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Science Fiction and Racial Justice: C.S. Lewis as Anticolonial Subversive

C.S. Lewis

 

Examining the Particularity of World World II Whiteness

““But the fellah, the unemployed and the starving do not lay claim to truth.  They do not say they represent the truth because they are the truth in their very being.”-Frantz Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, page 13

For many, the mention of Clive Staples Lewis and racial justice may be an odd pairing, especially given Lewis’ place among white conservative evangelicals who cling to his every word on mostly every issue, I mean, except inerrancy and evolution, no doubt.  However, I like to think outside the box, and outside the norm when it comes to resources for the cause of racial justice, and it is in my limited interpretation of Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I now turn, in particular, the second of the series, Perelandra.

Our story begins in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, where our hero Ransom (uh oh, spaghetti theology-O’s!) is kidnapped by Devine and Weston. Devine and Weston (our unassuming antagonists) just so happen to be racist bigots against colonized subjects in Great Britain’s territories. Devine has a paternalistic attitude for an Indian colleague of his, and even though a relative of his may have married one of them, their culture, their existence is inferior in comparison to W’s and D’s progressive society. As Devine tries to seduce Ransom into his and W’s greedy ambition, D names everything from “Dear Old Place and to Playing the Game, to the White Man’s Burden and a Straight Bat.” Of course, Lewis is mimicking the logic of liberal imperialism, empire in the name of scientific and technological progress.

Ransom lands on a mysterious planet, Malacandra, and it is there that he meets some strange black beasts with amber-tinged eyes (the colored-Other we shall say). “Unconsciously he raised himself on his elbow and stared at the black beast.” It is in this encounter that Ransom feels the urge to fellowship in communion with this strange sentient being. “It was like a courtship – like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that; so natural is the contact of sexes, so limited. the strangeness, so shallow the reticence, so mild the repugnance to be overcome, compared with the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational, species.” Going back to my posts on Willie Jennings book on theology and race , The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, the idea that we are created in the imago Trinitas, image of the Trinity, made for a God who lives in community and for other planetary creatures to love and live in fellowship with as well, goes hand and hand with anti-racist theologies. Unlike the movie Avatar (2009) where the monstrous animalist culture Other remains a colonized subject to remain on the margins, the hrossa and the other sorn (sentient beings) that Ransom encounters are persons with a subjectivity of their own making and have no need of being liberated by the colonial whites.

Ransom informs the sorn of humanity’s colonial failures:

They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history – of war, slavery and prostitution. “It is because they have no Oyarsa,” said one of the pupils. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” said Augray. “They cannot help it,” said the old sorn. “There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair – or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it – like a female trying to beget young on herself.”

In Lewis’ hierarchy, God rules over humanity, and then governments rule as a mediator. Democrats (the small d for democratic philosophy) is not looked upon as something worth promoting, but as a form of anarchy itself. In the text Perelandra, Lewis shows the most of what Brian McLaren called in his Generous Orthodoxy, a postcolonial embarassment, in the description of Ransom’s encounter with the Green Lady:

Embarrassment and desire were both a thousand miles away from his experience: and if he was a little ashamed of his own body, that was a shame which had nothing to do with difference of sex and turned only on the fact that he knew his body to be a little ugly and a little ridiculous. Still less was her colour a source of horror to him. In her own world that green was beautiful and fitting; it was his pasty white and angry sunburn which were the monstrosity

She is dark and beautiful, he is ugly, “a little ridiculous,” and pasty at that! Melatonin as a signifier of beauty in this instance remains a reminder for Ransom (and for Lewis) the sins of European empire. Ransom’s struggle is with Weston who becomes the Un-Man whose goal it is to “To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race.” From a historical context, Lewis is criticizing one of his contemporaries, Olaf Stapledon, who I shall feature in this series. Lewis even rejects this theory, is this spirituality is not grounded in a Christian spirituality like that of the Middle Ages. His suspicion recognizes that the thrones of empires change seats, like in one instance, the throne may be religion, and in another science, and today, for example, the CEO’s chair. Humanity’s thrones are fluid and elusive, and it is up to the Christian to discern where injustice lies. Ransom argues (for Lewis) that the evidence of the Un-Man’s inhumanity is found in the lives of the oppressed.

“Well, the blacks know more about the universe than the white people. Dirty priests in back streets in Dublin frightening half-witted children to death with stories about it. You’d say they are unenlightened. They’re not: except that they think there is a way of escape. There isn’t. That is the real universe, always has been, always will be. That’s what it all means”

Lewis makes plain the imperial struggle in which he is waging with his pen by taking this interplanetary war and making it a very terrestrial one here on earth, on a college campus no less in the third piece of the Ransom Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Ransom calls upon Merlin to help him in his struggle against the National Institute of Coordinate Experiments (NICE), who recognizes the Nimrodian nature of these science-worshipping beasts:

For the Hideous Strength confronts us, and it is as in the days when Nimrod built a tower to reach heaven.”      “Hidden it may be,” said Merlinus, “ but not changed. Leave me to work, Lord. I will wake it

The question for Lewis is not whether or not Christians should work for a better world, that’s obviously a yes. God has given the faithful that responsibility. The question is “What do we want that better world to look like?”

And I would say, it should look a little bit like racial reconciliation and justice.

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Racial Justice And Science Fiction: Introduction

Or Is Theology the Queen of Sciences?

The Best Science Fiction of the Year 4

I question whether there is not some equivocation in failing to specify the virtues which entitle sacred theology to the title of ‘queen’. It might deserve that name by reason of including everything that is learned from all the other sciences and establishing everything by better methods and with profounder learning …. Or theology might be queen because of being occupied with a subject which excels in dignity all the subjects which compose the other sciences, and because her teachings are divulged in more sublime ways. — Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Dowager (1615)

 

Today, there is a group of theologians who go by the Radical Orthodoxy project, led by John Milbank and his interpretation of the idea that “Theology is the Queen of the Sciences.” As such, what you get is an ecclesiology that has a huge need for linguistic gatekeepers, since only Christians are able to understand the language of Christianity, ala post-liberalism (at least my reading of it). Each Radical Orthodox book I have read has the same blueprint: engage in what seems to be scathing critique of some “secular” discipline and practice, say, economics, and then use the last chapter to talk about how THE CHURCH is the solution to the problem.

Obviously, this take on RO on a blog may seem polemical, and granted, I am capable of more complex and generous reading of RO theology, but the reason why I introduce RO at the start of my introduction to my series on Racial Justice and Science Fiction. The implications for RO/THE CHURCH theologies is that they are closed, anti-conversational, and more biased/less critical towards traditions that just are not liberating. If indeed the RO/THE CHURCH theologians are correct, what is the point of doing other disciplines for? And furthermore, where in history has THE CHURCH been the leading teacher for solving the world’s problems? It seems to me that RO/THE CHURCH Christian thinkers are way too utopian in their collective praise for Aquinas and company.

Take the literary genre of science fiction, for example. In Adam Roberts’ Palgrave History of Science Fiction, Roberts’ argues that the emergence of Science Fiction happens in part to the Protestant Reformation. Much of the ways of knowing the world (epistemology) that the Reformers promoted was a PROTEST (zing!) against things like Geocentrism and Sacramentalism (according to Roberts), and in Roberts’ words, “Catholic fantasy.” I reject Roberts’ binary (read: Anti-Catholicism) but his argument has some merit. There cannot be science fiction prior to the birth of the scientific worldview. One could say then that Science Fiction, from the beginning was a theological, and continues to be a theological enterprise from its very inception. No, I am not saying that all science fiction works make a case for God or Higher Being of some sort, but what I am contending is that Science Fiction writings, plays, and movies have always reflected our (humanity’s) ultimate concerns.

If theology is seen as a closed conversation, since she is viewed at the top of the pyramid (ala Milbank), then prophetic critiques from the “outside” “secular” voices hold no weight. However, if theology is viewed in a non-hierarchal and conversational manner, then maybe perhaps the “secular” becomes a very integral part of the life of “THE CHURCH.” After all, the body of Christ is to be a community of the Word, which in Scripture, usually means a dialogue, and covenant, which eventually means a quest for justice.

This leads me to this series on Racial Justice and Science Fiction. Sometimes, theologians find the strangest of allies, but when it comes to advocates for racial justice and critical race theorists, perhaps this pairing is a bit too odd. Make no mistake this series will not be a dismantling of any science fiction texts on the level of my and Adam’s take on William P. Young’s The Shack (even though that is a possibility). Instead I have decided to take a random sampling of some of my favorite science fiction writings to share with the audience, and give examples have these texts can “make it plain” to folks what antiracism looks like, and in so doing, opening up the possibility for people to dream, and then work for racial justice, like that great Trekkie, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Texts/Authors included are:

Olaf Stapledon’s The Last and First Men

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (special focus on Perelandra–the 2nd piece)

Octavia Butler’s Kindred

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A New Translation Worse than the NLT!

The Shack Bible Project?

For those of you unfamiliar with William P Young’s The Shack, it is a novel about a man who goes through tragedy only to meet God as a black Aunt Jemima (without the pancakes though), a self-deprecating Jew, and a quiet Asian woman. No, seriously it is. While there have been plenty of posts via the Internets about the heresy of God as a woman, blah blah, blah, the most disturbing thing about the book is its representation of racial minorities as well as Young’s unwillingness to acknowledge racial blindspots throughout the book. I’ll hesitate to say more given that I am currently finishing up an article based on the research and joint presentation with a colleague of mine.

But now comes word that there is a Shack Bible paraphrase in the works. That’s right, the Bible is being re-paraphrased for fans of the Shack by someone who sees similarities between the Shack’s theology and patristic thought. Personally I do not see it. I am afraid that Young’s deity is right in line with the god of Marcionism, where YHWH’s just and righteous nature is replaced with the liberal Eurocentric god of mainline Protestantism, since laws and regulations should no longer be found in Scripture according to Saraya (the Asian lady/Holy Spirit figure).  That, and the notion that Jesus somehow refudiates the notion that he is from the Ancient Near East, dismissing his Jewishness in The Shack leads me to become more suspect of The Shack’s cultural imperialism as well as any Bible translation or work giving it an uncritical glance.