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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Catholic science fiction

Review: Ad Limina, by Cyril Jones-Kellett

Ad Limina: A novella of Catholics in space, by Cyril Jones-Kellett
The future is no escape — the Church
will always be under fire.

A few weeks ago, I promised a review of Cyril Jones-Kellett’s Ad Limina: a novella of Catholics in space, and I’ve written and posted it over on my science fiction blog. What I’d like to mention here relates to the “Catholic” aspect of it, something I allude to briefly in the full review:

While the story is, on the face of it, a grand adventure, another way to read it is (and details in the story suggest that this is how the author hopes we will read it) as a spiritual trial, from which the soul in question emerges purified and hardened against the wiles of the Enemy. Bishop Mark Gastelum’s spiritual journey takes him into the wilderness where he is tempted in many ways; at the end, having endured these temptations without succumbing, he is spiritually mature and ready to take on greater challenges.

Modern novels don’t always have a “hero” – in fact, one of the hallmarks of the novel, the thing that distinguishes it from earlier narrative forms, such as the epic and the romance, is that the protagonist is an ordinary person dealing with ordinary human problems (not literally wrestling gods, for instance, as Achilles does in The Iliad). However, as I’ve mentioned before, the Christian writer – at least when he is writing as a Christian – will naturally tend to create a Christ-like protagonist, Christ being the greatest hero of all. This works very well in the modern novel, because Christian heroism is not showy and vainglorious as the pagan epic heroes were. In becoming man, the almighty, infinite God had to squash himself down into a very lowly form, and then proceeded to live a very lowly life and allowed himself to be killed in the most ignominious fashion. So it is perfectly possible, and even fitting, for a modern novel to have a protagonist who is also a Christian hero.

Bishop Mark Gastelum, the protagonist of Ad Limina, is a small man, in his own estimation – that means not only that he exhibits a decorous Christian humility (as we might wish every bishop to do), but also that he underestimates what God will require of him. The journey he undertakes in the novel serves to enlarge him and his view of things, and also to expand his understanding of what it means to represent Christ to a troubled world. Like the Lord he imitates and serves, he is sent away from his cozy world, out into the wilderness of space where he will be tempted and tried in many ways. Like Christ, he will learn firsthand that religious authorities do not always conform to the will of the God whom they putatively serve – his life will even be endangered by some of them.

Temptation of Christ cartoon by Tony McGurk
Our modern temptations tend toward the comfortable,
rather than the grandiose.

One of the interesting things about this novel is that most of the temptations that our futuristic bishop feels are those that present themselves to many Catholics today – the temptation to create a “Catholic ghetto,” for instance, in which we withdraw from, and ignore, the troubles of the larger world. The temptation to convince ourselves that some of the more ambiguous lures of modern life really won’t hurt us if we enter into them cautiously or partake of them moderately. The temptation to believe that we can be true Christians while avoiding the real cost of discipleship.

Even if you don’t care for science fiction, I recommend that you read Ad Limina. It is a “good” book, in the sense that C. S. Lewis used that term:

Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight.

It is also a “good book” in the sense that it holds up well when re-read. I’ve read it a couple of times and enjoyed it even more the second time.  I believe it is also, as the best science fiction always is, a “philosophical” story, in the sense that Aristotle used that term – it invites us to learn something about the truth of our human condition, by projecting ourselves into the persona of the protagonist. On both these grounds, then, I heartily recommend this book to my readers. Now, go here to read my full review or go here to buy the book (at least read the sample!).

©2013 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Plato, Homer, and the Saints in Outer Space

great literature cultivates wisdom and virtueIn The Republic, Plato acknowledges the power of the arts (chiefly music and literature) to shape impressionable young souls. Concerned parents today, worried about the music their children listen and the books they read (if they read at all), may appreciate why Plato has Socrates say, in his discussion of a theoretical “just city” (i.e., just society), that youngsters should not be exposed to dangerous ideas — such as Homer’s depiction of the gods as powerful, spoiled brats. In the modern era, Plato has often been accused of being against art, music, and poetry, but I’ve always thought this a gross distortion to what he is actually saying in The Republic. He acknowledges the immense power of the arts to form — or deform — the soul, and he suggests that those who are destined to be leaders should be taught to be wise. The reason he infamously forbids poets in the just city is that he wanted to present young souls with inspiring images, and he just didn’t find Homer and Hesiod to provide healthy inspiration. The imaginations of the future rulers of the just city should not be infected with the bad examples of the poets’ gods.

Since Plato found the popular literature of his day to be unwholesome for impressionable young people, he made up edifying stories of his own. In fact, each one of Plato’s great philosophical works is itself a made-up story, meant to lead the reader toward the truth. He peopled his stories with figures familiar to himself and his fellow Athenians: Socrates the great truth-seeker, and the men with whom Socrates often associated, each of whom typifies some particular point of view. Anyone who has ever read The Republic with any attention will be unlikely to forget Thrasymachus, the belligerent young man whose idea of justice was something like “might makes right”; Thrasymachus drops out of the discussion of justice pretty early on — he just doesn’t have the patience for it. But Glaukon (modeled on Plato’s own brother) hangs on Socrates’ every word, and follows the discussion closely, asking questions and advancing ideas. Socrates, who is trying to get his young interlocutors to glimpse the true nature of justice, makes up one story after another to illustrate the points he hopes they’ll grasp. Plato’s Socrates never teaches didactically; he always tries to help the others to see the truth in their mind’s eye, using both their intellect and their imagination.

For more than two thousand years, this is what “high” literature took as its task: to illustrate some truth about the human condition or the world which would impress itself on the reader’s imagination, to “form the soul,” to use Plato’s terminology. It is a sad fact that this literary project has largely been abandoned by writers today, even those with “literary” pretensions. Contemporary literature seldom makes any attempt to be edifying. Indeed, most contemporary writers would hotly deny that they have any moral obligation to the reading public, aside from being true to their own “vision.” But a diseased eye cannot have clear vision.

This may be the reason that so many parents and educators who are concerned about presenting young people with edifying stories return to the great classics, written in ages when literature, like art and music, was intended to elevate the soul, to allow it to glimpse heights where the truth dwelt — but to do so using forms familiar from daily life. In such works, the writer has taken great care to find a balance between portraying human nature as it is and showing it as it ought to be and can be.

Homer, Plato, and the Saints among the stars
Great stories of the past should continue
to shape great stories of the future.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to become not just a Catholic reader, reading with an eye to truth, but a Catholic writer as well. I believe that the Catholic perspective on life as it is lived and as it ought to be lived is one too seldom glimpsed in books today. Too often reality is portrayed as flat, ugly, and factual, when the Christian knows that it is complex, beautiful, and full of mystery. We need more literature that transcends the superficial facts of life in this world, to hint at truth, beauty, and goodness. For this reason, when I refer to Catholic writers I do not mean simply those who write for a Catholic audience. Instead, I mean those whose work reflects the vision of reality that I’ve just described, but who may not write for a necessarily Catholic audience. Writers who, like Flannery O’Connor, realize that the world has become blind and deaf to the mystery of life and the Creator’s imprint on his Creation.

As many readers of this blog will already know, I’m currently working on what I call a “Catholic science fiction novel.” It is intended to be “Catholic” in both senses: it has characters who are Catholic (one is even a priest) and it illustrates themes that will resonate with Catholic experience: growth in virtue, the redemptive value of suffering, and others. But it is also meant to be Catholic in the broader sense I just mentioned: to present a reality that has depth, in which superficial appearances cover metaphysical depths, in which the natural and the supernatural coexist and correspond. I hope that this vision will imprint itself on the imaginations of my readers.

dystopia word cloud
Many speculative novels
paint a bleak future.

So many futuristic science fiction novels, by Christians and agnostics alike, present a kind of nightmarish future, in which science, technology, and rigid secularism have distorted human life to such an extent that it is barely recognizable, or else an absurdly utopian future in which, by his own efforts, Man has created a paradise without poverty, disease, or even death. My story is very different; it focuses not on technology, but on people, who are not imaginary aliens but ordinary human beings, with ordinary human struggles — which just happen to take place in a distant part of our galaxy, far in our future, and sometimes using technology that we can imagine but will probably never see.

And yet, when I began to think about the shape of my story, I found that it contains remarkable parallels to ancient epics, such as Homer’s Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid. I was surprised to realize that it also parallels American history, in depicting people escaping a world in which religion is often persecuted to create a new home, in a distant land, where a new society may be built, guided by Christian principles — much as the English Pilgrims did when they came to North America. Biblical echoes can also be found in it. Why? Because my imagination, quite unconsciously, has been shaped by the great stories most familiar to me and has fashioned a tale that bears a familiar resemblance to them.

I’m sure few readers will be conscious of these allusions, any more than I was conscious of them as I began shaping my story, But perhaps my story will make an impression on the imaginations, and the souls, of my readers, similar to the way ancient epics and Holy Scripture have made an impression on my own. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that, like Plato, I have created a story that helps my readers glimpse some aspect of truth that had previously eluded them, or that, like Flannery O’Connor, I have drawn vividly enough for the blind to see unsuspected beauty in the ordinary struggles of life.