THE BIBLE AS SCIENCE FICTION
(DELIVERED AT ‘BETWEEN THE LINES’ at 12NOON on MONDAY 30 AUGUST 2004)
NB: The minidisk recording of this talk was complete, more or less. As before, I’ve omitted the preamble where I reintroduced myself, told a humorous story about the writing of the talks, and plugged the novel again.
THE MISSING LINKS
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
The Romantic Poets
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
READING THE BIBLE AS SCIENCE FICTION
Encounters with the Alien
The Ends of the World
Best and Worst Worlds
APPROACHING JOB AS SCIENCE FICTION
CONCLUSION AND CODA
THE BIBLE AS SCIENCE FICTION
The definition of science fiction is a notoriously awkward area. Definitions tend not to cover everything, or to cover things you don’t actually want them to, and it all becomes very awkward. But one I rather like is the definition given by Brian Aldiss in his critical history of science fiction called Billion Year Spree (which was updated as Trillion Year Spree, and there are persistent rumours that he’s going to do a new version called Zillion Year Spree, which he denies).
He defines science fiction in the following terms. He says:
Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode.1
Now, if I can ‘unpack that’ a bit, as we Greenbelt speakers say, you’ll notice – well, for a start you’ll probably notice the exclusive language: ‘mankind and his status in the universe’. And you can probably ignore the bit about ‘cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode,’ because, while that is true of some science fiction, it seems to me largely a historical accident of the way science fiction started.
But I want to focus in on the ‘definition of mankind and his status in the universe’, which is about humanity and the rôle humanity takes in God’s creation, because it does seem to me that that is an intrinsic and vital element of most science fiction, and certainly of the best science fiction. And it seems to me that those two poles of the definition, of the universe and of humanity, foreground the ‘science’ and the ‘fiction’ aspects of science fiction respectively. Science is all about finding out about the universe, finding out the reasons for it, finding out the way things work within it; whereas fiction is all about human beings, and the way they interact, and their relationships. So you have the universe and humanity, science and fiction, and I rather like the way that brings out that contrast.
The research which I talked about, about religious themes in science fiction, was actually titled The Relationship between Creator and Creature in Science Fiction, talking about God and God’s relationship with humanity, and it seems to me that that also relates to this universe-and-humanity dichotomy; that our status in the universe is precisely about our status in God’s creation – our status in God’s eyes, to an extent. And therefore it seems to me that this is a concern that science fiction shares with the Bible. The Bible is all about what human beings are doing here, what God wants human beings to be doing, and the way we interact with God, and fall short of God’s expectations and so on
And this is a concern particularly of what I have, in a rather woolly and liberal way, called ‘the more mythic books’ of the Bible. I’m thinking particularly of Genesis, which is a creation myth, and it shares a lot of elements with other creation myths from the Middle East at the time – the Babylonian and Egyptian myths, and to an extent the Greek myth of Prometheus the Titan and his creation of humanity. All of these myths, including Genesis, exist to explain the universe and to explain human existence within the universe.
I talked a bit yesterday about ‘Science Fiction Myths’ – the way that, in science fiction, certain stories, certain images and motifs, are retold from generation to generation of authors, changing and developing; and that it seemed to me this process was analogous to the oral tradition which gives rise to myths. But I think science fiction is parallel to myth not only in that way: I think it actually occupies in some respects the same status in modern culture, the same cultural niche if you like, as these creation myths and other myths occupied in the ancient cultures. It’s clearly evolved to adapt to the conditions of modern culture: it’s made itself plausible – superficially, at least – to our Western scientific expectations, but a lot of its essential concerns are identical.
I want to establish the fact (the idea, at least) that there’s a continuity of genre and a tradition, which runs directly from these ancient creation myths up to modern science fiction. So I’ll be talking today about the ‘Missing Links’ between the Bible and science fiction: those missing links as I identify them are Paradise Lost by John Milton, the work of the Romantic poets, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I’ll be talking about ‘Reading the Bible as Science Fiction’, and some of the shared concerns and themes which I find in science fiction and in the Bible. And I’ll finally be talking about ‘Approaching the Book of Job as a Science Fiction Reader’, and I will be doing that rather nervously.
I should state right up front that I am not in any sense a Bible scholar. I am a literary critic, and I’m approaching all of these texts, both science fiction and biblical, as a literary critic. I’m sure there are people here who are much more genned up on the Bible than I am, and if what I say is in some manner complete rubbish, and someone here knows it, I’d be grateful if you could call it to people’s attention at the end, because I don’t want to give people a completely erroneous impression.
So, looking at these missing links between myth, especially these ancient creation myths, and science fiction. As I’ve said, I think the chain of influence runs as follows: Genesis is rewritten in Miltonís Paradise Lost; the Romantic poets rewrite Paradise Lost in their own epic poems of creation; Mary Shelley takes this on board and writes something very similar as a novel in Frankenstein; and Frankenstein is influential on the whole of science fiction as it follows it. But throughout this, the concern with issues of creation, with the issues that these ancient creation myths bring up, carries on.
So, I’d like to talk briefly about Paradise Lost to start off with. Paradise Lost was published in 1667 but written during the decades preceding this. Itís by John Milton, who was a poet. Obviously. Itís the ancient story of the creation of humanity; the Garden of Eden and the fall of humanity; and also peripherally of the war in Heaven and the fall of Satan. It tries to encapsulate pretty much everything thatís in the Old Testament, and is more or less successful in doing this.
Itís in the form of a narrative poem, and itís certainly the greatest English epic poem – thereís no other serious contender for that title. Itís also in the classical sense a tragedy, with Satan as its tragic hero. Satan is brought down by his arrogance and pride, which is his tragic flaw. Itís also occasionally touted as a candidate for the first work of science fiction. There are accounts of the angels flying through space, through the Solar System, past the other spheres of the Solar System, and thereís even speculation about life on the Moon and on the other planets2.
But at the point when Paradise Lost was written, there wasnít a clear distinction made between science on the one hand, and magic and theology and various supernatural (and indeed just ‘humanities’) disciplines on the other. They were intertwined: all these areas of knowledge were considered aspects of finding out about God and about the universe. There was no real sense that they were separate things.
Other examples – not from the same period, but from slightly earlier – would include Christopher Marloweís Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge; and when it comes, this knowledge is both practical magic and knowledge of astronomy. And thereís no clear sense that these are different disciplines that he wants to know about because heís separately curious about them: theyíre all part of his becoming a sorcerer.
And in Danteís Divine Comedy – which is rather further back, itís fourteenth-century – Dante writes about his descent into Hell and ascent to Heaven in a mystic vision. And there are frequent digressions about the centre of gravity of the earth when he descends into Hell (because he locates Hell literally in the centre of the Earth); and the plane of the ecliptic and other astronomical phenomena as heís ascending through the spheres of the Heavens. But these digressions about physics are mixed up with digressions about mythology and biblical typology and moral theology; and thereís again no real sense that these are different things. Theyíre just all ways of knowing about Godís creation.
And so, in Paradise Lost, when we look at these passages which could be identified as science fiction, we find that the inhabitants of the other spheres of the Solar System are said to be possibly the ghosts of saints whoíve ascended to the Heavens, or Ďmiddle spiritsí, creations of God who exist between humankind and the angels. And in Book VIII of Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael specifically warns Adam off acquiring unnecessary knowledge which isnít relevant to him. If I can just read you that brief passage:
heavín is for thee too high
To know what passes there; be lowly wise:
Think only what concerns thee and thy being;
Dream not of other worlds, what creatures there
Live, in what state, condition, or degree [...]3
Heís saying, ‘This doesnít concern you: you just need to be aware of whatís necessary for your life’. And itís notable in Paradise Lost, of course, that when the Fall comes, it lies in acquiring knowledge of Good and Evil, knowledge which Adam and Eve, as created by God, are thought not to require.
It was only rather later, with the cultural movement known as the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that the idea of science as a separate discipline from religion, that might in some ways be opposed to religion, started to become at all a concept that was recognised. And it was only later on that it would have filtered down into popular culture. Prior to that, there was this medieval idea that, if you wanted to find out about natural philosophy, about the natural world, you had to turn to old books, to ancient authors whoíd written on the subject: the idea of ‘authority’, literally of looking to authors for truth.
And it was only with the Enlightenment that this idea of progressive knowledge, of knowledge increasing with time rather than decreasing, became apparent, and that knowledge came to seem A Good Thing. So this made Paradise Lost seem problematic to authors at the time, because the acquisition of knowledge that happens with Adam and Eve becomes something which they would admire. So to the major Romantic poets who were Mary Shelley’s contemporaries – by whom I mean her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and slightly earlier than them another poet who’s often lumped in with the Romantics, who was a visionary working largely on his own, William Blake – to these Romantic poets, Paradise Lost was a deeply ambivalent text.
On the one hand they held Milton in awe for his poetic mastery (I should say that this was about a century and a quarter later, so by this time Milton was recognised as a great author of the past). So they respected him for his poetic ability, but as products of the Enlightenment they were natural rebels. They were suspicious of authority, and Milton’s authoritarian theology was anathema to them.
And since this era, there’s been a perennial controversy about reading Paradise Lost. On the one hand, the poem itself makes claims of orthodoxy. The culmination of its opening passage is extremely famous, but I will just read to you the last three lines of its initial mission statement. It says:
That to the highth of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
and justify the ways of God to men.4
Which is a pretty grandiose claim for a poet to be making, and there is suspicion that Milton intended it ironically. And accordingly the poet has been read subversively by some authors, by some critics. It’s notable that Milton was on the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War. He was opposed to his monarch, who by some of the philosophies of the time was divinely appointed, and therefore there’s a strong suspicion that Satan, who rebels against his divine monarch, is someone with whom Milton would actually have sympathised as a character in his poem.
And certainly Satan is the central character of the poem, and is often seen as more charismatic than the angels or Milton’s God, who is rather passive in the way he’s presented. Blake famously wrote of Milton that
He was a true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it.5
He thought Milton was writing sympathetically about Satan but wasn’t aware of the fact.
On the other hand, the more orthodox Christian reading of Paradise Lost is set out by C.S. Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost, who says:
All Milton’s hatred of tyranny is expressed in the poem, but the tyrant held up to our execrations is not God. It is Satan.6.
But the Romantic poets, the ones who were slightly later than Blake, agreed with Blake: they saw Milton’s Satan as a heroic rebel against a God who is tyrannical. And they wrote their own creation myths. They usually didn’t write them within the Judaeo-Christian framework that Paradise Lost itself uses – although Lord Byron typically went for the jugular and did: he wrote about Cain and Lucifer and God. But the other Romantic poets, slightly more cautiously, used classical myth as their framework, or made up their own mythologies.
[The heavens opened at this point, and there was a pause as people moved in out of the rain and the tent flaps were closed.]
As I was saying, the Romantic poets wrote their own creation myths, their own epic poems, and didn’t achieve the greatness of Paradise Lost, but tried to call into question the ethics of Paradise Lost. They wrote about characters who were rebels against gods who were either obviously tyrannical, or who had usurped the place of the rightful God. This was particularly easy to do in classical myth, where the Olympian Gods are the children of the Titans who have overthrown them.
And Percy Shelley’s approach to this was to recast Satan in his poem Prometheus Unbound as Prometheus, the central character in the Greek creation myth. Prometheus is the creator of humanity in the Greek myths: he creates them from clay, and later when they’re huddled around on the Earth in the cold, he steals fire from the gods, who are the only beings in the universe who have fire, so that humanity can keep themselves warm. And for this he’s punished by the gods as a rebel: he’s chained to a rock and they send a vulture to eat his liver out, which grows back overnight and they send the vulture the next day, and it’s all very unpleasant.
But in some variants of the myth, he doesn’t steal fire from the gods to keep humanity warm; it’s the fire of the gods which actually animates humanity. It causes these inanimate statues that Prometheus has built to become living. The fire is precisely the life that he instils in them. And Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled the Modern Prometheus, which makes it fairly clear that she’s deliberately continuing this tradition, as her contemporaries and specifically her husband had been carrying it out, of radically questioning Paradise Lost.
I talked a little yesterday about how Frankenstein actually uses Paradise Lost as a text within the book: Frankenstein’s Creature reads Paradise Lost, and considers that he could have been an unfallen creature like Adam if his creator Frankenstein had treated him well, but in the end he comes to identify with Satan because he was abandoned by his creator. So Frankenstein, I think, takes these creation myths, both the Prometheus myth and the Paradise Lost myth, as combined by Percy and by the other Romantics.
But it also combines them with two other elements – the Gothic novel and contemporary science. I’m not going to talk much about the Gothic novel, despite the fact that as I said Brian Aldiss makes it one of the elements of his definition of science fiction. I am going to talk a little about Frankenstein’s use of science.
Frankenstein is the first work of fiction to employ current science with a strong sense that it’s separate from and replaces the superstition of the past. This is why it’s considered the first science fiction text by many critics – not universally: a lot of critics disagree, and other candidates which are mentioned include Gulliver’s Travels and various satirical voyages to other planets which were being written, if you trace them back, as far back as the second century and possibly further. Alternatively, some critics say that science fiction didn’t exist till H.G. Wells, or even till the ’20s and ’30s pulp magazines in the United States.
But my feeling is certainly the Frankenstein is the first work of science fiction, and Brian Aldiss agrees with me. A lot of critics do disagree, but even though Brian Aldiss is about seventy he’s pretty spry, and I reckon he and me could have them in a fight.
The form of Frankenstein is that of the Gothic novel. You may not be terribly familiar with the Gothic novel: it’s not a genre, in its original form, which is read much these days. Famous examples include The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho. I think probably you’re most likely to be familiar with it through Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of Gothic novels.
The Gothic is very strong on evoking the supernatural, and this not only appears in the form of ‘mundane’ supernatural stuff like ghosts and telepathic contact and things, but also in divine forms. There are religious visions, there’s intervention by divine providence and there’s often the idea of divine judgement after the villain or the heroine die, and go to their reward or punishment.
Frankenstein has none of these. It may be written in the mode of the Gothic, as all of this suggests, but it doesn’t have the substance of the Gothic. It uses a lot of Gothic language to refer to Frankenstein’s Creature: there are at different times references to him as a ‘doppelganger’, as a ‘ghost’, a ‘daemon’ or a ‘vampire’. But he isn’t any of these things: he’s a human being. He’s a human being who’s been made by unnatural means, but he is human, his reactions to things are human.
There is an explicit rejection, and an overturn of the medieval paradigm of authority in Frankenstein. It’s very much emphasised that Frankenstein is not using magic to create his monster, he’s using science as it’s understood at the time. Before he goes to university, Victor Frankenstein is a great admirer of the medieval alchemists, Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, but he grows out of this at university – his tutors kind of shake him out of it. And if I can just read to you what Frankenstein’s tutor says to him... he says:
The ancient teachers of this science [...] promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem made only to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.7
And the stuff about ascending into the heavens and about commanding the thunder is quite relevant for the rest of the novel.
Frankenstein’s text involves cutting-edge technology of the time: quite literally cutting-edge, because Frankenstein is among other things an anatomist. He spends a lot of his time in charnel-houses with dead bodies, carving them up to see what they’re like inside. And because this is, in form, a Gothic novel, the corruption and decay he encounters there is described in loving detail. But it’s very significant that Victor is unsuperstitious about this. He isn’t frightened by the dead bodies: he just sees them as frames which have been vacated by human souls. He has a completely rationalist attitude to them.
The other cutting-edge technology in Frankenstein is electricity. At the time the first edition of Frankenstein was published, there was a big buzz going on about Galvani’s experiments with electricity. He used the limbs of dead frogs and passed current through them, and caused them to twitch, because of course the current activated the nerves which activated the muscles. And at the time this was considered very shocking. It was being theorised that electricity was the fluid of life, that it was precisely the presence of electricity which made the difference between dead flesh and living flesh: that electricity was in some sense spirit, or life. And it was also known that electricity was the same thing as lightning.
And this makes the idea of Victor Frankenstein as Prometheus very interesting, because Prometheus stole fire from the heavens, in some versions of the myth, to animate humanity. And what Victor does is take lightning, take electricity from the skies, to animate his creature. It’s not very explicit in the novel that that’s what he’s doing, but I think if you read with an openness to understanding what’s going on it’s quite strongly implicit there that that’s what’s going on – the spark of life that Victor refers to is a literal spark, it’s electricity.
So Frankenstein turns its back on the medieval ideas that you need magic, that you need the supernatural to create life, and it embraces science. However, it remains a creation myth, and it remains influenced by the Romantics, and by Paradise Lost, and by the Bible.
So I think there is this unbroken tradition (or at least unbroken since the seventeenth century and the writing of Paradise Lost), which runs from Genesis and its contemporary milieu of creation myths, right through to all modern science fiction which was spawned by Frankenstein. It seems to me that science fiction and the Bible, particularly the more imaginative, the less historical or analytical books of the Bible, are cultural equivalents, that they fulfil similar cultural functions.
Obviously that doesn’t mean that the Bible is science fiction, because that would be silly. But there are certain concerns and methods which the two have in common. As I’ve said, the Bible mostly fits Brian Aldiss’ definition – I mean, I say ‘mostly’, it doesn’t fit the bit about science, it doesn’t fit the bit about the Gothic, but it fits what I consider the important bit, which is the bit about humanity and its status in the universe.
Many definitions of science fiction do relate specifically to modern science, and that obviously can’t be applicable to the Bible. But the Bible has a lot of the contemporary equivalent of some of our modern sciences: there’s a lot of cosmology, and a lot of meteorology and zoology in the Bible. And there’s certainly a great deal of exploration of the origins and nature of humanity and the origins and nature of the universe, which Aldiss finds to be central in science fiction.
So I want to look at some of the specific characteristics of science fiction, and how those characteristics are employed in the Bible, and how this helps us to read the Bible as readers of science fiction.
It’s widely accepted that the Bible contains many genres: history, poetry, biography, letters, etcetera; and one of these is myth. And the way I’m looking at this does entail accepting that the mythical books of the Bible can teach truth through stating things which are not factually true, as most imaginative literature does. One of the things which science fiction encourages in its readers is a questioning and subversive attitude to received ideas, an attitude of constant enquiry, and this as much as anything is what the genre offers us as readers.
I think there are three major concerns that the Bible shares with science fiction, and these are ‘Encounters with the Alien’, ‘The Ends of the World’, and ‘Best and Worst Worlds’. And I’m going to talk a little about each of these.
Showing other worlds has always been intrinsic to science fiction. C.S. Lewis says in his essay ‘On Stories’:
To construct plausible and moving other worlds, you must draw on the only real “other world” we know, that of the spirit.8
He’s talking about using science fiction for religious allegory, which is something I spoke a bit about yesterday. But in the Bible we find pictures of other worlds: we find the void that exists before God creates the world; we find the Garden of Eden, which is a Paradise which can never be recovered by the readers of the Bible; we find lots of visions of Heaven; and at the end of Revelation there’s the idea of a New Heaven and a New Earth superseding the present. And I’ll argue in a bit that the Bible also contains at least one ‘alternative world’, in science fiction terms.
But there are also many encounters with alien cultures in the Bible. I’m not talking about aliens in the science fiction sense, although some authors have argued that a lot of the ancient myths, including the biblical ones, are memories of encounters with aliens – that’s Erik von Daniken’s thesis in Chariots of the Gods and his other books, and while it’s made him a lot of money, it is kind of barking.
But I’m talking about conflict and contact between the writers of the Bible and other cultures. And this starts very early on in Genesis: there’s an encounter with otherness in the encounter between Adam and Eve and the Serpent. The Serpent comes along with an entirely new and different way of looking at things, which Adam and Eve have to cope with and deal with, and end up assimilating.
And in Genesis there are bizarre hints of encounters with other human cultures which are not related to Adam and Eve: there’s the odd and problematic passage about the angels having sexual intercourse with the daughters of men, and producing these giants, the Nephilim, who are never really gone into in detail but seem to be these sort of mythic ogre people wandering around. And there’s the perennial question of who Cain and Abel marry, and who Cain is worried will persecute him if God doesn’t mark him to protect him. And later on in the Bible, there are perennial encounters between the children of Israel and other cultures: the Egyptians, the Philistines, and later in the New Testament the Romans and the Greeks.
On a different level, every encounter between a prophet and God is an encounter with the alien: it’s an encounter with otherness. And this is particularly apparent in some of the more baffling descriptions of encounters with God. I want to read to you a passage I’m particularly fond of, from The Book of Ezekiel. I’m reading from the King James Bible – partly because it’s the most literary version of the Bible, partly because it’s the one Milton and the Romantics would have been familiar with, but mostly just because I really like it.
Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes around them four.
And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.9
Now, on the face of it, that doesn’t make any sense. Someone who I think had rather drastically misunderstood what my research was about once asked me where all the spaceships were in the Bible, and I’m afraid I pointed him directly to that passage.
But it seems that what’s happening there is that Ezekiel has had this vision, and it’s something that simply can’t fit inside his mind. It’s something which is totally alien to the way he perceives the world, and he’s trying desperately to communicate it – it comes across how desperately keen he is that you should understand exactly what he saw, but he just can’t express it in words, it’s something that won’t fit.
And I think that’s an extreme example, but there are many times when it seems that the prophets just can’t understand what God is trying to reveal to them. An example in the New Testament might be the Transfiguration, where the disciples are clearly baffled and stupefied and start talking gibberish when Jesus is apparently transfigured and turned into something transcendent.
And these passages which deal with encounters with the alien – I think, in the Bible and in science fiction, thinking about these issues is important for our interaction with people, with people who are other than us in whatever way, racially or in terms of their ability or sexuality; for encounters between nations; and for our treatment of animals, who are the nearest things to aliens that we have on this planet. And of course, if the question ever does come up, it will be relevant as well to how Christians deal with genuine aliens, but that’s at present a theoretical question.
Another issue which the Bible shares with science fiction is that of the Ends of the World. Science fiction has been described as an apocalyptic literature, and the word ‘apocalypse’ of course comes from The Revelation of St John – it’s simply the Greek word for ‘revelation’. The critic Leslie Fiedler has said that science fiction is ‘the myth of the end of man, the transcendence or transformation of the human’10, and it seems to me that that’s a fairly close description of what happens in the Incarnation in the New Testament: humanity becomes transcendent, it is transformed into God in the person of Jesus.
The ideal of global disaster is a perennial of science fiction. This comes in various forms – meteor impact, alien invasion, plague, flood – and the Bible similarly offers plenty of disasters which destroy whole societies: the Tower of Babel, the Flood in the Old Testament, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And later this develops out into an apocalyptic literature which crops up every so often in the Bible, in which the whole of the world is destroyed. We see examples of this in Daniel; Jesus himself predicts something of the kind in Matthew 24, which is not a chapter of the Gospels which is often read; and Revelation is an extended riff on the idea.
Both science fiction and the Bible agree that human life on Earth is contingent, that God or nature could wipe us out at any time, just with the flip of a finger. And if you take Revelation literally (which you would have to be slightly mad to do), it seems very similar in its concerns to science fiction. It’s often interpreted directly in science fiction terms, and seems to lend itself to this in many ways: there’s motifs like the falling star called ‘Wormwood’, which falls into the sea and pollutes it; and some of the specific mechanisms – plague and famine and pollution – turn up in science fiction later.
But it’s also interesting to look at the ‘Ends of the World’ in terms of the boundaries of the world: the cosmology, the limits of the world. The various creation narratives in the Bible – and they don’t just turn up in Genesis, they turn up all over the place – show God establishing the Earth on the waters, separating out the water from the Earth. Some of these muddy years at Greenbelt, I wish he’d done it rather more thoroughly.
But both of these kinds of thinking show what is essentially a science fiction approach. The question is: What are the boundaries, whether geographical or chronological, of human existence and of human knowledge? What exists, what lies beyond these boundaries?
The authors of the Bible discover this by divine revelation, by the authority of God: they don’t have the luxury of a stable and secure society in which they can experiment and discover the scientific method. But they’re still looking beyond the limitations of their own knowledge. And I think awareness of human limitations is vital both in science and theology, and in any field in which we would seek to understand or manipulate the universe or its creator.
The other important element is that of ‘Best and Worst Worlds’, of what we in science fiction criticism call ‘dystopias’ and ‘utopias’ – the perfect society and the perfectly awful society. Examples of dystopias in science fiction which are well known include Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Utopias tend to be rather duller and therefore a lot less popular, but there’s a strong strain in science fiction of trying to invent perfect societies and work out how they could work.
And the Bible read as a whole is a journey, a tour from a prehistoric utopia in the Garden of Eden to a posthistoric utopia in Revelation’s New Jerusalem. And it takes in numerous dystopias along the way: Babel again; Sodom and Gomorrah again; and the various captivities of Israel, and the persecutions of the children of Israel in Egypt, in Babylon and, in the New Testament, in Jerusalem under the Roman Empire.
But these are often contrasted with the promise of a future utopia: the promised land to which Moses is leading the children of Israel, and the various visions of Heaven. And there’s a lot of utopianism in the Bible. We were singing yesterday in the communion service about the concept of the jubilee11, and that seems very utopian: it’s not only an attempt to establish a just society in the present, it’s an attempt to plan for the future, to prevent that society becoming unjust. And this is something that you often find in utopian literature, that there’s this sort of social planning ahead.
The most sustained dystopia in the Bible is the mundane world as ruled by the ‘Beast’, as seen in Revelation. It has many of the classic characteristics of a dystopia: two particularly, in that the majority who don’t accept the Beast are oppressed by the minority who worship the Beast, and are made to worship the Beast; and the idea of the regimented society, the fact that everyone needs to be given this number that they wear on their hand or their forehead, that marks them out as servants of the Beast. And of course Revelation is often read by extremists as a dystopian portrayal of the present-day world – although extremists have been reading it that way for centuries, so I wouldn’t place too much weight on it.
But it also presents a contrasting utopia in New Jerusalem, which like many of the utopias of science fiction is located in future history – you have to go through the dystopia to get there, which is also true in some texts of science fiction, but you in the end reach the perfect society.
Utopias and dystopias tell us about the best and worst of human nature – not least because they need to be imagined, or at least described, by human beings. And for this reason they’re helpful for understanding the problem of evil, and questions of sin and salvation.
I believe that these three strands in the Bible come together in The Book of Job, of which I’m going to essay a tentative interpretation: How I Read The Book of Job as a Science Fiction Reader.
It’s a creative interpretation, and it relies on giving the reader credit for being able to think critically. I said at the beginning that I wasn’t a biblical scholar, but from what I’ve read The Book of Job appears to be a bit of a mess. It’s cobbled together from four or five different sources, all of which are pulling in different directions, which seem to have been written in radically different historical eras, and to have different agendas as to what they want to say about God and about humanity. However, we have to read the text as it is, we don’t have a perfect text which existed before the cobbling-together, so it seems to me that The Book of Job is a book which is ripe for a creative or subversive reading which makes sense of this slight mess that we have.
So it seems to me that these three strands – the Ends of the World, the Encounter with the Alien and the Best and Worst Worlds – come together in Job. As far as the Ends of the World are concerned, God, when he appears at the end to Job, talks extensively about things which humanity, and Job specifically, doesn’t or can’t know.
He gives an account of the creation of the world, which I will just read to you briefly.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling-band for it,
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,
And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?12
Now, you learn a lot about cosmology in that passage. You learn that the Earth is set out upon the waters, you learn that it has foundations and a cornerstone, and that the sea is shut up behind doors. It’s inquiring about the nature of the world, about the way the world actually is, physically.
And God goes on to pose Job unanswerable questions, or questions which Job at least can’t answer: ‘Where is the way where light dwelleth?’ ‘Hath the rain a father?’13 He covers questions of astronomy, meteorology, zoology again – the zoology starts off with using familiar animals for its bestiary, but goes on to bizarre ones like the leviathan and the behemoth. It’s all probing at the limits of human knowledge, and given that God’s speech here was written by a human being you can see it as expressing frustration that human beings do not know what exists beyond these limitations.
The ‘Encounters with the Alien’ in Job exist mainly in the fact that God and Satan conspire to interfere with and basically destroy Job’s comfortable life: Job has a perfectly happy existence, and this is blighted and destroyed by the intervention of these supernatural beings. And when eventually God manifests himself, it’s in a form which appears incomprehensible and inexplicable: the whirlwind that Job sees is the best way that God can appear on the Earth.
But what seems most interesting is that Job repeatedly describes a world as he sees it, without divine justice, and this is where I think the ‘Worst Worlds’ theme comes in, the dystopian theme. Job talks about the world being a place where the good are punished and the evil are rewarded, where there is no, or there is only arbitrary, justice handed out.
And within his own fictional universe, Job is right. Because what happens to him is arbitrary: God has wronged him. God makes this wager with Satan, for no better reason than to prove a point, and it ends up destroying Job’s life – I mean, it metaphorically destroys Job’s life, but his children and his animals are actually killed, and the happy ending which comes at the end of Job when he has all the things he used to have back, doesn’t give them much comfort really.
And when God appears, he doesn’t admit that he’s wronged Job: he just browbeats him with his superior power and knowledge. He just comes across as a bully.
So it seems to me that The Book of Job might be an early version of the ‘Frankenstein Myth’: a picture of an unreasonable, unloving creator, and a picture of the world as it ‘would be’ if created by that kind of a God. It’s the biblical equivalent of a science fiction ‘alternative world’ story, which shows a different history. It describes the world as we know it isn’t, to illustrate a truth about the world as it is. Like the ‘complaint literature’ in the Old Testament, it teaches us what to think about God by counterexample, if we choose to read it in this way.
I think Job is probably the primary example of a book of the Bible which is enhanced by the openness to alternative possibilities that we can bring to it as science fiction readers.
So I’ve talked a bit about the idea that there is a direct continuity in the use of creation myth between the Bible and science fiction, going via Paradise Lost, the Romantics and Frankenstein. I’ve tried to show that parts of the Bible share some significant themes and concerns with science fiction, and can be interpreted as such, and that some interpretations may be what we would consider radical and subversive.
Yesterday I was talking about reading science fiction with an openness to its spiritual truth – reading science fiction as the Bible – and now I’m suggesting that we read the Bible as science fiction.
I don’t mean this literally – some science fiction authors have read the Bible as science fiction: they’ve portrayed God and his angels as aliens, the visions of the prophets as telepathic visions, and Revelation as some kind of serious prediction of the future. I’m just saying that we should bring the same interpretive ethic to bear on the Bible as we do on science fiction.
At its best science fiction is subversive, it’s radically questioning. It has this paradigm of progress, of breaking down and building on the past: its scientific method, and the contrast with the medieval paradigm that I was talking about earlier, of ‘authority’. It has the attitude that knowledge increases with time, but it applies it generally. It doesn’t apply it just to science: it’s visible in science fiction’s own literary history that it progresses through a series of revolutions. Each generation of science fiction authors rewrites and tries to overthrow the previous generation, going as far back as Frankenstein, which was in its own way revolutionary.
Science fiction not only allows for divergent and subversive readings, but it actively demands them. And I feel that this is how we should read the Bible. The Bible shouldn’t just be a data set, a collection of facts which we need to interpret. It shouldn’t be a body of law laid down in the past from which we in the present must not deviate. What the Bible should be, I believe, is a source of inspiration and ideas to draw from and build upon creatively in writing our own stories of God.
Christianity shouldn’t be about closing down avenues: it’s about freedom, not about constriction, and the Bible should be too. I suggested yesterday that faith is about a constant search for a God who can’t ever be fully known, but whom we must always try to know, and about constructing successive ideas of God, which we must nevertheless overthrow because none of them can be complete.
Yesterday I ended by comparing Christianity with space travel, by saying that we need to explore God’s nature as we might explore the universe if we were a science fiction hero. I’d like to end today by a comparison with time travel.
Because the Bible is a time machine. It allows us to re-examine the past as if it were the present: to engage with it dynamically, as we would the present or indeed the future, instead of statically, as we would history. Like a time machine in some stories it may even allow us to change history, to open up these alternative worlds where history went differently.
The Bible allows us access to many times, many places and many genres of writing. We’re rarely in control of where the Bible takes us, but if we allow it, it will take us on all kinds of adventures. And when you open it up, the Bible is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Basically the Bible is the TARDIS, and I think it’s that image I’d like to leave you with. Thank you.
5. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
9. Ezekiel I 15-21.
10. Leslie Fiedler, Olaf Stapledon: a Man Divided (1983).
11. This paragraph was a late addition to the talks. The vast-scale Greenbelt communion service – attended in 2004 by nearly 20,000 people – is a regular feature of the festival, and on this occasion had included a song about the ‘jubilee’ – the septennial forgiving of debts in the Old Testament Jewish tradition. In Christian thinking this (along, it sometimes seems, with everything else in the Old Testament) is often abstracted to become an introspective metaphor for Christ’s forgiveness of our sins. I’m pleased to say that the Greenbelt worship leaders applied it with unashamed politicality to Third World debt.
www.infinitarian.com created and maintained by Philip Purser-Hallard.
All material © Philip Purser-Hallard 2004 except where otherwise noted, and not to be used without permission.
Greenbelt 2004 logo © Greenbelt Festivals 2004.