The Worldview of Biocentrism–You Are One With The Force

Biocentrism is Dr. Robert Lanza’s view of the universe that criticizes modern science in part while drawing from neuroscience. It makes bold claims about the universe that parallel the Force, worth talking about…
on Jan 14, 2021 · 8 comments

For several years now I’ve heard of Dr. Robert Lanza’s “Biocentrism” but didn’t quite get what it was about from snippets I’d heard. I decided to purchase a copy of his book, Beyond Biocentrism, and see what he had to say for himself, since I’m always curious about new ways of conceiving of the universe. What I found in his worldview directly relates to concepts in certain stories, most famously the Star Wars franchise. Biocentrism has much in common with Hinduism and imagines the entire universe is connected as a single being, pretty much like “the Force” of Star Wars, but more developed.

Even though I felt there were truck-sized holes in Dr. Lanza’s logic (he’s an MD by the way), I think he’s offering some genuine competition to Intelligent Design as a means to explain the universe. Which concerns me, so is worth talking about. But his ideas also have implications concerning the worldview behind stories.

A Brief De-Confliction vis-a-vis Ethical Biocentrism

In ethics, “Biocentrism” means believing the needs of human beings are not greater than any other form of life. That’s in contrast to the view that human needs matter most–which we can fairly said has been a belief held by every literate civilization on Earth to one degree or other. But in particular Western civilization has maintained that human life matters more than animal life–and this view of course finds support in the Biblical account of the creation of Adam and Eve as the final piece of God’s creative work on Planet Earth.

Ethical Biocentrism” is a broader idea than animal rights activism, so that not all ethical biocentrists are animal rights activists, but all animal rights activists are biocentrists. Biocentrism has a weird self-contradiction running down its center in my estimation–every other species reproduces as much as it naturally can and eats what it can eat and takes what environmental space it can take, limited basically by their ability to travel and adapt to other environments. So in effect, Ethical Biocentrism calls on human beings and human beings alone to restrict their domination of other life. Because we are not any more important than any other life, we need to restrict ourselves–us humans beings the only species to do so, as if we really were the most important.

I think God setting up humans as the managers of nature, the gardener of Eden, is more straightforward. We are more important than other life, but have an obligation from God not to wantonly destroy species God created with a purpose.

But anyway, Ethical Biocentrism is not Robert Lanza’s Biocentrism, which is a quasi-scientific take on the nature of the universe. (Though I can easily imagine a Lanza-style biocentrist being an ethical biocentrist…)

Biocentrism in a Nutshell

The Brain

Beyond Biocentrism didn’t begin talking about the brain (it started with phenomena science doesn’t understand well, especially the beginning of the universe and the concept of time) but I think its concept of the brain is key to what it offers as a worldview that hasn’t been said before. In essence it states what you experience every day isn’t the real world, it is a reality generated entirely in your brain. You take information into your brain through your senses, not so much learning about the world but the world you perceive is actually the same as your brain activity. Lanza literally said if you see a tree, you are seeing it in your brain. When you reach out a hand to touch a tree, your hand isn’t outside you, either. It also is a projection of the brain. When your hand runs across a tree, the sensation is in your brain, not outside it.

This view meshes pretty well with the postmodern view that observers or speakers are 100% part of any statement they make. It is not even possible to be objective if your very being is created by your mind function–which is not something Lanza said, but an idea that follows from what he said. Though Lanza also threw out appeals to objective truth when it suited his line of reasoning, Biocentrism as a philosophy doesn’t embrace the idea of an independent universe outside of an observer.

Here’s the cover of the book I read. Copyright: Dr. Robert Lanza.

Consciousness

The book I read was overly simplistic in its style for my taste, by the way, but it did point out some truths about what scientists actually believe. One is that the problem of consciousness, while ignored by some people as unimportant, is a major question that science has a hard time dealing with. Why is anyone conscious? Why do we perceive we have choices and experiences of life if we are nothing more than biological machines?

Some atheists like Sam Harris basically say consciousness is nothing special and the sense that we have choices is an illusion. We are just machines, people like Harris say, and so when we assemble in one place enough electronic circuits (in building computers), we should expect consciousness to develop in them–computers will eventually become conscious because that’s all our consciousness is, the assemblage of sufficient processing power. Note this basic idea has undergirded a lot of science fiction, from Hal 9000 in 2001 A Space Odyssey to Star Trek‘s Data, to many, many other fictional AIs.

Christian thinkers in general would say that processing power isn’t enough to explain being conscious and there’s something special about the ability to perceive the world as we do. Something beyond the physical, we would say in most cases–a soul or a spirit, which either directly or indirectly came from God.

Lanza’s view is neither Christian nor atheist. He says that the entire universe is actually a single conscious being–which is yes, Pantheism, though I didn’t notice him using that word. Consciousness isn’t a puzzle to solve about the universe, he would say, it is a feature of the universe. In which all is alive. Our own consciousness is merely a reflection of the whole–but we are able to “get it” (Lanza’s words) and realize we are just a piece of the whole. So consciousness is eternal and doesn’t require explanation as a thing that arises from processing power. All things, processing power or not, are part of a conscious whole.

Lanza openly admits this idea parallels Hinduism and other Eastern religions, but doesn’t embrace reincarnation or other specifically Hindu ideas. But he does, no kidding, think the universe is one entity, one source of life, one consciousness, of which we all are part.

Let’s call his concept “the Force”–even though he doesn’t say it gives Jedi their power…

Time

Time, there is no time in the Force. Time is a construct of our brains, competitively evolved to survive, not understand our universe. Yes, Lanza embraces evolution when it suits him, but casts it off when it doesn’t, as I will bring up a bit later.

By the way, I’ve read a number of books by physicists for lay people in which the subject of time has come up. Time is a real puzzler for a lot of scientists because most equations are time-neutral. Only a few things in nature really seem to require time. One of those is thermodynamics, which Lanza dismissed in a way I did not find satisfying. But I’m pointing out that Lanza may sound crazy to some Speculative Faith readers, but in fact isn’t too far off from how a number of top scientists think about time. A lot of physicists find our experience of time to be odd and hard to explain.

Eternity

There is no beginning of the universe in Lanza’s view. The universe has always existed and always will exist. Time is an illusion produced by human brains and the limits baked into them by evolution–wait, I thought the brain was all part of one consciousness which wouldn’t have to have any supposed evolutionary restrictions (SHSH! Travis, you’re thinking again). But anyway, since Lanza thinks time isn’t really a thing, then death isn’t really real, either. We live in an eternal now, without beginning or end, perceived as a beginning or end only by the limitations of our brains.

This may sound wacky to most people reading this post and I’m not saying it isn’t–but logically the strongest competitor to the idea that God created the universe isn’t a randomly-self generating universe (an idea I poked holes in a previous Speculative Faith series), but the idea that the universe has always been around and thus doesn’t require an explanation for its existence. Aristotle believed in an eternal universe, which Lanza quotes (though Aristotle also believed in a “first mover” which many Christian theologians equated with God, which Lanza didn’t mention). Einstein also believed time was an illusion in that all moments of time should have a real existence at any moment (because of space-time and time being a dimension like space)–so why do we experience going from moment to moment? Einstein couldn’t explain that. Lanza tries to by saying, “Brain function.”

Paralleling Intelligent Design Thinking

Lanza doesn’t hesitate to pull out intelligent design arguments against the universe self-generating randomly and offers a cool thought exercise of a million imaginary monkeys randomly typing on a modern 58 key computer keyboard, assuming they typed 45 words a minute without rest of any kind, would take 36 trillion years (2,600 times the age of the universe) for it to be probable that one of them would type the exact words, “Call me Ishmael.” Let alone the exact combination of events leading to the Big Bang–or generation of life.

However, his answer isn’t that there is a single Being outside of time and space that conceived of the universe and created it (the Christian view) but rather that the universe has innate intelligence, and while evolution happened, it was guided by this unseen hand of the universe itself. All is one–the Force made us–and itself.

Of course, for evolution to happen, time has to happen, but I think Lanza would say no, that all stages of evolution are in essence simultaneous like all moments are simultaneous. This is clearly stuff that doesn’t line up with a Biblical worldview (a self-evolving but timeless universe), but I’m just reporting what I’ve read here and conclusions I’ve drawn from it

I found it mildly disturbing that logical reasoning launched versus a random self-generating universe can so easily be bent into arguments for a conscious self-generating universe. Though there’s ways to respond to Lanza’s point of view.

Ducking Cause and Effect

Lanza takes on the riddle of time and consciousness with unusual solutions, which are topics many physicists acknowledge are real puzzlers but then they more or less duck the question. So maybe we can think of Lanza as courageous for making controversial stances on these subjects.

However, when it comes to cause and effect, Lanza ducks what I see as a massive problem with his worldview. That is, he takes potshots at standard ways of looking at the universe as insufficient to explain it, including lobbing a few remarks versus the Christian worldview that holds on to a traditional interpretation of the Bible (for example, mocking the idea of Noah’s Ark based on 8 million known modern species). Though mostly he tears into the materialist worldview that ignores certain problems I’ve already mentioned.

But, all reasoning is tied to cause and effect–you are asserting something was caused by something else when reasoning why it happened and asking what possible option best explains what caused it. How can that process be reconciled with the idea of a timeless universe? Cause and effect either is time, or it is an inevitable component of time. We know time has passed because something has happened. What happened was caused by something else over a period of time–how can anyone reason about anything, ever, without recognizing time is required to even discuss concepts of cause and effect? Or to discuss proof and evidence, for that matter?

I imagine Lanza would say something about an illusion of cause and effect to my criticism and maybe say something about only using logical proof to point out its own fallacies, as the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno did (Lanza quotes Zeno). In contrast, I would say any kind of reasoning that nullifies reason itself, rather than teaching us to abandon reason, can be fairly criticized as inherently faulty. But that’s because I believe in an orderly God who created an orderly universe–who is capable of blowing our minds with the facts of how things work. But who does not cancel out reasoning itself–on the contrary, God is pro-rationality (which isn’t the same as being pro-what the majority of humans think).

Anti-science?

Lanza does sing the praises of intuition, though he also appeals to reason. He downplays conventional scientific approaches but tries to overcome what he sees as their deficiencies (such as believing time is real) with heavy reliance on neuroscience, drawing from his experiences as a physician no doubt.

So overall this philosophy is pro-science and anti-scientific realism–“scientific realism” being the idea there is an independent universe outside of the observer of the universe. So Lanza is in effect trying to “square the circle” of getting people to accept the benefits of modern science by saying it has observed real things (especially about the brain), while also embracing subjectivity in a way wholly compatible with postmodernist thought.

The Force

Lanza doesn’t go into the idea that the universe could supply a person with power like a Jedi has or the unity of the universe could provide a rational explanation for what would be de facto magic, other than saying intuition has a genuine basis via connecting with the universe in a mysterious way. I’m not sure he would buy that Jedi power greater than intuition would be possible.

However, if I didn’t know the timeline of ideas, I might think that Lanza’s Biocentrism inspired George Lucas to write Star Wars. But Lanza came out with his theory in 2007 and Star Wars came out in 1977.  So maybe the inspiration flowed the other way around. Or maybe both were inspired by Hinduism. (Hey, am I talking about the pesky subject of time again? 😉 )

Certainly ideas of what the Force is or how it works could be clarified by Lanza’s notions. Note also that just as Hinduism could say all-is-one yet embrace specific gods like Krishna, Lanza’s Biocentrism I think would be essentially compatible with modern Paganism.

These ideas could inform the types of stories Christians read and write. We don’t want to reproduce what Lanza is thinking, to be sure. But we should be aware that such ideas exist. Perhaps we can either write or focus our reading on stories that reveal the downsides of such a philosophy…

Conclusion

Overall, while I felt that Biocentrism suffers from some massive logical contradictions, the philosophy itself downplays the value of focusing on such contradictions. As such it is able to blend elements of scientific materialism with Hinduism, throwing a whopping dose of neuroscience justification in there in a way compatible with postmodernism, with room for modern Paganism to boot. And would also fit in with ethical biocentrism quite well, though Lanza didn’t talk about that.

I see this philosophy as if someone crossed Ebola with COVID 19 with small pox. Ugh. (Though, good thing is it doesn’t seem to be very contagious.)

Have any of you read Dr. Robert Lanza? Do you have any thoughts on Biocentrism, either his brand or the “ethical” kind? What are your thoughts on the Force and how Lucas’s vision does or does not contradict a Christian worldview? Am I off base in comparing the Force to Lanza’s views? Any other thoughts?

Who Can Put a Price on Daring Love, Loyalty, and Swordsmanship?

Fantasy helps us imagine how we fight for the freedom of goodness, justice, love, mercy, knowledge, and truth itself.
on Jan 12, 2021 · 2 comments

In M. I. McAllister’s fantasy Urchin of the Riding Stars, Urchin’s world is the island of Mistmantle, eternally surrounded by fog no islander can cross and return, unless they return by another way. Visitors are few, but welcome.

In the peaceful and industrious island kingdom of Mistmantle, Urchin yearns to be a tower squirrel, to work near the king and his family. At last he is chosen, but then the king’s son is killed, and the traitor threatens the peace of Mistmantle, the safety of every loyal animal, and the love of the Heartstone that binds the king and the kingdom together.

Urchin didn’t often use tunnels. Trying to remember what Padra had taught him about them he found an entrance in a corner of the wall. The frightened hedgehog voice was closer, and so was cruel laughter, and then, to his horror, the rasp of a sword being drawn. Urchin tore toward it.

The tunnel opened out so suddenly that Urchin wasn’t ready for what he saw, and had to pull himself together. He was in some sort of guard room, where a platter lay on a small table, a lamp glowed on a wall, and two moles, who neither looked nor sounded like Mistmantle moles, had their backs to him. They were pointing their swords toward a hedgehog so small, so scruffy, and so brave in its terror that fury fired Urchin.

“I’ll fight you . . .” the hedgehog was saying, though his voice was thin and his mouth trembled. “I’ll fight you. One at a time. But you’ll have to lend me a sword, or it’s not fair.”

Soundlessly, Urchin sprang onto the table and picked up the platter for a shield. If the hedgehog had seen him, it was wise enough to keep quiet. The entrance was free, so the moles would probably escape rather than fight.

“Captain Padra will be very cross,” Said the hedgehog, trying very hard not to cry.

“Aah! Poor ickle hedgehog!” Said a mole.

“Aah!” said the other, and was turning away as Urchin sprang from the table. “Aaaarh!”

There was no need to fight. The moles had seen, not a young squirrel, but a raging armed warrior. The first fled, and the other followed as the flat of Urchin’s sword skimmed across his flank.

Urchin of the Riding Stars, pg. 263, by M. I. McAllister

Urchin was young at heart but not small at heart. To become a true creature, be he a captain, a prince, a king, or merely a squirrel like no other, one must learn many things.

Bravery alone can sometimes defeat an enemy. At other times it takes perseverance and hard fighting. And the thing worth fighting for, kept clear in our mind’s eye, is vital to winning the battle. Hold high before your heart the shield of faith in the goodness of the one who made the world, wield your sword for the downtrodden you defend, and in the end right will be done.

If we do not know what we risk our lives for, giving up seems a logical option when the fight grows long. For family, for friends, for law and order, for the apple pie on the table—in a word—we fight for the freedom of goodness. For justice, for love, for mercy, for knowledge and for truth itself.

And how does a young squirrel learn to do these things? By serving first among the lowest ranks, growing in knowledge and skill, and rescuing those he loves. As Urchin moves upward in sword-wielding and people-watching, he comes to know what he needs by feeling it, touching it, doing it. Making mistakes, of course, but fewer and fewer.

Until at last the time comes and a young squirrel and a king are ready. They contend for merry feasts of gathering under the oaks, for the right of an otter to swim in the sea about a tower, for a disturber of the peace to be brought to justice, and for a king to come into his own, one who cares for all creatures under the Creator’s uplifting hand. Urchin sees a true king who is the first to go hungry when necessary, the first into a just fight, the last to retreat from enemies, and the last to sit down at a feast of plenty.

Here is an adventure of a lifetime, filled with triumph, tears, and trust. We journey with wise words gained from the pages of those who have traveled the sea of life before us, who watch us with unseen eyes full of glad expectation.

And how to join this journey to such places where heart-knowledge is written, with more revealed every day?

Cracking on full sail, speed across the waves, the wind fresh in our face, and dream of lasting change, terrific inventions, fantastic beasts, and killer adventure on the ocean of fantasy. Dream of true greatness young at heart but great in spirit, while your deeds send ripples ahead of you.

A Scientific Theory of Magic

This post ponders what would it mean if magic were simply an undiscovered form of energy. How would known physics affect practical magic?
on Jan 7, 2021 · 20 comments

This post is a completely re-worked version of a post I put on my personal blog back in 2014. It’s a think piece about the nature of magic, because there are multiple ways to do magic in fiction. Often magic falls along certain tropes in fantasy, but what would happen if magic had to follow scientific rules? What if magic were simply extra power supplied from the universe somewhere–or perhaps another universe–and by “power” I mean energy convertible into types we recognize in science. If magic were in fact extra power, then spells that used less power would be more feasible and “easier” than spells that required more power. Allowing the creation of magical systems that are internally consistent, but unlike most tropes of fantasy magic. Offered here for creative minds thinking about creating stories of their own–or people simply interested in comparing the magic they read in stories with what I’m offering here.

Energy Source and Application

A previous post of mine discussed that idea that Christian writers may have problems dealing with magic that secular writers do not and I suggested six ways around the problem. This post in effect looks at some of the implications of the approach I listed at number four. A number of writers have thought along the same lines, but what if there is a type of energy unknown to modern science which responds to concentrated thought or other acts directed from a person, such as speaking out loud, which would wind up resembling the magical spells of fantasy lore? If the energy is out there, the “wizard” in effect learns to study how to use that energy in a way that parallels a scientist studying the natural world–except with means that resemble fantasy tropes of how magic is used.

Part of what inspired the idea of energy flow stems from an understanding I gained of electrical circuits when studying medical equipment repair for the military. An electrical device with a power source has to have a flow of current both to and from the place where electricity is used. But the return line for current has almost no voltage in it. So a person normally will only be electrocuted by the “hot” power line, one that’s going out to an electrical device. So…what if magical power flows through universes (assuming a multiverse), but is mostly depleted as it flows through ours? So there’s very little usable magical power for us–but alternate universes might have plenty…

Note this kind of magic in effect would not be supernatural power technically speaking–magic would be a natural power, like electricity or atomic energy. To be used, this magical energy would have to be converted into a form of energy we recognize from physics. Something people could use for either good or evil. It would only seem supernatural in contrast to the world we actually live in.

Note also I did a previous post for speculative faith in which I talked about how a blend of magic and technology could be the basis of an original story idea. I’m not talking about that directly here, but a few of the implications of magic having to follow scientific rules would mean that using technology alongside magic could make a lot of sense.

Ordinary Physics Applies Alongside Magic

Gravity and Kinetic Energy

If other scientific principles are still true, causing an item to levitate by a spell “just because” would be impossible in the type of magic I’m talking about. Scientific principles still apply, so gravity is still gravity and will still be in effect. The power of magic would have to actively counter gravity, which wouldn’t go away. Which would mean a spell pushing an object downhill would need less energy than one pushing an object uphill.

Perhaps a spell could locally shut off gravity, but doing so could cause the strange or damaging effects of shutting down the Higgs field, which I described in a old personal blog post on the Higgs Boson. Perhaps a more practical form of levitation would involve increasing an object’s repulsion against the magnetic field that would exist around this fantasy planet. If that’s how it would work, ferro-magnetic objects made of iron, nickel, and cobalt would be easier to levitate than anything else. Note that a magician in this universe would not necessarily have to understand that a magnetic field exits or that what he or she did involved magnetism. He or she would simply know from experience it’s easier to lift particular kinds of metal than anything else.

Or perhaps levitation could involve creating an additional gravitational pull from above, or magnifying the pull of an orbiting moon. If so, the position of the moon could effect levitation. Or delicate objects might prove difficult to lift without fracturing them between stresses from gravity above and gravity below.

Water droplets resisting gravity due to surface tension, scientific “magic.” Credit: Anurag Das / EyeEm / Getty Images

Note that getting an arrow to fly sideways to attack someone or simply moving objects along after they’ve been levitated would be best explained by manipulations of gravity or the electromagnetic field. Obviously lifting small objects and moving them slowly would be easier than moving large objects quickly–quite unlike what Yoda said the Force can do…

Heat

Since many reactions in the known natural world produce heat (chemical reactions, friction, absorption of radiation, etc), it would make sense that one of the simplest spells in this hypothetical magical system would be heat generation. Lighting a fire would be simple and using heat in a beam to attack enemies would also be simple but obviously would require more power. Making an enemy burn from afar without any visible means of attack would be much easier than making a fireball for reasons I’m going to explain in a bit. Also, magical welding would be a thing.

Making something cold is actually removing heat, so it’s harder. Cold spells and heat spells, treated as opposites in most fantasy tales, would not be opposites in the system I’m thinking of. Generating cold would be significantly harder and would require the use of magical energy to move heat from one place to another, generating cold the way an air conditioning system does.

Light and Electricity

Since light is a common form of energy from electromagnetism, a spell generating light should be easy-peasy for our imagined masters of this kind of scientific magic. But making light that’s amplified by sharing a common phase is a type of modification of light that may be relatively simple. If so, a laser spell ought to be common, simpler in fact that many other types of spells–definitely easier than a fireball. Electrical-based spells should also be prevalent, not just the lightning bolts that are common enough in fantasy, but taser-like paralyzing effects, and continuously-running electric arcs for lighting, and more.

Alchemy

Since transmuting elements involves moving the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons in atoms around, which is something the type of energy I’m imagining could effect, Alchemy should be possible in the sense that Alchemists would still attempt to transmute lead into gold. Under this type of magic, transmuting elements might be simpler than a number of other imaginable spells. But alteration of atomic nuclei by magic (the magic user does not have realize that’s what he or she is doing to be doing it), perhaps could come with the risk of setting off a nuclear blast, even if a small one. Because messing with atomic nuclei could run the risk of some matter converting directly to energy. Though a much more likely effect would be the generation of hazardous ionizing radiation. Nuclear magic could therefore be a branch of magical arts in this type of story world.

Energy to Matter

Spells that would be hard would be any that involve the creation of matter from nothing. That’s because these would have to gather a great deal of ambient energy first in accordance with E=mc2, where it takes a huge amount of energy to make a tiny amount of matter. That’s why a fireball would be much more complex that a heat beam–a fireball is burning matter generated by magic, as opposed to pure heat. (So lasers and heat rays would be a thing much more easily that a burning fireball–though magic could easily enough be used to manipulate matter that was already burning and throw it at someone…)

Especially those spells that create life would be massively complex. In fact spells involving significant alterations to living creatures might be virtually impossible–life is just so complex. Though a plant’s growth might be accelerated by altering time for the plant (again, the sorcerer may perceive her or his spell makes the roots grow instantly, but what they actually would do is accelerate time for the plant in question, allowing it to produce what it would normally do, only much faster). Restoring someone from the dead may never work, but even if it did, it would almost surely produce a zombie instead of a normal person.

Healing spells in general would be hard, other than simple wound cauterization. Healing spells could perhaps work most effectively by accelerating natural healing–though it would have the inherent limitation of eventually aging the patient to the point of death if used too often.

Time

Time based effects, as mentioned in the section above, which are not common in fantasy stories I know, perhaps should be extremely common, especially slowing time for a particular object, since that only requires an intense gravity field to increase local acceleration (with effects coming from Relativity). Note though that going backward in time would require the generation of a wormhole, which would neither be safe nor easy. Accelerating time might also be possible, though it might be hard on a large scale.

Conclusion

Levitations by magnetism or the implications of heat, lasers, atomic blasts, the difficulty of making life, levitation, electricity, and time are only examples of what this type of thinking about magic could produce. They are not by any means the only subjects this discussion could have covered. What other examples can you think of? And can you recall stories in which magic was used like this? Magic with an eye to what is scientifically plausible? If so, how did the magic in that story or stories differ from what I’ve suggested?

Stargate SG-1 Season One–Making Weak Ideas Into a Better Story

Stargate SG-1 is new for me. I didn’t think the Stargate movie was great–this post details how the series started off with weak ideas but made good stories anyway.
on Dec 31, 2020 · 15 comments

The series Stargate SG-1 was new back in 1997, so you’d think I would have watched it back then. I didn’t, mostly because the series stemmed from a 1994 movie that didn’t appeal to me very much. The movie saddled the series with some weak story ideas (yes, in my opinion) that I’m going to detail in this article in just a bit. But as I gave the series a chance (yes, watching it on Netflix), it grew on me. The arc of the story made good use of the material it had, improving through the twenty-one episodes of the first season. To use a card playing analogy, the series was dealt a bad hand which it played well.

Note that Stargate SG-1 lasted ten seasons and spawned multiple sequels, especially Stargate Atlantis, which lasted five seasons. I’m not vouching for any of the other seasons beyond the first and the episodes I’ve seen in the second season and of course I’m not commenting on Atlantis. TV series sometimes find a fanbase devoted enough to keep cranking out episodes even if their content isn’t very good and I think that it’s at least possible that happened to Stargate SG-1 as it went on. But I looked on some fan forums and the consensus seems to be that season one is not Stargate SG-1 at its best. We’ll see if I agree with that as I continue watching.

No doubt a forum like this directed towards fans of speculative fiction will include some die-hard Stargate SG-1 loyalists, who might object to me saying the ideas behind Stargate were weak. I’m not trying to be offensive–certainly the things that bother me don’t always concern other people, which is fine. I’m not saying you don’t have the right to like what you like, but that for me, the basic ideas behind Stargate SG-1 were faulty.

This post will contain some mild spoilers, by the way. But I won’t give away any plots in detail.

Weak Ideas in Setting and Character From the Movie

Ancient aliens

The US military crew in the Stargate movie. Image copyright: MGM

For the uninitiated, the movie Stargate stemmed from the idea that the Egyptian gods were in fact real. They were aliens who visited Earth in ancient times and enslaved humans. They came to Earth through a gate that through a series of codes connects to other inhabited worlds, using wormholes. The US military, the US Air Force in particular, get its hands on a gate that had been buried and contacts a brilliant but controversial linguist who cracks the code of the gate and travels to a world that looks pretty much like ancient Egypt, where a battle between modern men and ancient “gods” takes place. Humans kill the “god” Ra and save the planet.

The whole finding an ancient stargate by the US military thing I would say is a strength of the Stargate SG-1 series. It’s an intriguing notion to think of modern military having access to other star systems and having a motivation to explore them directly related to the defense of Planet Earth.

But the Stargate movie set this up with aliens having pyramid-shaped spaceships and wearing costumes with serpent heads, to which my gut reaction was they look ridiculous. The ancient aliens have a number of characteristics that annoy me, beyond their appearance:

  1. I think the very idea of ancient aliens in Egypt covertly supports the idea that aliens were behind all ancient beliefs in gods and goddesses, including the belief in the God of the Bible. Which I don’t agree with, of course.
  2. The ancient aliens have plasma weapons we are supposed to believe are superior to guns, but which shoot slower and miss plenty–it fact in some scenes they miss much more than they hit. The aliens seem kinda weak, actually, but the story maintained the fiction they are strong “because.”
  3. The fact the Goa’uld (the name for the Egyptian-esque aliens) speak ancient Egyptian is what gives the brilliant linguist character (named Dr. Daniel Jackson, in the movie played by James Spader) access to them. But it messes with ancient Egyptian history and linguistics. Ancient Egyptian isn’t a language isolate–it’s related to lots of other languages, including Hebrew, and it’s just weird to me that this is supposed to be an alien language.
  4. The ancient aliens are into enslaving humans not for the obvious purpose of building their pyramids, which are actually highly technological, but for “just because” reasons. Which messed with my logical brain, “Wait a minute, all the alien’s tech is something the human slaves can’t build–what exactly are the human slaves for in the first place?” (Hosting hostile aliens, sure, but you don’t need hordes of slaves for that.)
  5. Religion is a tool for the aliens to subjugate their slaves. So Ra isn’t a god but has himself worshipped as a god because it helps him run his slave empire. Yeah, while this could be adapted to say this kind of religion only applies to false gods as opposed to Jehovah the Creator of all, I think the idea takes a shot at all religion, actually.

Getting the U.S. Military Wrong

So one of the key figures in this story is a US Air Force colonel, Colonel Jack O’Neil (portrayed by Kurt Russell in the movie)…who is a veteran of special forces, a lead from the front kind of guy…and wait is in the Air Force? And is a full bird colonel? (“Full bird” means not a lieutenant colonel–he wears an eagle for his rank, not a silver oak leaf.)

People know, right, that the United States Air Force, while a great institution in many ways, doesn’t have a lot in the way of special forces? They have two basic special forces jobs, one with their guys embedded in another kind of unit (Army, Navy, or Marines) in order to control attack aircraft. The other job is pararescue–parachuting back behind enemy lines to rescue US forces, especially downed pilots. Neither of those jobs are like what Col. O’Neil is supposed to have done.

And how many colonels lead from the front? Not many. Not that it couldn’t happen, but where are all the enlisted guys, the sergeants and other non-commissioned officers? Stargate has a bit of obsession with officer ranks. Too many characters who would not be officers in reality are officers in the Stargate franchise.

Also, I’ve known a number of special forces guys–not a huge number but some. And I’ve known a number of colonels. I haven’t met any real person who is a hard-charging-wise-cracking-fighter-who-is-disinterested-in-academic-details who is actually a colonel. I’m not saying such a person is impossible, sure I suppose there have been historic people like that–but the character strikes me as what someone would imagine the US military is like rather than what it is like. The US Air Force in particular is pretty brainy! (Though in fact, some fighter pilots are a bit like Col. O’Neil, but that’s a whole other can of worms to talk about why fighter pilots are not like other officers…)

Problems Stargate SG-1 Added to the Movie

Frontal Nudity

In 1997, Stargate SG-1 aired on the Showtime network. The first episode contains a scene that shows full female frontal nudity. It was not necessary to the story–she could have kept her clothes on. I skipped past the scene when it came up–but in fact I could have skipped past the entire episode. The first episode in effect re-introduces the stargate and introduces the main characters. The only parts really important to the series is that the alien Goa’uld remain a threat, though now through Apophis rather than Ra. And, a human-like but non-human servant of the Goa’uld rebels against them and decides to help the humans on their quest to explore other worlds through the stargate, the main character Teal’c.

Note the first season doesn’t do nudity again and eventually the series left Showtime. In fact, doing a bit of research, it appears the first episode is the only episode in the entire franchise to feature full nudity. If you haven’t seen this series but are interested but want to avoid the gratuitous nudity, just skip the first episode altogether. You will realize quickly enough who Teal’c and Apophis are, without that episode–other episodes cover the essential bits.

English-Speaking Aliens

Most science fiction series have believed its impractical to feature aliens speaking alien languages for more than short bits. Star Trek dealt with this by imagining there was such a thing as a “universal translator” that quickly and easily picked up alien words and translated them–with Star Trek only delving into language translation when it decided it wanted to do so.

So it’s understandable that aliens or ancient humans long ago removed from Earth would speak English. Practically, the producers of the show made that choice for reasons I get. But it creates a problem. You see, the purpose for Dr. Daniel Jackson stemmed from his abilities as a linguist. He cracked the stargate code and could communicate with the Goa’uld based on speaking their language…and the Goa’uld still speak some reconstructed ancient Egyptian to be sure, though they also speak English. But if not as a linguist, what purpose does Dr. Jackson serve?

The first season has him morph into a bit of a cultural expert and keeping him on makes sense–but the decision to eliminate foreign languages gives him less to do and at times brings up the question, “Ok, why don’t they replace this guy with someone from the military?”

Alien Worlds Look Too Much Like British Colombia

Stargate SG-1 was filmed in Canada, around Vancouver in British Colombia. Aaand, a lot of alien worlds in the first season happen to look just like the forests of B.C. Though in fact I found the producers did a bit less of that as the series went on. Still, while the issue is as understandable as using the English language–you film in the locations you have easy access to most often–one of the things about a stargate system is that it would go to all kinds of worlds, including very exotic ones. So it’s a mistake to show too many worlds looking essentially alike.

Too Much Repeating Ancient Cultures

Some people might think it’s awesome that you find ancient Mycenean culture (and other examples) reproduced around another star because people were lifted from there long ago. But the fact they never changed seems odd–though of course they did manage to learn English (ahem). But visiting ancient cultures over and over, even though I love history, wasn’t something to float a series on. I think season one went this direction for a while because of Dr. Jackson’s expertise in ancient cultures…and he needs something to do on the team, right? Fortunately Stargate didn’t stick with doing that only.

Cheesy?

Stargate SG-1 goes for a sincere approach to subjects, other than the wisecracking Col. O’Neil, who does provide needed comic relief at times. With special effects not always being the best and some particular story plots a bit weak, sometimes this series verges on campy, especially when the Goa’uld show up in serpent costumes. Or with certain other aliens. But I think the series overcomes this issue and in many ways makes the best of what it has.

How Stargate SG-1 Made the Best of What it Had

More Realistic US Military

The main cast of Stargate SG-1. Image copyright: MGM

The fictional stargate program is headed up by an Air Force commander, Major General Hammond. The character Hammond looks, talks, and acts like a general in my opinion, with only a few deviations. He talks about national defense, duty, and is willing to sacrifice people for the mission, but always cares about his people. And not just him, many other lesser military personnel seemed quite true to life. I in particular like the detail that Stargate SG-1 is just one stargate team out of many–it’s not like the military to have just one team for something like this.

I found Hammond and other changes in the military for the series convincing–and it’s important the military seem convincing. After all, that’s the good part of the basic premise of this story–what if the US military (Air Force specifically) had access to alien worlds, in a quest to prevent our planet from being invaded, seeking allies against dangerous aliens–the Goa’uld.

Loved the Alerts

Since the stargate can be a means for enemies to attack the human race, a number of defensive systems get installed around it. The fact an alarm goes off when the stargate has an unauthorized activation or when there’s an unknown incoming connection, the fact they have an iris defensive system and drop blast doors and have armed teams at the gate with weapons every single time this happens plays up the idea that the Planet Earth really is at risk, no kidding, and this time the United States military isn’t necessarily anywhere close to the toughest fighter around. Nobody knows what’s coming through the gate–that premise built dramatic tension and the writers played this card well.

Expanding the Threat

One of the obvious logical issues concerning any threat a stargate could have to Planet Earth would be, “Why don’t you just bury the thing or destroy it?” But by making it clear the Goa’uld also have starships that can directly attack Earth, the stakes were raised. It’s not if Earth will be invaded, but when, so the question of finding allies or useful technologies is vitally important. Honorable mention goes to a realistic evaluation of how incapable our planet would be in fighting off attackers from outer space…even goofy goobers like the Goa’uld.

Pentagon Politics

Not only are the threats from alien invaders raised, threats from inner-Pentagon politics arise as well. Intelligence officers and agencies with their own agendas, cost-cutting politicians, and military rivalries pop up appropriately in Stargate SG-1’s first season.

Likeable Characters

While one of my objections to the set-up for Stargate SG-1 is the Colonel O’Neil doesn’t seem real, the character is likeable, increasingly so as the first season progressed. Teal’c is also very likeable, as is Capt. Samantha Carter (an Air Force astrophysicist who is also a member of the team). Dr. Jackson I may like the least, but his character is still an empathetic figure.

Consequences

The series so far doesn’t ignore consequences from past actions. Aliens met once might be seen again. Characters encountered once can pop up again–with memories of the last time they met. Most importantly, the series deals with what it would be like to actually connect to alien worlds. The issue of plagues and diseases arises, for example. Via an alternate reality themed episode, the series shows that things could have been very much worse for humanity via combat through the stargate than it actually was–which is good. The series takes seriously the idea that there could be negative effects from running headlong into unknown worlds.

Morality

The series doesn’t hestitate to see enslavement as a bad thing–there’s no hint that “Maybe that’s okay for an alien culture.” Stargate adopts a general morality of the value of loyalty and self-sacrifice, the importance of fighting oppressors and being alert when evil comes attacking. The conscience that God put in human beings in general is reflected in these values. In fact, the morality of loyalty to one another is part of what makes the cast likeable, though that’s true for ensemble casts in general.

God missing?

So I’ve gone through the arc of talking about problems in the backstory of Stargate and how I think the series managed to produce a number of genuinely interesting stories in spite of what strikes me as a weak set up. One issue deserves re-visiting. The issue of God. Yes, the idea that all gods are aliens I already mentioned can (can, not must) imply that the same is true for the God of ancient Israel and Christianity. Yeah, that is what it is, but there’s another issue related to God.

So in the modern United States military, including the Air Force, are there any people who pray? Any chaplains? Any religious support or religious sentiments? Yes, of course there are. Does anyone pray in Stargate SG-1? Nope.

General Hammond I think on occasion says things like “we’d better hope to God that doesn’t happen” but the only reference to God other than that is a cost-cutting senator who expresses the opinion that the stargate is not needed because God will protect Earth (which actually is an argument for not having any military at all…) The senator is clearly shown to be in the wrong. So the series in effect tries to make an interesting story–while trying to ignore the issue of God…leaving the primary mention of God’s role in the universe belong to someone who is sanctimoniously wrong. FYI.

It would be interesting to have a story like this with a religious aspect included…but it is what it is.

Conclusion

I was a bit surprised in searching the Speculative Faith site to discover nobody has written an article about Stargate SG-1 previously.  I’m curious why that would be. In any case, are there any fans of Stargate among us? Any who hate it? What are your opinions of the Stargate movie and Stargate SG-1 series? Please make your thoughts known in the comments below.

From The Writers’ Toolbox: Timeless Questions And Eternal Mysteries

Many writers are afraid they will limit the scope of their book if they place their story firmly in a particular economic or political or religious milieu. They’re afraid if they take sides in a controversial question, they’ll make enemies and lose readers.
on Dec 28, 2020 · 1 comment
· Series:

Writers say something. Whether that something is trivial and mundane, or significant and profound, depends on how unafraid they are.

Yes, unafraid. Many writers are afraid they will limit the scope of their book if they place their story firmly in a particular economic or political or religious milieu. They’re afraid if they take sides in a controversial question, they’ll make enemies and lose readers. They might even be afraid that they will fall afoul of the cancel culture crowd or be blackballed by a publisher.

church_1Some time ago another writer related in an email the gist of a discussion elsewhere regarding the inclusion of particular evangelical Christian denominations and their practices in works of fiction. This writer argued against generic “community churches” and in favor of specific churches such as the First Presbyterian Church or Grace Lutheran or Diamond Bar Baptist. In other words, she advocated including specific churches with known doctrines that might or might not agree with what a reader believes.

The individual taking the opposite position made a case for widening the audience for a book by painting generic evangelical elements rather than specific ones.

Which is right?

According to a host of writing instructors, writing with specific details brings a place or a person alive. Consequently, writers that steer away from presenting a particular environment or view point, whether religious or political, are actually neutering their story. From agent/writing instructor Donald Maass:

What distinguishes our era? What are its look, buzzwords, issues, and conflicts? Fashion magazines, op-ed pages, sports reporting, rappers, corporate websites, and teen slang are all barometers of our times . . . I don’t mean to suggest dropping in brand names or news events. Those are shallow gimmicks. I do mean that an important component of any novel’s grip on readers’ imaginations is how that novel brings alive its times. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 168 – emphasis mine)

The fear of dating a novel scares off some authors from creating the kind of particular atmosphere that makes a story feel as if it’s anchored in reality. However, stories like The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck bring alive a time and culture through which the author can then say something important and universal.

Some writers also fear taking a stand on a controversial subject or saying something significant about an eternal question. Maass again:

The mysteries of existence are also often avoided in manuscripts. Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe in God? Are our lives random or do they have a purpose? Do you think about these things? Of course you do . . . What about your protagonist? What’s her take on the big questions? Is it pretentious to include them?

Ducking the big questions is easy. So is achieving low impact . . . Is there such a thing as justice when laws are made by fallible humans? Does do no harm have any meaning when medicine becomes guesswork? Is it worth building bridges when their ultimate collapse is guaranteed? Do we teach in schools “truths” that are untrue? Does the accumulation of capital do good or does it corrupt? What are the limits of friendship? Should loyalty last beyond the grave? We read fiction not just for entertainment but for answers to those questions. So answer them. (Writing 21st Century Fiction, p. 169-170 – emphasis mine)

A good many writers are afraid of answering these kinds of questions, thinking that by doing so they’ll come across as preachy—the death knell to fiction, especially Christian fiction.

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdHaving something to say does not equate with preachy writing. Harper Lee had some specific things to say about prejudice, but I’ve never heard anyone claim To Kill A Mockingbird was preachy. That’s because Ms. Lee didn’t explain what she had to say: she showed it through her characters.

She didn’t have one of them sum up the meaning of all the events or spell out the ethical implications of why they did what they chose to do. Rather, she created believable people who lived in a specific time with a certain set of problems, and she showed one man and his daughter who lived in contradiction to the societal norm.

Clearly she tackled her subject unafraid, even in the racially charged era of the pre-Civil Rights movement, and the result was a classic story with timeless truths, still being read and studied fifty years later.

Oh, and that author opposed to specific evangelical Christian denominations in fiction? It turns out each of her books is set in the Amish community—quite particular, very unique, and yet apparently a fertile field for stories that speak to readers today.

This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared at Rewrite, Reword, Rework as part of a short series on incorporating themes in fiction.

A Santa Claus Non-Believer Discovers Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters

I’ve just discovered Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas. I found them charming–but they also got me thinking about truth, tradition, and stories.
on Dec 24, 2020 · No comments

So I nearly forgot it’s the Christmas season and was getting ready to write an article totally unrelated to the holiday. Not that I haven’t decorated or bought presents, I have, but because for some reason I can’t fully explain, with the passage of time the calendar of holidays becomes increasingly less important to me in and of itself. Sure, I hope to see family members and enjoy gift-giving, but traditions have been fading in interest for me for a long time. Again, I’m not sure why, but it could be because I really do think of time in a linear way. I certainly experience linear time. Yes, there are some repetitions, but no Christmas really is the same for me as the previous year or other years before that–no year is the same as any other year–not just Christmas, but no day within any year is the same as any other day in any previous year for me. I’ve gone through some rather huge changes throughout the course of my life…which oddly brings me to my discovery of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.

For me, it’s a new discovery. I’m not really into Christmas literature, not much. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is my favorite bit of literature specifically built on Christmas and for a number of years I also enjoyed the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life but frankly don’t bother to watch either any more. Same with the classic Grinch cartoon narrated by Boris Karloff. I know how they end.

That may make me sound like Ebenezer Scrooge to some readers or like the Grinch itself…but I don’t think that’s what it means. I am a generous person year-round and think about the incarnation of Christ year-round. Yes, everyone else talks about Christ’s birth much more on December 25th than other days and I’m fine with that. Yes, good, fine, enjoy! But I’m not deeply committed to the celebration of any particular date. Again, more and more, no date ever seems the same to me as it was in any previous year–each day seems unique to me, more and more.

No Santa For Baby Travis

Perhaps the seed of my disinterest in holidays starts with my parents never telling me Santa Claus was a real person. My mother thought (and still thinks) all forms of deliberate deceit are awful, so she told me from the beginning that Santa Claus wasn’t a real person. Which created a few rough arguments in elementary school in which I shattered the illusions of some other kids, not realizing that telling the truth on this topic, while not morally wrong, wasn’t really necessary. (Their illusions would get shattered no matter what I did or didn’t do, either softly or abruptly–it was only a matter of when and how.)

I grew up with a Christmas allowance, which I spent on presents for the family. While I enjoyed receiving presents as a child (one science fiction-related doll in particular–a Six Million Dollar Man doll, space capsule included!), some of my fondest Christmas memories of gifts are gifts I gave. And I remember shopping for gifts–looking for something I could give someone else and I feel that’s much richer tradition that believing gifts magically appear from Santa. That’s especially when we had hardly any money, so going out and buying something just because you wanted it at any other time of the year was out of the question. We would save money specifically for Christmas. Which is part of the reason Christmas isn’t as special anymore–I’m no longer so poor.

I did watch Santa-related television specials growing up, with the understanding they were deliberate fiction in the same way Star Trek the animated series I used to watch was. The Santa shows were OK, but The Little Drummer boy tore at my heart in a way no Santa show ever did–even though I realized there was no reason to believe there really was a little drummer boy. Santa, overall, just wasn’t that interesting to me.

Saint Nicholas For Travis’s Children

When I had the chance to teach my own children about Santa, I remembered my own experience of being at times what we can call a “Santa atheist” who smugly enjoyed telling other kids Santa wasn’t real. As a Santa non-believer, I was rather a total jerk at times, for again, reasons that didn’t really matter.

So I thought I’d teach my kids to be respectful of the tradition of Santa Claus without falsely telling them it was true. I told them about Saint Nicholas, who was a good man who lived a long time ago, who did many good things, including giving presents to children. Over a long time, the memory of Saint Nicholas changed to give him an imaginary home at the North Pole and many other imaginary features, but the real history was of an actual person, a good man who can be an example for how we can be good to others. So we should not be hostile to the idea of Santa Claus–the good thing is that Santa Claus is kind and generous, and we should be too.

How that translated when my kids talked to other kids who believed in Santa Claus was like this: “Oh, yeah, you believe in Santa Claus? Well, Santa Claus is dead!”

Then I’m talking to a parent of a kid who ran away bawling and she’s like, “What?” and I turn to my oldest son and say, “I never told you Santa was dead” and he’s like, “You said he lived a long time ago, that means he’s dead,” and I’m like unintended consequences of a narrative in which a reader goes beyond authorial intent…

(Pardon me, that true story makes me laugh…)

Father Christmas For Tolkien’s Children

So since I have limited interest in Christmas stories and Santa or the United Kingdom’s version of basically the same character known as “Father Christmas,” it’s perhaps not surprising that I didn’t even know about the J.R.R. Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters until just recently. (Note E. Stephen Burnett wrote an article for Speculative Faith back in 2013 concerning Letters from Father Christmas  in which the issue of whether Tolkien lied to his children or not and if that was OK or not was rather hotly debated. Which I don’t intend to repeat.)

The harback edition cover of Letters From Father Christmas. Publisher: Mariner Books

My first response to discovering this book, which was based on letters Tolkien wrote to his children every Christmas starting in 1920 up through 1943 was “How charming! Fiction from Tolkien I’ve never heard of before, on the subject of Christmas!”

But hold the phone a second, that isn’t exactly what this book is. Yes, Tolkien’s children eventually realized the annual stories were fiction from their father, but at the time they thought these were actual letters, that Father Christmas really was writing them every year.

This book is not only a series of stories, the majority of which I haven’t even read, it reveals part of how the man generally credited with inventing the modern genre of fantasy celebrated the Christmas holiday with his family. In storytelling–but in stories he maintained were true for decades. Why did he do that?

I think the answer is simple enough–most people in 1920 thought telling children that Father Christmas (or Santa) is real was normal. Most people did that. Tolkien was simply following the common cultural practice of his day–just with much more creativity. Creating his own sub-tradition within the general holiday tradition.

Speaking of creativity, by the way, not only did Tolkien write letters, he drew pictures for his children and used a special type of shaky handwriting that was supposed to be based on Father Christmas’s age matching the calendar year (plus the cold up north!) I recommend checking out what he did via the Amazon “Look Inside” feature for the hardback edition of book I’m linking here. Charmingly creative.

Tolkien, A Man of His Times

To return to the reason Tolkien would maintain the fiction of Father Christmas with his children, that fact the vast majority of parents in the United Kingdom acted the same as him really is probably the best explanation. Tradition mattered to him from what I know of the man. But perhaps there’s another element in his reasoning.

Well before 1920, Darwinism was beginning to have a big impact in European intellectual circles. People were questioning if there was any truth to Christianity at all. Tolkien responded to the spirit of his time by holding onto Catholic tradition and even finding in old pre-Christian Pagan stories inspiration for new myths full of ideas (ideas, not allegories) related to things he believed to be true. Tolkien felt the Paganism of the past had inevitably led to Christianity and in fact to embrace Pagan epics would inevitably lead away from materialism and bring a person towards God.

C. S. Lewis thought similar things, though he was not quite as traditional as Tolkien and certainly more directly referenced Greek and Roman thought in Narnia and his Space Trilogy, as opposed to Germanic and Celtic myths, which Tolkien drew from more. For each man, fighting materialism and Modernism’s exaltation of mankind as a replacement for God were essential goals. And they found strength in traditions that embraced fiction that steered away from a mechanistic view of human beings, stories which pointed to the importance of the spiritual. As such Tolkien and Lewis to a degree were holdouts of the Romanic Era of literature from the 1800s.

So perhaps in teaching his children that Father Christmas had written to them, giving them that sense of delight in something inexplicable, he hoped to strengthen their resolve as Christians.

My View Doesn’t Match Tolkien’s

I feel though, looking back, that Tolkien and Lewis were missing something. Materialism and Modernism were not the end goals of powers opposed to God and all that’s godly. Modernism and the exaltation of mankind was just a step on the way to Postmodernism, which eagerly embraces stories while denying the existence of objective truth. Which loves stories with fantastical elements, but also deliberately in some cases infuses them with agendas which oppose belief in God.

Embracing imagination, any kind of imagination, is a step a way from the dry know-it-all materialism that defined Lewis’s character Eustace as he was introduced in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  In this, I would say Tolkien and Lewis were correct.

But human beings, the vast majority of us, have a fundamental desire for the transcendent. We are not as an overall whole going to embrace sterile materialism, even though it seemed like we would in 1920. I would say it will never happen that all of any society will become atheists. Instead, the danger is that we self-indulge in pleasures, including the pleasures of fiction, to the point we become numb to any truths they contain. That we will set up idols in stories and forget about the role of God, who Himself knows how to tell an inspiring story–but who also is True.

This ability to set up idols in fiction has always been part of the human race and yes did happen to dominate some societies much more than atheism ever has. It’s how the Pagan deities came to exist in the first place–ancient human imagination, running in the direction of idolatry. With the demonic world gleefully approving.

The literal return of Paganism I see as a threat, but in fact, the idolatry of most modern people isn’t so overt as a modern person literally worshipping a god like Thor. People worship their own self-fulfillment, their own physical pleasure, their own pride, in effect putting themselves in the position of being their own gods. Though also inspired and entertained by fictional heroes and superheroes.

We are not in the same era as Tolkien and Lewis. Perhaps it’s fitting that we don’t see tradition in the same way they did. Not all traditions are bulwarks for good, even if they can be sometimes.

Evaluating Tradition

For me, I don’t see tradition as a good reason to do anything. I don’t see tradition as a reliable bulwark against the spirit of our age–our age is more than willing to warp traditional stories.

Traditions should be evaluated for their content and embraced if good and discarded if not, I think. Likewise that’s how we should treat all stories.

But for me, that doesn’t mean cutting out the very existence of fiction to embrace a dry Christ-centric mirror of Materialism. No, stories are good or can be. But why not make fresh ones on fresh subjects? Why return to tradition simply because it is tradition?

So I wouldn’t have written the Letters From Father Christmas. I would have written Letters From Saint Nicholas, in which some time travel no doubt would be involved. Because, you know, Santa Claus is dead. 🙂

But I did find the Amazon preview of Tolkien’s letters charming. Especially the artwork and handwriting. I would have liked it better had Tolkien told his children from the beginning the letters were fiction, but who am I to judge Tolkien, “another man’s servant” (Romans 14:4)? (It’s enough that I do my best to follow what I think is right, guided by Scripture and the Holy Spirit. While of course doing my best to explain to others what I believe and why–but it is not my job to tell you specifically how you are to live your life concerning subjects not spelled out in detail in the Bible.)

Conclusion

So how many Speculative Faith readers have already read Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas? Am I the only one just discovering them? What did you think of them?

What do you think concerning the topic of generosity on Christmas? Is that an important tradition? Or is the birth of Christ enough?

And what do you think on the topic of following tradition or not following tradition in general? Do you create your own traditions or sub-traditions, like Tolkien did? Are you highly traditional yourself? Why so or why not? In what way or ways? Please leave a comment below.

A Prayer on the Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter

On the winter solstice, Jupiter, the kingly herald of joy, salutes Saturn, the father of time and winter—a symbol of hope overcoming death.
on Dec 22, 2020 · 1 comment

Tonight and all this week, Saturn and Jupiter will have a “great conjunction.”1

Since reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia this year, which gave me a layman’s course in the medieval spheres, this conjunction has assumed monumental symbolic significance in my mind. Saturn is Infortuna Major, the sphere of suffering, old age, and death. Jupiter is Fortuna Major, the magnanimous, magnificent King. We get our term “jovial” from Jupiter.

Saturn—Infortuna Major—is there a better emblem of what 2020 has been to so many of us?

And Jupiter—the beneficent king—meets it. Is there any better symbol of what we need here at the end of this disheartening, ugly, saturnine year?

People are calling this conjunction the Christmas Star, and indeed it is a celestial figure of Christmas. The great king gladly enters, bravely meets, our suffering and death. From this entrance—this conjunction—he will transform it into something bright and beautiful.

In this season of Advent, waiting and hoping for the end to this particular wave of suffering that has swept the entire year along in its wake, I pray according to the symbol God has caused the heavens to declare:

Magnificent King of Heaven, as you have joined Jupiter with Saturn in our night sky, meet us in our great suffering.

When you are with us in our pain and sorrow, you make beauty come even from Greatest Misfortune.

The skies proclaim the work of your hands, and tonight they will enact the greatest news: you already met death once, and from that meeting came glory and grace.

In your Word, you say of the destroyers of your people, “As I live, declares the LORD, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does” (Isaiah 49:18).

So many forces have worked destructively this year, Lord. But we don’t have to stay stuck in this ugliness. You can make even this year work beautiful things, too.

So, Lord, these last days of Advent, we thank you for this skyward emblem of how you work, and we wait for you to work that way again. Make our destroyers ornaments around our necks.

Lord, I hope the skies will be clear so I can see this conjunction that preaches so much to my heart. But Lord, the best part of it all is, even if I don’t see it, I know it’s still happening. Up there—and down here.

Come, Lord Jesus.

A Tribute to the Sower of Imagination, My Granny

A tribute to the woman who fed me the seeds of creativity and gave me the love for horror, sci-fi, and Jesus.
on Dec 17, 2020 · 21 comments

When I asked Steve Burnett if I could do a tribute to my Granny on Speculative Faith, he thought it was a wonderful idea. I thought it was, too. Until the actual writing of this post came to me.

How can mere words describe my old lady? She is a complex organism of light and dark; cookies and collard greens; bleach and mothballs; hair-braiding and gardening; old books and typewriters, joy and sorrow; comedy and tragedy; practicality and wild abandon.

She is Granny,  the sower of imagination. There is no memory, distant or recent, where she is not there.

She’s at a nursing home now. On Sunday, December 20th, the family will celebrate her 90th birthday.  Tuesday, during my usual Zoom call with her, I told her about this post. Today, I’ll  read this to her so she knows how I feel about her. 1

Granny said,

“I know that you love me because you’ve shown me. Love is not words, but actions.”

This is true. Yet, words are what she gave me. Granny taught us to read and write when we were young. It is with words that I will attempt to share her with you.

So, I’ll start with this: whenever I think of Granny, I think of monsters.

Lots of monsters. Black and white monsters, monsters in color, some with tentacles, others with glowing eyes. Giant monsters. Tiny monsters. Those bearing human skin, and others adorned in gray flesh. No matter what, it is Granny who gave me my love for monsters.

People who follow me on Facebook notice my sisters and I have an unhealthy obsession with the Alien and Predator movie franchises. Granny likes them, too. At the risk of sounding cliché, there’s always a warm, fuzzy feeling whenever we watch them.

When it comes to demonic or spirit movies, I’m less likely to watch them. I remember screaming behind the blanket watching Poltergeist and The Exorcist. Granny never blinked. I can’t remember her having a reaction to them. Then again, her real-life stories of things she’s seen would rip the skin off your body. Hollywood horror ain’t got nothing on Granny.

There are vague memories of my mom arguing with Granny. “Mama, stop watching them scary movies with the kids!”

Granny shrugged it off. She’s always been a law unto herself.

She also gave us our love for sci fi. Together, we watched Star Trek and follow the exploits of Captain Kirk and his crew. We devoured black and white sci-fi movies such as Them, The Mole People, The Monolith Monster, The Terror from Beyond Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man,  Crack in the World, Godzilla, Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and many more.

Growing up, we always sat on Granny’s couch in her room. Underneath the cushions, she’d place the books she was currently reading there. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and John Sandford are some of the more vivid ones I remember.

The book  Granny and I really connected over a horror novel called Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon. She and I talked about it for a long time, reminiscing about certain scenes and the like.

Little wonder the first book I ever published was a horror/thriller novel. I won’t mention the name because I cringe. I’d like to think I’ve grown as a writer since then. Granny was the first to buy it. I offered to give her a copy, but she refused . She looked at me and said, “You get your money from these people. You worked hard for it.”

I think one of the reasons why Granny had no fear of the horror flicks of my childhood was because it wasn’t the monsters of the screen that frightened her. Nor was it the demons, ghosts, and goblins. Not the serial killers or the alien abductions.

I believe her real-life nightmare was the fear that she would be forgotten. When my sisters and I moved into our apartment, Granny thought we would leave her behind. That we would never come see her again or something insane like that.

Years later, as we look forward to celebrating her 90th birthday, being forgotten is the last thing that will ever happen for her.

But her one constant is this: even if her worst nightmare happened – that her grandchildren would forget her – she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus never will. When we were younger, I remember her singing an old hymn called “Never Alone”. The lyrics read:

No, never alone,
No, never alone;
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.

Perhaps it won’t come as a surprise that the same song is one of my favorites, too.

Granny and me in January before quarantine.

Along with her love for speculative fiction, she gave us a love for Jesus. Whenever she braided our hair, she’d have us recite scripture. The one we know by heart to this day is John 14. I can remember the hard plastic comb digging into my hair, Granny’s Vaseline laden finger soothing the sting as we recited, “Let not your heart be troubled…”

And if we got it wrong, whack with the comb on a tender scalp!

As I look over what I have written, these clumsy words really don’t capture all who Granny is. She had a hard life growing up, much of which shaped her personality.

Psalms 127:3-5 talks about the heritage of children. I joked with an author of friend of mine, “Granny gave us the legacy of horror. I feel as if I must pass that on to my children. I have to give them the nightmares I once had.”

She told me once she wanted to be a bookkeeper. Reading was her leisure, but numbers kept her active. That never happened for whatever reason. Yet, as I look back over my life, and what she has meant to me, had she been a bookkeeper, would she have been the sower of imagination? Would I be who I am now?

Who in your life, familial or not, has shaped you as a writer or reader? What memories of stories that connected you with others do you have?

 

 

 

  1. Too often, we wait until death to show our loved ones that we cared. I didn’t want to do that. There’s a song that says, “Give them their flowers while they’re living.” This is my flower to Granny.

A Christian Reaction to ‘Alien Worlds’–How Writers of Faith Can Do More

Parker J. Cole’s look at ‘Alien Worlds’ inspired this article–which looks at how the worldview of a Christian writing hard sci fi is broader than an atheist’s.
on Dec 10, 2020 · 29 comments

Parker J. Cole’s recent article on the Neflix 4 part miniseries title “Alien Worlds” stirred something in my mind, something I want to point out about how Christians who decide to produce speculative fiction are overall less limited in talking about aliens than are writers of realistic or “hard” science fiction who do not believe in God. This is true in spite of the fact some Christian writers are leery of tackling the subject of aliens because of some theological issues the concept of aliens raises for some people.

The Atheistic Evolutionary Worldview of Alien Worlds

Before we examine the freedom Christians have in portraying alien life, let’s look at the worldview that underpinned the miniseries Alien Worlds that Parker talked about in specific detail. I’d summarize the essentially atheistic philosophy behind Alien Worlds as follows:

  1. Earth Not Special: We live in a vast universe in which we can observe no particular structural reason Earth is special (and we cast aside religious teaching about our world being special as myopic superstition). Therefore life on Earth should not be seen as special.
  2. Same Conditions, Same Chance for Life: Since life on Earth is not special, life arising here but not obviously on places like the moon and Mercury must mean that conditions like Earth’s would allow life to arise anywhere with similar conditions.
  3. Liquid Water the Key: Specifically, places in the universe that can hold liquid water should produce DNA-based life, just as liquid water is full of life on Planet Earth, even when that water is extremely hot, cold, salty, or toxic.
  4. “Goldilocks Planets” Should Have Liquid Water: Therefore exoplanets of sufficient size to retain an atmosphere should have one and should also have liquid water (an atmosphere protects liquid water and keeps it from vacuum evaporation), that is, if the planets are not too close or too far from their sun (if they are in the “Goldilocks zone”).
  5. Some “Goldilocks” Planets Quite Different from us: However, some of the planets able to meet point 4 are radically different from Earth. Alien Worlds examines four such planets: the first, with both more gravity and a thicker atmosphere than Earth; the second, a planet tidally locked with a red dwarf sun; the third, a world supposedly even more ideal for life than Earth; the fourth, a star where life began long before Earth, where supposedly a highly advanced civilization could thrive.
  6. An Abundance of Life Necessary: Since the universe holds uncounted billions of exoplanets with conditions that support liquid water, even ones in some ways quite different from Earth, the universe must be teeming with life.
  7. Darwinism Shapes Life Throughout the Universe: Life, once it exists, must follow rules like life on Earth. We can expect struggles for survival to dominate the interactions of species, as well as sexual selection and social cooperation and death and reproduction, just as we see such things on Earth, but with local twists in specifically how Darwinism affects life on each planet. Which was mostly what Alien Worlds discussed (though it also talked about conditions allowing life to exist at all).

A Scientific Criticism of the Evolutionary Worldview of Alien Worlds

Just talking about evidence and scientific reason, there are a number of criticisms that can be lobbed at the worldview behind Alien Worlds:

  1. Single Origin of Earth’s Life: All life forms occurring on Earth have genes in common with other life forms. So if the argument is that life arose by the forces of nature just doing what they do, that action, the transition from non-life to life (abiogenesis) would have to have happened only once on Earth. Which, since the Earth is vast with many separate environments, would seem to imply life generating itself is difficult. If difficult, it may have been extremely unlikely even here and therefore the universe may have many water planets devoid of life. (Note of course Intelligent Design people would say the common genetic material in life would stem from a common designer of all life.)
  2. Science Overestimated Extraterrestrial Life Before: Early analysis of planets like Venus and Mars led people to assume they had abundant life. Venus is within the “Goldilocks zone” of our sun but is a hellhole with an atmosphere almost one hundred times as dense as our own and hot enough to melt led. Venus, as far as current science knows, is utterly devoid of life. Mars is too small to retain enough atmosphere for liquid water on its surface, but this issue used to be unknown. In other words, past theories that assumed abundant life in the Solar System proved to be wrong because of unanticipated factors. Should we really think there would be no unanticipated factors concerning life around other stars?
  3. Science Wrong About Planetary Formation in the Past: This point is like 2, but worth pointing out separately. Someone who doesn’t read science of the past and old science fiction may think the discovery of exoplanets by various means has greatly increased the number of inhabitable planets thought to exist in the galaxy. In fact, the opposite is true. Given the lack of information, scientific speculation of, say, the 1950s, assumed that planets of all types were abundant. Further, it was assumed that small rocky planets must form closer to the sun, because solar radiation would move too much light materials away to form gas giants. It was also assumed that planets, in contrast to asteroids and comets, must generally follow circular orbits, since the accretion disk around a star is mostly circular. Discovered exoplanets explode those theories of the past. Planets so large they must be gas giants hug closer to many stars than Mercury. Many planets have wildly elliptical orbits. Many star systems seem to have only one planet–at least as far as anyone can tell. And the majority of discovered planets are nowhere near the “Goldilocks Zone.” So, if scientific discoveries of the past greatly reduced the number of planets imagined to be suitable for life, who’s to say that won’t happen again?
  4. Fermi Paradox: Since the thinking of the past was that not only is life not uncommon, intelligent life must also be common, then you’d expect at least some life to go through technological development. If even a small portion did and at some point developed radio signals, the sheer number of planets would mean the galaxy should be filled with radio messages of intelligent beings. But it isn’t. Unlike points 1-3 which are rarely the subject of discussion, this idea is talked about quite a lot by modern science and has it’s own term, the Fermi Paradox (because Enrico Fermi raised the question) and is the subject of a great deal of conjecture and debate. (I’m linking a YouTube video that presents the top disturbing speculative answers to the Fermi Paradox). The bottom line here though is some of the answers offered to the Fermi Paradox involve questioning if life really is common after all. In fact, scientist Howard Smith objects to many of the assumptions that led to the production of Alien Worlds, with a video presenting his views linked here (note the video includes metions of a Biblical worldview and philosophies of the past).

Theological Objections to the Worldview Behind Alien Worlds

These I’m not going to number here. They center around the idea that God really did create the Earth to be special, even if it doesn’t appear to be. And that the Biblical account of sin and death reveals what God intended life to live in idyllic conditions and only sin made things turn sour. Also that redemption came through Christ, who had to be human. I listed 8 objections as I answered them in a previous article, detailing why I thought someone holding a Biblical worldview could nonetheless write about aliens if he or she wanted to do so.

Our Freedom to Create Hard Sci-Fi Within a Biblical Worldview

So here’s the real point of this article: Christian creators of science fiction are not in fact limited to the way the scientific community sees the universe, whether by people who believe in alien life in the way the producers of Alien Worlds do, nor like the scientists highly skeptical of humans ever meeting aliens, like Dr. Howard Smith. Here’s some things we can do, writing hard science fiction from a Christian point of view, that atheists writing hard science fiction can’t do:

  1. Earth-Centric Extraterrestrial: Belief in God as the Creator of Earth as special place opens the door to creating stories in which Earth really is the only source of life. That doesn’t mean only Earth is inhabited–maybe Enoch or the Nephilim or at the Tower of Babel humans travelled into outer space. Maybe even seeded space with life elsewhere by early humans, taking with them life that’s long extinct on Earth. AND, if we allow genetic engineering or cybernetic technology among the other humans among the stars, perhaps the life we’d meet out there, that came from Earth, would be very much unlike anything on our planet.
  2. Earth-Mirroring Extraterrestrial: Similar to point 1, the difference would be that God as the designer of life, whether directly or providentially, could form life in such a way that living creatures very much like animals we know are living on other planets, without being direct descendants of Earth creatures. This could include a wide variety of intelligent aliens, which may resemble very much life on our planet. Say intelligent bears, octopuses, or wolves. (Hard science fiction might allow some parallelism of alien species with life on Earth–but this view could allow extraterrestrial life to be exactly the same or very similar for plausible reasons.)
  3. Sterile Universe: Other than our planet, science fiction could portray a vast array of alien worlds without any life at all. Stories of exploration of outer space would assume it’s a hostile environment. Stories would center around disputes among humans and efforts to colonize life from Earth on other planets.
  4. Evolution As Per Alien Worlds: Likewise, while not every Christian writer would choose to do so, it’s possible to see evolution as having a role intended (or at least permitted) by God. That God designed liquid water with the ability to sustain life wherever it is and that He either providentially or directly created cells on each water world and allowed or directed changes over time in that life which matched local conditions as per Alien Worlds. That is, life that would be in many ways strange to us, but would still be familiar in certain ways as well.

    Alien creatures flying in a world beyond our own. We can create beings like these! Image copyright: Netflix

  5. Evolution Unlike Alien WorldsBelief in God as the Creator of life means God in an act of creativity could have formed life totally unlike our own. Perhaps life based on silicon, or life that lives in liquid methane instead of liquid water, or life that thrives in plasma, etc. Christian imaginers of worlds can give reasons why such creatures could exist and develop over time, either providentially or directly, because God’s creativity surpasses what we already know about.
  6. Blatantly Designed Life: Life on Earth shows many signs of design–even the simplest cells are tremendously complex. While I am very skeptical that abiogenesis could happen (and you should be skeptical about it, too!) if it did happen, it would require the universe to produce an incredibly precise set of circumstances–that is, the universe itself would have to be fine-tuned to produce life in any possible scenario. Still, once life got going, the case that life evolved over time is much simpler to make–the mechanism of life could well be clever enough that a design feature would allow life to change species…though such changes could also be guided with direct intervention from God. But what if there was a planet in which it was clearly obvious there were no rudimentary or intermediate steps? Say a planet without bacteria? A planet were all life is multicellular? Or a planet with a very limited number of species, which never change? Or, life that changes over time due to sexual selection, but for which there is no population pressure because new births exactly match deaths? The producers of Alien Worlds would write this off as unrealistic, but if we believe in an inventive Creator God, then we can expect surprises in alien life. Including life for which the case for Darwinism can’t be made at any level.

Conclusion

In short, the worldview underpinning Alien Worlds isn’t the only way to look at things–even people who support an atheistic view of the origin of the universe may not agree with the assumptions this miniseries reflects. But as Christians interested in hard science fiction or at least in being scientifically plausible, the concept of an actively creative God, whose work science hasn’t ever been able to anticipate with certainty, opens up many possible story worlds. A creative God gives us more options, not less.

I listed six possibilities, including mirroring what’s in Alien Worlds (though of course with a different moral meaning). There’s probably possibilities I didn’t think of. What kind of story do you favor that takes an approach unlike that of Alien Worlds? Either what you’ve read or what you’d write.

Do you agree or disagree that a Biblical worldview actually expands imaginative possibilities for story worlds and world-building rather than restricts them? What other thoughts would you like to share?