Pope Francis, Capitalism & Sci-Fi

“This system is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable,
labourers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable.
The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
— Pope Francis

Pope Francis visits a favela in Brazil during World Youth Day 2014

Pope Francis spent the early part of July visiting the “forgotten countries” of South America — praying at shrines, visiting slums, playing with children and speaking with prisoners.

A central message to his visit was the excoriation of capitalist culture and the condemnation of inequality. He encouraged political and economic leaders to keep the poor in sight while doing business and making policies, condemning practices that “sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.” He called the relentless pursuit of money “the devil’s dung,” while asking for forgiveness for colonialist offenses the Church committed against peoples living in those countries.

In honor of the Pope’s defense of the poor, here are some reads that wrestle with the fallout from capitalism, or show societies who live in a world where scarcity is no longer an issue:

Jennifer Government by Max Barry — Capitalism run rampant. Corporations now own you to the point where you change your last name when you change your job, and corporate warfare is actual warfare.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi — In the near-apocalyptic days after peak oil, humanity is fighting against environmental collapse and blight-resistant crops are the new currency; giant agribusinesses have their own armies and control the world.

Accelerando by Charles Stross — A series of interconnected short stories shows a society speeding towards the technological singularity, and the result — as Stross says, “Capitalism eats everything then the logic of competition pushes it so far that merely human entities can no longer compete.” Oops.

The Culture Series by Iain M. Banks — Banks’s bravura take on what a post-scarcity society would be like is mostly utopian; how do people who need nothing, people who are managed by benevolent superintelligences, deal with cultures and peoples that still have war, poverty, hunger and privation?

Star Trek: First Contact — The comedy choice, included in this list because of its meta-interest. The post-scarcity Enterprise meets the resource-strapped world after World War III, and much of the funny moments in the film have to do with characters that know only want dealing with characters that have never wanted at all.

Finally, for a real economist’s take on whether capitalism would be something that could even happen at lightspeed-or-less, read Paul Krugman’s paper, The Theory of Interstellar Trade.

Burial In Space

Death – the last sleep? No, it is the final awakening.
— Walter Scott

Today, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes will pass within 7,800 miles of Pluto, the planet he discovered.

Clyde_W._TombaughClyde Tombaugh in 1928 with a homemade telescope

The astronomer’s ashes are stored on New Horizons, the NASA space probe that on Tuesday will make its closest pass to the icy dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. New Horizons will allow scientists to get their closest, most detailed look at the planet so far in history.

7956000730_3c0cf6b403_oGene Roddenberry with his creation.

Tombaugh isn’t the only human to be buried in the vast expanses space, even though our time there has been limited. The first space burial was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, whose ashes were brought aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Others who have been buried in space include Timothy Leary, Eugene Shoemaker, L. Gordon Cooper and James Doohan. If you want your own ashes in space, there’s a private company, Celestis, that will provide that service.

Tombaugh, who lived from 1906 to 1997, was a researcher at the Lowell Observatory when he discovered Pluto. He went on to teach at the New Mexico State University until his retirement.

Godspeed, Mr. Tombaugh!

Religion in “Killjoys”

It’s not very often that we get to see the development of a sci-fi religion right under our noses — that’s why I’m so excited about Syfy’s Killjoys.

Killjoys boasts swashbuckling bounty hunters, low-budget (but effective!) SFX, and solid world-building, with its monolithic Company and class-stratified Quad reminding me (and the rest of the world) a little of the long-lamented Firefly. There’s a female lead. And, most importantly to our purposes here at Sacred Earthlings, there’s a church.

There’s not a lot to examine yet, so let’s look at what we have and come back to the analysis a little later:

Screen-Shot-2015-06-21-at-11.54.15-PM-e1434966924484-1024x656_f_improf_600x385Monks “hang out” in downtown Westerley.

In the pilot, “Bangarang,” our heroes go to an informant named “God,” a “scarback monk” living among the human detritus of main-street Westerley. We’re not sure what diety these monks believe in, but they do seem to function as sin-eaters of a sort; by suffering, the monks say, they can cleanse penitents of their sins. The monk here is practicing suspension, where hooks are periodically pierced through skin at periodic intervals to elevate and hang a human body. (This is a practice seen throughout the world, most specifically in ancient religious practices of the Mandan tribe in North Dakota, and in modern times done by performance artists).

flagellantsFlagellants from a medieval manuscript.

The word “scarback” also reminds me of the self-flagellation and the practice of mortification of the flesh, practiced throughout Christian history. “God” is also somewhat of a liberation theologist; he’s a freedom fighter against the Company using his cover as a monk to his own advantage.

Screen-Shot-2015-06-22-at-12.32.21-AM-e1434966329444-1024x604_f_improf_600x354One of these things is not like the other…

The second time we see monks of “the church,” they’re attending a fancy party on the high-class world. They seem to be passing through, mostly, wearing saffron-colored robes reminiscent of modern Buddhist monks. The Buddhist robe is meant to remind the adherent that he or she has committed to higher spiritual ideals; why they’re at the party, we never find out.

I’m looking forward to seeing where Killjoys goes with this, and how the church is going to figure into the larger narrative.

Writing Wednesday: Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Stories”

“One of the great rewards of a writer’s life is that it lets you read all the books you want to without feeling guilty.” – Damon Knight

Algis Budrys and Damon Knight with water guns at a Clarion BBQ.

One of the gems I picked up at last week’s trip to The Book Thing was author and editor Damon Knight’s excellent Creating Short Fiction. It’s a classic for a reason, full of interesting and necessary exercises for those of us who enjoy reading and writing short stories, and its Golden Age genesis is still quite applicable today. If you aspire to write short stories and have not read this book, you might just be metaphorically ray-gunning yourself in your lower appendages.

This is a book that speaks from experience. This book doesn’t come from the academic ivory tower — although Knight was a prolific and respected teacher — but from countless hours of sitting in front of a typewriter perfecting the craft. What’s more, it deals a lot with the walls, ceilings and plateaus many beginning and semipro writers hit at the beginning of their career; I recognized myself ten years ago on every page, and wished that I had come across it much earlier. You’ll find information about story invention, idea development, structuring a story, and mastering specific aspects of storytelling such as mood, audience manipulation and even how to get through tough times when you think your work is just about the most terrible thing on the market and you’ll never sell anything again.

16003788864_e8f16d6d1bThis is what I feel like my most recent story looks like. Yep.

During National Novel Writing Month, people talk about being a “planner” versus a “pantser” — i.e., people who write by the seat of their pants, and argue endlessly over which is better. I wasted a lot of years trying to be a “pantser” when what I really needed to be working on was developing the structural mastery that Knight presents in this book. At the same time, Knight warns the reader not to be overly obsessed with hitting each and every plot point where planned, and to let the story you’re writing surprise you sometimes. I think the whole point is to master those technical skills so that when you put on those writing pants, things like mood, tone, plot points and tent poles are second nature.

Basically: if you want to be a writer, write. Write smartly. (And read this book. Seriously.)

water guns, CC license by William Shunn
photo credit: charlie’s 1st book via photopin (license)
photo credit: Books via photopin (license)

Space Catholics: The Bajorans

“That’s the thing about faith… if you don’t have it, you can’t understand it. If you do, no explanation is necessary.”
-Kira Nerys

The Roman Catholic Church: one of the longest standing hierarchies in Western civilization. It’s only natural that writers, filmmakers and storytellers are inspired by the Church to create their own religious structures — and it happens more often then you’d think. This periodic series will chronicle the many kinds of Space Catholics, their view on clericalism, sacramentality, sin and more, and how close — or how different — they get to the real thing.



The Bajorans are, quite possibly, one of the best examples of Space Catholics, sporting a stratified clerical structure, active canon law and moral authority.

God: In Bajoran faith, “God” is represented by the mysterious “Prophets” who watch over Bajor, impart their teachings, and protect the Bajoran people from harm. For most ordinary Bajorans, they are considered divine beings, although the heroes of the series discover them to actually be super-advanced alien living in a local wormhole. This shocking news does not quite dissuade Bajoran worshippers, who choose to continue their worship and study of the Prophets and their works unabated.

36e0d5d6d0dd9013f03cace8484b13d5Pope Winn I.

The Pope: The Kai, the Bajoran spiritual leader, is elected by the Vedek Assembly — a council of high-ranking Bajoran clerics — for a life term. Bajorans are encouraged and accepted to follow the Kai’s religious teachings. Although the Kai does not put out encyclicals, his or her words are still politically important in much the same way as the Pope’s words matter to our world; there is no direct Vatican cognate, but it’s intimated that before the Cardassian occupation that Bajoran secular politics was influenced by the needs of the Kai and the Vedek Assembly, much like medieval kings’ relationship with the medieval Church.

The Bible: In Bajoran religion, the words of the Prophets are considered sacrosanct. As in Catholicism, there are various levels of translation and interpretation happening, from those who believe the Prophets words should be taken extremely literally, to those who spend their lives in interpretation; however, like Catholicism, there is a distinct code of canon law; like medieval Catholicism, it sometimes also stands in for secular law. Ordinary Bajorans have a faithful, pragmatic view of their faith and the role of the Prophets in their own lives that echoes modern Catholicism very well; many of the character Kira Nerys’ statements about religions and faith can be exchanged word-for-word with those of modern Christianity and not need to change, while other Bajorans are entirely secular or take a more violent, jihadist tack, such as when extremists blew up a school on the space station.

orb-of-prophecy-thecircleThe Orb of Shininess.

Relics: Orbs, called the “tears of the Prophets,” are centers of worship for Bajorans and function in much the same way that relics do for modern Catholics — as channels of prayer, understanding, worship and contemplation. They provide measured and definitive miraculous experiences, such as visions and healing.

BenSiskoThe Emissary was not actually Bajoran.

Jesus: This isn’t a direct cognate, but the Bajorans have a concept of “The Emissary,” a personage who would save Bajor; this figure, the character Benjamin Sisko, eventually fulfulled Bajoran prophecies by sacrificing himself for the Bajoran people. Like Jesus, he is assumed bodily into “heaven,” or the Bajorans’ “Celestial Temple.” Unlike Jesus, Sisko is fully human. Like Jesus, he was “in the world,” i.e., the entire galaxy, but “not of it,” i.e., Bajor and the Bajoran faith in particular.

Contemplative Orders: Most of the Bajoran clerical structure seems to be made up of monastic intellectuals attempting to find some way to interpret and understand the Prophets’ words.

Clericalism: A direct lift. Prylars are monks, ranjens are priests, vedeks are bishops and kais are popes.

latestSpoiler! Not actually Bajoran, either.

Holidays: during the Bajoran “Time of Cleansing,” people fast and pray, and abstain from sin. This is a cognate more to Ramadan than Lent, but it still counts.

Gender: Gender does not seem to matter to the Bajoran religious hierarchy; vedeks, Kais and regular monks are woman and man, married and single, chaste and parental.

The Devil: The pah-wraiths are Prophets from the same race who long ago willingly gave up on the path of peace, much like Lucifer rejected God.

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Independence Day

“Mankind… that word should have new meaning for all of us today.”
— Independence Day

When I was a teenager, I loved this movie. Didn’t everyone? My best friend Megan and I must have seen it six or seven times at Mohawk Mall — back when Saturday matinees were four dollars and you could still smuggle in a Coke and chips in the pockets of the JNCO knockoffs you were rocking to impress the skater bois.

But, I digress.

This speech gets me every single time, despite Bill Pullman’s unrepentant (and appreciated) scenery-chewing. And, in the mire and muck of our increasingly fractured political feelings and religious drives, it’s one to remember. We’re all the same. We’re all human. We are all deserving of the same dignity and the same respect. Color should not divide us. Class should not divide us. Faith should not divide us. Because when the slimy black aliens show up to blow up our most sacred landmarks and send us running like ants from their fortresslike space-discs of doom, we’re going to need each other.

We need each other now.

Seriously, everyone. In the light of tonight’s fireworks, look around and see the beautiful diversity of our country and realize that it’s not something fear. It’s something that makes us better.

Happy Independence Day.

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Featured image: CC license stonedsmeagol@deviantart

Howard Finster: The Ordinary And Sacred

 “As for me, I’m just passin’ through this planet.”
— Howard Finster

Before my recent visit to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), I had never heard of Howard Finster. Now, I know exactly how much I was missing.

If one tried to build a Howard Finster museum, it would have to be a pretty big building: in his creative lifetime, Finster finished over 47,000 numbered pieces, not including some early sculptures and art created during his childhood in rural Georgia. Finster’s art is hard to put in a category; he himself called it folk art, and placed himself as the head of the “Folk Art Church,” but others consider it important outsider and visionary art. Finster was an artist and craftsman before a visionary experience in 1976 in which he heard a voice that called him to create sacred art; from there, it was off the races. A 1983 Tonight Show appearance made him a national celebrity, featured in exhibitions in New York galleries and important museums, and his art even appeared on album covers by R.E.M and the Talking Heads.

4344793086_164a175dcdAirships, airplanes, cars, UFOs, trucks, castles… heaven looks pretty fun.

AVAM’s collection of Finster pieces is absolutely delightful; angels cavort, women pick fruit, clouds smile, sinners fall into the flames of Hell, workers build pyramid-temple mansions in Heaven, all surrounded by breathless, all-capitals preaching in quick, defined black ink. Finster’s voice is encouraging, apocalyptic, sure; his subject matter covers literally everything from George Washington to the bowels of Hell to Coca-Cola bottles, Cadillacs and Elvis Presley. The entire world was inspiration for Finster, it seemed, and he could use anything as a jumping-off point for a faith-filled statement or a religious revelation. A 1978 painting called “All Roads One Road Headed The Same Way,” showing Baptists, Methodists, “odd fellows” and “Presbeterians” all headed for the yellow-green, marble temples of heaven. His landscapes are surreal, real, fantastic and sci-fi all at the same time.


One of my favorite things about Finster is his incessant labeling of everything in his paintings; you can almost hear his voice even if you’ve never heard it before, encouraging you to see things his way, to repent, to be catholic-with-a-small-c, to take an ordinary tree or person or bottle or button and find something sacred about it.

4344790830_7c5744ddbc(The tour guide at AVAM said that Finster would create these and hand them out on the street for people to color in.)

Take a look around you next time you’re out. What do the ordinary things around you say about your own faith? What would you say if you were Howard Finster?

(I could spend hours chronicling the current exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, so we’re going to visit the artists there until mid-August, when the exhibit, called St. Francis to Finster, closes. Coming up: the artwork of Unarius and the mindscapes of Ingo Swann. Don’t miss it!)

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photo credit: Howard Finster Folk Art at the Krannert Art Museum (12) via photopin (license)
photo credit: Howard Finster Folk Art at the Krannert Art Museum (36) via photopin (license)

Supernatural: An Absent God


“Hell […] is the absence of God and the presence of Time.” — Glen Duncan

At times, recent Supernatural episodes seem like they’re ticking off all of the Judeo-Christian boxes they can: Angels. Demons. Purgatory. Heaven. Hell. Cain and Abel. The only thing they haven’t done is resurrect St. Paul and the Thessalonians. (I admit; sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, which is why I don’t usually accept Supernatural-esque stories for Third Order unless they say something new.) Look behind the metaphysical trappings and CGI, however, and you might miss what I think is the most fascinating fact about the Supernatural universe:

God has left the building.

The God of Supernatural is alternatively characterized by the show to be the same Judeo-Christian greeting-card God we’re all familiar with — fatherly, kind, a divine Santa Claus — crossed with the stern teacher of the Old Testament. (There are other, smaller gods in Supernatural, but most are malevolent, and none seem to have the same creative power as the God of Heaven.) None of the angels know why he left, or when he’ll be back, or if he’ll even return. The God of Supernatural is a deserter for some reason, the Earth of Supernatural closer to Nietsczhe’s ideals than C.S. Lewis‘s. The angels of Supernatural are pining away with the loss of God, unable to come to terms with the gaping hole in their lives without the free will given to humans; the fallen angels are using it as an opportunity to get what they wanted the entire time (souls, evil, etc., etc). Of course, our heroes Sam and Dean Winchester find themselves in the center of it all. Without God, chaos reigns. God is still a character even though they cannot see him, feel him, speak with him, or more.

Angels are apparently Goa’uld. Tee hee.

The absence of God is a very interesting narrative choice for the series, and it mirrors both the absence and abandonment felt by Sam and Dean and capitalizes, I think, on the sense of the “absent God” many see in the world today. God used to speak through signs and prophets; now, in a time with natural disasters, wars, terrorism, blood shed on beaches and churches and mosques assaulted and burned, it’s not always easy for believers to see the presence of God in their lives — so important to a believer! — in times of sickness or suffering. But they’re not the only ones who feel it. Jesus asked why God had abandoned him on the cross; Mother Teresa did not feel God’s presence for the last 40 years of her life, despite her devotion; St. John of the Cross coined the term “dark night of the soul.” But even in his silence, God is still a major influence in all their lives; they keep writing, praying, believing in hope, just like Sam and Dean continue “on the road.” Perhaps God’s absence is something a believer needs at some point in his or her life.

Over one hour of the poetry of St. John of the Cross. Cheers for YouTube.

I think, at this point, Supernatural‘s endgame has to be the return of God, an explanation of sorts for his absence with some kind of confrontation or answers for Sam and Dean. Let’s continue to hope that everyone out there faced with a silent Divine (and hating it!) finds some sort of measure of comfort and answers.

(Of course, if you’re a Supernatural super-fan, you might have your own ideas as to the identity of God and his purpose in the world… only click on that link if you enjoy spoilers! We’ll get into that down the line!)

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Books: A CASE OF CONSCIENCE by James Blish


A Case of Conscience is the book that got me into thinking about how speculative fiction could link up with religion, and it’s the first book many people think about when they talk about how religion interfaces with speculative fiction.

It tells the tale of Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, a Jesuit scientist and biologist/biochemist, who is one of a four-man team studying the planet Lithia. On Lithia lives a utopian society: the native Lithians have no war, poverty, or conflict of any kind, but they also have no religion, no concept of God or of faith at all. For Ruiz-Sanchez, who follows Catholic teaching, reconciling this fact leads him to something that he sees as an inescapable conclusion — since the definition of hell is the absence of God, a state chosen by Lucifer during the Fall, the Lithians must be creations of Satan. Ruiz-Sanchez is supported in this belief by the observation that Lithia is a place meant to convince humanity that moral and ethical decisions can be made in absence of God, a position which Ruiz-Sanchez’s espoused Catholicism stands staunchly against. What shall he do about it?

170px-Cover_If_195309First publishing.

Ruiz-Sanchez’s conviction calls back to the ancient conflict between the Persian religion of Manichaeism and the theologians of early Christianity. Manichaeism — which would end up being classified as a heresy by the Catholic Church — taught that the cosmos was a dualistic conflict between a god of light and a god of darkness. Painting Satan as a being equal to God, with creative powers of his own, the hallmark of the teachings of Mani, capitalizes on the confusion and duality Ruiz-Sanchez feels himself: can the Lithians teach their incredible peace to humanity, or should they be cut off from Earth forever to save humanity? Would human sin ruin the Lithians? Should it?

manichaeanprayerwheelPart of a Manichaean prayer wheel

The novel, reworked from an earlier novella and a winner of the 1959 Hugo award for best novel, touches on a number of interesting topics. The disrespectful attitude of politicians and scientists towards Lithia, its natural resources and its people echoes the attitudes of historical western imperialists eager to plunder the New World for gold and slaves; likewise, the human culture in which the Lithian child Egtverchi is raised and wreaks havoc remains a sinister mirror of the Cold War rhetoric Blish was living through at the time. It is also good to remember that this book was also written before the reforms of Vatican II and only eight years after Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis declared that there wasn’t necessarily conflict between evolution and faith (and decades before the 1996 declaration by Pope John Paul II that human evolution was accepted by the Church).

Most interesting to today’s society, however, is the question of whether morality can exist without the guidance and presence of God. Catholicism is firm on the subject: God is the source of all that is and all that is moral and true. Ruiz-Sanchez would say no; many atheists and agnostics would say yes; many Christian faithful may not be able to provide an answer. It’s certainly evident that many people who do not believe in God still believe in human kindness, in rights for all, in love and in family. It is also certainly evident that wars have been fought in the name of God and religion. If secular morality lines up with Christian thought — love for the neighbor, love for the poor– is it truly devoid of God? Did Ruiz-Sanchez have to worry at all — or, in today’s secular society, would he have considered his nightmare to have come true?

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Support Sacred Earthlings by purchasing A Case For Conscience by James Blish through the link above!

More on this topic:
James Blish @ The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
Kirkus: The Big Ideas of James Blish
The Templeton Gate: The Works of James Blish
The Gnostic Society: Manichaean Writings

World Religion: Christianity


“Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.” — St. Augustine of Hippo

Christianity, one of the three major Abrahamic religions, developed out of Judaism in the early first century C.E., and quickly spread throughout the ancient world, becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 C.E. Christianity developed into a major influence in the Western world, and remains so today.

“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”- Steve Maraboli

Christians follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, a preacher and prophet who lived in Roman-occupied Judea in the early first century C.E. During his life, Jesus preached God’s love for mankind, God’s love for the poor and unloved, a salvation that does not take into account race, class or station; love of the neighbor and the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth. In his early thirties, Jesus was arrested by the Roman governor and executed outside Jerusalem through crucifixion; followers believe that this was God’s great saving act, and he rose from the dead three days later in fulfillment of the promises of ancient Jewish prophets such as Isaiah.

10325803196_1c9a4b91deOrthodox Christians with an icon.

If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved (Romans 10:9).

Currently, there are over 2.4 billion Christians in the world, adhering to thousands of individual sects and divisions; the three largest are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the many Protestant branches. Beliefs regarding grace, Biblical interpretation, free will, original sin, the nature of Communion, and the sacraments differ greatly between these faiths, although all Christians basically believe that Jesus was both the prophesied Messiah and the divine Son of God, and that belief in Jesus is necessary for salvation and eternal life. Christians generally celebrate Communion, or the Eucharist, in remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While Catholics and some Orthodox divisions believe that Communion is the real presence of God, Protestants generally do not and celebrate it more as a memorial.

7641762082_becab6428aOutdoor Evangelical Christian preacher.

If we believe that Jesus died and rose again . . . so shall we ever be with the Lord (I Thessalonians 4: 14,17).

Central among Christian teaching is the Trinity; the central role of sacraments; the importance of the Eucharist; the promise of eternal life for the faithful; the baptism of adherents; love for and service to the poor; apostolic succession; and the importance of both grace and good works.

“I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”– C.S. Lewis

More information on Christianity:

Christianity @ Religious Tolerance
Women in Ancient Christianity: FrontlineOfficial Site of The Vatican
The Orthodox Church in America
Patheos: What is Evangelical Christianity?

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photo credit: 17 октября 2013, Именины митрополита Санкт-Петербургского и Ладожского Владимира via photopin (license)
photo credit: 2012 Festival of the Arts Grand Rapids Sunday June 03, 2012 6 via photopin (license)