Science? Or Science Fiction?

How Pop Culture Helped Shape the Worldview in the West

by Calvin Smith on June 1, 2021
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I guess I’m dating myself here pretty badly, but for me as a kid, a cold winter’s Saturday afternoon was often spent taking an inexpensive trip into an alternate universe full of crime-fighting and heroic action—reading—while sitting on a heat vent with a blanket over me. Early in the morning, armed with a handful of change and a few empty pop bottles, I could head down to the local corner store and come back with an Orange Crush, a bag of chips, a chocolate bar, and a couple of (Marvel, not DC!) comic books! And leafing through the colorful pages, I loved imagining fighting against bad guys and having super-powers like Spider Man, Iron Man, or the X-Men.

Of course, today, millions of people worldwide have seen these characters come to life now that the technology to bring their fantastic stories has been developed, yet what they depict bears little resemblance to what I grew up with. Take the X-Men for example. For those unfamiliar with the characters, although they are humans, they are mutant with genetic gifts that endow them with super-human abilities like flight, laser beam vision, and rapid healing.

Now as a kid I don’t remember any reference to the story of evolution being mentioned in the X-Men comics. Like most super-heroes, they just had their “powers” because of radiation or something (unlike today, radiation seemed like a sure-fire path to gaining fantastic abilities). It wasn’t until my teens that I noticed that they were supposed to be the “next stage in human evolution,” a theme that’s been promoted in all of the subsequent movies.

And today, far from their original portrayal as misunderstood mysterious teens “protecting a world that fears and hates them,” they now seem like the poster children for the personal identity movement we see sweeping western society. They are “personally powerful” and are referred to as “children of the atom,” a far cry from the Bible’s understanding that we are actually all sinful, weak, and in need of a Savior—Jesus Christ—because we are, in fact, “children of Adam.”

Pop culture has certainly helped shaped the consciousness of our modern world, and humanist thinking (the foundation of which is the story of evolution) has hijacked much of today’s popular entertainment. This isn’t a new phenomenon however, as some of the earliest and most influential science fiction and fantasy writers had an atheistic, naturalistic, and, of course, evolution-based mindset, which spilled out onto the pages of their adventure novels and seeded the minds of their readers with such notions.

Sci-fi and Fantasy Throughout Modern History

Timeless sci-fi classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1912), and Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and The Foundation series (1940–1950) paved the way for more recent additions, like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (1966), and of course George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), that have certainly made huge cultural impressions around the world. Sequels, trilogies, streaming series, franchises, reruns, animations, merchandise, and conventions have made some of these creatives famous, widely honored, influential, and rich. They are pop-culture icons and household names, even in evangelical circles.

But these celebrated personalities and their stories all promoted a specific worldview and worked hard to leave their impression of their perceived reality in culture. And, combined with the reinforcement from public educational circles and other media, they largely accomplished it through their fantastic and entertaining tales to very large audiences, many who weren’t discerning enough to recognize the “big picture” behind the messaging. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, most of them did not know the God of the Bible personally, and many outright rejected him. Let’s examine a few.

Victorian Influencer, Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, the woman behind the story of Frankenstein, was raised by her father William Godwin, an anarchist, philosopher, and political writer. Her mother was the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)—who died shortly after Shelley’s birth. Mary was highly influenced by the life and writings of her mother, who was an atheist and promoter of women’s sexual freedom. She was ill-treated by her stepmother and ran away with a married man she fell in love with as a teenager, Percy Shelley. She eventually married him after his wife committed suicide.

“Frankenstein’s monster” was born in Mary’s imagination during her escapade with Percy through Europe, as a challenge given by writer Lord Byron while she and Shelley were visiting him. In the story, Frankenstein defies the laws of nature by creating life: gruesomely sawing and putting together different cadaver parts and then animating the creature. This concept, in a sense, put man on the same level as the Creator who created him, by having power over life and death. And it subtly promoted the idea that if a natural event like a lightning strike could bring something to life, perhaps God wasn’t needed “in the beginning” after all.

The Man-ape Myth-maker

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) was the man who conceptualized, created, and wrote the famous Tarzan novels (among numerous other popular characters), a franchise that spans decades of books, TV shows, comic books, and major motion pictures. ERB grew up under the influence of his father, a mason, who was against the teaching of the Bible in any school.

With Darwin’s work imbedded in academia in the West, ERB also believed that the story of evolution was a fact and an immutable law of nature, and his promotion of evolutionary concepts, especially that man was simply a “higher ape” can be seen throughout his work.

In discussions with his sons Hulbert and Jack, Edgar Rice Burroughs stated his religious attitude clearly: he did not believe in the Bible, Christ, the immaculate conception, or God. He called himself an atheist. Burroughs, who did not attend church, had often expressed his dislike for any form of organized or sectarian religion to his sons.

Although often careful not to offend the more Christianized society of the day, ERB recognized the incompatibility of holding to the absolute authority of Scripture while believing in the story of evolution (which he considered “science”).

A man can be highly religious, he can believe in a God and in an omnipotent creator and still square his belief with advanced scientific discoveries, but he cannot have absolute faith in the teachings and belief of any church, of which I have knowledge, and also believe in the accepted scientific theories of the origin of the earth, of animal and vegetable life upon it, or the age of the human race; all of which matters are considered as basic truth according to the teachings of the several churches as interpreted from their inspired scriptures.1

The Foundation Behind The Foundation

Isaac Asimov is often considered among the grandmasters of science fiction writers, and his highly influential series of books including I, Robot and the epic Foundation trilogy certainly make for entertaining and thought-provoking reading. But what was the big picture worldview behind Asimov’s works?

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.2

Some of Asimov’s ideas (such as the three laws of robotics) were so influential they became like ‘sci-fi cannon’ of sorts, impacting the next generation of writers that expanded those concepts even further. Speaking of which . . . 

Journey to the Stars

Gene Roddenberry, creator and producer (also known as “the great bird of the galaxy”) of Star Trek, was a controversial figure in his professional and personal life. He became an almost mythic persona for adoring fans who saw, and still see, him as a hero and legend.

However, like the rest of us, Rodenberry was a flawed man who implemented and ingenuously took credit for many writings, music, concepts, and ideas that were presented to him by his peers. He was also a womanizer who had two mistresses at the same time while he was married to his first wife (at the time of producing the first two pilots of Star Trek). He also had multiple extramarital affairs during his second marriage and actually bragged about it with his colleagues.3

A confessed atheist, Roddenberry had questioned organized religion since he was a teenager. A conception of how he saw God can be seen in a concept he had for a never-realized Star Trek film titled The God Thing, in which God was simply a broken spaceship. The plot of this unproduced film included a scene where Captain Kirk battled “Jesus” inside the Enterprise.

[A] story that imagined the almighty as a machine floating through space, reiterating the laws of the universe in different forms for different epochs. Two-thousand years ago, the alien intelligence had taught those laws to the people of Earth by appearing as Jesus. The God Thing would have seen Kirk and his cohorts encountering this shape-shifting entity as it morphs through various forms; the mysterious god-machine has apparently malfunctioned, like a skipping record player.4

As a true humanist, Roddenberry’s Star Trek promoted a gentler and kinder universe, left a phenomenal legacy, and reflected the socio-political challenges of the time, using science fiction to address those issues when few were able to so plainly. It also consistently promoted the idea of evolution through the development of civilizations, the romantic involvement between different alien species, and the different degrees of evolved intelligence found on other planets.

Star Trek is well beloved by fans, including many Christians who appreciate its creative elements, but it is based on completely naturalistic concepts. The entire premise is that humans evolved on Earth, while the Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, and all of the other aliens evolved on their own planets. And then we all developed technology so we could go visit one another!

Surprisingly, when I’ve pointed out to church audiences that Star Trek is based on the story of evolution, many seem surprised, like they never thought of it that way before—which only shows the power of being influenced without knowing it.

Let’s Remember

Science fiction and fantasy are not just entertainment. They contain ideas that can shape our worldview. And like anything we see, hear, or read, they can impact us, even if they are fictional. For mature Christians who know the Scriptures well and have the discernment to be able to recognize and reject anything unbiblical in a story while enjoying other aspects it contains, we still need to stay vigilant in not adopting or blending these ideas with what the Bible clearly reveals.

Sadly for today’s youth, many do not have much Bible knowledge and the discernment that comes with walking closely with the Lord. And looking for amusement in sources that differ from the truth of the Bible can lead us astray. Remember, at best, the work of the media is to sell us things to keep us going back to what it offers. And a seemingly good and harmless story can be quite damaging if it comes from fallible man with erroneous ideas and attitudes about creation and the Creator.

We can still enjoy and appreciate the creative stories that people, created in God’s image, make (even if they aren’t Christians), but we need to understand that much of the entertainment we enjoy today comes from a worldview in diametric opposition to the truth of God’s Word. As God’s Word reminds us,

Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil. (Proverbs 4:26–27)

Footnotes

  1. “Burroughs’ Thoughts on Science and Religion,” https://www.erbzine.com/mag14/1434.html
  2. “An Interview with Isaac Asimov on Science and the Bible,” Free Inquiry, 2 no. 2 (Spring 1982): 9.
  3. Star Trek collaborators Herbert Solow and Robert Justman tell the complete, candid story in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).
  4. “What happened to the Roddenberry's script ‘The God Thing’?”, https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/186102/what-happened-to-the-roddenberrys-script-the-god-thing.

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