Classic Summer Reading: An Intro to Science Fiction for Serious Christian Readers

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The summer is almost over. Maybe you already have a summer reading list or maybe you’ve had no time. Either way, if you are looking to start that list now or continue to add to it, I have some book suggestions for you. I started this Classic Summer Reading list a long time ago, and my friend and former guest writer, Ryan, is back to carry on the tradition with some of his favorite science fiction. 

Science Fiction. What comes to your mind when you hear those words?

Do you think about silly movies with aliens trying to end human civilization and harvest us for our organs? Or do you think of forty-year-old men that still live in their moms’ basements and who speak fluent Klingon?

The reality is that, at its best, Science Fiction is a serious genre of literature that delves into the ethical, philosophical, and even theological problems posed by the modern world. Ever since Mary Shelley first introduced the world to Frankenstein’s monster almost two hundred years ago, Sci Fi has provided a venue for wrestling with worldviews and answers to ultimate questions in light of the technological and societal changes that humanity is undergoing at a rapid pace. Great Science Fiction authors speculate about humanity’s future (or even about alternative histories), pontificate about human nature, and envision ideal societies.

For Christians especially, Science Fiction provides a unique challenge and opportunity.

Here’s why:

We live in a day and age where we will be forced to deal with ethical challenges and changes to society that our forebears simply never had to think through. Case in point: on August 4th, the National Institutes of Health announced a proposal to lift a ban on funding for experiments that use human stem cells to make animal embryos that are partially human. Now, we could easily just dismiss this sort of thing as “playing God,” and I think we’d be right in that assertion. But what a missed opportunity that would be to engage with the question on a deep level, and to offer a fully formed Christian ethics in response.

And who amongst us thinks this will be the last scenario we’ll face like this? Science Fiction offers us a “practice field” for such questions.  Many Science Fiction authors present worldviews that contradict the Christian faith, and which can challenge us to think through what our own responses would be. We can develop our thinking and our worldview in fictional worlds as we await the inevitability of technological advance in the real world. We can be proactive, rather than reactive, about how we will witness to our faith in the “brave new world” we (and our children) will face in the coming years.

Not only is Science Fiction enjoyable, high quality literature, it’s also a great way to sharpen your mind and your worldview.

So read some good Sci Fi! Not sure where to begin? Here are some lightning reviews of a handful of classic Science Fiction novels that would be a great place to start:

Dune by Frank Herbert

A lot of people consider Dune to be the greatest science fiction novel ever written (and I’m certainly sympathetic to that belief). It’s been said that Dune did for Science Fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy. A complex novel that is vast in its scope, the issues in play in Dune include ecology, economics, psychology, educational theory, and the role of religion in society and politics.

Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, the heir to a ducal throne in a distant future on a far away planet. He and his family are caught up in a political intrigue over control of the planet known as Dune, the only known source of a spice that enables inter-stellar travel. Paul is betrayed by a close member of his father’s entourage, only to discover that he may be at the center of multiple messianic prophecies. In order to avenge the betrayal, and safeguard his loved ones, he has to figure out quickly how to survive unbelievably harsh desert conditions, fit in to a completely foreign culture, and watch out for giant sand worms the size of buildings.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K. Dick

You may not have heard of Phillip K. Dick (or PKD, as he’s known to his fans), but you have definitely heard of movies or TV shows based on his works: Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report, and The Man in the High Castle are all screen adaptions of PKD works. His worldview can fairly be described as Gnostic, though many of his ideas are also clearly influenced by mental health problems and drug abuse. His outsized influence on recent Science Fiction is a testament to both his brilliance and his originality as a writer.

 Androids is a post-apocalyptic novel that follows a bounty hunter’s attempts to earn enough money to buy an animal (a huge status symbol on a planet where most animal life is extinct). In order to do so, he picks up a job killing six androids that have gone rogue. It’s one of PKD’s more accessible works, and a great introduction to some of the philosophical themes he deals with. Among the issues dealt with in the novel are the question of what it means to be human, as well as epistemology and the nature of reality as a whole. It also tackles an issue that Christians are going to likely encounter very, very soon: should artificially-created beings that share human DNA be afforded the same rights as humans?

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This one is often considered to be another contender for “greatest Sci Fi novel of all time.” Here we get to grapple with war, genocide, drone strikes, our ethical obligations to other species, the effect that video games have on the minds of children, and all sorts of other current issues. This novel has actually been on the recommended professional reading list for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Earth has narrowly managed to survive an attack from insect-like aliens, and must prepare for their inevitable return. A child prodigy named Ender is recruited to train for zero-gravity warfare by being put through a series of simulations along with other precocious children. Ender and his older siblings find themselves dealing with an adult world and a military mindset that, brilliant as they are, they aren’t quite mature enough to handle.

Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

A much more recent novel than the others on this list (it was published in 2006), Eifelheim is also the only work in this list written from a Christian worldview. There are two simultaneous narratives presented in this story: first, we meet the inhabitants of Eifelheim, a 14th century German village in the Black Forest, who become the first people to make contact with aliens after a spaceship crashes nearby. The second narrative follows a modern historian and his theoretical physicist girlfriend as they investigate the mysterious disappearance of Eifelheim from the map after the year 1349.

Michael Flynn does a great job diving into the problem of evil and the role of philosophy in the Christian faith. The Medieval German Christians in the novel grapple with whether a non-human can become a follower of Christ, even as they question their own faith as the Black Death begins to devastate Europe. Although this novel is a bit more “hard Sci Fi” (meaning it dives into a lot of technical details, and actual science and math features more prominently) than some of the others on this list, the narrative is compelling and enjoyable, and the novel as a whole is extremely rewarding.

Ryan McLaughlin is a math teacher, husband, and father of three. He lives with his family in the Tampa, FL area, and is a member of St. Andrew-the-First-Called Orthodox Church. When not enjoying quality works of Science Fiction, Ryan likes to read Russian novels, Irish poetry, Greek theology, and English political theory, all preferably accompanied by Floridian craft beer.

Literature: What’s a Christian to do?

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Do we as Christians really need to read non-Christian literature? Can’t we just stick to the Bible and maybe a few Christian books? Wouldn’t it be better for us? Rather than to pollute ourselves with stories about adultery, witchcraft, and treachery?

Well if you say yes to that last question then you might as well burn the Bible along with all those filthy worldly fictional stories. The Bible is littered with some of the grimiest stories; stories that would have Stephen King beat. A pulp fiction novel would have to compete against the types of gritty stories found in the Old Testament.

What’s the Point?

So, we can see the logic of a Christian sheltering himself from non-Christian fiction doesn’t add up. But what’s the point anyway? Well, we as Christians believe we have meaning in life. Guess what? Much of classical and modern literature explores meaning and purpose in life. So, we have common ground in this arena. In Literature Through the Eyes of Faith: Christian College Coalition Series, by Susan V. Gallagher and Roger Lundin, they purport this concept:

“As a result, although some things are obviously of greater importance than others, everything in our experience has significance, and our attempt to discern that significance — as well as we can — is part of our calling as God’s servants.”

Literature can proclaim truth. Yes, God’s Word is the ultimate truth that we use to evaluate everything in this world. But if we have a good understanding of His Word it’ll be easier for us to discern what is truth and what is not in works of literature. How can literature show truth? Through characters, actions, dialogue, and story. We can also see truth in the beauty of well-written verse and craftsmanship, which points to the beauty of the creator craftsman and wordsmith. We can better understand ourselves, others, and our world when we read literature.

“The fact is that we never get away from stories. In and out of literature, stories tell us who are and what we might become.”Gallagher and Lundin

Why Read Literature?

This is why we read literature; even when the work is not written by a Christian author or doesn’t contain a direct Christian message. Sometimes it’s good to not try to look for a Christian message in a text and to just enjoy it for what it is. According to Gallagher and Lundin, “The ability to write and read literature is a gift from God.”  So, delight in it!

Gallagher and Lundin continue by saying, “Although as a result of sin our capacity for enjoyment is much diminished and often wrongly directed, delight is still an important part of God’s plan for us.”  In fact, Jesus came in part, to recapture that ability to feel true joy. So, we as Christians should enjoy literature and other works of art and culture as much as, if not more, than non-Christians.

We should be experts at developing art and culture as well; it’s part of being a steward. This was one of the jobs God entrusted to Adam and Eve, but they ruined it. Let us, as Christians, work hard towards redeeming art and culture on Earth now, until the day Christ fully redeems everything back to perfection. The Lord stopped and enjoyed his creation on the seventh day; he declared it was good. So, can’t we do the same?

“In acknowledging the skill of an author or the beauty of a work of literature, we praise the great Creator of the heavens and the earth. Delight in a well-crafted work of literature is a response to God.”Gallagher and Lundin

How Should We Read?

Gallagher and Lundin don’t stop at these points in their book, but go on to examine how we should read and evaluate works of literature, as Christians. They ask, ‘What happens when we read?’ and discuss the conflict of interpretations. Topics such as: the literary canon and classics are addressed, as well as modern literature, works that are for thinking and works for sheer entertainment, the question of morality, literary forms, and genres.

By reading Literature Through the Eyes of Faith you will not only grow in your understanding of literature, but grow in your understanding of God.

“The profusion of literary texts in our world represent the variety of ways, both good and flawed, that human beings have attempted to develop God’s creation and to participate in his world, whether conscious of his hand or ignorant of the true King.”Gallagher and Lundin

Classic Summer Reading: In with the Old, Out with the New

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Forget about The New York Times Bestsellers list this summer; invest your hours into some classics. There’s nothing wrong with reading popular literature, but it’s good to offer your reading palette some variety. It’s also good to be challenged.

Maybe you think the classics should stay buried in the past and aren’t relevant today. But behind the dated time periods and language are unchangeable universal themes. There are questions presented in classic literature that are still being asked today. The characters are still relatable, because they have the same inward struggles and feelings of present day people.

Many titles from the bestsellers list are inspired knowingly or unknowingly from classic authors. Today’s literature is built off of the pen of classic literature. What else can I say? They are called classics for an obvious reason: quality and timelessness, just to name a few.

Here are lightning reviews of some (emphasize some) of my favorite classic pieces of literature:

To Kill a Mockingbird

Written by Harper Lee in 1960, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is set in 1930s Alabama. A small town steeped in racism is seen through the eyes of two small children, Jem and Scout Finch. Their father, Atticus, represents in court a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Along with a host of other interesting characters, Lee explores the towns hatred and kindness and their blind irrational thoughts and behavior. Lee begins her novel portraying innocence, but progressively leads us to the climactic court scene where innocence is undone.

Fahrenheit 451: A Novel

Written in 1953 by Ray Bradbury (one of my all time favorite authors), this short novel is set in an imagined future. A future where firemen don’t put out fires, but start them. What are they burning? Books. Why? Because in Bradbury’s future world censorship is taken to the extreme.

This future world slightly resembles our present world and sends off an alarm of warning to readers. The protagonist is fireman Guy Montag who meets a 17 year old girl telling him of a past when people were not afraid. Montag then meets a professor who tells him of a future where people can think for themselves, which is exactly what Montag begins to do.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, this book tells the tale of a beautiful and wealthy young man named Dorian Gray. Wilde gives us a complex look at art, morals, and beauty through his three main characters: Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry.

The book starts off with Basil painting a portrait of Dorian. As we continue to read we find out the painting is not ordinary. In fact, it appears the painting is bound to Dorian in a supernatural way. An exchange occurred through the painting; an exchange of soul for youth and beauty. Dorian remains young and beautiful, while his inward corruptions are transferred  to the painting. The question is… how does it end in this dark and seedy tale?

Great Expectations

Written by Charles Dickens in 1861, this classic stars an orphan boy named Pip. The tale opens with Pip in the marshy mists of a village churchyard where he encounters a convict on the run. Pip then meets Estella, a snobby rich little girl who captivates Pip with her beauty. Estella belongs to the richest lady in town, Miss Havisham. A decrepit old lady who appears to be frozen in time on her wedding day and living in a run down mansion.

Estella is an unrequited love and represents all Pip can’t have, so he becomes disenchanted with his poor lifestyle and his future as a blacksmith. He longs for the life of a rich gentleman, so he can be closer to Estella. What ensues is Miss Havisham becoming the marionette puppeteer for Pip and Estella as they grow up. Pip finally does achieve the lifestyle he wants, but is haunted by his true self represented in the ghostly convict from the opening scene.