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February, 2009 : Review:

Wrong on Religion; Wrong on Science Fiction

A review of James A. Herrick's Scientific Mythologies

Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs
by James A. Herrick
(Downer's Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008)
978-0830825882

James A. Herrick is almost my evil twin. The subtitle of his book, Scientific Mythologies, is "How science and science fiction forge new religious beliefs," and on the bare facts of that matter we agree—right down to the use of the word "forge". (My original subtitle for The Gospel According to Science Fiction was "forging the faith of the future," which didn't make it to the finished book but is still on the back cover copy.) Like Herrick, I see SF as a place for new religious ideas, but unlike him, I think that's a good thing. Scientific Mythologies is an extended polemic against SF and speculative science, which Herrick, a conservative Christian, accuses of seeking to establish "a second pagan era".

Herrick structures his book into descriptions of seven "myths" that he believes are drawing modern culture away from its Christian roots: the Myth of the Extraterrestrial, the Myth of Space, the Myth of the New Humanity, the Myth of the Future, the Myth of the Spiritual Race, the Myth of Space Religion, and the Myth of Alien Gnosis. The boundaries and arrangement of these myths are unclear—I'm unsure why the "new humanity" and the "spiritual race" weren't treated in a single chapter, or at least grouped together—as is Herrick's definition of the term "myth". In particular, he seems to think that Christianity—presented as monolithic, unchanging, and, above all, "traditional"—doesn't have a mythology of its own. Given the compelling nature of the Christian narrative, this is a big mistake—he sells the faith short on one of its biggest strengths, just so he can cash in on the pejorative sense of the word "myth".

Come to think of it, his definition of "Christianity" comes across as a bit shaky, too. It's clear early on that his faith is conservative, but there's no explicit doctrinal disclosure, which renders his blanket statements about "the Judeo-Christian perspective" and "traditional monotheistic religious perspectives" frustratingly vague. Further complicating matters is his citation of some Christian writers, like Russian Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose, who flatly contradict his own view. Herrick mentions these writers' ideas, but doesn't make any account for how these contradictory ideas fit into "the Judeo-Christian perspective". We're left with the impression that Herrick doesn't think those who disagree with him are really Christian. He may, in fact, believe this, but if he does, it's truly unfortunate.

Similarly frustrating is his discussion of "the Myth of Alien Gnosis", in which he excoriates the idea that there exists salvific knowledge—"the account of what really happened, where we really exist, who we really are"—immediately after describing the core of Christian faith as a divine narrative that does precisely those things. Herrick fails utterly to draw a clear distinction between salvific knowledge and salvific faith. The issue of gnosticism (with either a big or small "g") is an academically thorny one, and Herrick's discussion needs a much more extensive treatment than he gives us. Many of the ideas he presents in his discussion of "alien gnosis" have precedents in Christian neoplatonism and even in the New Testament itself (i.e. the prologue of John and some of Paul's letters), but Herrick insists on treating them as if they are purely pagan—another thorny term. This is most frustrating to me, personally, in his discussion of Philip K. Dick. In addition to getting facts wrong—for instance, Dick never claimed that his 8,000-page Exegesis was "dictated" to him—Herrick focuses exclusively on Dick's references to the gnostic Nag Hammadi library, ignoring his much more extensive uses of—dare I say it?—"traditional" Christian sources. (1) The real problem, of course, is Herrick's desire to cover up or ignore the extensive interplay between historical Christianity and some of those nasty "pagan" myths that he accuses SF of resurrecting. The lines are blurry, and he refuses to unblur them, leaving us with the idea that the main distinction between Christian and gnostic systems is that Christanity presents a "simpler and infinitely more reassuring situation." Is this really what he wants to argue—that Christianity is better just because it is simpler?

Herrick also turns a blind eye to aspects of modern Christianity that fall within the scope of his criticism. For instance, when discussing the desire, on the part of some believers, for science that bolsters religious claims, he complains that "the line between religious narrative and fantastic scientific agenda has blurred." But his example is an obfuscating one: he recounts a secondhand anecdote about Hindu scientists seeking to confirm aspects of the Ramayana, ignoring the much more obvious double-headed beast of creation science and intelligent design. There are a much greater number of better-documented Christian attempts at religion-based science, and one wonders why Herrick chooses so distant an example. This isn�t the only such instance: the book begs an awful lot of questions, and promptly ignores them. Herrick is obsessed with the lack of proof for alien intelligence, but when the question of his own religion's historicity comes up he hurries the matter along, betraying his (willful?) ignorance of Biblical scholarship and criticism.

It's clear from the beginning that Herrick doesn't like science fiction, and that's perfectly acceptable. But what soon becomes clear is that he doesn't respect it either. Scientific Mythologies is filled with errors both large and small. For instance, it's riddled with spelling errors: the villains of Battlestar Galactica are "Cyclons"; the director of 2001 is "Stanley Kubric"; the star of Contact is "Jodi Foster". There are also a number of factual errors regarding the release dates of novels and films. If Herrick can't be bothered to spell "Kubrick" correctly, what does that say for the attention he gives to the actual content of the works he's discussing? Not much, as we see in his discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His interpretation of the final scenes is somewhat odd:

Moreover, these aliens actually vaguely resemble some, though certainly not all, of the members of the gathered and adoring humans. Spielberg's camera lingers on an alien face, and we notice its childlike high forehead, large eyes and small chin. The director's camera now focuses on particular human faces in the crowd. Again we are struck by the large eyes, the high foreheads and the receding chins of these special humans.

Now, I may be mistaken here, but I've seen Close Encounters many, many times, and I never thought that Spielberg was trying to compare Richard Dreyfuss to the briefly-glimpsed grotesque alien in the film's final scene. (If he is, maybe the similar reaction shots in Jurassic Park are intended to suggest that Sam Neill is destined to become a triceratops.) Similarly, he misrepresents the history of Battlestar Galactica: his statement that "the television series, written by veteran television writer and producer Glen Larson, a devout Mormon, began in 1978 and continues in movies, books, video games and on television" is somewhat true, if you ignore the fact that there was a 24-year gap in which there was no Galactica whatsoever...and that the revival's producers claim total ignorance of the influence of Mormonism on the original series. Elsewhere, Herrick makes a bald statement that H.P. Lovecraft's influence on Arthur C. Clarke is "especially evident," something that might come as a surprise to a number of Lovecraft and Clarke scholars. Herrick seems unaware of the existence of serious SF scholarship, and his lack of knowledge about the genre and existing critical work about it casts the entire book in doubt.

Those are hardly the only errors. James McGrath's lengthy review points out a misquote from H.G. Wells that comes as a result of Herrick's reliance on secondary sources for easily-obtainable primary quotes. A more bizarre example is Herrick's apparent reliance on an unpublished paper for all of his information on The Bahá'i faith. Herrick's entire attitude toward quotation and citation is sloppy: whenever he is summarizing a story or an idea, he peppers the paragraph with essentially random, fragmentary quotations until it becomes difficult to discern which ideas originate in the source and which he has added. The book's generally sloppy proofreading adds to the problem: some quotes open but never close. This kind of thing betrays a basic disrespect for everyone involved: SF authors, SF readers, even Herrick's readers. When he's paying so little attention to the SF that is the raison d'être of his book, it leads the reader to wonder if he's being just as sloppy when he discusses theology.

It's not just inattention to detail: Herrick doesn't seem to know much about SF at all. Virtually all of the books he discusses were published before 1960, with a disproportionate amount of pre-Golden Age stories. One assumes Herrick means to be looking to SF's origins, but many of the stories he cites simply weren't very influential—if they were, the Golden Age might have come a few decades sooner. By ignoring written SF from the last half-century, Herrick ignores a number of (quite radical) changes the genre has undergone in that time. Herrick does discuss more recent films, but with a couple of exceptions—Destination Moon, The Thing From Another Worldthere is very little on pre-Star Wars SF film. Herrick's spotty choice of sources suggests a belief that filmic SF has completely supplanted written SF—which is a case that might be made, but Herrick doesn't even bring the subject up.

Even worse, this scattershot treatment leads to some major misrepresentations of the genre. In his section on "the Myth of the New Humanity", Herrick discusses eugenics, genetic modification, the Singularity, and posthumanity. Throughout the discussion, he presents SF as uniformly "suggesting that an improved human is either desirable or inevitable," and failing to examine the ethics of technology. He completely ignores the fact that much, if not most, SF about these matters is entirely driven by ethical questions. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the mold for a plethora of SF about the abuse of scientific knowledge, but Herrick's few brief mentions of that (extremely influential) novel suggest a misreading of the creation of the monster as a good thing. The need for a guiding ethic for technological advancement is a major concern of SF, but Herrick ignores it, opting instead to focus on the less-critical attitude of Golden Age works like Philip Wylie's Gladiator. Given this kind of selective discussion, the entire book is basically an extended straw man argument.

To briefly descend into ad hominem territory, it's worth noting that Herrick's previous work includes books entitled The History and Theory of Rhetoric, Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments, and Critical Thinking. In that context, Scientific Mythologies is a superbly ironic failure: poorly written, poorly argued, and poorly thought-out.

  1. That's my own axe to grind, of course, and grind it I do in my book Pink Beams of Light From the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick.

Copyright © 2009, Gabriel Mckee. All Rights Reserved.

About Gabriel Mckee

Gabriel Mckee is the author of "The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier" and "Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dick," as well as articles on religion and popular culture for Religion Dispatches, The Revealer, and Nerve. His blog, which explores religious themes in SF and popular culture, is at www.sfgospel.com.

COMMENTS!

Feb 5, 04:37 by IROSF
Review of Scientific Mythologies
Feb 6, 16:45 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Is Herricks from the fundamentalist brands of Christianity? Just as the Young Earth Creationists selectively quote from 40 year old biology textbooks and willfully ignore any modern advance, in their polemics against evolution, it should not be surprising that there is also a willful ignorance about S/F literature, themes, motifs and film. The intended audiences of these sorts of books are intellectually isolated, tend to under-education, and quite probably never heard of Kubrick or seen Close Encounters . . .. It is all a part of the grand deception YECs and other fundamentalist churches are perpetrating on their neatly controlled congregations. I am certain that there are those who are taking Herrick's arguments as gospel.

Sounds like this book is just another errantly aimed cannon ball in the Culture Wars. Faulty scholarship, illogical arguments and out right lies (well, willful perpetration of erroneous misconceptions) are par for the course with these folks. Thank you, Mr. Mckee, for saving me some money, although if I find a cheap used copy, I might just read it if for no other reason than to stoke my indignation.
Feb 7, 04:31 by Ron Bales

"Forging" is such a nice action verb to use for a subtitle.

This review makes Scientific Mythologies sound rather like a Dick Chick tract with footnotes. Obviously the impression taken by the other commenter. Having not read it I don't know if this is fair. Certainly it is a subject that deserves a breadth of thought and research. Even a polemic against Science Fiction would deserve that. The genre is too broad to categorize simply.

I am interested in both Christianity and SF and am comfortable leaving this book unread on the basis of this review. If I stumble across it, sure, give it a look. There is only limited time to actually read in both subjects why waste it on a tweener that offers less insight.

Feb 8, 15:19 by David Bartell
One thing that fascinates me is the odd choice of battles in the book, but yes, it does warrant a better treatment.

I actually do think the resemblance between the aliens in CE3K and the little boy was intentional, possibly to include a couple other humans (but not Dreyfuss.) If so, it was a minor point.

I also agree to an extent that the inevitability and possibly desirability of post-humans may arguably be assumed by the overall trend. The ethics arguments of most stories, and cautionary elements of many contain the underlying meaning, of course. But I recall the weight of literature that "assumed" we were doomed to nuclear holocaust, "destined" for the stars, etc. SF has straw men of its own, but they deserve less dismissive criticism.
Feb 9, 03:17 by Joshua Zelinsky
Errant, I don't think Herrick is fundamentalist. He appears to be an evangelical and he could possibly be of one of the more extreme ones (which most people colloquially label fundamentalist).

He works at Hope College in which is a Christian school in Michiganbut one that seems somewhat moderate to me. He has been previously employed at UC Davis. So I don't see any reason to consider him as anything other than a devout Christian. Many different people engage are sloppy. One shouldn't assume someone lies in a specific group because of it.

Regarding the post-human idea; the notion of it being both good and inevitable is I think a fairly modern trend. Look at for example The Time Machine where a species becomes very advanced only to fall back down. Even some of the scifi focusing on transhumanism and the Singularity is ambivalent or conflicted about the result. And if one looks at science fiction in popular television then scientific progress in almost all forms is negative. The most obvious such example would be the remake of The Outer Limits. My impression is that about half the episodes involved some sort of hubris by human scientists and many if not most of those involved transhumanist themes such as genetic engineering. (I haven't gone through and counted episodes).

Feb 9, 17:44 by Nader Elhefnawy
Hi everyone. I ran across Herrick's book a few months ago. I didn't come away with the same impression about an angle on the subject, though admittedly I gave it just a quick going-over--mainly because it didn't impress me as a terribly original, or unusually well-crafted or comprehensive treatment of an issue that's received a lot of study over the years, though I suspect I'll come to some similar conclusions when I revisit it.

Incidentally, any examination of Christianity and science fiction (and especially posthumanism) is, in my view, entirely inadequate if it leaves out nineteenth century thinkers like Nikolai Fedorov and the Cosmists--who, despite being grossly underappreciated in the West (for a million bad reasons), were most certainly Christian, and absolutely, often positively, engaged with these ideas in ways far ahead of their time, and perhaps, also still ahead of ours. And I certainly don't remember Herrick's book being an exception to this pattern.

In case anyone's curious to find out more, I've authored two articles on Fedorov myself. One (based mainly on a close reading of some of his writing) is over at the science fiction magazine, The Future Fire, at http://futurefire.net/2007.09/nonfiction/fedorov.html. Another, which I published with the Space Review (Fedorov, who incidentally worked with the young Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, is one of the forgotten forefathers of space flight), can also be found on my own blog, at http://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com/2008/10/resurrecting-nikolai-fedorov.html.

In any case, my compliments to McKee on a well written, highly detailed and persuasively argued review.

Incidentally, I'm in agreement about The Outer Limits, which too often fell into the familiar "Frankenstein complex" pattern.
Mar 18, 21:44 by Paul Schilling
I'm not surprised that anyone arguing that SF could replace Christianity as our mythology would write such a bad book. It takes a certain degree of denial to believe the premise in the first place. Nor am I surprised that a conservative Christian writer would do such a bad job of the research into SF, considering their constant misrepresentation of the Bible as well. Yes, for them the idea of a simple Christianity is a good thing, because if they looked too closely at the very complicated Bible, they couldn't sustain their simple belief structure, nor could they have voted for politicans like Bush, whose policies violated the teachings of Jesus.

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