Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

I subscribe to a number of daily & weekly blogs via Google Reader. It saves me a lot of time and ensures that I don’t miss anything from my favorite writers. This morning I got this from geeksaresexy.com

Why are some Christians so afraid of science.

Why are some Christians so ignorant & afraid of science.

I will never understand why some Christians are A) so incredibly ignorant of basic science and logic, B) so afraid of science they really don’t want to know anything.

Take the above example. First of all let’s look at the original statement of so-called fact.

“Fact – if the earth was 10 ft closer to the sun we would all burn up and if it was 10 ft further we would freeze to death… God is amazing!!”

Yes God is amazing – I’m amazed he doesn’t hurl more thunderbolts when his followers come up with this kind of drivel. Seriously! TEN FEET!!! How can anyone actually believe this? It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to realize that is this were actually true then life on earth would have died off before Adam and Eve got themselves kicked out of The Garden.  Or at best life could not exists outside a narrow band between  10 ft. above and 10 ft. below sea-level.

The first thing they taught us in grade 6 science was the difference between mean distance and average distance and just how much wobbling there is out there when it comes to things like planets and moons and stars and such. One really has to wonder how any educational system more than 10% functional could produce this kind of scientific ignorance.

But the real problem here is not that God-is-awesome-guy can’t comprehend basic physics; it’s his reaction when someone points out the flaw in his logic.

“Okay, thats cool and alll but dont ever comment on my status telling me that i am wrong everrr again. I didnt ask you did i? Answer: NO” [sic]

This is what really bugs me about this post and the entire God vs Science debate (as if God and science have nothing to do with each other). What has happened to the church in the last century to make such a large portion of it so afraid of science? And why is it so many of those who claim to follow one of the gentlest, kindest, most polite people ever (Jesus wasn’t even rude when talking to those who were out to kill him) are such blatantly rude ignoramuses.

This isn’t the first time I have encountered this among God’s people. Back in the Eighties I had a pastor once try to tell me that human beings never, ever under any circumstances lived in caves. That the whole cave-dweller idea was part of the conspiratorial lie that is “evilution” (Yeah – he actually pronounced it that way every single time he said the word).

When I asked him to explain the overwhelming preponderance of evidence that indicated large numbers of human communities lived in caves all over the world, his response was, “Even if it is true, I don’t want to know about it. I prefer my own reality, the facts be damned.” (Exact quote folks. It was so absurd a statement I will never forget it.)

I’ve heard other pastors, elders, evangelists and everyday Christians make similar declarations. “I don’t want to hear the facts. If I’m wrong, I don’t want to know it.” What worries me most is I can only think of one place where this attitude can possibly have come from – insecurity.

That’s right – insecurity! You see, while a number of these people will tell you they hold fast to this position because they are strong in their faith and refuse to buckle under to the lies of science; I think the exact opposite is true.  If your faith is so strong then why must it run away from the facts.

Okay, I know that right now there are a large number of you screaming, “But evolution isn’t a fact – it’s a lie.” First of all – calm down. I’m not talking evolution here – I’m talking science in general. The above example has nothing to do with evolution – it’s a simple matter of math & physics. But even if it was about evolution, why run away from the debate with ridiculous statements like these?

Why can the church not engage in reasonable, intelligent debate instead of meaningless rhetoric that accomplishes nothing other than to shore up the argument that religion is the last retreat of the ignorant and uneducated. It just adds fuel to the fire; it doesn’t solve anything.

I’m really at a loss to understand where this recent fear of science comes from and belive me, it is recent.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier post regarding science fiction, such was not always the case. In previous centuries when science revealed new information about how the earth was made and how nature functions the response of many of these believing scientists was to marvel at the intricacy of God’s creation. In their journals and letters they revel in what they regarded as proof of an intellegence far beyond imagining being at the heart of the universe.

Their faith was not challenged. They didn’t cease to believe. They instead looked at the facts before them, looked at the Word revealed to them and studied to understand how the two come together. When they failed to be able to reconcile them it was not an indication that either science or faith were wrong, but rather an admission that we still need to study harder before understanding could be realized.

When did we stop doing this? When did it become acceptible to check your brain at the door before entering the church?  That’s not to say that there isn’t a good deal of dogmatic ignorance on the side of science as well, there is.  But I not being a scientist I can’t speak to that.

But I feel I can speak to the church, and once again I come back to the question of insecurity. I believe my faith is strong because there is nothing science can reveal to me about how the universe works that will shake it. And I don’t need to run away from it. I want to know how the universe spins. I want to know the world that God created because it all reveals to me something about who God is.

Sometimes it does challenge my understanding of exactly who God is, but never my firm belief that God exists. I harbour no pretentions that I fully understand all there is to know about God or the universe He created. My theology, like everything else about me is a work in progress, a constant state of being and becoming that will never be a stagnant pool but always a flowing river. The shape of it will change with each new turn, each eddy and tributary along the way. Some of the changes will happen because of what I read in the Word, some because of what I read in the earth, but through it all God remains the same.

If your faith avoids rather than faces the challenges that come along, how can growth ever happen?

Shalom…

The Meaning of Life

Posted: November 16, 2010 in Personal, Spirituality
Tags: ,

As some of you know, I have recently been diagnosed with cancer. Yeah, it sucks. I’ve been trying to blog about it, but so far nothing I wrote ever seemed quite – right. So the subject remained untouched, till now.

Over the last few days I’ve been praying and thinking about the situation a lot and, not unsurprisingly, found myself pondering the ‘meaning of life’ – mine in particular, and what the future might hold, both during the radiation treatments and after. Just when I thought God wasn’t going to give me any insight right away, I was reminded of a story I haven’t read in years. I went looking for it to read again and after having don so found it fit the moment perfectly. Surprise, God was paying attention after all. (Just kidding – of course He was.)

It’s called The Three Questions; it’s a short story written by Leo Tolstoy and since it’s in the public domain now I present it to you in it’s entirety below. It’ll only take about 5 minutes or so to read, and says more about where I am right now than I ever could.

So, grab a cuppa joe (or tea for that matter) and take the time to read it. Regardless of your philosphical or religious leanings I think you’ll agree it’s hard to argue with Tolstoy’s answers.

Shalom

————

The Three Questions

By Leo Tolstoy

It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

And this thought having occurred to him, he had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to any one who would teach him what was the right time for every action, and who were the most necessary people, and how he might know what was the most important thing to do.

And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.

In reply to the first question, some said that to know the right time for every action, one must draw up in advance, a table of days, months and years, and must live strictly according to it. Only thus, said they, could everything be done at its proper time. Others declared that it was impossible to decide beforehand the right time for every action; but that, not letting oneself be absorbed in idle pastimes, one should always attend to all that was going on, and then do what was most needful. Others, again, said that however attentive the King might be to what was going on, it was impossible for one man to decide correctly the right time for every action, but that he should have a Council of wise men, who would help him to fix the proper time for everything.

But then again others said there were some things which could not wait to be laid before a Council, but about which one had at once to decide whether to undertake them or not. But in order to decide that, one must know beforehand what was going to happen. It is only magicians who know that; and, therefore, in order to know the right time for every action, one must consult magicians.

Equally various were the answers to the second question. Some said, the people the King most needed were his councillors; others, the priests; others, the doctors; while some said the warriors were the most necessary.

To the third question, as to what was the most important occupation: some replied that the most important thing in the world was science. Others said it was skill in warfare; and others, again, that it was religious worship.

All the answers being different, the King agreed with none of them, and gave the reward to no one. But still wishing to find the right answers to his questions, he decided to consult a hermit, widely renowned for his wisdom.

The hermit lived in a wood which he never quitted, and he received none but common folk. So the King put on simple clothes, and before reaching the hermit’s cell dismounted from his horse, and, leaving his body-guard behind, went on alone.

When the King approached, the hermit was digging the ground in front of his hut. Seeing the King, he greeted him and went on digging. The hermit was frail and weak, and each time he stuck his spade into the ground and turned a little earth, he breathed heavily.

The King went up to him and said: “I have come to you, wise hermit, to ask you to answer three questions: How can I learn to do the right thing at the right time? Who are the people I most need, and to whom should I, therefore, pay more attention than to the rest? And, what affairs are the most important, and need my first attention?”

The hermit listened to the King, but answered nothing. He just spat on his hand and recommenced digging.

“You are tired,” said the King, “let me take the spade and work awhile for you.”

“Thanks!” said the hermit, and, giving the spade to the King, he sat down on the ground.

When he had dug two beds, the King stopped and repeated his questions. The hermit again gave no answer, but rose, stretched out his hand for the spade, and said: “Now rest awhile-and let me work a bit.”

But the King did not give him the spade, and continued to dig. One hour passed, and another. The sun began to sink behind the trees, and the King at last stuck the spade into the ground, and said: “I came to you, wise man, for an answer to my questions. If you can give me none, tell me so, and I will return home.”

“Here comes some one running,” said the hermit, “let us see who it is.”

The King turned round, and saw a bearded man come running out of the wood. The man held his hands pressed against his stomach, and blood was flowing from under them. When he reached the King, he fell fainting on the ground moaning feebly. The King and the hermit unfastened the man’s clothing. There was a large wound in his stomach. The King washed it as best he could, and bandaged it with his handkerchief and with a towel the hermit had. But the blood would not stop flowing, and the King again and again removed the bandage soaked with warm blood, and washed and rebandaged the wound.

When at last the blood ceased flowing, the man revived and asked for something to drink. The King brought fresh water and gave it to him. Meanwhile the sun had set, and it had become cool. So the King, with the hermit’s help, carried the wounded man into the hut and laid him on the bed. Lying on the bed the man closed his eyes and was quiet; but the King was so tired with his walk and with the work he had done, that he crouched down on the threshold, and also fell asleep–so soundly that he slept all through the short summer night. When he awoke in the morning, it was long before he could remember where he was, or who was the strange bearded man lying on the bed and gazing intently at him with shining eyes.

“Forgive me!” said the bearded man in a weak voice, when he saw that the King was awake and was looking at him.

“I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for,” said the King.

“You do not know me, but I know you. I am that enemy of yours who swore to revenge himself on you, because you executed his brother and seized his property. I knew you had gone alone to see the hermit, and I resolved to kill you on your way back. But the day passed and you did not return. So I came out from my ambush to find you, and I came upon your bodyguard, and they recognized me, and wounded me. I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!”

The King was very glad to have made peace with his enemy so easily, and to have gained him for a friend, and he not only forgave him, but said he would send his servants and his own physician to attend him, and promised to restore his property.

Having taken leave of the wounded man, the King went out into the porch and looked around for the hermit. Before going away he wished once more to beg an answer to the questions he had put. The hermit was outside, on his knees, sowing seeds in the beds that had been dug the day before.

The King approached him, and said: “For the last time, I pray you to answer my questions, wise man.”

“You have already been answered!” said the hermit, still crouching on his thin legs, and looking up at the King, who stood before him.

“How answered? What do you mean?” asked the King.

“Do you not see,” replied the hermit. “If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug those beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business.

Remember then: there is only one time that is important– Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

Beware the Dark Side

Posted: September 17, 2010 in Books, Spirituality
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[Note: This post is part of a series on Science Fiction and Spirituality that had its genesis HERE.]

Yoda: “Yes. A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.

Luke: “Vader… Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.[1]

Nearly one hundred years before the above conversation took place on the silver screen, a young Scottish novelist and poet used the genre of science fiction to explore the dark side of the human psyche. His name was Robert Louis Stevenson. The novella in question – Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. [2]

The duality of human nature has found its way into many of our stories;  you’ll find it in fables, doppelgänger literature, devil tales and gothic novels to name but a few. It should come as no surprise then that during the Victorian age of reason, the notion of a scientific solution to the duality of humanity should appear in literature.

In Stevenson’s tale, Dr. Henry Jekyll is troubled by the side of his personality that finds pleasure in the ideas and activities that Victorian society frowns upon. Though the apostle is never quoted, Jekyll’s mood very much echoes the sentiments of Romans 7:22-23 – “For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.”

Being a scientist, convinced that such proclivities are chemical in nature, Jekyll seeks a potion that will isolate the dark side of his nature and allow the good in him to rule unopposed.  He succeeds, after a fashion, but while he has managed to separate the good from the evil, it is the dark side that takes over his waking hours to the point of deforming Jekyll’s physical appearance as well. The result is the amoral and self-indulgent Mr. Edward Hyde.

The novel actually chronicles the experiences of Jekyll’s good friend & lawyer Gabriel John Utterson after he witnesses the bizarre act of a man trampling over a small girl and then compensating her family with a cheque written by Utterson’s friend Henry Jekyll. The nature of the connection between Hyde and Jekyll continues to elude Utterson as he discovers other tales of Hyde’s immoral behaviour.

The bulk of the novella therefore, centres on Utterson’s efforts to convince Henry that Hyde is a scoundrel and all connections to him should be severed immediately. It is not until the last two chapters, after Hyde’s apparent suicide, that Utterson discovers his good friend Henry and the despicable Hyde are in fact one and the same person. (This suspense generating device of keeping the reveal until the end is a feature of the novel rarely used in the various movie adaptations. As a result the story is often thought of as a horror tale rather than as science-fiction.)

The dilemma facing Henry Jekyll is one that is common to all humanity; we aspire to a level of character that is noble, good and worthy of the admiration of our fellow citizens, and yet there is at the same time a desire for the baser things in life.  We find ourselves overcome by the desire for pleasure, we crave it, seek, lust after it, even when we know that to indulge it will ultimately lessen the quality of our lives. Short term stimulus takes presidence over long-term well-being. It is the very nature of addiction, and we are all subject to it, regardless of class, education, or breeding.

It is also the foundation of every religion in the history of mankind.  The subject of eternity and the afterlife may indeed be prominent in many cases, but the bulk of all sacred writing, be it the Theravada, the Torah and Talmud, the Sruti, the New Testament, or any of a hundred others, is focused on successfully overcoming the struggle between our dual natures.  Religion, indeed spirituality of all forms, seeks to guide us in the everyday struggle to conduct ourselves in a manner that positively impacts our surroundings while not abandoning our own needs. It is variously described as a narrow path, a balance between forces, and a tightrope walk.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde then becomes an expression of the desire to relieve ourselves of the struggle; to ease the burden by taking self-control and personal effort out of the equation and relying on science, specifically a drug, to solve the problem for us. If we could simply remove the temptation, isolate the two natures and give the nobler side unfettered control, the struggle would be over.

But freedom, our hero discovers,  is a two-way street. If good lies unfettered then so too does evil, and as Yoda observed while evil is not stronger it is, “Quicker, easier, more seductive.” The lesson of Stevenson’s story, though I’m not sure he intended it to be, is that there is no short-cut to a moral character and an upright life. It requires that we devote ourselves to a religion, a spirituality of some kind that has its origin outside of ourselves from where we can draw strength to survive the struggle, and hopefully win it.

So we see then that even though science-fiction may rarely quote scripture of invoke God’s help in resolving a plot line, the sci-fi story is quite often a morality play, forcing us to consider life in ways we may not have indulged before, and whenever a person seriously considers the nature of their own existence, the opportunity exists for God to reveal Himself to them. And in this I rejoice.

Totally Aside but an Interesting Little Tidbit Dept: – Not long after the publishing of this story, Stevenson moved to the South Pacific, cruising for a number of years on a yacht named the Casco. During this time he visited the leper colony at Molokai and befriended the famous Father Damien. Such was the relation ship that when a Honolulu Presbyterian minister attacked the character of Father Damien, Stevenson wrote a scathing open letter of rebuke. The name of the object of his displeasure – the Rev. Dr. Hyde.

Until next time – Shalom.

—–

[1] from: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Lucasfilm, 1980

[2] Original title. In modern publications “The” is added to the title to make it grammatically correct, but in the original publication Stevenson was explicit in his desire to omit the definitive article.

Back in January I suggested that ‘Some of God’s Children should be Seen and Not Heard‘ in response to some outrageous suggestions made by Pat Robertson. Well unfortunately, I find the old Petra song running through my head once again. Here’s the part I keep thinking about…

Too many black sheep in the family
Too many stones from a house of glass
They’ve heard the story, they’ve heard the lines
But talk is too cheap to change their minds
They want to see some vital signs

Convictions – in the way we live
Convictions – not a narrative
Actions speak a little louder than words

Unfortunately in the case of Florida minister Terry Jones, he intends to back up his words with actions and frankly, his plans aren’t going to do much good, either for the memory of 9/11, for the state of international relations, or for the church of Jesus Christ.

If I remember correctly (I haven’t been to a Petra concert in nearly two decades) when Bob Hartman wrote the above lyrics the “vital signs” he was referring to are of the ilk refered to in Matthew 5:16. I seem to remember the band mentioning this passage when they sang the song.

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Somehow, I can’t quite picture burning the Quran as being in the list of ‘good deeds’ Jesus had in mind. Jesus made it clear that he wanted to raise the bar on what it means to live by faith. He was very specific on how his followers would be recognized. What exactly did Jesus say would be the symbol of those who followed him? Does this sound familiar?

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35

Now I’m sure that the members of the Dove World Outreach Centre — now there’s irony for you! As my friend Ebby put it on my Facebook page, “Dove, World and Outreach in the church’s name might, to a naive person such as myself, actually imply an intention to reach out with their message to the world with a dove-like attitude of peace. Silly me.”  Well put Ebby! – But I digress.

As I was saying, I’m sure that the members of the Dove World Outreach Centre would respond by declaring that the radical Muslims they are sending a message to are not the ‘one another’ Jesus is talking about. They will tell you, and with some small measure of validity, that these people are the enemies of the church and should be treated as such.  The problem is I remember Jesus also being very specific on how to treat the enemies of the church…

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. 33And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. 34And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. 35But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. – Luke 6:27-36

I am always astounded at how quickly Christians totally ignore this command and get all Old-Testament-on-your-ass whenever someone says two words that don’t line up with their personal dogma. And I’m not just talking Islam here, nor am I just calling out the book burners. I’m talking about what seems to be the default response far too many ‘believers’ take when these alleged “attacks” on the church take place.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a mosque at Ground Zero (which isn’t by the way), a movie based on a book by an atheist, or the mathematical musings of a world-renowned physicist, Christians have this really bad habit of  responding not with love and good deeds, but hate, death threats, and right-wing repartee.[1]

Why do we have such a hard time realizing that Jesus calls us to respond differently from the world around us? Of course radical Muslims are going to call a jihad against those they perceive as disrespecting Mohammed; but where does it say that Christ is calling us to respond in kind? What part of ‘love your enemies and do good’ can we not comprehend? When Paul said that doing good to our enemy would “heap coals of fire on his head” (Rom. 12:20) I don’t think he meant the coals left over from burning the Koran.

Jesus calls his disciples to rise above the knee-jerk reactions of the Pharisees and their ilk. Any child can lash out blindly when life doesn’t go their way. But we have been called to put aside our childish responses and in true spiritual maturity set a higher example. There is a better way, shown to us by the one who forgave even those who whipped, beat and ultimately murdered Him.

If you want a truly effective way of dealing with the so-called “threat of Islam”, then may I suggest you can the rhetoric and show the love of Christ to your Muslim neighbour.

Till next time – Shalom.

—-

Notes:

[1]  If you followed the “right-wing repartee” link let me say I agree with Mike re: the lame responses to Hawking. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” doesn’t really settle anything. On the Articulate Apologetics Assessment List it’s really little more than a theological raspberry. But that’s just me digressing again.

Flatland CoverIn 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott (no – that’s not a typo; his middle name was the same as his surname) was headmaster of the City of London School (basically a boys school for poor children) and one of a number of Hulsean Lecturers at Cambridge University.  Like most theologian/lecturers of his day he had some success as a writer having published a textbook on Shakespearean grammar, a biography of Francis Bacon, a pair of religious romances (fictitious stories about Biblical characters), and an article on the Gospels for the 9th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.

But it was in this year that Edwin Abbott would publish the work that would elevate him from theological footnote to one of the benchmarks in the history of the science fiction genre – a novella called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.

Now, before you get the idea that ol’ Dennis has gone all Harlequin® on you, a quick lesson in literary history. Originally the term ‘romance’ referred to a story of legendary proportions. They often referred to stories about the marvelous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who goes on a quest.  Toward the end of the 15th century French ‘romance’ novelists began to focus on the ‘rescuing young damsels’ notion that occasionally played a part in these epics and even began including extensive erotic narrations of the damsel’s gratitude. By the end of the 16th century the romance novel had fallen entirely out of favour in British society and the term was only used in a satirical manner.

And that is exactly how Abbott uses the term here; because, while the story of Flatland has been embraced by the science fiction community, when it was first published it was widely regarded as social satire due to it then obvious references to the general structure of Victorian society, taking on the severely limiting class structure and the deplorable status of women (unless you’re the Queen of course).

Flatland is the story of one Mr. A. Square, who is, by all accounts, a square. That is a geometric shape having four equal sides and four 90 degree corners living in a two-dimensional world consisting of a flat, never ending plane occupied a wide variety of other geometrical shapes such as lines (women- the rock bottom lowest level of Flatland society – animals get a better deal),  Isosceles triangles (lower-class workers and soldiers – men), Equilateral triangles (middle class workers – men), Squares (professional men – lower upper class), Pentagons, Hexagons and other Polygons (upper class professional men of importance proportional to the number of sides), and Circles (Priests – also men).

Mr. A. Square (varyingly called Arthur, Alfred or Albert in 20th century film adaptations) is a mathematician who is quite happy to spend his evenings exploring various geometric possibilities until one night he has a dream where he is taken to a one-dimensional world called Lineland and encounters its highly myopic monarch who quite literally can’t see anything that isn’t directly in front of him. The dream ends with Abbott’s protagonist failing to adequately communicate the reality of his two-dimensional universe.

Not long thereafter, during an otherwise routine night at home, A. Square is visited by Sphere, a being from Spaceland who endeavours to explain to our hero the reality of a three-dimensional existence. When words fail, Square is wrest from his own world and taken to Spaceland where he finally comes to terms with the reality of a world larger than his own.  The balance of the book covers Squares mission to spread the ‘Gospel of the Three Dimensions,’ or rather his failure to do so, and his subsequent…  well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

The story has become a favorite of math teachers, theoretical physics professors and science fiction fans the world over, for its obvious ability to help its readers wrap thier heads around multi-dimensional thinking. It is also, as I mentioned, highly regarded as a critique on the unyielding class structure of Victorian society and especially on the status of women at that time.

But what is often missed completely, or summarily disregarded, is the fact that Edwin Abbott was, by profession and inclination, above all else, a theologian.  And it is in the pages of Flatland that Edwin endeavours to communicate his personnel theology, basically that miracles are all a matter of perspective.

When A. Square is first taken to Spaceland and sees the remarkable reality that is the 3rd dimension he worships at Sphere’s feet, okay not at his feet so much, he is a  floating sphere, but you get my drift.  His interplay with Sphere is very much a mirror of the common response of Biblical characters to the appearance of angelic beings. However, as he becomes increasingly accustomed to thinking in three dimensions, he imagines that if Flatland is one step above the single dimension of Lineland, and Spaceland is a step above Flatland, then it is only logical that there be a four dimension and a fifth and in the process of coming to this conclusion, Sphere seems less and less angelic and more simply a man like himself, only with a higher perspective on the order of the universe.  To his great surprise Sphere rejects this notion, insisting that Spaceland is the apex of dimensional reality. This is a very precise picture of Abbott’s personal theology.

You see, Abbott had a problem with miracles. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Jesus performed miracles, he did. He just wasn’t so sure they were all that miraculous.  Edwin figured that while healing the sick, raising the dead and walking on water were decidedly remarkable things to be doing here on earth, he imagined that where Jesus came from they were probably pretty mundane, everyday tasks that simply needed doing.

He imagined that the difference between earth and heaven was likely a lot like the difference between the two-dimensional Flatland and Spaceland in glorious 3D. The concept of ‘height’ transended Square’s 2D world and has all the trappings of the miraculous until he actually visited Spaceland, and once he became accustomed to it the glory of it all paled somewhat.

Many passages in scripture talk about how God’s ways are not our ways and how our feeble little brains would have trouble conceiving of it all.  Numerous scholars over the centuries have pointed out that the visions the prophets had were hard to discern because of the gap that exists between the earth and the heavenlies. Edwin simply wondered if we would feel the same way if we had oppurtunity to spend time in the heavenly dimension. Would our new awareness change our perseption of the seemingly miraculous.

Not a bad question in and of itself, but where Abbott got into trouble (and believe me he did) was in the fact that the interchange between Sphere and Square seemed to imply that there may be another dimensional reality above the one that Jesus came from. That God might have a god above him!  This of course was widely regarded as heresy despite Abbott’s contention that he really hadn’t meant at all.

But the angle I’m driving at (pun intended – read the book) is not about the validity of Abbott’s theology, but that science fiction, rather than being the enemy of theology has often been used to help people understand it, even to promote it. Flatland is a good example of just such a case. Learning to think in multiple dimensions is, I believe, of great benefit when trying to understand the realm of God and how it can differ from ours so much as to seem beyond comprehension.  Many people have a hard time understanding God in the same way that the two-dimensional A. Square had a hard time comprehending of the concept of height until he was given a ‘supernatural’ experience of it.

There’s more that could be said about Flatland, but it would be better understood if you’ve read the book, so I’ll stop here. Feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section. I’ll happily respond.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. can be read online complete with the original illustrations at Google Books.

There are a few movie adaptations to be found a IMDb.

Until next time…  Shalom.

If Mary Shelley gave birth to the science fiction genre, then Jules Verne is the father that took it on Sunday outings to the country… and to Africa, to the centre of the earth, to the moon, and to a host of other remarkable places.  He was also a scientific author and visionary who predicted, among other things, submarines, helicopters, skyscrapers, space exploration and the use of hydrogen as a major energy source.

Born in the port city of Nantes, France in 1828, Jules Verne was obviously inspired to travel and explore by the many schooners and other ships that frequented the local harbour. Like his father, Verne trained to be a lawyer and obtained his degree at the age of 22, but rather than writing dissertations Jules preferred to write short stories, plays, poems, and operettas on which he collaborated with his good friend and musician Jean Louis Aristide Hignard enjoying some small measure of success.

When it came to novels however, Verne had a hard time getting published. This was largely due to a somewhat pessimistic view of the world he held at the time which inevitably showed in his writing.  Fortunately for him, and science fiction readers everywhere, he developed a relationship with publisher Pierre Jules Hetzel who took him under his wing and helped him to realize that people preferred happy endings and humour in their casual reading. Verne readily took his new friend’s advice and rewrote a number of stories which Hetzel published as the lavishly illustrated “extraordinary adventures” series.

The series began with Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) – the adventures of an English explorer who, with his servant and best friend, attempts to traverse Africa in an inovative design of balloon; Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) – the account of a German professor’s attempt to retrace the steps of a previous explorer who claims to have visited the centre of the earth; and From the Earth to the Moon (1865) the highly detailed story of the attempt by members of Boston’s infamous ‘Gun Club’ to fire a projectile at the moon carrying three adventurers, which inspired Verne to introduce to the genre what would become another great science-fiction mainstay – the sequel – All Around the Moon (1870).  Verne’s stories were largely well received in France and other European countries (after extensive assistance from Hetzel –  listen to your publishers people) but were not as readily received by the English-speaking markets. In general there are two reasons given for this.

More often than not, among the travellers in Les Voyages Extraordinaires, you will find an individual whose vocation or class in society deprived them of sufficient education to fully understand either the science and/or the history of what is transpiring around them. When this happens Verne’s protagonists (Dr. Samuel Ferguson, Professor Otto Lindenbrock and Gun Club president Impey Barbicane, in the case of the aforementioned titles) would be more than happy to provide the required exposition. These expositions covered a variety of subjects from the lifting properties of hydrogen to the need for America’s lunar exploration efforts to be launched from the Florida peninsula.  By the use of this literary device it could truly be said that Jules Verne put the ‘science’ in science-fiction; however, British publishers, unlike their European counterparts, found these expositions exeedingly dull and since they didn’t see any benefit in educating their readers along with entertaining them, edited such passages out of the English translations of Verne’s work, taking entire chapters along with them.

The second reason was akin to the first in that British publishers also thought Verne painted the English in a bad light and did not entirely appreciate his characters’ tendency to form friendships across class and racial boundaries. Again, these offending passages were heavily edited in the English translations and as a result many, especially in North America, considered Verne to be highly racist and anti-Semitic.  Even today scholars continue in their efforts to reveal the authentic Jules Verne that the world may truly appreciate his extraordinary vision.

One thing that did survive translation though are a number of indications that Jules Verne was, in all likelihood, a man of faith; which brings us back to the subject of this series of posts. Consider for a moment these three passages from Les Voyages Extraordinaires.

“My God! my God!” exclaimed the dying apostle, “have pity on me!”

His countenance shone. Far above that earth on which he had known no joys; in the midst of that night which sent to him its softest radiance; on the way to that heaven toward which he uplifted his spirit, as though in a miraculous assumption, he seemed already to live and breathe in the new existence.

His last gesture was a supreme blessing on his new friends of only one day. Then he fell back into the arms of Kennedy, whose countenance was bathed in hot tears.

“Dead!” said the doctor, bending over him, “dead!” And with one common accord, the three friends knelt together in silent prayer. [1]

Lost at an immeasurable depth! Thirty leagues of rock seemed to weigh upon my shoulders with a dreadful pressure. I felt crushed…
… When I saw myself thus far removed from all earthly help I had recourse to heavenly succour. The remembrance of my childhood, the recollection of my mother, whom I had only known in my tender early years, came back to me, and I knelt in prayer imploring for the Divine help of which I was so little worthy.
This return of trust in God’s providence allayed the turbulence of my fears, and I was enabled to concentrate upon my situation all the force of my intelligence. [2]

“Ardan, dear friend,” interrupted Barbican, in a grave tone, “a serious
moment is now at hand. Let us meet it with some interior recollection.
Give me your hands, my dear friends.”

“Certainly,” said Ardan, with tears in his voice, and already at the
other extreme of his apparent levity.

The three brave men united in one last, silent, but warm and impulsively
affectionate pressure.

“And now, great God, our Creator, protect us! In Thee we trust!” prayed
Barbican, the others joining him with folded hands and bowed heads. [3]

I would like to point out at this juncture that I have watched film versions of all these novels and can attest to the fact that not one of these three scenes appears in any of them! Which leads me the first of my general assertions:

1 – It is not science-fiction that has a problem with God and spirituality,  but rather Hollywood.

Throughout all of Jules Verne’s writing there a numerous references to God and to spirituality in a number of various contexts. At no point is it presented as a blatant evangelical outreach, as so often happens in Christian literature, but rather as simply the natural inclination of the characters in the story. But for some reason, in all the cinematic renditions of these novels that I have seen anyway, that inclination is either removed completely or reduced to a single token acknowledgement of the attitudes of the era in which the story is taking place. Which brings me to my second assertion:

2 – Many of science-fiction’s most vocal critics are likely basing their opinions upon what they observe on movie and television screens and not on the pages of the original literature.

Let’s face it, all of us have at one point or another been disappointed at the results when our favorite book has been made into a movie.  Movies have a variety of constraints placed upon them which literature need not adhere to; the greatest of which being, to quote Alfred Hitchcock, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” As a result scenes are cut, dialogue shortened and simplified, and narration all but eliminated.

In addition, while a good book can make a living for it’s author with a relatively narrow audience, a film, no matter how good, often needs a much wider market. For this reason elements are often added to widen a story’s appeal. For example, to increase the audience of Journey to the Centre of the Earth the 1959 film adds two characters into the mix that do not appear in Verne’s original story; the widow of a rival professor to add sexual tension and antagonize Lindenbrook along the journey, and a distant relative of Arne Saknussemm’s who is bent on creating an underground empire for himself.  Now I’ll admit, I loved the film – a lot, have seen it many time (so many that as I reread the novel for this post I had a hard time not hearing the voice of James Mason in my head); but if you are intending to evaluate the spiritual value of Verne’s writing by watching the movie, you will be severely ill-informed, and I strongly suspect this is often the case among many of science-fiction’s critics.

Ferguson's ballon is towed along by an elephant

Image curtesy Arthur B. Evans

As we continue this journey through my memories of a life reading science-fiction, I hope to provide additional evidence to back up these assertions, along with others I shall make along the way. But for now I think I’ll leave things as they are. There is however, one thing more.

In All Around the Moon, there are a few statements made that relate not only to the science-fiction debate but the the larger debate of science vs faith that is so much a part of modern media debate. However, this post is already long enough and to try and deal with the topic here would hardly do it justice. There is also the fact that I would like to include additional resources before I delve into the subject so it will have to wait for another time.

I mention this because I am certain some of you will, upon reading the story for yourselves, make note of the statements and wonder why I did not include them in this post. Well, now you know. Trust me, they are not overlooked.

Until next time then…  Shalom.

  • Many of the works of Jules Verne can be read online at The Literature Network
  • Some of the lavish illustrations that appeared in the original publications can be viewed HERE.

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[1] Five weeks in a Balloon, Chapter Twenty-Third, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/five-weeks-in-a-balloon/23/

[2] Journey to the Center of the Earth, Chapter 27, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/journey_center_earth/27/

[3] All Around the Moon, Chapter 1, http://www.online-literature.com/verne/around-the-moon/1/

Over much of Europe 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer.” Thanks to the ash cloud that hung over the continent due to the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before, the weather was far too cold and dreary for anyone to justify using the season’s traditional designation. At the villa of Lord Byron on Lake Geneva, Switzerland; Mary Wollenstone Goodwin,  Percy Bysshe Shelley, Clair Clairmont, John William Polidor and their esteemed host were spending just such an inclement evening reading German ghost stories and discussing all manner of subjects from vegetarianism to the possibility of re-animating the dead. The story goes that at one point in the evening Lord Byron suggested that each of them should write their own supernatural tale.

Such a challenge would not have phased the likes of Shelley and Polidor who, like Byron, were already established writers, but for the 18-year-old Mary Goodwin I’m sure it was a bit more daunting. She set down to write a short story in which she considered how frightful it would be for “any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”[1]  Shelley, her lover whom she would marry later that year, encouraged her to expand the tale into a full novel. She finished it in November of 1817, and on January 1st, 1818 the world was introduced to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

And in that same story, according to many, the 19-year-old daughter of a political philosopher and his feminist wife also gave birth to the genre of Science Fiction.

By the time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my early twenties science fiction was already established as my genre of choice. With my parents encouragement I grew up reading Jules Vern, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, E.E.’Doc’ Smith and a dozen others. In 1969 I sat glued to my TV set watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and thought to myself, “Wow, it’s all coming true.”

Frankenstein was large in my mind as well, but only the Frankenstein of the movies. Boris Karloff brought the monster to life for me; terrifying and terrified, he met a fiery end at the hands of frightened villagers.  The monster was reincarnated as the companion of Dracula, the Werewolf, and many others including Abbott and Costello. So it was a great surprise to me when I read the novel that started it all because, as I was soon to discover happened all too often, Hollywood didn’t appear to have read the same book as I did.  In Mary’s story there is no Igor, no villagers with pitch forks, no apparatus to capture the power of lightning, and while Castle Frankenstein in Germany may have played a role in inspiring the name of Mary’s protagonist, the castle itself appears nowhere in the story.

Mary’s story is, in fact, an epistolary novel, told in the form of a series of letters between one Captain Robert Walton and his sister Margaret. He recounts the series of events that lead to his exploration of the Arctic in an effort to reach the North Pole. Before he achieves his goal however, his crew spot a giant form, human in appearance but impossibly large, travelling across the pack ice on a dog sled. A day later they rescue Victor Frankenstein, nearly dead from exposure, whose own dog sled has succumbed to the treacherous terrain leaving him pursuing the creature paddling an ice raft. Walton then recounts to his sister the incredible tale that Frankenstein relates during his convalescence on board ship. The story of one man’s attempt to create life from non-life, and the terrible consequences of his success.

And therein lies the core of Mary’s tale. The story was originally published under the title Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It is an apt sub-title. The Prometheus myth comes in two flavours; in Latin Prometheus is the one who creates mankind out of clay and water, while in Greek he is the Titan (half god/half human) who steals fire from the mountain of the gods and gives it to mankind so that they might become greater than what they are. In both versions Prometheus is punished for what he has done.

So it is with Victor. He starts out, innocently enough, as a man bent on learning all that he can about death in order to defeat it. Driven by his grief at the loss of his mother he studies every aspect of the body’s decay and, by applying what he has learned in the field of chemistry and other sciences, discovers a method for animating unliving flesh. As the crowning touch to his research he sets out to make himself a man, which he does, assembling the creature from various sources including both “the dissecting room and the slaughter-house.” The creature is made larger than a normal human because of, as Victor puts it, “the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body.” All of this work is done not in some remote castle in the dark woods of Transylvania, but in his assigned lab at the university in Ingolstadt.

But then something happens the reader does not expect (I told you I wouldn’t avoid spoilers). When he finally does succeed in imparting life to his creation (exactly how Frankenstein does not reveal to Walton), there is no moment of joy, no victorious cry of  “It’s alive!” at the top of his lungs. Instead there is only fear and revulsion at the sight of the hideous monster that now stands and breathes before him. He flees, leaving the creature alone in his room as he runs out into the street, overwhelmed by the horror of what he has done.

Here then is where Victor departs not just from the room, but from his role as creator. Unlike the God he aspires to equal, Victor takes no responsibility for his creation. He does not build a garden for the naked creature to live in nor embrace his creation as a loving father would. He doesn’t even hang around long enough to give him a name! Instead, like Adam in the garden after the tree incident he seeks to hide himself from his sin.

Victor goes home because the guilt he feels at his actions causes him to succumb to a substantial illness. Meanwhile the creature flees the city as well and living in the woods, subsists on berries and other vegetation (Mary was a vegetarian), and observing mankind from a distance he eventually decides to seek out his creator. When he does, we are surprised to learn that the creature has mastered not only the ability to speak but to read, and makes quite an eloquent argument to his creator of his need for acceptance, family, and for love.

Victor at first is moved by the creature’s intelligence, deep pain of loneliness but still refuses to take responsibility for the life he has created, refusing to fulfill the creature’s desire for a mate, an Eve to his Adam if you will. Because of Victor’s continued rejection the creature seeks revenge and begins a killing spree that leaves Frankenstein without friends or family denying his creator any hope of experiencing the love he refuses to bestow upon the life he brought into the world.

Exactly how the story ends I will leave for you to discover should you decide to read it.

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I can hear some of you saying, “Okay Dennis, but what about the spiritual side? What about the questions you asked in the previous post?”

Well, it appears that rather than being anti-God, amoral, or mired in the triumph of science over faith, science fiction has its genesis in the story of a man who infringed on God’s domain and suffered for doing so. For all his vaunted declarations of the supremacy of knowledge and the wonders of chemistry, Victor Frankenstein could not meet the responsibility of creating life. He himself recognized his creature as an abomination and realized the only thing he could do to make things right was destroy it, pursuing it to the ends of the earth, literally, in an effort to correct his mistake.

Shelley’s story reminds me of the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11 we are told that God separated the people by language because they had gotten too arrogant in their faith in their own abilities. He feared for what they might try to do next; and this just for building a skyscraper!  In Frankenstein Shelley fears that mankind’s pursuit of knowledge is headed in a far more dangerous direction and through her tale seeks to issue a warning.

The Frankenstein Argument is still a valid one today; and one that I subscribe to,  both as a Christian and as a fan of technology. Humanity has not yet succeeded in animating unliving flesh in the manner of young Victor, but through the use of various biotechnologies we are trying to improve on God’s design. The motivation is the same as Victor’s, end human suffering and make us more resilient to disease and injury, but the consequences of success could be equally tragic.

There are plenty of other themes that could be discussed in relation to this story. Loneliness and the need for companionship is a big one. Dysfunctional families, deadbeat dads, judging people by their appearances; it’s a lengthy list and if you’d like to explore some of these issues, as they relate to Frankenstein, I’d be happy to do so in the comments.

But for now, I would have to say – yes gentle reader, Mary Shelley has contributed to my world view. But contrary to the contentions of the critics, she has actually reenforced my Biblical perspective.  Shelley lived a hundred years before Joyce Kilmer, but it would seem she agreed that “only God can make a tree” or a man.

Till next Time…  Shalom.

• Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

• For a movie version that holds to the original story (for the most part) see this excellent production by director Kenneth Branagh

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[1] Quoted from Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein.