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Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television Paperback – July 29, 2010
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"An intriguing and entertaining look into some of the questions that science fiction raises, especially what it means to be human, and sometimes more than human....[E]ven casual Trekkies and sci-fi buffs will be engaged by Cowan's interpretations and possibilities."―Publishers Weekly
"From the 'millennial dreams' and 'apocalyptic nightmares' of alien contact to the Buddhist visions of Neo's matrix, Doug Cowan weaves a grand adventure for fans and students of religion and science fiction. If the hope for transcendence is the universal human religious question, as Cowan ably presents, then science fiction film and television are the blank screens most qualified in our media-rich culture to propel us on that journey."―Conrad Ostwalt, Professor of Religious Studies, Appalachian State University
"Cowan convincingly demonstrates that modern science-fiction films and television shows have made religious questions and answers central to the issues they raise about human identity, values, and purpose. By emphasizing the diversity of religious ideas present in these media, Cowan shows how they are as multivariant as the nature of religion itself. In so doing, he sheds light not only on what religion is, but also on what it might be."―John Lyden, Professor and Chair of Religion, Dana College, and author of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals
"Highly recommended. Here we learn that science fiction is more than bug-eyed aliens and saucers―and that it often reveals our quest for the sacred."―John W. Morehead, editor, www.theofantastique.com
"Cowan's in-depth exploration of the religious content of science-fiction films and television shows is a great step forward for the study of religion and popular culture. By taking fictional religions on their own terms, he uncovers complex meanings within some of science fiction's best-loved films and television shows. His discussions of the role of religion in War of the Worlds, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Stargate SG-1 are the most thorough you'll find."―Gabriel McKee, author of The Gospel According to Science Fiction
"Sacred Space is a valuable exploration of the place of God through a particular genre. It is an original contribution to an underexplored subject, and it establishes an important reference for future research on this element of life."―David H. Pereyra, Religion and the Arts
"...Cowan has written a penetrating and thought-provoking book that both scholars or religion and science fiction fans will find engaging."―Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion
From the Inside Flap
To infinity and beyond, SciFi's missions to find humanity's great purpose
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Since science fiction has always commented on present day issues, but in a way that usually doesn't feel threatening to society as a whole, this is a terrific way to look at humanity's universal quest for transcendence. This book doesn't try to be the last word on the subject, but instead to be a detailed look at the various ways the quest for transcendence is shown in popular films and shows. I think the author has chosen his subjects well, and displays quite a depth of knowledge about the specific shows and films and the ways transcendence has been approached in them.
From the usual suspects such as Data in the Star Trek: The Next Generation to perhaps less widely known characters as Delenn in Babylon 5 the author shows how these characters attempt to transcend their beginnings and how that affects them and their relationships to others. The chapter on War of the Worlds is quite fascinating because he contrasts how the original atheist author HG Wells' intentions were drastically and completely changed in the movie adaptations of the novel to fit the times they were produced: George Pal's 1950s version and Steven Spielberg's 2000 version.
If you enjoy delving deeper into a science fiction movie or show looking for other meanings, I highly recommend this book. If you have friends that always give you a difficult time about your science fiction interest, this would be a good book to share with them to show that there is more than just space ships and robots battling. I do offer one warning: you may feel the need to re-watch (or perhaps watch for the first time) the various movies and shows discussed here.
Although there are introductory and concluding chapters, extended discussions of War of the Worlds, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Stargate SG-1, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica make up the bulk of the analysis contained in Cowan's Sacred Space. Essentially he seeks to explore some of the most germane themes in human philosophy about life, the universe, deity, creation, and meaning. Each of these science fiction dramas explore these questions through their characters and circumstances. Most of these fictional works reaffirm dominant paradigms about humanity and deity, but some question in deep and moving ways those dominant beliefs. Few add seriously to the exploration of great thinkers in human history even as they broaden public consideration of key components of the debate.
That's good as far as it goes. But there is quite a lot more in this intriguing book. Perhaps the most interesting chapter deals with the various reimaginings of the relationship between God and humanity as expressed in War of the Worlds. H.G. Wells was an avowed atheist who promulgated his beliefs in his novels. Accordingly, in War of the Worlds Wells offered a sustained derogation of religion as so much fantasy. Most important, he rejected the religiously embedded conception of redemption and progress in favor of the scientific theory of evolution and survival of the species. The religious are consistently denigrated as believers in superstition and magic; and he specifically wrote about an Anglican minister driven mad by the clash between his belief system and the reality of an irreligious alien presence aimed at the destruction of the human race.
Wells's anti-religion message comes through effectively in the novel, but not so much in the two major film adaptations. In George Pal's 1953 version of the story, a central character is a minister who serves as the balance between religious and scientific belief. His morality is celebrated as the key difference between humanity and the aliens who are utterly devoid of any charity toward humanity. There is also a Cold War subtext here; this is a not too subtle celebration of the religious Americans depicted in the film in contrast to the godless Martians who stand in for communists. In the 2005 Steven Spielberg version of the War of the Worlds the religious theme is also present, although not to the same degree as in George Pal's version. There is no central religious character in Spielberg's rendition of the story, but in the end all of the most lofty beliefs about America and Americans shine through.
A core issue emerging from the discussion in Sacred Space involves the broad manner in which religious conceptions, debates, and concerns are present in many of the most popular science fiction film and television produced in the last quarter century. Why is that the case and just as importantly why do these themes consistently engage audiences? What do they reveal about our beliefs and our priorities in the present age?
In the 1960s and 1970s many scholars argued that religion as a public feature of American life was transforming into a more private practice; a major piece of evidence suggesting this changer came from the decline of the so-called mainstream churches. Looking back from the early twenty-first century it is clear that this observation was at best incomplete and perhaps overall it was quite inaccurate. No better evidence for hoe germane these issues remain may be found than in continued presence of religious ideas and debates in recent science fiction film and television. Since science fiction is removed from the normal aspects of everyday life it offers an especially valuable space for the discussion of these themes. Science fiction writers continue to use the genre effectively to debate transcendence and meaning in human life.
Douglas Cowan has done a service for calling attention to this aspect of modern society. Sacred Space is a useful exploration of the place of God in the human experience. It is far from the last word on the subject, of course, but it establishes an important baseline for future consideration of this element of life.