Christian Virtues in Dystopian Fiction
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report.
That brand of sci-fi that imagines a future world in which the powers that be—usually overzealous, overpowerful governments—have taken radical steps to ensure the well-being of society at large. Often enough, these fictive powers are well-intentioned at first, implementing their drastic measures in the name of “the greater good.” But in the process, they manage to chop the legs out from under some vital ingredient of humanity.
Reflection. And Humility.
As the name implies, this kind of fiction depicts societies in which priorities and values are in some way exactly upside down. It’s Sir Thomas More’s Utopia gone wrong. The attempt at achieving a utopia has resulted in some horrifying, unforeseen downside, usually stripping individual humans of certain sacred freedoms. But, to those in power, the utopian end justifies the sinister means.
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 underscores the necessity of the first of these virtues—reflection—in a particularly interesting way. It doesn’t just show a picture of the consequence of devaluing reflection; it’s actually about the idea of devaluing it. The setting is a future American nation in which books are illegal, owning them can be punishable by death, and “firemen” exist to burn every last one of them. Other than that, the society seems to be clicking along nicely. Everyone enjoys him/herself. Everyone’s entertained, and the state makes sure to keep it that way.
More than just a novel about “censorship”—as the cover usually claims—Fahrenheit 451 is a picture of how private citizens’ lack of will to reflect, on anything, leads to censorship. And not just censorship of reading material, but a soul-crippling censorship of thought. Monolithic government-control has been achieved through the means of a thoroughly entertained populace. It’s a world where TV and sports and bite-sized snippets of inconsequential news have become the center of all culture and society. And reflection, thought, has become a pesky, bothersome thing that just gets in the way of all that. Reflection causes only sorrow, those in charge say. And so, for the good of society, books—which induce reflection far more than most things—are illegal.
Protagonist Guy Montag’s relationship with his wife exemplifies the state of affairs. She’s persuaded him to convert three entire walls of their living room into giant TV screens (which is pretty normal for this society). Now she wants a fourth TV wall, a totally immersive experience. She wears invisible “thimble radios,” or “seashells,” in her ears all day, even to bed, so if she can’t be in front of a TV she can at least have some kind of noise or chatter bombarding her mind at all times. No room for nettlesome thought, certainly not reflection. What an easy population to control, self-stripped of all volition, all freedom. Willing to go along with whatever the ruling elite think best, willing to be controlled, utterly compliant. No thinking involved.
But when Montag starts waking up to the insanity of this arrangement, and someone asks what woke him, what he says is key: “We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy. Something’s missing.”
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” says 20th century Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurti. And his statement encapsulates the struggle that Guy Montag, or any awakening protagonist of a dystopian narrative, finds himself in.
The need for the first of these virtues is immediately clear. No deeply reflective society will forever let its leaders get away with stripping it of all personal freedom, or committing blatant social atrocities—even in the name of “the greater good.”
But, equally important, dystopian fiction also makes it clear that without humility deep reflection breeds those who (having reflected, as they see it, more deeply than everyone else) believe their superior wills ought to be imposed on the unreflective masses. This is just as dangerous. And this is the role the ruling few often play in these stories.
Consider, in this context, the Big Brother state of Orwell’s 1984. To see how such hubris brings about a dystopian state, one has only to glance at the manifesto within the novel (authored by the Party) about the necessity and inevitability of oligarchy—i.e. total rule by the will of an elite few. Here’s one very small piece of it:
We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know . . .
We know, they insist. We are fully conscious. We truly understand. No one else does. Therefore, we rule.
That pretty well captures the attitude behind the actions of any dystopian ruling class. And it’s utterly antithetical to Christianity.
The Christian system of thought, with dystopian fiction, argues for the necessity of both these virtues tethered together.
Jesus asserts that the “greatest commandment” entails loving God with your “mind” (Matthew 22). The Bereans, described in Acts 17, are lauded as “noble” because they received new arguments, based on Scripture, and then “examined the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true.” They searched diligently, reflecting, thinking critically, using their minds to test the apostles’ claims about Jesus and his significance for the entire world. This, Scripture asserts, was a good thing.
Likewise, humility is a deeply fundamental element of Christianity. Myriad commands deal with it either implicitly or explicitly. But much more than that, Christ, the Son of God, humbled himself: “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” leaving the privilege of the throne room of God to enter into our mess, to work as a carpenter, to wash his followers’ feet, and ultimately to die a shameful death. Furthermore—and yet another integral aspect of Christianity championed by dystopian lit—in doing all this, Christ forwent the use of force to achieve his ends, whether coercive political force or overt strength of arms. Recall Jesus’ response to the disciple who cut off one of His arresters’ ears: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
As with Paul debating the philosophers of Athens, Jesus dialoguing with Pharisees and curious crowds, and Luke’s salutation to the recipient of his Gospel, the way for human societies to spread truth is through Word, through the presentation of ideas, through argument. Not force. Not coercion. In this, as in the championing of reflection and humility, Christianity and dystopian literature see eye-to-eye.
So the next time you pick up a 1984 or see a Minority Report in theaters, know that you’re experiencing something more than just a thought-provoking “What if” tale. You’re experiencing an argument for the inherent human value in two inherently Christian virtues.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.