Why Does God Need a Starship?

By Gabriel McKee 10-24-2008

[Editor's Note: In Sojourners' newest issue there's an interview with author Mary Doria Russell-whose Jesuits-in-space books The Sparrow and Children of God are runaway favorites amongst the Sojourners editorial team-and some capsule reviews of our favorite spiritually inflected science fiction of the past decade, with more blurbs online. But wait, there's more! To celebrate, we asked Gabriel McKee of the SF Gospel blog to put in his two cents.]

One of the biggest problems I encountered while writing The Gospel According to Science Fiction was Star Trek V. The film is the franchise's most explicit statement about religion, but it's also held in generally low regard-partly because of its finale, in which the Enterprise crew meets a being that claims to be God and wants to steal their spaceship. I knew I needed to say something about Star Trek V, but I didn't know what-its religious ideas seemed too shallow and unsubtle. Finally it hit me-in his confrontation with the malevolent God, Captain Kirk grills the deity, demanding to know: "What does God need with a starship?" That question sums up the entire attitude of science fiction toward religion: science fiction wants a God from whom we can demand answers.

Most SF about religion questions and reinterprets spiritual matters, seeking new interpretations of old ideas. The goal of the genre in general is to build the future, to envision possible worlds to help us deal with imminent changes in the real world. That often means leaving behind theories that no longer fit reality, and this puts the genre in opposition to traditionalism and fundamentalism: It's hard to imagine the religion of the future if you're bound to the past. There are some theologically conservative authors of SF-Orson Scott Card, for one-but even Card's orthodoxy is subordinate to his chosen genre's emphasis on making things new. In his non-fiction and op-ed pieces, he is a near-reactionary Mormon, but you'd never guess that from the liberal Catholic characters of Speaker for the Dead.

This doesn't mean, however, that SF is opposed to religion itself-just to religion's most closed-minded expressions. The exemplar of SF faith is Earthseed, the religion described in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. According to Earthseed, "God is change"-and embracing that change is essential to a healthy spirituality. Earthseed develops in a postapocalyptic setting, a world where nothing is permanent. The second novel pits this flexible faith against a rigid, theocratic fascism, driving home the point that hidebound fundamentalism is unsustainable. The future needs a faith that is open to change.

That's also the message of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. When this novel's Jesuit astronauts set out on a mission to an alien planet, they express an optimistic faith that God is guiding their expedition, that they will do well because "deus vult

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