My last blog was a mediation on Ender’s Game and the thoughts I had while watching it. Science Fiction is a much more important literary gender than people tend to think and I wanted to acknowledge that. I also wanted to show how a preoccupation with envisioning the future derives from Jewish and Christian roots. I said that because although the Bible urges us to honor the past, it spends much more time urging us to prepare for the future.
The central word of the Bible is covenant. It refers to a web of attitudes and responsibilities one adopts that makes it possible to link generations one to the other. That link allows covenant keepers to transmit knowledge from the past through the present, and on into the future. In this way, one’s decedents come to understand and become able to carry out the purposes of God. However, preparing them to do this requires one to envision the sort of future toward which they are headed. Since the Bible forbids soothsaying, necromancy, crystal ball reading and the like, the work of envisioning the future is actually an extension of wisdom. A godly person reflects on what he or she knows about the past and present. From this practice, one begins to have some idea about what seems likely to occur in the future. To be sure, the work of prognostication is an inexact science.
As St. Paul says, we “see through a glass darkly,” and only know “in part.” We prophesy according to our measure of faith, in the humble recognition of our mortality, finiteness, and limited understanding. Nonetheless, we attempt to understand where time is headed.
One of the more mysterious types of literature in the Bible, which is there to help us prognosticate, is called apocalyptic. It has no real contemporary secular counterpart, except, perhaps the fantasy/science fiction genre. If we move beyond the world of literature, we can see that the aims of apocalyptic writing are similar to that of some modern visual artists. In that light, the Book of Revelation might make a lot more sense after reading the Lord of the Rings or, for that matter, after meditating on the paintings of Salvador Dali and Picasso.
It is helpful to know what apocalyptic literature does and does not do. Failure to distinguish between the various genres of Biblical literature can result in serious violations of the Bible’s repeated warnings against fortune telling. Jesus repeated that warning after his resurrection “no man knows the day or the hour when the Son of Man comes.” Unfortunately, these warnings are often ignored.
To say it clearly, the Book of Revelation is not primarily about predicting the future. It is mainly about worship, about recapitulating the history of redemption in a symbolic way, and about developing in the reader the kind of wisdom necessary for recognizing the spiritual significance of world events as they occur. The Book of Revelation tells us that there is another world beyond the one we normally see. It tells us that events in our world are deeply interconnected to events in that other world. Finally, it tells us the best news of all – that Good will win against evil and all will be well in the end.
I like the Book of Revelation. That is probably why I like Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card and Ursula LaQuin. Well-written science fiction pulls a person out of his own time and space and makes him envision life in a very different environment. The Book of Revelation does that too.
Ready Player One, by Earnest Cline, tells the story of a boy who lives fifty years or so in the future. He lives in cyber space for hours at a time, playing games. Every morning, he puts on his helmet, which projects images through his eyes into his brain. He wears tactile-simulating gloves that make it feel as though he is grasping real objects. He keeps playing because if he wins, he will be a multibillionaire. An eccentric technology tycoon has left that provision in his will and thousands have been trying ever since.
Ready Player One is a great read. For one thing, it helps one escapes for a few hours into another world. It is healthy to do that sometime – that what we call recreation. But there is another payoff for reading this sort of thing. The reader begins to imagine a time not so far away, when the boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ may become very hazy. It makes him ponder, how does the ways of such a world connect with the Bible’s warnings about the dangers of idolatry, that is to say, of ‘image making?” And how do we prepare our decedents to live in such a world?
In Ender’s Game, when the student warriors arrive in space and experience weightlessness for the first time, they are amused to see their commanding officer floating in front of them at a right angle. Only Ender realizes that the commanding officer believes it is he who is standing upright; that it is his students who are sitting at such a peculiar angle. They soon learn how to avoid motion sickness, caused by this kind of alteration of reality by fixing their eyes on a single object. If they do that, they can figure out how other things in the environment relate to that.
Whether or not children every make it into space, the concept here is important for everyone. Not long ago, people thought the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus and Galileo taught us that the sun was the real center. The earth actually moves, every fast, in fact, around the sun. Then, Einstein taught us that there is no center. Everything moves around everything else. So, its is just as true to say that something we chose to be the center is the core of the universe as to say that the universe has no center.
I’m sure actually experiencing that reality up in space would make one sick to his stomach for a while. The implications certainly make me sick to my stomach down here! I am actually much more comfortable with Newton than with Einstein. I want my old world back, where up is up and down is down, and where saying “the sun sets” means precisely that and is not merely a figure of speech.
Alas, my old world is not coming back. A flaming sword blocks the way to Eden. We are forbidden to return to our past. Time only moves in one direction. Not only are we forbidden to go back, we are forbidden to remain still. For us, time moves on a single direction – forward. What we have from the past are lessons that may help us figure out the present and the future – the inevitable and unavoidable future. The Ghost of Christmas Future beckons and at some point, I am no longer in the picture. So I prepare people to represent me (and all those who prepared me) for that coming moment.
I think the future is only scary because we are not in it. So we terrify ourselves with images of horror and unimaginable evils, which will indeed arise according to our own apocalyptic witness. However, we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about the unimaginable blessings and wonder that the future will also bring – when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and will not learn of war anymore,” or when the Jew will take the Egyptian by the hand and say ‘let us go to the house of the Lord together.” And we do not take enough notice of the final words from heaven “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ.”
Knowing that is enough to move my out from my house and back into the mundane, ordinary work of mediating trivial disputes, comforting those who grieve, marrying another generation of delighted lovers, and walking one more step toward the reason that make sense of all of this.