Faith in film: Why science-fiction movies abound with religious themes
Warner Bros. Entertainment, manofsteel.warnerbros.com
In "Man of Steel," the most recent Superman film, when Superman's parents send their son away from their dying planet to save his life, his mom worries he will not be accepted on Earth because he is an alien to the planet.
"He will be an outcast. They'll kill him," his mother says.
"How? He'll be a god to them," says his father, Jor-El, who believes Superman will be an ideal Earth's inhabitants will strive to reach.
Some might see Christian symbolism in this scene, but it's not the only religious reference in the film. “Man of Steel,” which some call a "soft" science-fiction film (along with other superhero movies), is replete with religious allusions. And superhero films do not have a monopoly on religious metaphors. In fact, religious and spiritual themes are woven into the plots of many popular science fiction films, TV shows and novels.
"We have so many TV shows and movies where you see the same type of archetypal characters, plots and problems that you would see in religion (and) in religious texts," says Barna Donovan, who teaches classes about the relationship between science fiction and religion at St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J.
Science and religion converge
The strong ties between science fiction and religion may seem odd; after all, some religious fundamentalists and a number of atheists constantly pit science and religion against each other.
But Dr. James McGrath, who teaches in the Religion and Philosophy Department at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ind., says a convergence between the two is natural.
"Humans have wondered about our place in the universe even before we had modern science to help provide some answers about the physical form and nature of that universe. We've envisaged our cosmos as full of powerful beings who come from the sky, and select human beings as having rare opportunities to travel up there," says McGrath, adding that science-fiction authors today can explore questions that religions throughout history have attempted to answer.
Arthur Doweyko, a scientist and award-winning author of sci-fi short stories, agrees that science fiction allows authors to explore humanity’s pressing questions about existence.
"In creating a world, a civilization, at any time and place, the author necessarily needs to consider the manner in which the people of that time and place have dealt with the question of existence," says Doweyko. "Without that view expressed either directly or cleverly insinuated through the story, the characters will lack the moral and ethical motivation for their actions."
Religious metaphors in sci-fi
Religious concepts are commonly portrayed figuratively in science fiction, explained Doweyko. He said religious ideologies in the long-running series "Star Trek" coincided with an earthly belief system.
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, a science fiction and fantasy writer who has co-authored three Star Wars novels for LucasBooks, says religious commentary is prevalent in the Star Wars film franchise (which includes some of the highest-grossing movies of all time).
"The main theological subtext ... is about the nature of good and evil and the nature of the Force," says Bohnhoff. "The Force, in that context, becomes a proxy for God (or both Satan and God in some circles, she explains), and informs the debate about good and evil in the (galaxy far, far away)."
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