New book mines science fiction for moral, spiritual insights

Thomas Bertonneau“The Truth Is Out There” is not only a recurring line from “The X Files” television series. It is now also the title of a book co-authored by Dr. Thomas Bertonneau, a member of SUNY Oswego’s English and creative writing department, and Dr. Kim Paffenroth, a professor of religious studies at Iona College.

Subtitled “Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction,” the new book examines how the stories and themes developed in six television series from the past explore issues of ethics, good and evil, sin and grace. Besides the “The X Files,” the shows that the authors consider in depth are “Dr. Who,” “Star Trek,” “The Prisoner,” “Twilight Zone” and “Babylon 5.”

“Both Kim and I are interested in the moral structure in the stories that we write about,” Bertonneau said.

Those stories typically engage their often complex characters in a moral struggle, whether it is Captain Kirk choosing to exact or forego revenge in the “Arena” episode of “Star Trek” or Agents Scully and Mulder striving to find the truth in a world of cover-ups and deceit in “The X Files.”

The authors maintain that it is the moral struggle that accounts for these shows’ enduring appeal. Of the most popular science fiction series, Paffenroth writes, “‘Star Trek’ became and remains so popular because it does not just entertain but inquires into questions of ultimate meaning and purpose with thoughtfulness, ambiguity, and insight. . . . It teaches us how to be better and inspires us to be so.”

The often heroic if flawed figures in these stories are spiritually inspiring. “We see in ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘Babylon 5’ the questing spirit reaching upward from the plane of everyday life into the realms of revelation and redemption,” Bertonneau writes in the book’s conclusion.

The publisher, Brazos Press, describes “The Truth Is Out There” this way: “Rod Serling, meet St. Augustine.” Brazos is a Christian book publisher, but Bertonneau said he expects the book to appeal also to science fiction fans and readers interested in theologically based cultural studies.

While writing about television, the authors refer to the textual foundation of the storylines and, of course, to Christian scripture. “We bring in the literary basis of science fiction and the stories we write about to nudge people to crack a book,” Bertonneau noted.

The authors met when they were both fellows studying constitutional theory at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., 10 years ago. They found they had interests in common. “We were two science fiction fans who were also interested in religion,” Bertonneau said.

Bertonneau earned his doctorate in comparative literature at the University of California at Los Angeles. He came to Oswego from the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Michigan. He previously taught at Central Michigan University and is the author of many articles and essays as well as a couple of books on policy.

“The Truth Is Out There” retails for $18.99.

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(Posted: Jul 07, 2006)