“Arrakis. Dune. Wasteland of the Empire, and the most valuable planet in the universe. Because it is here — and only here — where spice is found. The spice. Without it there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilization. Arrakis. Dune. Home of the spice, greatest treasure in the universe. And he who controls it, controls our destiny.”
— Princess Irulan, Frank Herbert’s Dune
Interstellar travel. Ecology. Geology. Conservation. Terraformation. Economics. Eugenics. Espionage. Political opportunism. Calculated risks. Hegemonic lust. Religious fanaticism. Prophetic legends. Jihad. Otherworldly mysticism and prescience. Adventure. Romance. Deceit, betrayal and vindication. Fate. “Desert power.” “Plans within plans within plans.” “Treachery within treachery within treachery.”
These various themes are weaved into the epic literary tapestry that is Frank Herbert’s 1965 interstellar bildungsroman Dune, the story of the young Paul Atreides who finds his life purpose, banished to a desert, in leading its nomadic people to take control of the planet and avenge his late father by reclaiming it for his house. Taking place in the year 10,191, Dune is in our distant future, yet the author took the unprecedented approach of crafting his complex interstellar society as if its events happened in the distant past, which gives the saga the unique tenor of sounding legendary within its own universe.
Frank Herbert (1920-1986) was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful American science fiction storyteller best known for the five classic Dune novels he penned. The way Dune approached sociopolitical issues and its popular endurance through the test of time has earned it at least one publisher’s imprimatur, “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece.”
Herbert used his fiction as an instrument to interact with human beings’ susceptibility to mass manipulation by political propaganda and religious dogma, as well as the importance of self-awareness and self-mastery in resisting these types of control — issues that are relevant for people today. Dune contains many analogues to economic elements of our world. “The spice melange,” the commodity which makes interstellar travel possible and is exclusive to the desert planet, is analogous to the commodity of petroleum. “The Spacing Guild” along with its “Navigators,” which controls all interstellar transit, is analogous to big oil companies. “Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles” (CHOAM) controls all economic affairs across the cosmos, though it relies on the Spacing Guild for transportation due to the latter’s monopoly on faster-than-light travel. And in an interview decades ago, Herbert explicitly identified his fiction’s CHOAM as an analogue to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). “Arrakis,” a mostly desolate desert planet with a unique natural resource whose giant sandworms produce the spice, sounds like Iraq. “The Padishah Emperor,” along with the Landsraad, controls CHOAM’s management and board of directors. The Spacing Guild and the Bene Gesserit are silent partners with the Emperor and the Landsraad comprising this cosmic consortium: a delicate tripod in an interstellar balance of power. CHOAM is the largest single source of wealth in the Old Empire; as such, influence in CHOAM is the central goal of political maneuvering, both to receive dividends and to skim off spice profits. These large political players are in the background while the story centers on the power struggle between House Atreides and House Harkonnen, who compete for control of spice production.
With so many analogues to real-world things, Dune suggests the power that certain companies or nations may use to manipulate the global economy, as well as the administrative operations of countries at the highest levels of government. Many companies that produce commodities such as petroleum also control their production, output, and availability and scarcity of such resources. In the real world, cartels such as OPEC are formally independent producers who ensure price stabilization in international oil markets — but their goal is also to increase collective profits by means of price fixing, limiting supply and various restrictive practices.
Herbert said in an interview, “Who me … a science fiction writer? I’ve always considered myself to be a yellow journalist. Like the best muckracking yellow journalists of the news media, I ask questions that other people aren’t asking, and do a lot of investigating into the world around me. So even though I try to write entertaining, future-oriented stories, my books always contain messages that — I believe — are relevant to our situation today.”
So why review a book in 2021 that was published fifty-five years ago? C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), the Christian philosopher and a contemporary of Frank Herbert, wrote in one of his many books, An Experiment in Criticism,
“Criticism … I take to be a very useful activity. The question is about the criticism which pronounces on the merits of books; about evaluations, and devaluations. Such criticism was once held to be of use to authors. But that claim has on the whole been abandoned. It is now valued for its supposed use to readers. It is from that point of view that I shall consider it here. For me it stands or falls by its power to multiply, safeguard, or prolong those moments when a good reader is reading well a good book and the value of literature thus exists in actu.
This drives me to a question which I never asked myself until a few years ago. Can I say with certainty that any evaluative criticism has ever actually helped me to understand and appreciate any great work of literature or any part of one?
When I inquire what helps I have had in this matter I seem to discover a somewhat unexpected result. The evaluative critics come at the bottom of the list.”
Striving to produce a better resource here than whichever evaluative critics whom Lewis read, we should critically review a fifty-five-year-old novel because it still influences our culture. In Brief Lives, a 17th-century collection of short biographies, John Aubrey wrote, “The praise of ancient authors proceeds not from the reverence of the dead, but from the competition, and mutual envy of the living.” Dune, a space opera which has fueled the creative impulse of many storytellers, has enjoyed the status of inspiring many science fiction and fantasy stories from Star Wars to Game of Thrones. Dune has been incarnated into live action twice: as a 1984 feature film and a 2000 TV miniseries. Vanity Fair wrote, “Still, for decades, the novel itself has defied adaptation.” In October 2021, this modern mythology is reincarnated as yet another major motion picture by Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve and Warner Bros. Pictures. In an interview with the same source, Villeneuve said, “I would not agree to make this adaptation of the book with one single movie. The world is too complex. It’s a world that takes its power in details.”
Though Christians most enjoy our hope in transcendent realities, we also enjoy quality entertainment no less than anyone else. Since many Christians will watch this movie, the timing is apposite to revisit its source material. As intriguing as this space opera is, like everything else in popular culture, Dune calls for evaluation through biblical lenses. Besides, Dune is great literature, and as great literature, it beckons to be read. As C.S. Lewis also observed in his book,
“Whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature. Literary taste is only a potentiality when we are not reading. Neither potentiality is called into act except in this transient experience. If literary scholarship and criticism are regarded as activities ancillary to literature, then their sole function is to multiply, prolong, and safeguard experiences of good reading. A system which heads us off from abstraction by being centred on literature in operation is what we need.”
“To formulate it as a philosophy, even if it were a rational philosophy, and regard the actual play as primarily a vehicle for that philosophy, is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us. … One of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy … at all.”
Where Lewis here specifically referred to a play, we may apply to any work of literature. Interacting with Lewis on this point, Leland Ryken, who served as professor of English at Wheaton College for almost fifty years, wrote in A Christian Guide to the Classics,
“This does not mean, however, that we should neglect the ideas that the classics put on our intellectual agenda. In fact, this is one of their greatest services to us. The classics, especially the masterworks of substantial length, are as good an avenue to encountering the great issues of life as we will find. The masters who produced the classics were great thinkers and should be honored as such. Furthermore, they had a knack for posing life’s questions in a form that makes their ideas easy to discern, explore, and debate.
There is a perennial fallacy that we need to note as we celebrate the ability of the classics to embody the worldviews by which people have lived. It has been easy for people to make a facile equation of ideas with truth. Because the masterworks embody ideas, this line of thought says, they tell us the truth. But obviously, ideas can be false as well as true. The usefulness of encountering ideas in the classics is not necessarily that these works tell us the truth, but rather that, by posing the great issues of life, the classics serve as a catalyst to our thinking about those ideas. Whether by agreement or disagreement with the ideas that we encounter in the classics, we sharpen our own understanding of the truth and are affirmed in it. It is not necessarily a matter of literature telling us the truth, but rather of our coming to understand and affirm the truth as we read the classics and interact with their ideas.”
Clifton Fadiman, the early 20th-century distinguished American author, editor, lecturer, scholar and literary critic, in his introductory essay to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, prefaced,
“The greatest books rise from a profound level of wonder and terror, a level common to all humanity in all times and climes, but a level so deep that we are only at times aware of it, and none of us can ever glimpse it whole. From time to time a man—Cervantes or Dostoevsky or Melville—lets down into this deep well the glorious, pitiful bucket of his genius, and he brings up a book, and then we read it, and dimly we sense its source, and know that source to be something profound and permanent in the human imagination. The mysterious liquid drawn from this well is never crystalline. Rather does each man, as he looks into it, see mirrored a different set of images, reflections, points of light, and layers of shadow. All great books are symbolical myths, overlaid like a palimpsest with the meanings that men at various times assign to them.”
More recently, Dr. Jordan B. Petersen, in his lecture “Biblical Series: Introduction to the Idea of God,” opined,
“… the abstraction is so insanely powerful … it’s not obvious that the abstraction is less real than the more concrete reality. And you take a work of fiction like Hamlet, and think, Well, it’s not true because it’s fiction. But then you think, Wait a minute, what kind of explanation is that? Maybe it’s more true than nonfiction, because it takes the story that needs to be told about you, and the story that needs to be told about you, and you, and you, and you, and extracts that out and says, Look, here’s something that’s a key part of the human experience as such. Right? So it’s an abstraction from this underlying noisy substrate, and people are affected by it because they see that the thing that’s represented is part of the pattern of their being. That’s the right way to think about it.”
We don’t presume to apply Peterson’s allegorical hermeneutic to Holy Scripture, which is grounded in real history, and is as literally true as it is abstractly applicable to everyone who has ever read it. In terms of appreciating enduring literature, Peterson’s insight is intriguing as to the value of fiction, whether that insight comes from common grace or saving grace.
Readers locate the truth of fiction in our identification with its characters and themes, bringing to the story the sum of all our respective worldviews, knowledge acquired from other media, and life experiences. We might not be able to relate to the young Paul Atreides as the royal heir to the wealth of an interstellar empire — but many of us may easily relate to a young person, even one coming from a life of privilege and ease, whose world is shattered, being driven into the desert of life, prevailing over adversity, finding oneself, one’s purpose, and one’s place in the universe. That is where the literary significance is found in this bildungsroman, showing the progressive formation of the protagonist from a future perspective.
So, as it is a classic of the science fiction genre, we immerse ourselves into Dune’s rich religious fabric. Early in the tale, a supporting character, Dr. Wellington Yueh, gives a copy of the 1,800-page “Orange Catholic Bible,” to the protagonist, Paul Atreides, and says, “You may find the book interesting. It has much historical truth in it as well as good ethical philosophy.” Herbert might have been speaking through one of his characters to convey his reductionistic view of the value of Christianity’s sacred text as simply historical and ethical. He could have believed that some version of our Bible evolves over the next eleven centuries to synthesize doctrines of Christianity, Islam, and probably other major religions. Or the author’s intention could have merely been setting the stage for irony later when the story reveals that Yueh is the conscience-tortured traitor who, under duress, violates the ethics of his so-called “Suk conditioning” — one of many terms Herbert invented for his imaginary universe — by betraying Duke Leto Atreides and his family to their adversary, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.
For Dune, Herbert borrowed terms and concepts from Islam perhaps even more than from Christianity. In Islam, a “sirat” is a bridge in Muslim eschatology which spans the chasm of hell and connects this world with paradise, and according to tradition, over which only the righteous can cross while the unrighteous fall to a flaming punishment. Later in the story, Paul brings to mind the sirat borrowed from Islam in that O.C. Bible given by his family’s coerced betrayer: “Paradise on my right, Hell on my left and the Angel of Death behind,” as well as 467 Kalima in the same O.C. Bible: “From water does all life begin.” There is a curious poem called the Sadus of the Trial:
“Mine enemies are like green blades eaten down
That did stand in the path of the tempest.
Hast thou not seen what our Lord did?
He sent the pestilence among them
That did lay schemes against us.
They are like birds scattered by the huntsman.
Their schemes are like pellets of poison
That every mouth rejects.
Their works have been overturned.
The fire of God mount over thy heart.
The fire of God set alight.
Thine enemies shall fall.”
Herbert displays at least enough familiarity with early Christian literature to quote Augustine’s Confessions, as an insight summoned to his character the Lady Jessica: “Even as she spoke, Jessica laughed inwardly at the pride behind her words. What was it St. Augustine said? she asked herself. ‘The mind commands the body and it obeys. The mind orders itself and meets resistance.’ Yes — I am meeting more resistance lately.” Elsewhere, the Lady Jessica recalls Ecclesiastes 3:6-8, on the timing of all things in life. The theme of the mind’s power over matter pervades the book’s pages. This is particularly shown in the pithy quotations which introduce each chapter. For example, another musing by the Princess Irulan of House Corrino, daughter of Emperor Shaddam IV: “There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.” Jessica at another point recalls an axiom of the Bene Gesserit, her religious order: “The mind can go either direction under stress — toward positive or negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Furthermore, 22 Kalima in the O.C. Bible says, “Whether a thought is spoken or not it is a real thing and has powers of reality.”
And of course, most famously, the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, and if anything, likely the most memorized item from Dune:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past me I will turn to see fear’s path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Herbert seems to situate the question of truth in the realm of skepticism and relativism, for in the “Conversations with Muad’Dib” the Princess Irulan Corrino writes, “My father once told me that respect for the truth comes close to being the basis for all morality. ‘Something cannot emerge from nothing,’ he said. This is profound thinking if you understand how unstable ‘the truth’ can be.” Also, as a sympathizer to the book’s protagonist, Liet Kynes is swallowed by the desert, “as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error.”
The book’s protagonist, Paul Atreides, in the course of the story transitions from a privileged royal youngster struggling to find his place in the universe, to violently losing his family and his home, then realizing he has the ability to change that universe. Paul is believed to be the “mahdi,” or the militaristic deliverer figure of the Fremen people. This is not a very well-concealed reference to the Mahdi of Islam, who is an eschatalogical redeemer believed to rule for five, seven, nine, or nineteen years — according to varying interpretations by Islamic traditions — before the Day of Judgment, and is expected to rid the world of evil. One of the most intriguing questions of the book is whether Paul, within the context of the story really was the prophesied messianic figure of Arrakis’ indigenous people; or if, viewing them as superstitious, he mastered their prophecies and shrewdly exploited their religious zealotry, in order to galvanize that native population as his own army to help him reclaim the planet for his family and subvert his Imperial enemies. The book in some places suggests the latter demagoguery on his part, but in the third act’s scene when Paul accepts the religious mantle of the Fremen people, instead he claims his right to rule Arrakis on the basis of political nobility by his ducal connection as the heir of the Duke who was dispatched by the Emperor.
Later, the climax implies that the protagonist was manipulating the messianic expectation for his own purposes, by peering into his thoughts during his fight to the death with the antagonist: “This is the climax. From here, the future will open, the clouds part onto a kind of glory. And if I die here, they’ll say I sacrificed myself that my spirit might lead them. And if I live, they’ll say nothing can oppose Muad’Dib.” These examples make Paul’s claim to authority somewhat ambiguous and leave room for the reader’s interpretation.
Herbert gives Paul Atreides more names for different interest groups in his story than one could shake a stick at: the Mahdi, Muad’Dib, Usul, the Atreides Duke, the Lisan Al-Gaib: the Voice from the Outer World, and the Kwisatz Haderach. Paul Atreides is presented as the “chosen one” of two different groups: not only as the Mahdi, the apocalyptic fulfillment of the Fremens’ messiah; but also the Kwisatz Haderach, which is the eugenic zenith of a powerful male figure for the Bene Gesserit, the secret matriarchal religious cadre of witches who have a sophisticated breeding program that spans centuries. In the “Private Reflections of Muad’Dib” the Princess Irulan considers, “… how much is the prophet shaping the future to fit the prophecy? What of the harmonics inherent in the act of prophecy? Does the prophet see the future or does he see a line of weakness, a fault or cleavage that he may shatter with words or decisions as a diamond-cutter shatters his gem with a blow of a knife?”
Later, when Herbert narrates a narcotic-induced vision, he writes, “The prescience, he [Paul] realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed — at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw. And what he saw was a time nexus within this cave, a boiling of possibilities focused here, wherein the most minute action — the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand — moved a gigantic level across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the pattern. The vision made him want to freeze into immobility, but this, too, was action with its consequences.”
Dune’s religious themes are a mishmash of whatever Herbert seemed to know of Christianity and Islam, with no particular spiritual conviction in any direction. Despite, Dune is a novel worth reading for its immeasurable impact on popular culture, particularly science fiction literature, cinema and even gaming. And even more, it is worth reading for its masterful storytelling.
So what for Christians is the redemptive value of science fiction storytelling that is not produced from a redeemed mind? It touches on the age-old question of how worthy non-Christian philosophy can be for the entertainment of Christians. Many great Bible teachers have acknowledged that God enlightens the minds of creative people who do not know the Lord, out of common grace, so they can contribute to society. In this case, we consider the legitimacy or usefulness of a genre that primarily is not Christian theology.
Herbert seems to have a grasp of cause and effect even as they might involve the biblical concepts of federal headship and corporate guilt, for in “The Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib,” one supporting character, the Princess Irulan, transcribes, “There is no escape — we pay for the violence of our ancestors,” (cf. Exodus 20:5-6, 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:40, Lamentations 5:7) and “The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.” In “The Wisdom of Muad’Dib,” she writes, “God created Arrakis to train the faithful.” But faithful to whom or what?
In “The Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan, perhaps a window is provided into Frank Herbert’s personal view of the universe: “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.” And yet other such sayings betray something cryptic and perhaps worse: “There is in all things a pattern that is part of our universe. It has symmetry, elegance, and grace — those qualities you find always in that which the true artist captures. You can find it in the turning of the seasons, in the way sand traits along a ridge, in the branch clusters of the creosote bush or the pattern of its leaves. We try to copy these patterns in our lives and in our society, seeking the rhythms, the dances, the forms that comfort. Yet, it is possible to see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection. It is clear that the ultimate pattern contains its own fixity. In such perfection, all things move toward death.” As well as a saying from “Muad’Dib: The Ninety-Nine Wonders of the Universe,” recounted by the Princess, “When law and duty are one, united by religion, you never become fully conscious, fully aware of yourself. You are always a little less than an individual.”
Outright cynicism toward religion is found in “Muad’Dib: The Religious Issues,” in which Irulan Corrino recounts, “You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. This power struggle permeates the training, educating and disciplining of the orthodox community. Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face the ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price of maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic.” Cynical, yes, but even in Reformed churches, we sadly have known it sometimes to be accurate.
Herbert even dedicates one of his tome’s four appendices to “The Religion of Dune.” Here, assuming the perspective of an anonymous historian within the Dune universe, the author identifies interstellar travel and mankind’s movement through deep space as altering the course of religion:
“Immediately, space gave a different flavor and sense to ideas of Creation. That difference is seen even in the highest religious achievements of the period. All through religion, the feeling of the sacred was touched by anarchy from the outer dark.
It was as though Jupiter in all his descendant forms retreated into the maternal darkness to be superseded by a female immanence filled with ambiguity and with a face of many terrors.
The ancient formulae intertwined, tangled together as they were fitted to the needs of new conquests and new heraldic symbols. It was a time of struggle between beast-demons on the one side and the old prayers and invocations on the other.
There was never a clear decision.
During this period, it was said that Genesis was reinterpreted, permitting God to say:
‘Increase and multiply; and fill the universe, and subdue it, and rule over all manner of strange beasts and living creatures in the infinite airs, on the infinite earths and beneath them.’”
Clearly, in the future predicted within Dune, Scripture was accepted to be modifiable, and two generations of war between worlds forced an ecumenical movement, one that was exploited by the political powers who controlled interstellar travel. The appendix recounts, “Out of those first ecumenical meetings came … the realization that all religions had at least one common commandment: ‘Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.’ … Every faith with more than a million followers was represented, and they reached a surprisingly immediate agreement on the statement of their common goal: ‘We are here to remove a primary weapon from the hands of disputant religions. That weapon — the claim to possession of the one and only revelation.’”
Eventually these factors resulted in a syncretistic amalgam called the Orange Catholic Bible, which was labored to weed out “all the pathological symptoms” of the religious past; was produced as “an instrument of Love to be played in all ways”; was brought in order to light “the vitality of great ideas overlaid by the deposits of centuries”; and was to sharpen “the moral imperatives that come out of a religious conscience.”
Herbert’s narration goes on to admit that these translation councils resulted in riots against ecumenism that took eighty million lives and threatened to plunge interstellar civilizations into anarchy. Amidst these predictions, Herbert renders a musing that could resonate among the ages, especially our present one: “Riots and comedy are but symptoms of the times, profoundly revealing. They betray the psychological tone, the deep uncertainties … and the striving for something better, plus the fear that nothing would come of it all.”
As Christians consume Dune, we should enjoy it but also simply should be aware that Frank Herbert believed that claims to ultimate truth are dangerous, and circumstances would drive major world religions, including Christianity, to jettison their respective truth claims with unprecedented solidarity, turning to relativism as a means of advancing civilization. That is the same type of humanistic thinking toward religion that partially drove Gene Roddenberry’s vision of utopian future in Star Trek, with mankind supposedly free of its jurassic fetters of religion.
Herbert also confesses what he calls an obvious appeal to his story’s agnostic rulers: “All men seek to be enlightened. Religion is but the most ancient and honorable way in which men have striven to make sense out of God’s universe. Scientists seek the lawfulness of events. It is the task of Religion to fit man into this lawfulness. … Religion must remain an outlet for people who say to themselves, ‘I am not the kind of person I want to be.’ It must never sink into assemblage of the self-satisfied.” We might identify this as a tacit reduction of all Christianity’s usefulness to its personally formative moral import.
Yet Herbert seems also to credit in some way the epistemological and practical qualities of religious belief, as he wrote, “Much that was called religion has carried an unconscious attitude of hostility toward life. True religion must teach that life is filled with joys pleasing to the eye of God, that knowledge without action is empty. All men must see that the teaching of religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax. The proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known.”
In this segment we are again presented with Muad’Dib’s line paraphrased earlier by Irulan: “Law and duty are one; so be it. But remember these limitations — Thus are you never fully self-conscious. Thus do you remain immersed in the communal tau. Thus are you always less than an individual.” This is echoed later in his Commentaries: “When law and religious duty are one, your selfdom encloses the universe.”
To cap off Herbert’s skeptical prediction of religion’s role in the future, he has his book’s main character write a cynical apothegm, “Religion often partakes of the myth of progress that shields us from the terrors of an uncertain future.” Though not certain, this suggests that the prevailing protagonist saw the prophecies as superstition. And finally, the author makes up an old Bene Gesserit axiom, possibly to further vent his skepticism: “When religion and politics ride the same cart, when that cart is driven by a living holy man … nothing can stand in their path.”
All the contrast between faith and skepticism spurs us to revisit the age-old question of how much and what kind of entertainment Christians can consume without betraying our epistemological, metaphysical and ethical sensibilities. Star Wars and Harry Potter are other fantasy stories that have been subjects of debate between Christians striving for balance between our Kingdom values and other things in life that we enjoy as human beings.
Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), the famed twentieth-century theologian who also promoted a Protestant understanding of the historic Christian faith and a presuppositional approach to Christian apologetics, was a contemporary of Frank Herbert, and he observed the influence of multimedia on modern culture in his book and series, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. Schaeffer once remarked in an interview:
“The problem is that everything can also be misused — and obviously the arts and entertainment have often been misused. They are not automatically good; they are neutral in the sense that they can be made good or bad. Therefore, the arts can be the most destructive force you can imagine when they have a humanistic world view operating through them — which most of TV has, for example, as we can see in the thousands of ways such a view comes across on the TV screen … In general, philosophy and intellectual thinking parallel the arts in the sense that even non-Christian philosophers and thinkers, like non-Christian artists, still bear the image of God. Many non-Christian thinkers have thought through to the central problems of life with great clarity, and they have understood those problems deeply. However — without knowing the central reality of the Judeo-Christian God, without knowing His existence or revelation — these philosophers cannot arrive at sufficient answers intellectually or spiritually. They can define the problems of Man very well and they have bits and pieces of true observation, but what they can never do is to give us accurate, sufficient, intellectually complete answers on the basis of their knowledge and perspective. I have learned a great deal from studying non-Christian writers and seeing how they define the problems of life. After I read them, I ask myself, ‘Well, what are the Christian answers to these questions?’ Through both writings and art forms I see many problems presented for which the writers and artists themselves have no answers — and yet they have a certain sensitivity to particular areas of the human dilemma and the human condition. Our minds are sharpened by examining the questions these people raise and then going to the Bible to see what the answers are in the total Christian biblical framework. Unfortunately, Christians often have not even thought of the problem, much less the answer. … Many artists and thinkers have been honest in dealing with the consequences of their world view and have had the admirable courage to carry it to its logical conclusion — which is much more than has been done by many Bible-believing Christians who superficially accept Christ as Savior and go no further. … Finally we must realize that the lordship of Christ means we will pay the price for our faith, and we must carry our faith in practical ways into the fields where the battle against secular thought is being fought. Each of us must be willing to pay the price of commitment to the living God in our own profession and sphere of responsibility, regardless of what that price may be. When we are willing to pay that price, then we will truly be living on the cutting edge.”
In his foreword to John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, Albert Mohler remarked along a similar vein,
“The rejection of biblical authority invariably leads to the secularization of society. Secular, in terms of contemporary sociological and intellectual conversation, refers to the absence of any binding theistic authority or belief. It is both an ideology and a result. Secularization is not an ideology; it is a theory and a sociological process whereby societies become less theistic as they become more modern. As societies move into conditions of deeper and more progressive modernity, they move out of situations in which there is a binding force of religious belief, and theistic belief in particular. These societies move into conditions in which there is less and less theistic belief and authority until there is hardly even a memory that such a binding authority had ever existed. Western culture has secularized beyond the authority of the God of the Bible and almost beyond the memory of any such authority.”
It is doubtful that Lewis would disagree, yet in An Experiment in Criticism, he rendered a case for why nonetheless it is not dangerous for Christians to read secular literature:
“Those who wish to be deceived always demand in what they read at least a superficial or apparent realism of content. To be sure, the show of such realism which deceives the mere castle-builder would not deceive a literary reader. If he is to be deceived, a much subtler and closer resemblance to real life will be required. But without some degree of realism in content — a degree proportional to the reader’s intelligence — no deception will occur at all. No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’. For some at least of such comments must be false. To be sure, no novel will deceive the best type of reader. He never mistakes art either for life or for philosophy. He can enter, while he reads, into each author’s point of view without either accepting or rejecting it, suspending when necessary his disbelief and (what is harder) his belief. But others lack this power.
We have to consider a fault in reading which cuts right across our distinction between the literary and the unliterary. Some of the former are guilty of it and some of the latter are not.
Essentially, it involves a confusion between life and art, even a failure to allow for the existence of art at all. Its crudest form is pilloried in the old story of the backwoodsman in the gallery who shot the ‘villain’ on the stage. We see it also in the lowest type of reader who wants sensational narrative but will not accept it unless it is offered him as ‘news’. On a higher level it appears as the belief that all good books are good primarily because they give us knowledge, teach us ‘truths’ about ‘life’.
Dramatists and novelists are praised as if they were doing, essentially, what used to be expected of theologians and philosophers, and the qualities which belong to their works as inventions and as designs are neglected. They are reverenced as teachers and insufficiently appreciated as artists. In a word, De Quincey’s ‘literature of power’ is treated as a species within his ‘literature of knowledge’.
We may begin by ruling out of consideration one way of treating fictions as sources of knowledge which, though not strictly literary, is pardonable at a certain age and usually transient. Between the ages of twelve and twenty nearly all of us acquired from novels, along with plenty of misinformation, a great deal of information about the world we live in: about the food, clothes, customs and climates of various countries, the working of various professions, about methods of travel, manners, law, and political machinery. We were getting not a philosophy of life but what is called ‘general knowledge’. In a particular case a fiction may serve this purpose for even an adult reader. An inhabitant of the cruel countries might come to grasp our principle that a man is innocent till he is proved guilty from reading our detective stories (in that sense such stories are a great proof of real civilisation). But in general this use of fiction is abandoned as we grow older. The curiosities it used to satisfy have been satisfied or simply died away, or, if they survive, would now seek information from more reliable sources. That is one reason why we have less inclination to take up a new novel than we had in our youth.
It seems to me undeniable, that tragedy, taken as a philosophy of life, is the most obstinate and best camouflaged of all wish-fulfilments, just because its pretensions are so apparently realistic. The claim is that it has faced the worst. The conclusion that, despite the worst, some sublimity and significance remains, is therefore as convincing as the testimony of a witness who appears to speak against his will. But the claim that it has faced the worst — at any rate the commonest sort of ‘worst’ — is in my opinion simply false.
It is not the fault of the tragedians that this claim deceives certain readers, for the tragedians never made it. It is critics who make it. The tragedians chose for their themes stories (often grounded in the mythical and impossible) suitable to the art they practised. Almost by definition, such stories would be atypical, striking, and in various other ways adapted to the purpose. Stories with a sublime and satisfying finale were chosen not because such a finale is characteristic of human misery, but because it is necessary to good drama.
It is probably from this view of tragedy that many young people derive the belief that tragedy is essentially ‘truer to life’ than comedy. This seems to me wholly unfounded. Each of these forms chooses out of real life just those sorts of events it needs. The raw materials are all around us, mixed anyhow. It is selection, isolation, and patterning, not a philosophy, that makes the two sorts of play. The two products do not contradict one another any more than two nosegays plucked out of the same garden. Contradiction comes in only when we (not the dramatists) turn them into propositions such as ‘This is what human life is like’.”
Another of Herbert’s and Lewis’s contemporaries, A.W. Tozer (1897-1963), wrote in his book Born After Midnight a chapter he titled “The Value of a Sanctified Imagination”:
“Like every other power belonging to us, the imagination may be either a blessing or a curse, depending altogether upon how it is used and how well it is disciplined. …
The gospel of Jesus Christ has no truck with things imaginary. The most realistic book in the world is the Bible. God is real, men are real and so is sin and so are death and hell, toward which sin inevitably leads. The presence of God is not imaginary, neither is prayer the indulgence of a delightful fancy. The objects that engage the praying man’s attention, while not material, are nevertheless completely real; more certainly real, it will at last be admitted, than any earthly object. …
The imagination, since it is a faculty of the natural mind, must necessarily suffer both from its intrinsic limitations and from an inherent bent toward evil. …
A purified and Spirit-controlled imagination is, however, quite another thing, and it is this I have in mind here. I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal.”
Tozer referred to what Alvin Plantinga called the noetic effects of sin: the epistemic effects of sin upon the human mind which undermine the knowledge of God. Until the vision that Tozer derived from Scripture is realized, in this vale of tears we have dystopia. And dystopia, we have to admit, makes for more dramatic storytelling than the alternative, utopia. So for now we will live with the tension of our Christian sensibilities, as informed people of faith, and our enjoyment of great storytelling. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis reflected,
“But one of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude. When we read the ‘literature of knowledge’ we hope, as a result, to think more correctly and clearly. In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions — though this of course is sometimes their effect — than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men. Who in his ordinary senses would try to decide between the claims of materialism and theism by reading Lucretius and Dante? But who in his literary senses would not delightedly learn from them a great deal about what it is like to be a materialist or a theist? …
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
The conscientious Christian must acknowledge that Frank Herbert’s imaginings surrounding religion most likely come from an unredeemed mind far from divine revelation and whose proclivities are not very detached from the ideas communicated within his intricate, make-believe universe. But if the conscientious Christian can see those noetic limitations for what they are, he may find Dune to be a fascinating saga on human relationships, science, and the intersection of religion and politics.