Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Evangelism on Mars?

A recent i09 article asks the question of how Christianity would deal with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. For example, how would it affect theology – not necessarily for human beings, but for whatever life might be found? Would such life be in need of salvation as well? 

This same question was asked in 1950 in Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles.” A collection of short stories that were combined into a longer work, “Chronicles,” as Bradbury himself explained, uses a few fictional touches borrowed from Sherwood Anderson and John Steinbeck to illustrate how human life might flourish on the red planet. I previously wrote about Bradbury’s short story “The Man” here. 

Human beings land on Mars and begin exploring it, though the first encounters are horrific and end violently for earth. The Martians’ use of mind manipulation sends the first Earth missions into their own imaginations, with the scenery mimicking small town American life from the 19th century. Eventually, the Earth men gain a foothold, and settlements begin to flourish. 

There are familiar plot points any student of Earth history will appreciate, since many Martians die as a result of disease. But many of them blend into the background, head into the wilderness, seemingly to bide their time until the Earthmen decide to leave. 

In one particular chapter, “November 2033: The Fire Balloons,” we see the beginnings of extraterrestrial evangelism. Bradbury introduces us to two priests – Father Peregrine and Father Stone, who are preparing for their journey to Mars. 

Father Peregrine is the hopeful explorer, while Father Stone is a bit harder. Peregrine wonders might a new planet, and new life forms, mean discovering new sins? What kind of sins would a being with extra senses beyond the human kind be tempted with? Peregrine asks if the journey should even be made, posing a strange question for a Christian priest: “Shouldn’t we solve our own sins on Earth?” The Gospel would answer this question simply with: You can’t solve your own sins. That’s one of the reasons you preach.

Earlier in “The Martian Chronicles,” and within the story, Bradbury plays with the traditional locational physics of theology – up means heaven, down means hell. But Mars is red, and gives off a Satanic vibe. The red planet’s explorers are sometimes tempted to think they have arrived at heaven, only to find some unexpected, infernal end. 

Arriving on Mars, our two priests learn that there is sin aplenty among the earthly settlers, but the Martians are an enigmatic bunch. They are described as “spheres of blue fire,” obviously intelligent but not human in any sense at all. Peregrine convinces a skeptical Father Stone to follow him into the hills in search of the Martians, who have demonstrated by their conduct with others that they are benevolent. Following an encounter, Peregrine is moved to try some type of evangelistic outreach. To prove his theory, he even puts his life in jeopardy – or is it a dream? – and one is reminded of Satan’s temptation of Christ, goading Him to leap from the temple and trust that angels will rescue Him.
Father Peregrine will not be dissuaded, and he conceives of a Martian church, with a circle replacing the Cross as its symbol. He commissions another priest, Brother Matthias, to create a glass globe, to be filled with bright fire and placed on the church altar. Trying to make his case to skeptical church fathers, Peregrine shows all the zeal of the evangelist: 

“We are giving them God in an understandable image. If Christ had come to us on Earth as a octopus, would we have accepted readily? … Was it then a cheap magic trick of the Lord’s to bring us Christ through Jesus, in man’s shape? After we bless the church we build here and sanctify its altar and this symbol, do you think Christ would refuse to inhabit the shape before us? You know in your hearts he would not refuse. …Christ will fill any vessel that is offered.”

The first Martian Christian church, then,  is a rock altar, much like would have existed in ancient Israel, with the fiery globe. An organ plays Bach, and a bell sounds the time for worship. After a moment, the Martians arrive around the shivering priests to explain themselves. They were once like humans, until a legendary figure – “a good man” – discovered “a way to free man’s soul and intellect, to free him of bodily ills and melancholies, of deaths and transfigurations, of ill humors and senilities, and so we took on the look of lightning and pale fire…We have put away the sins of the body and live in God’s grace.” 

As with “The Man,” Bradbury’s use of the Christ image is not necessarily that Christ is unique to earth. We aren’t sure whether this “good man” the Martians speak of is an Incarnation or simply a Buddha-like figure, but obviously the Martians have become beings no longer in need of redemption. This becomes obvious when Father Stone shakes off his skepticism and declares “It is Him, after all.” The Martians have perfectly magnified the Almighty. Stone declares that as humans travel to various planets, they will uncover pieces of “The Big Truth,” which will allow them to eventually add up the sum of its parts until “one day the whole Total will stand before us like the light of a new day.” 

It’s easy to take this apart Scripturally – the Martian self-redemption sounds much like Peregrine’s earlier question about overcoming earthbound sins. You might also say that the Big Truth already stands in front of us all, but we don’t like the light and aren’t interesting in knowing it if it interferes with our plans for the day. But Bradbury isn’t being theological as much as aspirational. Evangelism is hopeful, because it believes the journey is worth making because there are people – or beings – who will believe. Likewise, space travel is also hopeful, questing, unafraid of the journey in the hope of what may be learned and encountered. We make the trip because we not only want to learn about them, but about us. And because we are dealing with space, any journey we make into God’s creation will reveal the Creator to us. 

But the story does illustrate that any encounter beyond our own comfortable churches, the familiar hymns, the rituals we cling to, will inevitably shake our assumptions about God, Christ, and the nature of the Holy Spirit. Small wonder then that the Apostle Paul, no stranger to long voyages, challenged us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Notice that he didn’t say we should transform ourselves. When we attempt this, our new guises look a lot like the old. Transformation, in any world we create, is an impossible task when we face it alone. And the Gospel assures us that we never will.

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