Priests in Space

Jim Clarke – Science Fiction and Catholicism (Gylphi, 2019)

With a subtitle like “the Rise and Fall of the Robot Papacy,” Jim Clarke’s new book promises fantastic adventures from its very cover.

Dealing seriously with such questions as, “can Jesus save aliens?”, “what does the Vatican think about robots?” and, “if Priests could time travel, where would they go?”; the monograph is a mind-bending journey through the broadest reaches of sci-fi, theology and the politics of religion.

Clarke’s book is, in the first instance, a clear case of writing against. The narrative of science vs religion that predominates in Anglophone sci-fi takes for granted a narrative in which sci-fi’s forerunners are the proto-scientists of the Enlightenment and, before them, the Protestant reformers.

Such a history, Clarke writes, owes as much to Protestant pamphleteering as it does to any true analysis of Catholic “superstition”. He reminds us that Catholics had long separated science and spirituality in the form of Thomism, and that Jesuits are still among the foremost thinkers on the ethics of exoplanetary exploration.

The uncritical support for technocracy celebrated by the first sci-fi novelists, particularly H.G. Wells, are shown to have inherited a tradition of anti-Catholicism. It is a tradition that lingers on even after the genre’s faith in scientific positivism dwindles.

The majority of Clarke’s readings are, for this reason, examples of Catholicism as a villain. The Church is the foremost anti-science force in sci-fi. It comes to stand in as a representative of all religious faith; the rational, the irrational and the superstitious.

What interested me, however, more than the critique of Catholicism-as-bogeyman, was the many instances Clarke finds in which Catholicism plays a more positive, or at least ambiguous role.

Patricia Anthony’s 1997 novel God’s Fires, for example, is set during the Spanish Inquisition. A spaceship abducts a girl from a Spanish peasant village and impregnates her, leading to rumours of a virgin birth. Inquisitors are dispatched, one immediately believing this to be the devil’s work. Another, our protagonist, is of a more searching and (pardon the pun) inquisitive mindset.

The novel serves as perfect food for Clarke’s conflicted thoughts. It is at once a typical case of Anglophones writing about evil Catholics, but it is also a defence of Catholicism in the form of a rational Jesuit (the scientific Jesuit is a recurring character, particularly in religious dystopias).

The way that Anthony thrashes out the conflict between dogmatic and liberal faith is typical of sci-fi’s refusal to ever quite let go of the Roman Church that intrigues them so much.

Other points of insight include Clarke’s analysis of the sci-fi New Wave which, occurring simultaneously to the liberalising Second Vatican Council, leads to a number of strange holy alliances including robot popes, computer popes, a robot saint and devils in the form of algorythms.

Historical moments also serve to enlighten our reading. Clarke recounts the journey of Minoru Asada, chief robotics engineer at Honda, who went to consult the Vatican over the ethics of building humanoid robots. Creating sentient life is typically presented as sinful in Christian myth, Clarke reminds us. Nevertheless, after much contemplation, the Vatican ruled that, if Asada was a good man, then his robotics work must also be good.

Clarke is clearly underwhelmed by this answer.

More nuanced is the Vatican’s approach to “exotheology”: the theological implications of life on other planets. The Vatican observatory has hosted over a dozen conferences on extraterrestrial intelligence. The wide variety of conclusions drawn by exotheologists provide Clarke with a bold new set of theories against which to read his primary texts.

There are certainly a lot of primary texts too. If Clarke fails to convince in his close readings (which is unlikely, as they’re both well-chosen and well-argues), the sheer mass of science fiction writing that deals with Catholicism makes a case for this being an obsession of the genre in itself.

Science Fiction and Catholicism is one of those liminal-sounding books that, once you get stuck into it, you realise is going to impact your thinking in major ways. It obviously recommends itself to sci-fi fans and those with theological interests, but I’d guardedly suggest that it might recommend itself to outsiders even more.

Clarke’s prose is clear and concise, his use of theory is lightly done and always relevant, and Gylphi have done a great job with the book design, making the book a pleasure to read.

A perfect book for the space priest on the go.

– Joe Darlington

The Split Open Centre

Steve Hanson – A Book of the Broken Middle (Fold Press)

‘These are Roman, whipping times, the day burns like an oven.’ These are terms of Steve Hanson’s latest academic monograph: that we live in times of tribulation, of apocalyptic urgency. Offered as a purgative to the complacency of academic writing, A Book of the Broken Middle is a tapestry of interwoven quotations from the Bible, William Blake, Gilgamesh and the works of seventeenth century Ranter Abiezer Cobbe, all brought together and translated into Yorkshire dialect. Drawing on the insights of theologian Gillian Rose, whose late-in-life works abandoned formal modes in favour of memoir and personal revelation, Hanson’s work defies academic tradition without losing sight of what is at stake in our theorising.

Far from the sociological subject matter of his previous book, Small Towns, Austere Times (Zero, 2014), this is a work of furious anger and visceral imagery. The grammar is that of the King James Version, but all mention to God has been stripped out and all heavens and hells have turned to metaphor. The result is what Canon Andrew Shanks, in his wonderful foreword, describes as “a sacramental enactment of negative theology… the pure element of the sublime” (p.18).

The rich and the hypocrites receive a verbal beating as one might expect, but so do liars, cheats and manipulators, the prideful and decadent who our modern economy has normalised and celebrated.

Hanson has stripped out the misogyny and homophobia of the official canon and somehow kept that Old Testament moral fury. It’s a fury which drives many writers of critical theory, although the polished surfaces of their texts might not show it. This, at least, is the gambit of Hanson’s offering; that a return of the Ranters is possible, this time against the Church of current academic form.

It’s pocket-sized, like a holy hand grenade, and packed with enough tight prose to keep a confirmed atheist hooked. This is not the ‘fancy music fer few ere’s’ (p.26) that Amos rails against, although it may very well be a voice in the wilderness. A brave experiment, of which we need more.

– Joe Darlington

In the Belly of the Empire

David Benjamin Blower – Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love (Resource Publications)

The Book of Jonah is fundamentally about a confrontation with Empire. But what sort of confrontation? This is the central concern in David Benjamin Blower’s short, meditative text on the prophet Jonah. Blower is a south Birmingham musician, theologian and activist. And his book Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love is essentially a companion work to his musical The Book of Jonah.

The musical is a rendition of the Old Testament text narrated by NT Wright with Alistair McIntosh as Jonah, all set to a soundscape and musical numbers provided by Blower. It’s a weaving together of recitation and sound, the ancient and the contemporary and shows the creative influence old texts can have on re-politicised forms and content.

The meditation begins with Blower and his friends playing a gig at a local bar. They’re tired of playing through works from the upcoming musical and so decide to leap full-on into a set of sea-shanties and nautical-themed songs. Inevitably, the figure of Jonah – the ancient prophet swallowed by a whale – resurfaces in songs by the Decembrists and Tom Waits and readings from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Drifting through accordion-backed dirges in a beer-soaked bar, Blower reflects on how the story of Jonah and the whale has ‘become ubiquitous legend, filed away in everyone’s mind’. But the whale is only a small part of the story. In the Book of Jonah, God calls the prophet to enter the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Jonah, instead, heads for the sea to get as far away as possible. On a boat to Tarshish, caught in a raging storm, Jonah offers himself up as dead weight to be thrown overboard. The sailors, who seem to have a fondness for Jonah, reluctantly do so.

It’s an act of self-destruction for the prophet, but then he’s swallowed by a whale and after three nights spat out on a beach. Jonah then heads inland to Nineveh, the City of Blood, to announce its destruction, its ‘overturning’.

The city does ‘turn over’, but no in the way Jonah expects or wants. The city takes hold of Jonah’s warning and goes into a state of mourning and repentance. The authorities and the people and the cattle wear sackcloth.

Jonah’s condemnation of the political centre becomes a transformation of the political centre. But Jonah isn’t happy. He wants annihilation, not transformation. He wants death, not hope. Jonah leaves Nineveh bitter and angry. On more than one occasion he asks God to strike him dead. God instead explains the radical transformation of Nineveh to him.

The text ends abruptly, and we never hear Jonah’s reply. The whale is only a small part of the story. Yet, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale holds a certain power. Jonah is a prophet in the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And although the Book of Jonah is only a small text within the Bible, taking up no more than two pages, the story of Jonah and the whale resonates across traditions, across the sacred and the secular.

For Blower, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale carries so much sway because it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Quoting Carl Jung, Blower suggests that it serves as a metaphor for the ‘mysterious structures of the mind’, the division between the conscious and the unconscious and the known world from the unknown.

But, the belly of the whale also expresses our desire for safety and protection. When Jonah journeys into the abyss, it is the whale who protects him. Surface and depth, safety and terror, clarity and chaos – these are all at play in the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But there is also a problem. The image of Jonah and the whale can easily slide into cheap moralism.

Jonah is often cast as the disobedient individual, fleeing the will of God. And God summons the whale to put Jonah back on the good path. The story of Jonah is reduced to a morality tale. Blower also points out the lurking anti-Semitism in certain Christian readings of the text. Here Jonah is cast as the Jewish prophet who refused to communicate God’s message to non-Jews. He is disobedient and selfish and being swallowed by the whale is a deserving punishment.

Shaming Jonah and moralising about the prophet becomes a means for Christians to get one over on their sister religion. In the end, although there is a richness and depth to the image of Jonah inside the belly of the whale there are also cheap interpretations and we can easily lose focus on other elements in the text.

For Blower, the key relation is not Jonah and the whale, but rather Jonah and Nineveh. The whale needs to be spat out so that we can move on. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It is the City of Blood, the centre from which pours out conquest, assimilation, death and occupation.

Blower writes, ‘their fetish for violence and their imperial spirit expressed itself in their way of decimating not only peoples, but also peoplehood, by deporting the surviving peoples of conquered lands and scattering them across the empire’.

The Assyrian Empire was on the doorstep of Jonah’s homeland. Jonah didn’t flee to Tarshish because he was disobedient, but because he was terrified. Entering Nineveh would surely be a kamikaze mission.

Blower goes as far as to compare the Assyrian Empire with Nazi Germany, suggesting that Jonah’s appearance in Nineveh is akin to a Jewish person interrupting a Nuremburg Rally in order to condemn the Nazi regime.

The comparison feels a bit hyperbolic, like a textual version of Godwin’s law where any online discussion will sooner or later involve a comparison to Hitler. But perhaps this is not so far-fetched. In 1938 the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits re-imagined the Book of Jonah, with Jonah as a prophet against the creeping fascism of Europe. Nineveh serves as a sort of cipher. And Blower sees it as both Empire and its Other.

Another, more contemporary, comparison is used here: The West and ISIS. On the one hand Nineveh represents our ‘own order with its history of imperialism, its economic power, its military dominance, and its citizenry organized around a consumerist pattern of life: the neo-liberal order that is drunk on oil and falling down the stairs’.

Nineveh is the ‘power under which we live’. On the other hand Nineveh represents the enemy and its counter-brutality. The city of Mosul in northern Iraq is built on the foundations of Nineveh.

Mosul is also one of the cities occupied by ISIS and in 2014 ISIS militants destroyed the mosque housing the tomb of Jonah. These comparisons between ancient Nineveh and modern Mosul are raw and real. There is a connective tissue between story of Jonah and today. And whether we view Nineveh as our ‘own order’ or the site of particular brutality – and surely it should be both – the terrible mission of the prophet Jonah becomes apparent.

When Jonah does enter Nineveh it’s not as some sort of Protestant missionary imploring people towards religious conversion, but as ‘a Hebrew prophet confronting the politics of empire and the diabolical greed of imperial violence’.

Jonah’s confrontation with Nineveh is short. He enters the city and announces that in forty days it will be destroyed. But the city immediately humbles itself and exchanges its weapons for sackcloth. Jonah’s interruption brings the empire to a halt. What sort of confrontation is this? For Blower it is the radical politics of enemy-love. Jonah walks unarmed into the City of Blood and brings it down without violence. It’s an act of faith that Jonah is not entirely in control of.

Blower terms it the ‘Jonaic Interruption’. The imperial clock has stopped and a new world is possible. The Kingdom of God in the here and now. It’s an imperative that Blower takes up. ‘Grass roots enemy-love decentralizes power’, Blower writes:

‘It develops solidarity among the people, which cultivates resilience and resistance to the oppressive interests of the powers at the centre of empire. […] Grass roots enemy-love enables us as ordinary people to become political agents shaping the world’.

– Mark Rainey