Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Religion and Speculative Fiction

Benjamin A. Plotinsky at City Journal has written a scathing and well, incorrect, article on religion and science fiction recently. Plotinsky argues that science fiction has lost its edge; that science fiction is no longer used as a medium for socio-political criticism and exploration, but instead focuses upon Christian allegory.

Plotinsky's article is rife with factual errors at the worse, or perhaps they are merely misunderstandings, demonstrating his lack of specialist knowledge in either religion studies or speculative fiction.

The Sun God

Plotinsky begins with a summary of what he believes to be the central motif of science fiction:
There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside in glory over a world redeemed.

Plotinsky asserts (not completely incorrectly) and perhaps fairly, that this is the story of the life of Jesus.

Here is where Plotinsky makes his initial kapuff. While the above motiff most certainly is Christian, the notion of a godlike figure who follows the above pattern far predates Christianity. The notion of the dying and reborn god is a popular archetype and can be seen throughout the worlds religions. From Adonis to Osiris, pre-Christian religions were rife with gods who died and were reborn, with the activity commonly occuring during the Winter soltice. (Christmas, anyone?).

The Matrix as Christian Allegory....sorta, but not quite

In a rather ironic stumble, Plotinsky's thesis is based largely (although not entirely) on the notion that The Matrix is essentially a retelling of Jesus' NT exploits. While The Matrix is indeed a retelling of Jesus' life and message, it is in fact a retelling of the Gnostic Jesus, rather than the Christian Jesus. Indeed, the relationship between Gnosticism and The Matrix is so well recognised academically, that Gnosticism is often explained at a University level through reference to the popular movie.
Gnoticism (and in turn, The Matrix,) is incredibly complex. I redirect you to this article for a full analysis, at the Journal of Religion and Film.

The true irony Plotinsky's misunderstanding is that Gnositicism is considered to be a radical (and therefore threatening) reinterpretation of early Christianity. So much so, that the early Christians expounded a great deal of effort in demonising the alternative sect. The demonistation of Gnostic teachings continues into modernity.

Science Fiction - A Rather Narrow Definition

What becomes the major downfall to Plotinsky's thesis, is his narrow definition of science fiction. Plotinsky defines the genre around The Matrix and Superman returns, with fleeting references to Rowlings Harry Potter series and The Lord of the Rings. All instantly recognisable and arguable the most successful of speculative fiction pop cultural artefacts. However, the aforementioned are now, pop cultural artefacts.
It could be argued that all (with the exception of The Matrix) of Plotinsky's texts are popular beyond the speculative fiction cultural spehere precisely because they do not challenge the status quo.

Which leaves us with the mountain of texts that do explore, critise and challenge. For another post....


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