Book Links Science Fiction to New Religious Thought
HOLLAND - A new book by Dr. James Herrick of the Hope College
communication faculty examines the role of science and science fiction
in inspiring alternative spiritualities in post-Christian Western
His book "Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction
Forge New Religious Beliefs" was published in May by InterVarsity
Herrick, who is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at
Hope, sees themes consistent in science fiction that he feels have
developed a significance beyond storytelling and inform a new religious
outlook. He notes that the image of a limitless God who created
humankind in his image and has shared his message openly is becoming
supplanted by concepts such as advanced alien beings who have knowledge
with which to benefit humanity, or even the idea that humanity itself
can progress to a more advanced level as represented by such beings.
"My purpose in this book is to explore the various ways in which the
Western world's present spiritual needs are being addressed by a new
mythology, an emerging canon of transcendent stories that provides
meaning to our lives and that organizes and directs our individual and
social decisions," Herrick writes in the book's introduction.
"Such observations might be of minor significance were it not for
the fact that our mythologies - the narratives by means of which we
make sense of our existence - have a way of shaping who we are and what
we are becoming," he writes. "If we trivialize mythic tales of alien
encounters, space exploration and human evolution as 'merely'
entertainment, if we dismiss all such stories as inconsequential
cultural fluff, then we may find ourselves responding to these powerful
narratives in another form - as public policies, social agendas and
proselytizing religious movements."
Although sci fi imagery and ideas have become plentiful in the age
of film and television, Herrick notes that the concepts are not new.
For example, the 17th-century French author Bernard le Bovier de
Fontenelle - who was a religious skeptic --considered the possibility
of life on other planets in his 1686 work "Conversations on the
Plurality of Worlds."
Herrick has found that ideas and outlook of science fiction have
become and continue to become manifest in real life in a variety of
ways. He cites, for example, contemporary scientists interested in
space exploration who identify science fiction films as having inspired
their decision to pursue their career focus. An example of direct
religious impact, he notes, is the Heaven's Gate cult, members of which
committed suicide in 1997 believing that their souls would be freed to
board a space ship.
Herrick explored the shift in Western spirituality previously in the
2003 book "The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the
Western Religious Tradition." In "Scientific Mythologies" he shares a
concern that he also expresses in that volume: that the new religious
view ultimately, and incorrectly, places spiritual power in the hands
of an elect few - those believed to have the knowledge for which others
must seek. The approach, he feels, echoes the ancient Gnostics who
believed only an elect few worthy of spiritual salvation, and runs
counter to the universality of Christianity.
"The idea of a secret spiritual knowledge, whether revealed by
aliens or someone in contact with them, leaves the power of the secret
in the hands of the one or the few who control that knowledge necessary
to enlightenment, indeed, to salvation," he writes. "This kind of
power can be, and often has been, highly dangerous."
"The God of the Bible offers an alternative: entering earthly
existence as a person, reaffirming the value both of Earth and of the
human, his 'secrets' are shared in simple stories told for the benefit
of the ordinary many, and often misunderstood or ignored by the
powerful few," he writes. "The return to gnosis robs the world of the
exquisite openness of the Christian notion of the gospel as good news."
Herrick has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1984 and is past
chair of the department. His research and teaching specialties are
rhetoric and argumentation.
His other books are "The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The
Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750," "The History and Theory of
Rhetoric: An Introduction," "Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping
Arguments," and "Critical Thinking: The Analysis of Arguments." He has
also had numerous articles appear in scholarly and popular publications
in addition to presenting several papers at professional conventions,
and wrote entries for both the "New Dictionary of National Biography"
and "The International Encyclopedia of Censorship."
"The Making of the New Spirituality" was named a 2004 "Gold
Medallion Book Award Finalist" by the Evangelical Christian Publishers
Association and was cited as one of "Ten Books Every Preacher Should
Read" in "Preaching" magazine's 2004 survey of the year's best books
Herrick is an active member of the National Communication
Association. His extensive professional involvement includes having
served as a founding member of the editorial boards of three
professional journals: "Review of Communication," which is the
electronic journal of the National Communication Association; the
Baylor University Press Rhetoric and Religion series; and, most
recently, the "American Communication Journal."