Theology & Science Fiction: A Syllabus

"In the image of God he created them, male and female."

The following is a syllabus that I have written for an independent study that I've done with a student at Fuller Seminary this summer. It may also be right to say that it is a working document for a proper course that I will teach in the near future. 

A few things bear mentioning here. One, it is almost impossible to narrow down the list of novels to two per topic. After spending the last four years reading SF nearly exclusively, there were too many good candidates to choose from. I intentionally chose to take the interests of the student in the selection of these specific novels. And while the student is only required to read two novels per topic, I included a third possible novel if he was keen to read further. 

Two, the list of theological readings represents a tradition (JBG excepted) that I familiar with and which offers a kind of through-line for the student as he engages his own theological and literary investigations of the principal texts (pushing back against this tradition will be expected and welcomed). 

Three, for the eventual course, I will supplement these theological readings with essays drawing from different theological traditions. Also, the technology/science readings are provisional and idiosyncratic, but they offer sufficient fodder for a conversation on the formative power of both technology and science on Christian faith and on life in the contemporary world.

I'm excited for the opportunity to give this course a beta run. I've been day-dreaming about it for years. The topic of science fiction and religion/philosophy/theology is a sprawling, far-ranging landscape. One seminar can never presume to cover it adequately. But it's a beginning. And I'm grateful that I get to do it with a very sharp student, who has already taken two courses on science fiction during his undergraduate years at Stanford.

A shorter history of Artificial Intelligence.

The church of Trek. 


Syllabus for “Theology and Science Fiction” independent study


A.    Course Objectives

1.    This course explores theological themes that emerge in science fiction literature. It does so believing that science fiction opens up theological categories of interest to both the church and the culture at large.

2.    To engage a careful study of science fiction texts in their socio-historical context, with the aim of discerning the meaning-making logic of science fiction as an artistic and imaginative medium.

3.    To practice the discipline of inter-disciplinary study—in this case, theology and science fiction—in careful, methodologically sound ways.

B.    Course Assignments

1.    Complete all course readings.  

2.    Write four essays, 2,000-3,000 words, in response to each session’s readings.  

3.    Write a fifth essay, 5,000 words, as a re-write of the first essay, with the aim of seeking publication.

4.    Plan five, one-hour conversations over the phone to discussion readings and essays.

C.    Course Readings:

1.     Novels

a.     Theological Anthropology: genetic and technological modification, the plasticity of (physical, sexual, gendered) humanity, and the boundary lines of a faithful human life.

1)    Charles Stross, Glasshouse
2)    Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
3)    [Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon]

b.     Doctrine of creation: strange creatures as tokens of God’s strange creation.

1)    Robert Charles Wilson, Bios
2)    Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things
3)    [Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves + Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead]

c.     Ecclesiology: uniting the “like and unlike” and the nature of mediation in human relationships.

1)    Dave Eggers, The Circle
2)    M. D. Russell, The Sparrow
3)    [Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood]

d.     Eschatology: life in the aftermath of the end.

1)    Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
2)    Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz
3)    [Cormac McCarthy, The Road]

e.     Soteriology: an instinct for resurrection in the transhumanist instinct for artificial intelligence and cyborg or augmented humanity.

1)     Daniel H. Wilson, Amped
2)     Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games
3)     [P.K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep]

2.     Theology texts

a.     Anthropology: Joel B. Green, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).

b.    Doctrine of creation: Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III, “The Doctrine of Creation,” §41.2, “Creation as the External Basis of the Covenant.”

c.     Ecclesiology: Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: CUP, 1993).

d.    Eschatology: Paul S. Fiddes, The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

e.    Soteriology: Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992).

3.     Science and Technology texts

a.     Anthropology:

·      “Resisting the Demon: A History of A.I. in Nine Parts,” AdBusters, 2/23/2015, https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/118/resisting-demon.html.
·      Jane McGonigal, “The Benefits of Alternate Realities,” in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (Penguin: 2011).

b.    Doctrine of creation:

·      Michael Hanlon, “Could This Be the Year We Make Contact with Aliens?”, The Telegraph, 12/31/2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10542591/Could-this-be-the-year-we-make-contact-with-aliens.html.
·      Malcolm Jeeves, “Does my Brain Have a ‘God Spot’?”, in Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2013).

c.     Ecclesiology:

·      Craig Detweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes our Spiritual and Social Lives (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2013).
·      Nicholas Carr, “The Church of Google,” in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: Norton, 2010)

d.    Eschatology:

·      Bill Joy, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” Wired, http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html.
·      Christina Bieber Lake, “Learning to Love in a Posthuman World,” in Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press: 2013)

e.    Soteriology:

·      Lev Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” Time, 2/10/2011, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2048299,00.html.
·      John Dyer, “Virtualization,” in From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011).



Jedi Pantocrator.

"And he put the Human in the garden to work it and to care for it." 

Comments

Unknown said…
Your independent study syllabus looks very interesting. I just finished reading this about a month ago and found it very helpful on this very subject. Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transformation of the Sublime. It is a bit costly at 60.00 but here is the link if you are interested in checking it out. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1602584605?colid=1GSQA3JDI2K02&coliid=I2X3H7NGVLVUZ7&ref_=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl
Thanks for passing this resource along. I hadn't seen it yet. Looks fascinating. I appreciate it!
Unknown said…
Your welcome. A few years back I led a Bible/book study on the Sparrow and The Children of God with the audience being 8 Jesuits Priests. What a complete blast that was!

Hope you post how this independent class goes as I think it would be very interesting for us who follow you posts. Your selection of material is top notch. My name it Mitch, not sure why it didn't pull that in when I signed in to Google.
Mitch, thanks for the kind words and for sharing about your experience of doing the study of MDR's books. That sounds amazing. I'll probably post a thing or two as we go along. I'll also post things on twitter (@wdavidotaylor).
Marcy said…
That last image fascinates me -- who is the artist and what is the title of the work?
Marcy, I found it here: http://www.wall321.com/Technology/Science/women_science_baby_science_fiction_1350x847_wallpaper_36788
James McGrath said…
There is a (very dated) webpage I set up for a class I have taught several times in recent years, with a copy of the syllabus from the last time I taught it, here: http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/sci-fi/

Thanks for sharing yours!
James, thanks for sharing your syllabus. I look forward to seeing it!
Scott Hawley said…
This looks great, David! There are a few works on your list I haven't read yet, but will add them to my to-read list. I'm always on the lookout for good sci-fi.

Also on my to-read list is _The Chaplain's War_ by Brad Torgersen.
Here's an interview that Patheos did with the author. (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/workcited/2014/12/does-faith-really-matter-a-qa-with-award-winning-author-brad-torgersen/)
That's great, Scott. Thank you for the recommendation. At some point soon, I am going to put an annotated bibliography on my blog of all the sci-fi novels that I've read, because there are some really good ones and there are some really bad ones.

Hope you're well!
Lillie Jensen said…
We normally think of science fiction as advancing innovative technology that holds out optimistic guarantee for the future of mankind.However science fiction film has taken another tack by engaging usually held suspicions of technological progress.An optimistic view of progress views new technology as a liberating power bound to lift the weights of work,cure disease,enhance communication and free humanity from natural limits.A critical view takes the other way; rather than liberation it expects that new technology will make a new type of oppression and dehumanization that will deny individuals of their individuality or their extremely souls.
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www.aeoglesby.com
Lori Hopkins said…
I think you would be remiss to skip the works of Susan Palwick in the area of science fiction and theology. I've very much enjoyed her short stories and the one novel that I've read: The Necessary Beggar.
Thank you, Lori. I appreciate the recommendation.

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