Monday, January 3, 2005

Visions of faith in a secular genre:C. S. Lewis and his Space Trilogy

Science Fiction is by and large a secular genre. With its exaltation of human reason and its expression in technology, it's no wonder that religion is almost always a subject either ignored or scorned. To date, I know of only a few exceptions: The Jerusalem Man, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and The Sparrow.

I only recently learned of and began to read an exception of an entirely different kind. C. S. Lewis, the famed Christian author of children's fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia, also had tried his hand at the science fiction genre. I recently finished reading Perelandra, the second book in the series, and I can say that the reading experience was certainly unlike any other science fiction book I have ever read. It was in fact quite unlike any other work of fiction I've encountered.

The series at first seems related somehow in tone and character to Asimov's Foundation series (probably because the two were written in a common period of English literature). It is not set in the future, but it involves the usual elements of space travel and planetary exploration. It involves scientists coping with the experience of encountering a totally new world, new life forms, and even with making first contact with a sentient species other than humans. But in the end, Lewis' work isn't interested in these things for their own sake (as is true of most science fiction). Rather, his interest seems to be utterly more profound.

Lewis' interest in Perelandra is the question that the faithful sometimes ask when considering the possibility of life on other worlds: if there is life "out there", then how does it relate to the scheme of life with God? More specifically, how does it relate to what God did on the cross here on earth?

Lewis takes these questions and presses them further than I would have thought possible. The whole series puts all of earth's history (and the history of God's action there) in a magnificent tapestry of other worlds with which God is equally, but differently, concerned. Lewis manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls: Lewis neither centralizes what happened on earth through Christ nor relegates it to a mere "earthly" concern (or worse, portrays God as incarnating on each world separately, repeating the act for each race). For Lewis, Christ's work on the cross has truly cosmic implications for all created worlds. At the peak of profound "what-if's", Lewis asks, what would a world be like if it never fell to the temptations of the enemy? And further, what would it be like for fallen men to visit there?

I am most grateful for Lewis' work because it powerfully and imaginatively explores whole new visions for the cosmic implications of God's Salvation History. As a work of science fiction, it deftly exhibits the themes of the science fiction genre while at the same time critiquing them from a standpoint within God's economy of creation and redemption. As a philosophical novel, it opens up realms of the imagination undreamt of by any other Christian author, fleshing out a vast and wondrous fictional vista for what God might have in store for His creation when Christ returns to finish the work begun at Calvary.

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