Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Geeking Out Today: Theology and Science Fiction & Fantasy

Now for a break from UUA politics...

It's no secret that I'm a big nerd.  And like many other nerds or geeks, I love science fiction and fantasy, in movies, television, and books.  And as a minister geek, I love how there's so much in the genres of science fiction and fantasy that explores religion in really interesting ways, such as the complex religion that emerged in the Star Trek universe in Deep Space Nine, or the way Orson Scott Card took the hero's action of Ender in Ender's Game and turned it around and Ender became the Speaker for the Dead; or the way Philip Pullman takes on religion in the His Dark Materials series.  One of my favorite scifi books that creates a wonderful religion is The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.  It's very rich--God is change.  One of my favorite movies is Cosmos, which I know a lot of people who loved the book didn't like, but I really liked the way it dealt with religion and didn't make it oppositional to science.  And of course there's always the obvious example of "the Force" in Star Wars.  There's a lot of over-simplistic religion as evil stuff in science fiction, too, but once you get past that, there's a lot of interesting explorations of possible world with different and interesting cosmologies and theologies.

This interest really started for me as a child, reading and re-reading the Narnia series, even though I didn't realize the Christian allegory in it at the time.  And at some point in high school or college I read A Canticle for Liebowitz.  And then, just as I was starting to explore Paganism, I read The Mists of Avalon.  A few years ago I started collecting recommendations from what is a fairly large group of similarly scifi-interested UU ministers, and as a result read The Sparrow and Children of God by Maria Doria Russell, and Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

And so I'm excited that in my minister's study group we're exploring popular culture this year, and one of the papers will be on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  There's a lot of interesting stuff in Buffy about the nature of the soul and what makes someone good or evil.  The series starts out with things fairly straightforward: Vampires and demons have no soul, and that makes them evil.  Then, as the series progresses you have some of the villains being humans, with souls, and a vampire without a soul starts helping Buffy, and some demons prove to benign, leading to greater questions about what makes good and evil. 

But what I'm really focused on right now, having completed my re-watching of Buffy about a year ago, and abandoning my re-watching of Angel mid-series, is Battlestar Galactica.  I avoided watching this for a long time, but now that the series is complete, I've been watching it on video.  It's hard for me to stick with a regular TV program, because of my irregular schedule.  I abandoned trying to keep up with Lost after two or three seasons. 

Battlestar Galactica is about a spaceship, the Galactica, that survives, along with a number of smaller non-military ships, the complete destruction of the 12 colonies of humans by the cylons, an race of andriods which were originally created by humans.  I'm still watching the final season, but what has fascinated me is the religions themes in Battlestar Galactica.  In Battlestar Galactica, the humans are polytheists.  They believe in the Roman/Greek gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Hera and Zeus/Jupiter.  Polytheism is the accepted and logical belief in their world, although many people take the religion fairly metaphorically and not literally.  The cylons, on the other hand, are monotheists.  They believe in one and only one true God.  This religious divide is part of what pits the cylons and humans against each other.  Monotheism, in the human world, is heretical and dangerous.  For the cylons, the humans are denying the true God. 

What this could be is a simple and familiar repainting of religion as bad and evil, since the cylons are evil, at least in the beginning.  However, since the humans are not atheists, but rather polytheists, their religion is, in the eyes of the viewer, less logical than the monotheism we see around us all the time, believed in by the majority of people in our country and Earth.  Because the cylons speak a more familiar language, and appear human, the audience starts to identify with them more, despite their quest to wipe out humanity.  It makes the relationship between the cylons and humans much more complex.

As the series progresses, the relationship between the cylons and humans becomes more complex, and so do their religious views.  We see that the things written about in the humans' scriptures are also in cylon legends, and turn out to be true.  We see cylons trying, clumsily, to create some sort of relationship with the humans, and how both humans and cylons are capable of betrayal, inhumanity, and evil. 

I haven't finished watching yet, and am pretty sure I'll be disappointed by the end of the series, but for now, it's great viewing.

4 comments:

Strange Attractor said...

I'll be interested to know what you think of the series finale. Let us know when you reach it.

Have fun with the Buffy studies.

Chip said...

amen and amen. Can't wait for the Buffy paper at Ohio River Group.

adelev said...

Wow, great post! I also adore SF&F, particularly religious elements in SF&F. Octavia Butler was one of my favorite authors. I also enjoyed the Ender series. I will have to give Maria Doria Russell a try. Have you read books by Sylvia Engdahl? Religion is touched on lightly in Enchantress from the Stars and Far Side of Evil. Her Children of the Star series explicitly explores religion as an institution and as a metaphor. Her newest series starts with Stewards of the Flame. This is the first of her books I read for the first time as an adult after becoming a UU. I was amazed at how well the spirituality in the book meshed with Unitarian Universalism. I actually went back and read some of her books with my new "UU perspective" LOL. Here is a link to her site if you are interested: http://www.sylviaengdahl.com/

Cynthia Landrum said...

@adelev - Be warned that the Maria Doria Russell books are very dark. No, I haven't read Sylvia Engdahl. Sounds good! I'll have to check her out!