Monday, 25 August 2014

The Christian in the Whovian World

Do you enjoy science fiction? I am not a great fan, although I enjoy the popular films and TV shows, and I know it brings a lot of fun into people’s lives. Science Fiction has a fascinating history and is said by some to date back to the fantastic Epic of Gilgamesh from some 2,000-3,000 BC. But modern science fiction dates back to between the 17th and 19th centuries, during the scientific revolution that brought us major discoveries in astronomy, physics, and maths. It really developed and bloomed in the 20th century.*

Famous works along the way include Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); Johannes Kepler’s The Dream (1834); Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11); Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726); Jane C Loudon’s The Mummy (1836); Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864); HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898); Conan-Doyle’s The Lost World (1912)

The 20th Century saw the introduction of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. In the 1930s Astounding Science Fiction magazine began to introduce us to Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and Damon Knight. 1948 saw the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. In the 1950s L Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer of dubious talent, gave us a new religion, Scientology. 1964 saw the publication of Frank Herbert’s epic Dune, and 1969 saw the production of Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Science fiction has given us the mad professor, experiments gone awry, morality tales, monsters, alien races, space flight, the inspiring hero, various dystopia, nightmare predictions, and idyllic futures. From More’s Utopia to Star Trek we have been given blue prints for a better society. From Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels to Orwell’s 1984 we are served up with warnings of dire consequences issuing from man’s folly.

Perhaps its most familiar and popular claim these days is that it ‘predicts’ technological developments in the real world. You can read about ten of them here. How true it is that science follows fiction is debatable. Writers get their ideas from somewhere and if you are writing science fiction then you are bound to populate your fiction with the more speculative ideas of science. But I am interested in the impact of the genre on faith and society, something that I find increasingly troubling.

There is no God in the world of science fiction. While there are gods of a kind, drawing on the legends of various cultures, they are more like super men than truly divine. Faith is sometimes depicted but only as a personal, or cultural phenomenon. There is no overarching ‘truth’ and finally no God to whom we are accountable. The cold scientific mind of this world declares, “We have no one to help us but ourselves.” Science fiction’s foundational ‘faith’ is scientism, and latterly Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. Man is the measure of everything, destroyed by his own hubris, or stepping back from the brink of destruction to emerge as a better species. While this approach gives the genre the widest scope of possibilities for inventing worlds, it also allows it to range across a wide variety of moralities.

Earlier examples of science fiction were often traditional cautionary tales for a bourgeoning scientific age, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or political commentary such as Gulliver;s Travels, or Orwell’s 1984, and of course straight-forward adventures, such as The Lost World or, as the pulp title indicates, Fantastic Stories. From these you could learn life lessons, become politically engaged, or simply escape into another world. Today, however, there is a deliberate agenda to shape society after the image of the writers’ particular convictions and lifestyle. Three examples stand out for me.

The incredibly successful X-Men series of films has taken a familiar and relatively innocuous comic book story and infused it with an increasingly overt gay message, creating a gay parable. The film makers are quite frank about this and you can read more about it here. I am not a science fiction fan but have enjoyed these comic books as a boy and the film franchise, but I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the story lines and begin to understand why.

Another childhood favourite is the long-running British time/space series, Dr Who. I am old enough to remember watching the very first episode in black and white and following it through until it became a favourite for my grandchildren. It has enjoyed a fantastic renaissance in recent years, and I have enjoyed that too. But, again, its content seems to me to be increasingly agenda driven, again under the influence of the gay man responsible for the show’s revival, Russell T Davies. One of the Whovian characters, Captain Jack Harkness, is overtly gay and had his own spinoff series Torchwood. A now long-standing character in the Doctor’s world is a Madam Vastra, an evolved lizard/woman who lives in the Victorian era as a Sherlock Holmes type character. She enjoys a bizarre and intimate interspecies relationship with a human woman in which the lizard/woman is the ‘husband’. I remind you this is a children’s TV show.

Our thoughts and ideas, our convictions about society are being hijacked by means of seemingly shallow and harmless entertainment.

My third example is the work of the late Douglas Adams, whose antipathy to Christianity is legendary. He was brought up in a Christian home and, for the first eighteen years of his life, learned to take it pretty seriously. He then went through a familiar enough process of questioning which left him an agnostic. It was the insidious and fanatical influence of Richard Dawkins that tipped him into full-blown atheism. Be that as it may, Adams is responsible for his own life and work, something with which I am sure he would agree. When we look at the works of Douglas Adams it is as anti-Christianity as it could be. The facts are clear enough.

His Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy is a complete refutation and mockery of Christian tradition and teaching. The guide itself is a barely veiled parody of the Bible, its cover message a mockery of Christian assurance with its advice to the reader DON’T PANIC!

As the story develops we meet increasingly unlikely and bizarre characters involved in the most incredible and improbable circumstances that, significantly, have no explanation beyond mere chance. All is explained by a totally different account of how the earth came to be, and how thoroughly insignificant it is in the great scheme of things - though there isn’t really a scheme except that to destroy the earth to make way for a hyper-space bypass. The purpose for which it was “created” is as a computer to calculate the meaning of life, and whose calculations become increasingly comic and futile since life has no meaning. The message is clear, whatever you think is true isn’t and, whatever you think might be the most absurd and pointless truth is. Indeed, there is no truth, only existence then non-existence, as a brief encounter with a deluded whale falling to earth demonstrates.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency very effectively parodies faith. Gently is a detective who claims to solve crimes by means of recognising the interconnectedness of everything. The problem is, while he sees connections, others see nothing more than random facts and coincidences. Faith is writ large as the object of fun in this story. The cynical and dishonest Gently appears to have had an epiphany in which he comes to see this interconnectedness, which becomes his mission. The reader is meant to see reality through everyone else’s eyes, and they see random events. Here is the sinner converted to a delusion and reality represented by the sensible unbeliever. From Gently’s misguided faith, which seems real enough, that by some accident of Quantum Mechanics everything is meaningfully connected, to the ridiculous faith of an Electric Monk who seems to be programmed to be gullible, we are meant to see faith as untenable, even ridiculous.

Traditionally, science fiction can be said to be cautionary or aspirational. Today and in its most popular forms it is becoming insidious, its writers and proponents having a clear and clearly identifiable agenda to use science fiction as a vehicle for bringing into people’s lives philosophies that will be normalised by stealth, untested because it is entertainment.

Christians can cherish romantic notions of how our faith is going to be tested. We read and listen to accounts of believers, from Polycarp in the 2nd century to Christians in Syria today, who have been forced to choose between denying Christ, or being executed. We may one day face such a test ourselves, but there is another, more subtle test with us here today. As the world embraces diversity, choice, multi-culturalism, liberal values, an increasing intolerance of faith, and a sense of having no one to help us, guide us, or censure us but ourselves, Christians should ask what is influencing us? What values do I hold most dear? What ideas are being subtly introduced into my thinking, and that of my children, forming my worldview without my conscious consent?

Christianity is not the joyless, proscriptive religion many non-Christians imagine. Indeed, I have never said ‘yes’ anywhere so much as I do in church. The Christian faith does, however, speak truth about the world and to the world. It asks us to ‘choose this day whom you will serve’, cautions us against false and futile philosophies and points us to the author of all truth.

In the end, it is what we have done with knowledge of him that will be the test. The world is an incredible place to explore and enjoy. The world’s philosophies can be the greatest obstacle to our realising God’s truth and nothing insinuates the world’s philosophies into our lives and thinking better than the books we read, and the films we watch. By all means read, read widely, read for enjoyment, for fun, but read and view intelligently, guarding your hearts and minds from anything that threatens our faith and our relationship with Jesus. Be discerning and recognise that every day our resolve is being tested, not by a gun to our heads, but with a back door into our hearts and minds in what influences us.


*Science Fiction is now the fourth most lucrative genre in the publishing world, worth some $590million: 5th is horror worth $80m; 3rd, religion, $720m; 2nd, Crime/mystery, $728m; 1st, Romance/erotica $1.44Billion. Read more here.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Balancing Faith and Culture

In my role as a leading figure in Reachout Trust, a ministry to the cults, and given my Welsh nationality, I have drawn comments and questions on discussion boards about the Welsh national cultural event known as the Eisteddfod. People are puzzled that even “so-called Christian leaders” attend and take part in what is so “obviously a Pagan festival.” It is culturally Celtic (the first ‘c’ is a hard ‘c’, not like the Scottish football club) has a circle of druids, an Archdruid, flower dances, oak leaves, a sword, a stone, and a throne – O,my word it just gets worse.

This year (1-9 August 2014) it is being held in the West Wales town of llanelli (Llan means church and Elli is the name of a leading Christian figure associated with the place, hence Llan – the church of, Elli – St Elli) You can get a lot of useful information about the Eisteddfod, its history and form here. It is a festival that celebrates Welsh language and culture and is conducted in Welsh, though very welcoming and accessible to non-Welsh speakers. But there is also an international Eisteddfod which is multilingual, multicultural, welcomes visitors and contestants from all over the world and is the biggest cultural festival in Europe.

When people ask the answer is always the same. It has nothing to do with authentic druidism, and what people see as ‘pagan’ is nothing more than the fanciful cultural trappings of an otherwise innocent cultural festival. It celebrates culture and talent in many forms, music, dance, poetry and literature, academic achievements, civic service, charity work. There is a regular Christian presence at the festival and every opportunity to share the gospel. Still, there will be those who will struggle with the question of faith and culture, some taking the purist view.

With our very seasons and times named with the names of pagan gods (think days of the week, months and seasons of the year) and pagan customs marking our every day lives, from the wedding ring, through carols, flowers on graves, and so much more, how do we balance faith and culture?

Simply because something has a pagan origin does not mean that it is sinful to use it, even for a religious purpose. The early church met in houses but when Christianity became an official religion of the empire Christians modelled their public buildings on what was already there in society, the basilica. At a time when your social status was reflected in your dress, church officials dressed like government officials. Today, when we see priests wearing church vestments, we are looking at the continuation of this form of dress which originated with the Roman nobility.

Our practices, dress and customs, both religious and civic, have developed over generations and reflect that history, as also our attitudes. People who complain today about drums and guitars in church should realise that the church organ, so beloved of many, was seen as worldly when it was brought into the church a thousand years ago. Think of the so-called gothic revival of the nineteenth century, which has bequeathed us a heritage of cold, drafty and pretty but pretty useless buildings, but at the time regarded as God honouring.

Even today, we find ourselves doing things that our forebears might find odd. How would those of just a generation or two ago make of our casual dress in so many churches today? And what do we regard as acceptable today that might appear unacceptable to those that come after us?  It might be said that culture both helps and harms the church, but either way culture contributes to how the church is defined and how Christians live.

When it comes to a Welsh cultural festival Christians must, as with so much of being ‘in the world,’ decide for themselves what to get involved in and how involved to get. We can’t avoid a day of the week named for Saturn in a month of the year named for Augustus, or an innocent but ultimately ‘unbiblical’ birthday celebration. We can be wise in our choices as we interact with our own cultures. As for the church in the world, Christianity has a history of ‘baptising’ pre-existing customs into the church, from Christmas, through Harvest Thanksgiving, to music and the way we dress.

What is important is that we are slow to judge, eager to learn, anxious to understand, wise and charitable in our judgements, and honouring to God and culture in our choices. A religious attitude doesn’t sanctify us any more than customs need desecrate.