. As a Mormon, I believe that Man exists not solely to sing praises to God but to become his heirs—a learning process that requires a trial that we must face alone in order to decide for ourselves who we want to become.
So while the effect is the same—that God rarely rescues us from ugly experience—the difference is context. At the moment of crisis there may be little comfort in the idea that I signed up for this test, but that fact at least offers a thread of hope that this, too, will be for my good. A Mormon could have brought that context to the last thirty pages of The Sparrow and saved it from the essentially hopeless conclusions it drew.
Literature can tolerate direct engagements with questions of religion and individual response to the trials of human existence. As Mormons we have something plain, precious, and powerful to add to that discussion—not as ministers of the institution, but as fellow travelers sharing personal understanding with those who seek. We should not be afraid to engage the questions and offer insights that only we can bring.