If you don’t know that the new Star Trek movie is coming out tomorrow (technically tonight at midnight), you are not a Trekkie. If don’t know there has been an on-again, off-again leak that the villain in the new movie is Khan Noonien Singh, you are not a class A-Trekkie. If your faith has not been inspired by Star Trek, or any science-fiction for that matter, you are not a theo-trekkie.
Are there theo-trekkies? In my non-scientifically validated opinion, there are countless of us out there. The American Academy of Religion has a section on Religion and Science Fiction. “Why Science-Fiction is good for your Faith” was the highest attended Tapping Theology this year at Saint Vincent College. One of my good friends and colleagues, who became a Franciscan sister at age 14, is a serious Trekkie.
Why the influence?
1. Science fiction is a cosmic drama. Just as the Christian gospel is about God’s design for the universe that we “now see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), so too science-fiction often inhabits worlds much larger than our own. The genre hints that there is more to existence than what we see in front of us and what we know of existence is limited. It implies that our lives are part of a drama entailing the whole of the cosmos. This is the opening sequence of Star Trek, no? “To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Moreover, Star Trek continues to reflect on what it means to be human and good in this ever expanding and surprising universe. Of course, Star Wars does this too, embedding its story in a mythic time and place, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” These two behemoths of the sci-fi terrain are not alone. The political, religious, and economic world of Dune, centered around the spice trade and its role in the “folding” of time and space. While the movie was a bit weak, the Green Lantern graphic novels, from the Sinestro Wars through Blackest Night, have been exploring the nature of will power (Green Lanterns), rage (Red Lanterns), fear (Yellow Lanterns), hope (Blue Lanterns), compassion (Indigo Lanterns), death (Black Lanterns), avarice (Orange Lanterns), and love (Violet Lanterns) for the universe as whole.
2. Science fiction relativizes the goods often held up in society. Christianity proclaims a messiah put to death by the “powers and principalities” of the world. In the midst of its pulp and punk, science fiction often explores the dehumanizing effects of our technological “powers and principalities.” In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley could not find a way for his main character, John Savage, to live in the biologically engineered and assembly line produced society. Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon explores how the ability to capture every mental aspect of a person into a “cortical stack” that can be uploaded and downloaded at will results in a seeming meaninglessness for physical existence. One example: Killing a person is merely “carbon damage”, a misdemeanor. The Hunger Games is another story exploring how the values of society are skewed, extremely so. The list could go on—Wind Up Girl, Fahrenheit 451, Feed, Uglies, Ringworld, District 9, Handmaid’s Tale, I am Legend—but they each generate a skepticism of the values offered by “the world”. Even with Star Trek’s optimism and its banter between the cold-logic of Spock and the passion of Bones, there is still the haunting past of the eugenics wars in the original series and echoed in Deep Space Nine.
3. Science fiction pits good against evil. Christianity is fundamentally about the God who uses love and forgiveness to fight the alluring yet corrosive power of evil. While science-fiction does not deal in gods (although often with beings who pretend to be gods), its heroes and heroines are always struggling against evil. There is some good, no matter how small, fighting to stand against an overwhelming and seemingly victorious evil. For Star Trek, think of the Klingons or the Borg. Think of the Dark Side in Star Wars. In the Terminator movies, it is the perpetual battle of the humans against Skynet, very similar to the struggles explored in the Matrix trilogy. Almost every superhero story has this as a backdrop, including some, like Kingdom Come, that explore the dangers of fighting in such a battle for so long.
4. In science fiction, what you do matters. In so many of these stories, choices matter. Fidelities and betrayals affect not just individuals but the whole universe. Often, love and a little resourcefulness overcome power, hate, and fear. Think of the outwitting of Khan in Star Trek II. If you have not read the book Ender’s Game, you need to before the movie comes out in November. It is the story of a young boy, around 6 in the book, possessing an incredible military genius but also being manipulated by the powers that be. Mal and his crew in Firefly (the television show) and Serenity (the movie) fight on the fringes of a corrupt and controlling empire, one sowing the seeds of its own destruction with zombie-like Reavers, ostensibly to make money but more often caring for the people they encounter. Also, the sci-fi classics Neuromancer and Snow Crash focus on how a seemingly marginal, insignificant person or two can thwart the powerful and cruel in a technologically dominated world. For Christianity, it is the God “who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7) that struggled against and eventually overcame the sin, sickness, and death of the world.
A world bigger than the one in front of us, especially bigger than the values held up by society, where good is always struggling to overcome evil, and your choices and decisions matter, the way sci-fi might nourish a Christian faith should be clear. Dorothy Sayers, the friend of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams, an occasional member of the Inklings, said in her essay “Toward a Christian Esthetic,” that good fiction reveals truth “that tells us something about ourselves that we had not been always saying, something that puts a new knowledge of ourselves within our grasp. It is new, startling, and perhaps shattering, and yet it comes to us with a sense of familiarity.” I think when us theo-Trekkies see or read good sci-fi, what we so often discover is that “Old Time Religion” at play in every nook and cranny of space.