A new book by Dr. James Herrick of the Hope College communication faculty examines the role of science and science fiction in inspiring alternative spiritualities in post-Christian Western culture.
His book "Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs" was published in May by InterVarsity Press.
Herrick, who is the Guy Vander Jagt Professor of Communication at Hope, sees themes consistent in science fiction that he feels have developed a significance beyond storytelling and inform a new religious outlook. He notes that the image of a limitless God who created humankind in his image and has shared his message openly is becoming supplanted by concepts such as advanced alien beings who have knowledge with which to benefit humanity, or even the idea that humanity itself can progress to a more advanced level as represented by such beings.
"My purpose in this book is to explore the various ways in which the Western world's present spiritual needs are being addressed by a new mythology, an emerging canon of transcendent stories that provides meaning to our lives and that organizes and directs our individual and social decisions," Herrick writes in the book's introduction.
"Such observations might be of minor significance were it not for the fact that our mythologies - the narratives by means of which we make sense of our existence - have a way of shaping who we are and what we are becoming," he writes. "If we trivialize mythic tales of alien encounters, space exploration and human evolution as 'merely' entertainment, if we dismiss all such stories as inconsequential cultural fluff, then we may find ourselves responding to these powerful narratives in another form - as public policies, social agendas and proselytizing religious movements."
Although sci fi imagery and ideas have become plentiful in the age of film and television, Herrick notes that the concepts are not new. For example, the 17th-century French author Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle - who was a religious skeptic --considered the possibility of life on other planets in his 1686 work "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds."
Herrick has found that ideas and outlook of science fiction have become and continue to become manifest in real life in a variety of ways. He cites, for example, contemporary scientists interested in space exploration who identify science fiction films as having inspired their decision to pursue their career focus. An example of direct religious impact, he notes, is the Heaven's Gate cult, members of which committed suicide in 1997 believing that their souls would be freed to board a space ship.
Herrick explored the shift in Western spirituality previously in the 2003 book "The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition." In "Scientific Mythologies" he shares a concern that he also expresses in that volume: that the new religious view ultimately, and incorrectly, places spiritual power in the hands of an elect few - those believed to have the knowledge for which others must seek. The approach, he feels, echoes the ancient Gnostics who believed only an elect few worthy of spiritual salvation, and runs counter to the universality of Christianity.
"The idea of a secret spiritual knowledge, whether revealed by aliens or someone in contact with them, leaves the power of the secret in the hands of the one or the few who control that knowledge necessary to enlightenment, indeed, to salvation," he writes. "This kind of power can be, and often has been, highly dangerous."
"The God of the Bible offers an alternative: entering earthly existence as a person, reaffirming the value both of Earth and of the human, his 'secrets' are shared in simple stories told for the benefit of the ordinary many, and often misunderstood or ignored by the powerful few," he writes. "The return to gnosis robs the world of the exquisite openness of the Christian notion of the gospel as good news."
Herrick has been a member of the Hope faculty since 1984 and is past chair of the department. His research and teaching specialties are rhetoric and argumentation.
His other books are "The Radical Rhetoric of the English Deists: The Discourse of Skepticism, 1680-1750," "The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction," "Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments," and "Critical Thinking: The Analysis of Arguments." He has also had numerous articles appear in scholarly and popular publications in addition to presenting several papers at professional conventions, and wrote entries for both the "New Dictionary of National Biography" and "The International Encyclopedia of Censorship."
"The Making of the New Spirituality" was named a 2004 "Gold Medallion Book Award Finalist" by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association and was cited as one of "Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read" in "Preaching" magazine's 2004 survey of the year's best books for preachers.
Herrick is an active member of the National Communication Association. His extensive professional involvement includes having served as a founding member of the editorial boards of three professional journals: "Review of Communication," which is the electronic journal of the National Communication Association; the Baylor University Press Rhetoric and Religion series; and, most recently, the "American Communication Journal."