Sunday, 27 April 2008

Fact or Fiction?

For some strange reason I’ve been thinking this week about the movie Galaxy Quest, and its relationship to fundamentalism.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s a very funny send-up of Star Trek. The cast members of “Galaxy Quest”, a long-discontinued TV science fiction series, now eke out a soul-destroying career making appearances at fan conventions and answering inane questions about the show.

After one such appearance the actor who played the Captain is approached by a group of people in Galaxy Quest uniforms saying they need his help to combat hostile aliens. Assuming it’s another request for an appearance, he accepts.

It turns out that an alien civilisation has picked up transmissions of the show, and having no concept of fiction has assumed that they are “historical documents”. In order to win their own war against insect-like alien oppressors they adopt Galaxy Quest technology, building real spaceships on the pattern of the cheesy 1970’s SF sets, modelling their uniforms and command structure on those in the show. They even invent a device to hide their octopus-like form and make themselves appear human.

Unfortunately the war is not going well, and they decide they need the Captain and crew themselves to help out. Unable to explain that it’s just a show, and touched by the faith shown in them by the aliens, these second-rate actors find themselves having to fight a real space war. At the climactic moment, the enemy ship’s commander boards the imitation Galaxy Quest ship and forces the Captain to explain what those transmissions really were. He tries once again to explain that it’s all entertainment and finally has to give up and admit “they were lies”.

Christian fundamentalists view the Bible like that. For them believing in the Bible means believing it is that kind of “historical document”. To believe the Bible one has to believe that the earth was created in six days, 6000 years ago, that we are all descended from Adam and Eve, that there really was a man called Jonah who spent three days inside a whale, and so on. The alternative, from their point of view, is that these stories are lies.

Apart from the authoritarianism and blindness generated by this point of view, the saddest thing about it is that it misses the point. Take Jesus’ parables. Even fundamentalists understand that it is pretty much irrelevant whether or not these are true stories. They are stories with a moral. There may or may not have been a kind Samaritan who helped a poor crime victim when the holy men of Israel refused – the point is that this is how we should all act towards strangers, whether of our race or not.

The same is true of those Old Testament stories. The first chapter of Genesis is a song of praise to the glory of the Creator, as shown through his creation. Whether it describes exactly what happened is beside the point. Jonah’s story is a tale about the perils of resisting God’s mission, and about the depths of God’s compassion contrasted with our petty vindictiveness. Whether Jonah really spent those three days inside the whale is beside the point. And even some of our favourite new testament stories, like the Virgin Birth…I don’t understand how God’s DNA could be transmitted in a non-sexual way, but I get the point – Jesus is God’s son in a special way which ordinary humans are not.

By asking whether these stories are true, we block off the much more useful and interesting understanding we gain from asking what they mean. I know Galaxy Quest is fiction, but its message that we can rise above ourselves, and really become what we once only pretended to be, is something I could aspire to.

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