It Is As If…

The Revd Dr Lucas Mix

Image taken from Amazing Fantasy #15, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, 1962

Revd Dr Lucas Mix, from a talk given for the ECLAS “Science, Fiction and the Christian Imagination” at the Science Museum in London, 7 June 2023.

It has been said of Dante’s Divine Comedy that readers speed through the Inferno, struggle through Purgatorio, and rarely make it to Paradiso. Some have suggested, and I think it true, that Hell is easier to imagine. We write powerful stories about suffering because we experience suffering. We can even write stories about repentance and penance, but it’s hard to imagine true blessedness. Our stories about heaven end up rather bland because, by its very nature, grace is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And so, we speak of an absence of suffering rather than an abundance of good. Only the rare genius can imagine true, transcendent, and transformative grace. Only the rare genius can tell us a story that captures it.

Too often we do evil things because we cannot imagine a better option. The kingdom of heaven remains just beyond the reach of our imagination. This is, perhaps, one reason it has not come.

In the New Testament, Jesus uses a phrase that is, I think, at the heart of science fiction: “It is as if”. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25: “it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them”. Or The Parable of the Seed in Mark 4: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” In the parables, Jesus shares an imaginable story that hints at something as yet unimaginable. In the words of John, things we cannot yet bear to hear. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor 2:9).

These things can be communicated by the Spirit and by grace, but they cannot be said directly. God is not obscure, but we are obtuse. And so, God helps us along with stories that train the imagination, that help us to understand the heaven that earth can be.

Rosalind Grimshaw’s Creation Window at Chester Cathedral

The “as if” of the parable is the same “as if” that we say in the Lord’s prayer. May your will be done on earth, as if it were in heaven. We forget that earth is in heaven. Both physics and scripture constantly remind us, but it can be terribly hard to imagine. Forgive us our debts as if you were us and we our debtors. A lovely act of double imagination there, both putting us in the shoes of our debtors and imagining ourselves capable of God-like forgiveness.

What is faith if not a heartfelt exercise in “it is as if”? It is as if we were saved. It is as if we were chosen. It is as if we were called. This is not to say that these are fictions. They are true. They are simply difficult to imagine. And so, we need help. Madeline L’Engle, a Christian science fiction author, put it thus:

Truth is what is true, and it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same thing. Truth does not contradict or deny facts, but it goes through and beyond facts. This is something that it is very difficult for some people to understand. Truth can be dangerous.

GK Chesterton, with his usual humour, said it this way: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

Science fiction trains the imagination. All fiction does that, but science fiction with its explicit focus on the real, the possible, the future, and the alien, can do this in a very explicit way. It can tackle the bigger questions. Its focus on technology and human agency, has great power to shape our thinking about what we can do and should do, both as individuals and societies. Thus, science fiction has been called the most explicitly theological of the modern genres.

To be clear, I cannot say that all science fiction is good or that every space opera operates as a Christian parable. There is plenty of bad sci-fi out there. I am not trying to convince you that science fiction is good, but that science fiction is powerful. Many of the fundamental myths of our cultures are communicated and reinforced through science fiction, through novels and movies and popular imagination: the hopefulness of Star Trek, the compassion of Dr Who, the courage of heroes in Marvel and DC universes. These are the myths and fairy tales of the 21st century. These are the training ground for our moral imagination.

Science fiction can be called good in at least three ways. First, science fiction can be good science. It can communicate accurately the findings of scientists and the state of the art in contemporary knowledge of the physical world. Second, science fiction can be good narrative. It can be compelling and convicting, stirring us to thought and action, and drawing us in. Third, and perhaps most importantly, science fiction can be good morally. It can train our imaginations in a way that helps us see the good and do the good. It can empower us, priming us with Godly perspective and Godly options for how to live, how to respond to suffering and sin, and how to participate in the coming kingdom. The best science fiction is all three.

We must not underestimate the power these stories have for good and ill in shaping the cultures around us. We must not underestimate the power we have when we tell imaginative stories mindfully, compassionately, and prayerfully. Ursula K LeGuin once said, “The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself.” Her stories made me ask very deep questions of myself. And for that I am grateful. CS Lewis said, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” His stories taught me how to reason better both about what is and about what could be. And that could be the trickiest piece of all. How do we think about what is and what could be? How do we know? And what about those times when we don’t know what could be, when we have to guess? This is, after all, most of the time.

Let me suggest that the scientific imagination navigates exactly these waters. The scientific method and scientific institutions exist to constrain the imagination. Not to limit it exactly, but to channel it in ways that align with observation. Scientific narratives are not fictions, per se, but they are imaginings. They are “it is as if” stories. It is as if electrons were tiny moons orbiting atomic nuclei. They’re not really, but it’s a very helpful story. It is as if light was both a wave and a particle. It’s neither, really, but both perspectives are useful.

From Tom Gauld’s Department of Mind-Blowing Theories (Canongate, 2020).

There are bigger science stories as well, stories that tread the line between foretelling the future and revealing the present – much like the apocalypses of Isaiah, Daniel, and John. They are not fictional accounts, intentional falsehoods. Neither are they simply predictions. They are revelations. Ideally, they are accurate, compelling, and empowering. Scientific stories like disappearing ozone, rising temperature and sea level, and the heat death of the universe serve these functions. They should be scientifically accurate – and I think these stories are – but they should also be compelling and empowering. We need to think carefully about how these stories work and how we respond to them. Science fiction can help with that.

I want to leave you with one concrete example. It starts with another parable, the Wise and Foolish Servants in Luke 12: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” This passage has resonated with me throughout my life and throughout my ministry. It speaks to me about what it means to be an authority figure – in academia, in the church, and in science. It speaks to me about who I am called to be.

I turn to it again and again, but I must admit the language does not roll trippingly off the tongue, and I do not remember the passage clearly. It was easier when John F Kennedy said it in 1961. And Winston Churchill in 1906. What sticks with me, though, is Stan Lee writing in Amazing Fantasy #15. A phrase that would become the core principle in Spider Man comics. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The idea is Biblical, and I turn there to understand it fully, but it’s not an easy idea. Easy enough to say, once you work out the grammar, but what does it mean? How do you explain responsibility to someone unfamiliar with the concept? Or faith? Or love? These words are meaningless to those who have never experienced them. It is not enough to show: we must also tell. And so, we tell stories and say, “It is as if…” It is as if you had superpowers and lived with others who do not… It is as if you met an alien… It is as if the labour you need could be done by a robot…

To be honest, I was never a big comic book reader. Spider Man gave me the language, but others gave me the idea. I learned about responsibility, how it worked and what it meant from the stories of Lois McMaster Bujold, Terry Pratchett, JRR Tolkien, and Madeline L’Engle; each one unafraid to dive into practical, explicitly religious morality; each one concerned with emotional and psychological accuracy, compelling narrative, and empowering perspectives.

These stories shaped me, the more so because they were fantastical and extreme. They caught and shaped my imagination. They shaped the options I considered and, thus, the decisions I made. My parents and teachers and pastors made this possible. They helped me make the connections, from the pithy Spiderman to the insightful L’Engle to the authoritative scripture. They helped me see the power behind the phrase, “It is as if.”

As you think through your own experience of science fiction, on the page and on the screen, I hope you will ask a few key questions:

  1. What am I being asked to imagine and what am I told is true?
  2. What am I being offered to choose and what am I told I must accept?
  3. In what do I trust and for what do I hope?

These are at the heart of good science fiction and, I believe, at the heart of Christianity.



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Part 1: Star Wars, Star Trek and exoplanets: searching for God in a universe...

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Science, Science Fiction and Spirituality with David Wilkinson

Revd Prof David Wilkinson speaks on ‘Science, Science-fiction and Spirituality’ as part of the 2021 Laing Lecture at the London School of Theology.

by Helen Billam