Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ray Bradbury

Steve's trenchant evaluation of Bradbury's work is well worth reading, particularly in light of the scifi author's recent death. For the sake of convenience, I'll quote it in full:
Bradbury is not known as a Christian writer, but in a number of his pieces (e.g., "The Man," "The Messiah," "The Gift," The Fire Balloons," "Kristin," "Christus Apollo") he explores the theme of the cosmic Christ.
Bradbury is a humanist who uses Christian symbolism and eschatology as a vehicle to express SF yearning. Although the SF genre was not coined in America, America is where it took hold. Why is that? It has often been said that SF is a hitech setting for the Western. But that merely pushes the question back a step.
America was founded by the Pilgrims. For them, the New World was the Promised Land, which was in turn, the new Eden. This is not to deny that, for the Pilgrims, the Promised Land was as well a type of heaven.
Bradbury’s cosmic Christ is a profanation of the Pilgrim vision. Space travel, the westward expansion, the whole pioneering ethos transposes the Pilgrim vision to a secular key.
This raises questions about the core identity of the SF genre. Is it inherently profane, neutral, or religious? Is Bradbury’s recycling of Christian motifs merely opportunistic, or is the secular outlook insufficient to underwrite the SF vision?
In general, SF presents two opposing eschatological visions: a technocratic utopia or else a technocratic dystopia. But in either case, the worldview is usually godless. The utopian outlook represents the triumph of optimistic humanism whereas the dystopian outlook represents the plight of man in an indifferent or hostile universe.
Some Christians claim that science is, in fact, an artifact of Christian civilization and the cultural mandate (Gen 1:28). This claim is difficult to weigh. It is true that high technology is an artifact of the Christian West. But is that owing to a Christian worldview, or incidental to the role of the Church in the rise of Western civilization?
It may be said that the heathen divinization of nature inhibited the growth of science. Yet belief in wood and water nymphs never hindered men from felling trees or damning rivers. It could also be argued that modern science, in its effort to banish occult forces from nature, not merely desacralized the natural world, but secularized the world so that divine agency was disallowed and nature was all that's left.
But besides the descriptive question is the prescriptive or proscriptive question. Is the SF genre neutral, well-suited or ill-suited to rendering the Christian vision? If we take the parables of Christ as an index, then I’d suggest that SF is generally too remote from reality to be an ideal vehicle.
Although there is a value in contrasting the real world with alien worlds and alternative dimensions, the real world is the world that God has crafted and redeemed. And our creative vocation is, in the words of Ruskin, to trace the finger of God.
Although SF is associated with futuristic science, Bradbury is more retrospective and pastoral than prospective and technological. As with Plato, Bradbury’s popular appeal lies in his power as a mythmaker. That is, at once, his point of strength and weakness. His golden prose seduces the unwary into believing the unbelievable—like a snake entrancing a bird before swallowing it whole.
The problem with reducing Christian theology to mere symbolism, and then transferring the symbolism to outer space, is that if the Christian story is deemed to be unhistorical, then why go on living and waiting in a gingerbread castle for a prince would will never come to rescue the princess? No magic kiss will awaken us from our amphibious existence.
Isn’t Bradbury’s cosmic castle just as airy-fairy as he takes the Christian castle to be? Space travel, extraterrestrial colonization, life on other planets, and such like, do not represent a serious extrapolation of hard science. Why exchange one myth for another? And for the Christian reader, the Gospel is not an outdated metaphor, or metaphor at all, in which case there’s no motive to board Bradbury’s spaceship and launch out into cosmic mythology.

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