A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
Hold on, I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is the first week of Advent, the season when Christians traditionally meditate on the events leading up to the birth of Christ and look forward to His return. It’s our Festival of Lights–the story of how God pierced the darkness of our world and illuminated it with His glory.
This is a powerful story, arguably the most powerful story ever, so it’s no wonder we see it echoed over and over again in human legend and popular culture, including…you guessed it…speculative fiction. Frequently, it takes the form of a “messiah story,” in which a character is born in obscurity, either in a supernatural manner or gifted with supernatural powers, and rises to free his or her benighted, oppressed people.
Of course, it’s an imperfect image, but rather than fuss about how these secular stories don’t get the real Messiah Story right, or whether they’re obscuring truth or confusing people about it, I think it’s important to recognize this phenomenon as evidence that God is working in the hearts of mankind, that we’re drawn so strongly to the story of Christmas because it promises to satisfy a longing in our inmost being that we can’t fully articulate. We know we’re in darkness, and we reach toward the light, even if we can’t yet comprehend it.
Even an imperfect story can help begin a conversation about the Real Story.
A New Hope
The first week of Advent is all about hope. We light the candle of Prophecy and read scripture that foretells the coming of Jesus. Similarly, spec-fic stories that center on a messiah usually send them into a society desperately in need of hope, with people clinging to ancient prophecies of a leader who will beat back the darkness and lead them into a golden age.
The Chosen One
In Episode 1 of the Star Wars saga, Anakin Skywalker is born into slavery on a desert planet under miraculous circumstances–a science-fiction version of the Virgin Birth. Jedi prophets have long foretold the coming of the Chosen One, who will restore balance to a badly discombobulated Force, bringing peace and justice to a galaxy marred by destructive evil. Anakin eventually fulfills that promise, but not in the way anyone expects, and only after a long, tortured descent into darkness.
The Shortening of the Way
In Dune, Frank Herbert’s epic saga of destiny and power politics in a far-future human society (and do read the book–David Lynch’s art-deco acid trip of a movie doesn’t begin to convey the depth and complexity of this tale, as pretty as it looks), we find people trying to create their own messiah. The Bene Gesserit, a shadowy all-female cabal, works to produce a super-being via selective breeding, someone who will be able to see into the future and permanently unite the warring factions of humanity–under their control, of course. The program comes with its own set of cunningly-crafted prophecies seeded throughout every human community, intended to pave the way for his arrival. However, the best-laid plans of mice, men, and sororities often go astray, and the messiah is born at an unforeseen place and time, throwing the entire plot askew. As it turns out, this is a good thing.
The Once and Future King
Fantasy has its own messiah figures, most notably King Arthur, who, through a combination of destiny, magic, and heroic vision, unites the bickering tribes of Britain and establishes Camelot–a realm of justice, chivalry, and courtly grace. Unfortunately, Arthur has very human flaws, which lead inexorably to his undoing, though his body is magically preserved and hidden in anticipation of a future resurrection when he will once again ascend to the throne and restore the glories of Camelot.
Tolkien’s Ring trilogy gives us Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, who spends his early life hiding from his heritage, his father’s broken sword strapped to his hip, bearing an obscure prophecy that it will be reforged and restored. With the unlikely help of a handful of little, insignificant hobbits, Aragorn vanquishes the armies of evil arrayed against him and reclaims his birthright.
There are many more examples, which I’m sure our readers will provide. What do these stories have in common? Here are three themes I think are significant in light of the Advent season:
1. People need a Savior. All these stories depict a society in deep trouble, full of evil, injustice, and misery, and it’s incapable of fixing itself. It needs help beyond simple human agency, and that help is someone, not something.
2. The Savior’s coming is promised, and that promise is fulfilled. Human beings are living in suffering and despair, but they’re not left without hope. Larger forces are at work to right what’s gone wrong, and the promised deliverer arrives, at just the right place and time.
3. The Savior’s arrival is unexpected. The characters in the story might not recognize this as God’s work, but I think a Christian observer will note as significant the fact that the messiah never appears in the manner anyone expects, nor is the messiah recognized as such. The deliverer emerges from obscurity, seemingly out of nowhere, when nobody’s looking for them. In the Dune example, even though the Bene Gesserit have engineered their messiah down to the prophecies that predict his coming, they are confounded by the arrival of a different, better messiah who is born when one of their members deviates from the plan for the sake of love.
I’ll continue with Episode II next week. In the meantime, find a couple of spec-fic-loving friends in need of the true Messiah and ask them why all their favorite stories are beginning to look a lot like Christmas.