And now, though it looks like I’m changing the subject, I’m not.
I think overall, the quality and variety of Christian fiction is improving, and I’m happy to see the changes. However, my opinion remains that for cream-of-the-crop writing, head for the secular fiction.
Yes, we must be discerning about these things. There are scads of books out there I wouldn’t want to read—nor even look at the covers. Nevertheless, discounting erotica, secular fiction offers a wide assortment of absorbing, thought-provoking stories that are beautifully crafted.
Take, for instance, the book I finished reading last week. It’s classic sci-fi, and I found it compelling. Not because of the science, as I don’t care about that so much. What intrigued me was the way the story looked at religion from a wholly clinical perspective.
I’m talking bout The Songs of Distant Earth by Arthur C. Clarke. If you’re not a sci-fi fan, you might not recognize the author as one of “The Big Three” of science fiction writers in the formative years of the genre (the other two being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov).
The guy was no slouch. Very brainy. He was not only a prolific writer of science nonfiction as well as fiction, but a deep sea explorer and inventor as well. (I believe he had a TV show, too, though I’m not sure that speaks to his intelligence.) Perhaps his best-known claim to fame is his creation of the novel and the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Which I’ve never read or seen. I’m going to have to rectify that soon.)
A brief background of the story in question:
When scientists discovered that the sun was about to go nova in the next few thousand years, the world united in making plans to preserve human life by transplanting it to other planets. This was done initially through the use of “seedships” that carried the raw ingredients and genetic formulas to create not only human life, but farm animals, plants, and a variety of creatures necessary for food production. (No disease organisms or parasites, however.) Once a suitable environment would be found—or created through scientific means on a planet that held potential—robots would construct the necessary life, raise the test-tube babies to maturity, and assist them in establishing a self-sufficient colony over the next several human generations.
After cryogenics became more reliable, ships were sent out with actual people on them, but frozen, with the systems programmed to awaken them when the time was right.
In both cases, the ships carried books, art, and other relics from earth so that the new societies these people established would preserve the old terrestrial culture. However—and this is the fun part—everything sent into space was carefully selected in order to avoid contamination of any sort, whether medical or mental. And one of the harmful influences expunged was any whiff of religion.
You see, by this time, mankind had become so logical that people no longer believed in the existence of God. In the words of one of the book’s characters (who called the Creator God Alpha): “Fortunately for mankind, Alpha faded out of the picture, more or less gracefully, in the early 2000s.” The character went on to explain how mankind came to certain conclusions about the impossibility of such a Being, reason prevailed, and God died.
The story takes place on the planet of Thalassa, where one of the seedships had met with success several centuries earlier. The society there is small but thriving, with the inhabitants living happy, productive lives in peace and harmony.
The author wrote so skillfully that the scenario was almost believable. As I sketch it out for you now, though, I can’t keep it from sounding ridiculous. Perhaps one reason the author was so convincing (apart from his considerable writing skill) is because he fully believed it all possible. And it’s hard for me to grasp how an intelligent man could seriously entertain those thoughts. It makes me think that however well trained Arthur C. Clarke was in the sciences, he was no student of either history or human nature.
The author considered religion an outgrowth of ignorance and superstition; scientific understanding would, therefore, eventually overcome it. It’s true that scientific discoveries have put many religious myths to rest. However, there’s a gaping chasm between religious myth and scriptural truth.
No scientific evidence has ever disproved the Bible. Some scientists’ interpretations of the evidence contradict the scriptural record, but the actual evidence does not. As a matter of fact, when viewed objectively, the physical evidence supports the history of Noah’s flood more than it does evolutionary theory.
Not all scientists are in agreement about what the evidence indicates. Some highly educated people see science as glorifying the Creator God, not disproving His existence. They might be among a quiet minority, but they’re out there in the scientific community, looking the facts in the eye and seeing God looking back at them.
Here’s another glitch to the story’s premise: If we did not originally bear the image of the eternal God, why would we care if the sun incinerated the solar system? Wouldn’t a more likely attitude be Let’s eat, drink, and be merry while we can, because tomorrow we’ll be ash? I have to believe that without any concept of eternity, man’s inclination would be to go for the gusto. Who cares if the world suddenly burns up in a galactic fireball? It was fun while it lasted, and once we’re gone, we won’t feel a thing.
The idea of humanity vanishing without leaving a footprint is so jarring because it collides against our innate awareness that we were created for eternity. For us to be horrified by the thought, we must have some concept of God deep within.
Which leads us to the fact that no culture has ever needed to be taught religious thinking. Removing all mention or trace from the records (which in itself seems an impossible task, as it permeates everything mankind produces) wouldn’t delete it from our DNA. The suggestion that mankind is religious only because he was influenced by his ancestors flies in the face of reason.
Back to the Christian fiction v. secular topic. Why do I enjoy a book that presents a viewpoint I disagree with? Because stories like this give me a chance to look at subjects I might otherwise take for granted. Exploring these things from multiple sides results in deeper understanding and stronger faith. Also, seeing how others perceive the world helps me to better relate to others. When I read or hear what seems like an outlandish statement, I’m better equipped to see where they’re coming from.
But here’s the main reason: as a writer, reading excellent writing helps me improve my own.
When I want well-written fiction, I read the masters of the craft. When I want truth, I read the Bible. Because knowing God’s word is the only way we can rightly identify the fiction in any novel.
Arthur Clarke died in 2008 at the age of 90. I hope that sometime before his death he had a change of heart. It would be painful indeed to stand before the undeniable God you’d spent your whole life trying desperately to deny.