Monday, February 27, 2017

Other Worlds: Fiction and Reality

Image: Metally Challenged
This post was written mostly out of whimsy with a dash of serious interest. I've  already touched briefly on this topic in my previous posts, and had no plans to further detail my views. But last week's highly publicized - I would even say hyped - discovery of no less than seven new 'earth-like' planets orbiting  a single star (link is available here) got me thinking, "Why not?" 

I certainly applaud this discovery as a future site for potential human exploration and settlement - assuming we also discover a convenient method of interstellar travel (it may not be as far off as we think; see links here and here). But it also reopens the door on a perennial debate - could life currently exist elsewhere in the universe? 

Image: io9

One doesn't have to look far to see how pervasive the concept of extraterrestrial life has become throughout Western culture. Popular franchises such as Star Trek and Star Wars will immediately come to mind, as will multitudinous works of speculative fiction. Even official scientific policy is geared towards confirming its literal existence, with NASA defining much of its current mission in these terms, millions given in government grants to organizations like SETI and "astrobiology" emerging into a full-fledged field in academia. 
Image: Movie web
Some Christians have come on board with this trend, particularly those niche speculative genres (some links are available here and here). Some more historically prominent writers have also explored the concept, such as C.S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy

From a traditionally biblical view, however, the basic problem with intelligent beings created on other worlds is as follows. The Bible very clearly states that sin and death first came into the world as a result of Adam's transgression and fell upon the entirety of Creation (Romans 8:22). This would mean that beings on other worlds received the same punishment as Adam and his descendants even though they had not sinned with him in the garden, which is hardly fair or just when considered theologically. The alternative seems to be a sort of "parallelistic" view whereby we assume a virtually endless number of Falls on various worlds, with Christ having to replicate his sacrifice upon each. This view, while logical, carries somewhat disturbing philosophical baggage  - namely, it seems to cheapen Christ's sacrifice on Earth by making it just one sacrifice among many. One can debate whether it would necessarily be cheapened as a result, but few Christians, I think, are prepared to embrace this view (myself included). 

Image: Wall Paper Cave

What I've described is simply a restatement of the conclusions many prominent biblical scholars have come to when studying this question (links are available here and here. I would amend it simply by saying that with all this considered, I do not believe the discovery of intelligent life on other worlds (something I currently have no evidential reason to believe will ever occur) would disprove the Bible. It would simply present the challenge of a new interpretive framework. It would be a singularly disturbing paradigm shift, to be sure, but not an impossible one. And this assumes the life discovered is of an intelligent nature. Plant or animalian life would entail a similar but not nearly as extreme paradigm shift - see the following link (key passage is toward the end of the article). 

That brings us to my main intent in mentioning all this. Let us assume that human beings are the only intelligent beings in the universe (as I personally believe along with most traditional biblicists). Some would take an absolutist view that the literally false concept of extraterrestrial life therefore has no redeeming value in the human imagination and certainly not in the Christian one. But this, I think, is unnecessarily harsh. One of our greatest God-given gifts as human beings is to imagine things that do not exist in the real world - animals do not have this ability. Consider this quote from Francis Schaefer:

“Christians . . . ought not to be threatened by fantasy and imagination. Great painting is not 'photographic': think of the Old Testament art commanded by God. There were blue pomegranates on the robes of the priest who went into the Holy of Holies. In nature there are no blue pomegranates. Christian artists do not need to be threatened by fantasy and imagination, for they have a basis for knowing the difference between them and the real world 'out there.'" 

Image: JustGiving

I therefore believe that extraterrestrial beings can still have a place within imaginative literature - both secular and Christian. When handled well as a plot device, they can affect storylines in powerful ways that it's hard to replicate by other means. I myself thought I had "outgrown" literature involving aliens until I read Stephenie Meyer's The Host. That book turned out to be one of the most mind-expanding reading experiences I ever had and actually re-confirmed me in many of my moral-spiritual beliefs by allowing me to consider them through an alternate perspective (namely, that of an alien being learning about our world while inhabiting a human body). 

Aliens, I believe, occupy a similar place in science fiction to that of the elves, gnomes, and goblins of fairy tale folklore. In many ways they're just updated versions of the old legends for a scientific age. Human culture, it seems, has always had a need for stories involving some form of non-human intelligence - life forms with which we can communicate on a common level yet are still "other" in some way. 

Image: Fanpop
Of course, like every facet of the human imagination, extraterrestrials are subject to misuse. Many - if not most - science fiction writers of today use them to promote singularly unbiblical themes, not the least of which is Darwinian evolution. Even those Christian writers who make use of them are likely to be of the "theistic evolutionist" persuasion, which is still biblically untenable for a variety of reasons (see link here). 

While I myself write from what I consider a biblical perspective of reality, I still enjoy secular science fiction (aliens and all) precisely because I can see where the concepts within them fail to match that reality - it stimulates me to think of ways I can explore similar but truer concepts in my own fiction. I've derived some of my most powerful storylines (yet to be written) in this very manner.

So what of those Christian writers with an orthodox view of Scripture who - for whatever reason - would like to use aliens in their fiction? Is there a way to do so in a serious way while avoiding the almost inevitable Darwinist and theological baggage? 

I'll posit a bit of a "thought experiment" that could perhaps be of some use. Let me emphasize this is not what I actually believe (I think I've made my views quite clear already). Rather, it's an interpretive tool that can be used for the purpose of (fanciful) fiction. 

Image: Emaze

Let's assume the creation account in Genesis solely describes Earth and its solar system. The "stars" are simply the planets (ancient Hebrew uses the same word to describe both stars and planets). Room is then left for other, prior creations having taken place in different areas of the universe. The death and decay in the larger universe (Romans 8:22) is a result not of Adam's fall but of Lucifer's, with the "War in Heaven" having brought a high level of physical destruction in its wake. None of the beings on these various world experienced a species-wide fall in the manner of Adam's descendants, and are therefore not cursed in the same way. Rather, various individuals within these races are either rebellious or disobedient depending on whether they heeded Satan's lies or God's commandments. Their salvation needs, as they exist, are thereby met in some different manner than ours, eliminating the need for Christ to endlessly replicate his sacrifice across various worlds. Or perhaps they are able to partake in some way in His single sacrifice on earth. I'll leave the exact details of this to the imagination of some writer more motivated to pursue it than myself. 

So there you have it. That's my take on how you could possibly reconcile extraterrestrial life with Scripture - with all the mental gymnastics (and, probably, significant logical holes) that involves. I invite anyone interested to make whatever use of it they will. 

Image: Inverse
Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth. Live long and prosper! 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Secrets of the Ancients

Image: Emaze
Ancient history has fascinated me ever since High School, where I first became mature enough to appreciate it. The Biblical record, in particular, came to the forefront of my interests as faith came to the forefront of my life. I'll never forget the reverent awe with which I devoured James Ussher's The Annals of the World, and I still have a sizable collection of (computerized) primary sources, both sacred and profane, that I intend to read through one day. 

Through these pursuits, I also became vividly aware of the shortcomings inherent in the secular-Darwinist model of history. Out-of-place artifacts (OOPARTS) became emblematic of this, and my readings in the literature surrounding them have brought some singularly mind-expanding perspectives (some relevant links can be found here and here). 

Secular attempts to explain these anomalies are also telling. I remember one day a year or so previous, when I was waiting my turn at a local plasma donation clinic. The waiting room had a TV playing for the benefit of visiting donors, and the current program happened to be "Ancient Aliens". This particular episode centered around the technological feat represented by the Egyptian pyramids, also exploring an alternative theory of their intended use that I was already familiar with (link can be found here). As you can imagine, my antenna rose straight up. I watched the program in rapt attention right up until the point they asserted that the pyramids, being structures beyond the technological capacity of Ancient Man, had to be the work of extraterrestrials. 

Image: UFOholic

No, no, NO! A thousand times, NO!

Though it was an otherwise pleasant day, I left the clinic in a mood slightly more frustrated than usual. While I applaud alternative theorists in all academic fields for their open-mindedness to new ideas (as evidence supports them), most of them are still dominated by the same set of preconceptions as their establishment peers. Namely, that human history represents a linear ascent from primitive barbarism to increasing levels of social and technological complexity. Anything from the distant past is by definition less advanced - any anomalies to this trend must therefore be the result of some form of outside intervention. 

Image: The Lighthouse Keeper

Even most Biblical traditionalists assume something quite similar. The common picture of Ancient Man presented
  from both the pulpit and Sunday School classroom is a race of shepherds and subsistence farmers, with few other pursuits apart from tending sheep and harvesting crops. The Patriarchs of old, while they communicated with God in a way hard to fathom for us today, are assumed to have been more or less simple men with few - if any - things to impart in terms of intellect or science. 

But is this really what follows from the presented evidence of Scripture? Let's stop and think about this for a moment. In its beginning chapters, Genesis gives us an account of two beings, a man and a woman, who represented the pinnacle of of a "very good" Creation. They literally spent the first moments of their existence in a state of perfection, spiritual, mental and physical. Even when after the Fall, they still would have remembered this former state - and given accounts of it to multiple generations of their descendants. 

Can we even grasp the potential capabilities of a people just a few years removed from the very hand of God? Let's consider this passage as an example:

"And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died." (Genesis 5:5)

How many of us simply read on through the rest of that familiar genealogy without stopping to consider its mind-blowing implications? Human beings with an average life expectancy of 900 years? What would it mean if any one of us were endowed with such a lifespan? To put that in some perspective, Sir Isaac Newton would still be alive today and so would Einstein. The two of them could even be collaborating in their research. What would that mean for the scientific and technical advancement of the world? 


Prior to the Flood, something like this could have been fully possible for anywhere from 1656 years (Masoretic text) to 2262 years (Codex Alexandrinus). Even conservatively adopting the former estimate leaves us with a span of time roughly approximating that from the so-called "Dark Ages" (5th century AD) to the twenty-first century. Think of all the revolutionary social and technological changes that have occurred across the world within those years. What could a race of beings with 900-year lifespans have accomplished in the same amount of time?

The picture provided by a Biblical view of history is that of a mighty - but wicked - world civilization wiped out in a cataclysmic event and then partially rebuilt by a remnant of survivors who, while lacking the resources and lifespans (400 years as opposed to 900) of their forebears, nevertheless reached a highly developed state of society. God Himself stated that "nothing shall be restrained from them which they shall imagine to do". We then read that this civilization was fragmented by a supernatural act of judgment brought on by their pride and rebellion. Many disparate groups then spread across the globe - the ancestors of the cultures and civilizations we know today. Many of these initially maintained high levels of both knowledge and culture, with both  gradually being lost through a variety of factors, chief of which was the continuing decline of the human lifespan (finally settling on its current level following the death of Moses - still described as a physically vigorous man at 120). Other events, such as war, disease and corruption also played their part in destroying former records. 

In short, I believe our ancestors were capable of - and accomplished - far more amazing things than we are willing to give them credit for, perhaps (as I personally believe quite likely) even surpassing what we have accomplished in our own time. And they can therefore impart far more lessons to our own time, both from their successes and their mistakes. We need only be willing to learn (some sources that have already explored this in fiction are available here and here). 

Image: Den of Geek

Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Faith and the Final Frontier

As I said in my original post, this will be an eclectic blog focusing on a variety of topics. Though my book has been the impetus for starting it, I thought I would take the opportunity today to mention the second pursuit I am quite passionate about.

Space. The Final Frontier. Most of us will recognize those words from the opening lines of the original Star Trek series as readily as Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind." My own childhood discovery of outer space was larger through the lens of science fiction. I eagerly devoured the literature and programming of classic space opera, with their grandiose tales of battle and discovery on an epic, universal scale. For a time, the genre was embodied for me in franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek, later superseded by the more rationally-imagined Honor Harrington series. As an adult, my interests expanded to the real-world space effort, specifically space settlements such as those described in The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill and The Case For Mars by Robert Zubrin.

Initially, I perceived no potential conflict whatsoever between these interests and the precepts of my Christian faith. I believed that God had purposely designed human beings with a drive to explore, discover and expand - even to the very stars themselves - fulfilling our mandate for creation of new ideas, tools, technologies and even entirely new cultures and nations on unclaimed lands and worlds, adding new volumes to the grand book of human history. How I felt - and still feel - in this regard is best encapsulated in the words of John Milton, writing in Paradise Lost:


"Witness this new-made world, another Heaven
From Heaven-gate not far, founded in view 
On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea
Of amplitude almost immense, with stars
Numerous, and every star perhaps a world
Of destined habitation..."

You can imagine how devastated I was to learn just how many of my fellow believers take a diametrically opposite view. A case in point was my discovery of this particular Facebook group of over 4,000 members during a random Google search:

We oppose space mysticism - the belief in better future waiting out there. God gave us Earth and it is a perfectly adequate home. Lets stay here!
Closer inspection has made me 99 percent certain this group is, in fact, intended as satire (most likely by atheists). I offer this (abridged) post as an example:

It's absolutely mind blowing when I'm just eating a hotdog a few minutes ago and all the sudden I'm starting to feel Holy Fire in my back! The power of the Holy Spirit starts Busting out & wind was coming out of my mouth which is the breath of God different kinds of gifts were manifesting. My cell phone wasn't near me so when I went back to my cell phone and I noticed I got text coming in so that's why the power of the Holy Spirit was manifesting to heal and deliver any NASA whistleblowers who'd be willing to come forward to CASE...

Literally all the other posts are just like that. Really. But the very existence of a parody usually indicates some form of larger reality. A 2014 study published in The Week magazine found that support for space exploration was significantly weaker among church attendees than the public at large, with Roman Catholics being slightly more supportive than evangelical Protestants. Those rejecting mainstream evolutionary theory appeared to be the least supportive. 

Speaking as someone who embraces Young-Earth Creationism myself, I can attest to the reality of this mindset among many of its adherents. The late Henry Morris, author of The Genesis Flood, and considered by many the founder of the modern Creationist movement, also wrote an essay called "The Bounds of the Dominion Mandate," in which he asserted that man's biblical dominion is expressly limited to the planet Earth, citing the following passages of Scripture:

"The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's: but the earth hath He given to the children of men (Psalm 115:16)."

"God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth,... hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitation (Acts 17:24, 26)." 

He further quoted a contemporary scientist at the time who stated "astronomy and cosmology are of little earthly use," and went on to criticize the entire space program for "the waste of billions of dollars - not to mention sacrificing the lives of many dedicated and brilliant men and women," before grudgingly allowing that some "spinoffs" of space research provided valuable tools for improving life on earth (but were only justified insofar as they contributed to this alone). 

The Scriptural passages Morris cited in his essay can be easily answered with another:

"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet (Psalm 8:4-6)..."


Furthermore, not all biblical scholars (even those embracing an otherwise identical view of the Creation account) would interpret the prior two passages in the same way Morris did. John Wesley, in his commentaries, believed the passage in Acts referred to physical features of geography - such as rivers, mountains, seas, etc - which formed the natural borders of various nations/people-groups at the time it was written, emphasizing that God's providence had been a constant factor in their histories (Wesley's Explanatory Notes). Regarding the verse from Psalm 115, I actually had the opportunity some years ago to field a question on to the Answers in Genesis organization. The researcher I spoke with was gracious enough to answer me at length, and I've included a link to his full response here. Basically, the psalm's intended meaning is not a restriction of man's dominion - rather, it is a description of the relation between the spiritual realm (represented by Heaven) and the physical universe (represented by Earth). Only when someone starts with certain preconceived notions does it convey the idea of humankind being barred from inhabiting space (incidentally, the same can be said of Acts 17). 

Why then are so many Christians so ambivalent towards space exploration? Primarily, I think this stems from the debate of extraterrestrial life. Young-Earth Creationists overwhelmingly believe that humans are alone in the universe. While the Bible never explicitly rules out the possibility of life on other worlds, it offers many significant indicators to cast doubt on its existence, which have been well-explained by many biblical scholars. Just one example can be found here. As someone who embraces a predominantly literal approach to Scripture, I find these arguments weighty. This perspective can, however, cause a knee-jerk reaction to identify all space exploration with an effort to disprove the Bible. But this focuses quite unfairly on only one side of space research to the exclusion of other possibilities. There have historically been many people of deep faith involved in the space program, the most significant of which were - and are - astronauts.

The other main contributing factor is the constricted view of the future implied by most mainstream Christian eschatological theories (the Left Behind series being the most significant). In some ways, the overwhelming dominance of these views in prophetic discourse is a parallel to the uphill battle faced by speculative authors in a Christian book market dominated by Amish fiction and Romance. I won't delve very deeply into them except to say that they are by no means the only possible interpretation of biblical prophecy - only when Christ returns will we finally know which of the myriad prophecy writers out there was closest to the truth. I personally take no dogmatic position on prophecy or the "end times". It's been my lifelong belief that an excessive focus on these tends to discourage long-term thinking. 

In this vein, many contemporary Christians are consumed with time-bound issues such as cultural rot, gay marriage, the school system, persecution overseas, etc (usually seeing them as signs "the end is near"). All of these issues are important ones. But seeing only immediate concerns as worthy of attention is both deadening and disheartening - it's also a prescription to ensure no genuine solution to any of them will ever be found. I think Mars advocate Robert Zubrin sums things up quite well in this regard: "There were many problems in Spain in the year 1492 - and there still are." But what did these compare with the discovery and settlement of the New World and the entirely new nations that rose in its wake? What if our own contemporary problems obscure what could in fact be the cusp of a new and revolutionary era of similar expansion?


To me, a faith-based worldview is not a barrier but rather an impetus for space exploration - a desire to discover and see firsthand the wonders of Creation, seeking out new frontiers like the Pilgrims and Pioneers before us. One thing that has stayed with me is one of the closing statements from The Mars Underground (a documentary I highly recommend): 

"I think the universe has a big sign on it that says 'Go forth and spread life.' Because when I look around at the universe, I think life is the most amazing thing we see. It is just incredible. And we human beings are uniquely positioned to help spread life from this little tiny planet  which it seems to have been started on - beyond. And that's our gift. Earth's gift to the universe, I think, is the gift of life."

Though they came from the lips of a wholly secular researcher, those words spoke to me on a profoundly spiritual level. Just how divinely noble would it be for us as human beings, created in God's image, to fulfill our biblical mandate of dominion by literally bringing dead worlds to life? What might this enterprise tell us about how miraculous our existence - and the existence of life on Earth, truly is? What fresh perspective could it offer us on the mind of God? What if Earth, a planet uniquely fine-tuned for discovery and observation of the larger universe (The Privileged Planet), is destined to be remembered by future generations on distant worlds as "the cradle of life" from which their ancestors spread. 

I leave you all with this quote from Francis Schaeffer:

"The Christian is the really free person - he is free to have imagination. This too is our heritage. The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars."

Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Dark Corners of Heaven and Earth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Christian Fiction Review: Guest Post: Novelist Alexander Preston

...and I'm back. My apologies to those of you who thought it was a big tease and this blog was going nowhere. As of yesterday, I have just had a guest post published at the Christian Fiction Review blog owned by Peter Younghusband. You can check out the link below!

Christian Fiction Review: Guest Post: Novelist Alexander Preston

Also, to those of you who have already read Harvest of Prey and are awaiting further installments, I'll take this time to confirm that yes, I do have another book currently in the works. It is a standalone novel with its own characters but can be read as a continuation of Harvest of Prey. No release date at this time, but I expect it to be complete within the following year - please don't hate me if I go over this deadline. Intensive research is currently underway. The working title at this time is "Talos".

Best wishes to one and all! Hope to see you again next week as we continue the journey!