Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Window Into the Now

     This article addresses one of the fundamental purposes of science-fiction, and one that television shows do particularly well. Following my post from last week on why Christians should feel free and encouraged to enjoy science-fiction, I thought it would be helpful to point out another useful element of science-fiction that Doctor Who is well set up to do. And that is to provide a window into a cultural moment, into our moment, specifically on the subject of religion.

©Doctor Who/BBC
     Science-fiction is typically focused on future events, future possibilities and potentials. More often then not, however, the story is a veil that entertains, but conceals a deeper meaning and critique of our current society and culture. We are judged by our (potential) future, critiqued in light of what may be. This is a tradition in the genre from the very beginning, all the way back to H.G. Wells and his Utopian social vision for humanity. It is much like the role that the doctrine of the end times plays in Christian theology; at the end, true justice will prevail, all wrongs will be righted, and we will be judged by our time spent right now. While less definitive in most cases, science-fiction judges us by what we may become.

     Given this, we should expect to find many of our own world present, in metaphorical forms, in the science-fiction we watch and read. The article notes how Doctor Who has addressed the topic of religion throughout the years, sometimes ambiguously, sometimes more directly. Like most science-fiction, the series never affirms the existence of God, and at best will usually leave such questions open. It presents us with some "possible futures" of religion, complete with strangely militarized clergy, odd rituals, and any manner of creepy aliens. But what is most interesting is not how it is presented then, but what it tells us about our cultural beliefs now.

     Modern Christians are not often good readers of our time. I've heard it said that the Church usually imbibes cultural trends, but usually a few years too late. Perhaps in contrast, science-fiction often channels ideas about our own time very effectively. As the article mentions, Doctor Who presents religion in a way that is analogous to the state of religion in the current day United Kingdom, and probably the United States as well. It does this in a way that recognizes the complexities and diversities of current spirituality, and the relativism required of us that is a practical reality even if not an actual one. It allows us to explore religious ideas, even while being ambiguous enough to leave room for the faithful Christian right next to the atheist. The best science-fiction, in other words, reads our society well, and gives us a laboratory for testing out ideas, and for understanding our own times better. It is a window we do well to look through.

Monday, November 17, 2014

da Vinci and the Doctor
Art restorers recently discovered this amazing underpainting while working on Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Questions & Answers: What Hath Christianity to do with Science Fiction?

     I have had conversations with friends about the sort of project we are doing here, connecting science-fiction to Christian ideas, that have gotten the raised-eyebrow response. Science-fiction, they point out, is largely a secular and religion-free genre, wanting little to nothing to do with ideas about God or religion. So why, then, are we trying to get these two things to talk to each other? What do we expect to achieve? There are two ways in which this conversation is, I think, productive; in the questions and in the answers.

     First, we have to consider the questions they are asking. Science-fiction is, I think it is uncontroversial to say, primarily concerned with asking what it means to be human. In almost every example I can think of, the genre asks what happens to us in our future and what does that tell us about ourselves now? The Christian faith is of course also concerned with these questions. Who we are, where we are going, and how we get there are questions that concern every human being. Science-fiction has been called one of the last places where we can find the "novel of ideas," the story that engages with large, difficult questions, that we all as a race continue to struggle with.

     This I think is very important. As a Christian, I am interested in the answers to these questions. But I am not only concerned with how the Christian faith has attempted to answer them. It is instructive and important to recognize how others have done so as well. It isn't just in novels that we find interesting science-fiction asking interesting ideas, but also in film. Doctor Who wonders at what it means to be a human being, despite the Doctor's alien origin. To choose just one example, consider what happens when the Doctor regenerates. We get someone who is at once the same person, yet in disposition and personality distinct. Of course this began merely as a function of the show in order to keep it running past the actors who play the role, but in the reboot series they have begun exploring what it would mean to the human person to be changed in this way. What is it that makes me, me? What is the essence of the Doctor that transcends the bodies he inhabits? What is it that makes a person an unique individual? I hope to explore this question in later posts, but for now, I merely want to point out the question, and hopefully it should be obvious how the question of an individual's essential attributes or characteristics is an important one.

     While the questions are the same, the answers are quite often different, if they are given at all. Usually the metaphysical or truth of a religion are kept mysterious at best, irrelevant or deniable at worst, in science-fiction. But they still desire to give us answers to significant questions about personhood, time, the end of creation, or human advancement and evolution. Engaging these philosophical ideas from the perspective of a somewhat believable future is very helpful to anyone. Science-fiction has the advantage (or sometimes disadvantage) over mere fantasy of trying its best to root its ideas in plausible or at least imaginable futures. The question of personhood, for example, can be explored in reference to androids or holograms. Can artificial beings like this be considered human? What is essential to personhood? As we enter a brave new world of technologies most of us cannot begin to understand, these will quickly start to become less theoretical and more real ethical questions. By "jumping ahead," science-fiction gives us a place to start answering even theological questions. Doctor Who is, again, no exception, exploring many fascinating questions of human nature, time, social issues, and yes even religion.

     The medieval age saw western Europe creating massive stone churches, the Gothic cathedral, magnificent monuments or architectural genius, aesthetic beauty, and human imagination. Some theologians of the time, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, were said to have created cathedrals of the mind, systems of philosophical thought that sought to answer with clarity, power, and even beauty the most pressing questions that faced humanity. I would argue that Doctor Who is one room in the monolith of science and science-fiction that seeks to do the same sort of thing, though perhaps cathedral is not the right word for their building. The buildings may end up being different, and we may know at the end of the day that one is a much better choice to live in, but that does not mean that we can't appreciate the other for its beauty. Who knows, by listening to science-fiction, maybe we'll actually learn how to ask better questions ourselves.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Old English and New English: The Doctor and The Wanderer

Often the solitary one
finds grace for himself
the mercy of the Lord,
©Doctor Who/BBC
Although he sorry-hearted,
must for a long time
move by hand [row]
along the waterways,
(along) the ice-cold sea,
tread the path of exile.
Events always go as they must!
 …Often I had alone
to speak of my trouble
each morning before dawn.
There is none now living
to whom I dare
clearly speak
of my innermost thoughts… 

So begins the Old English poem, The Wanderer. The poem captures in just over a hundred lines a deep sense of regret, loss, loneliness, and longing. It is spoken in first person by a warrior who has lost his lord and all of his companions, all defeated in battle and slain. He now plies his oars on the seas, seemingly without goal or purpose. He is rootless, alone, with no one to whom he can speak of his "innermost thoughts."

     To those familiar with "Doctor Who," this is a familiar story. We find out right away in the reboot series that the Doctor has recently survived the ravages of the Time War, a conflict between his fellow Time Lords of Gallifrey and the ever-present Daleks. This has set him on a course of wandering himself, navigating the seas of the sun in the TARDIS, treading "the path of exile." What happened to the Wanderer has also happened to the Doctor: he is "mindful of hardships, of fierce slaughters, and the downfall of kinsmen." Both can say, "bereft of my homeland, far from my noble kinsmen." Both of these are tragic stories, and in the case of the Doctor, perhaps more so. It is revealed that he had a key part in ending the war, but one that required that he sacrifice his own home planet as well.

     This is a compelling connection, to my mind. Both the poem and the television show reflect on what it means to be a survivor, to be exiled into the world without kin or homeland. But it wasn't always this way: the sense of the Doctor we get from the original series is a being who is more elevated above his human companions. He is their guide, the teacher with his disciples, leading them into higher knowledge. But this Doctor has far less confidence in the reboot. This is a Doctor who has survived a great war, but who is now alone. He knows "how cruel is sorrow as a companion to the one who has few beloved friends." The Doctor has been shaken by his loss, and is cut off from his moorings. He wandered before, but not it is now not voluntary, but an enforced exile. Without his people, without a home, who is he?

     The Doctor, of course, has his Companions. But they are only ever temporary friends. Like us, some move on, and some die, but nothing ever remains the same. This is all due to one irreducible fact of life: fate. In the Wanderer, he recognizes that "Events always go as they must!" He is subject to that Old English concept of "wyrd." Most closely akin to fate, this is much like the sea, an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and seemingly impersonal entity. In "Doctor Who," this is very close to how Time is presented. It is an impersonal force, that allows for freedom of choice, but only within the limits of fixed points that even the great Doctor can't change. The feature-length special "The Waters of Mars" illustrates this powerfully, where the Doctor attempts to change what is a fixed point. The Doctor does change the way events play out by his interference, but is ultimately unable to change the end result. Fate, or Time, has cast the Doctor and the Wanderer out into the world, and unmercifully leaves them there.

     The similarities are fascinating, and more importantly, applicable to the Christian. The Wanderer ends on a hopeful note, however sorrow-tinged: "Good is he who keeps his faith, And a warrior must never speak his grief of his breast too quickly...It is better for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the father in the heavens. where, for us, all permanence rests." Like the Wanderer, we as Christians live in wandering, never quite feeling as if we are at home. Despite even the closest friends we may meet along the way, human beings never can quite shake the feeling of loneliness. We are not home, and we often feel terribly alone. The Doctor hopes that he might someday see his people again; in the final Christmas special with Matt Smith, "The Time of the Doctor," we find out that Gallifrey still exists, but outside our universe. His promised land exists. So does ours, and we share it with the Wanderer. All permanence rests in that place, with our Father in heaven. But there is an important difference: for the Doctor and the Wanderer, they are subject to fate, an impersonal force to whose whims they fall victim. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches the providence of a personal God, who seeks our ultimate good and provides for our need. Ultimately, our identity is wrapped up in our destination, and until we get there, here we wander, but we can trust that as we do a good and powerful God lights our way and guides our feet.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Conversations with the Doctor

©Doctor Who/BBC
     This project faces a particular danger. It is an attempt to connect Christianity with Doctor Who, an effort that will have to be guided through two opposite errors. One would be to take it too seriously; we do not want to be accused of lowering something as important as the eternal, the millenia-old religion of Christianity, to compare with something as passing and "popular" as "Doctor Who," as if they are equivalent in the weight of their ideas. It is, after all, a popular television show, fun, sometimes campy, and primarily focused on entertaining. But this can steer us into the other error, which is to not take it seriously at all. Here we might assume that because something is popular and entertaining, it will have nothing serious or compelling to challenge us with. It also reflects that we often forget that the scriptures often speak in simple language, yet communicate significant truths through those deceptively simple stories. We hope to navigate between these two extremes.

     Doctor Who is, at its root, a show that seeks to entertain; but at the same time it gives us characters that struggle not just with Daleks, but with real human trials and challenges. Entertainment is not neutral; its products communicate ideas as much as a philosophy textbook. Those ideas may be interesting or boring, good or bad, but either way they are there. Doctor Who is no exception, and while it entertains it also can challenge or form our own ideas about the way things are. It is telling stories, and stories have a greater capacity to compel our attention and devotion than the most logical proposition. If there is anything fruitful in reflecting on those stories, then it's worth the comparison.

     On this site, we will be promoting the idea that this conversation is worth having. Both to promote the book that will be released this Spring, and to expand and continue that conversation beyond the book, we will be looking at this landmark series through the lens of our common faith. We hope to both enjoy Doctor Who for its value as solid entertainment, and at the same time consider what ideas it promotes & how we might fruitfully engage with and appropriate them. Either way, we're hoping it will be FANTASTIC.