Last Saturday I attended a private viewing of “Ender’s Game,” the new sci-fi adventure film based on Orson Scott Card’s best-selling book of the same name. Card’s son and his wife—with whom we became friends several years ago through our church network—invited my husband and me to see it with a bunch of their local friends. Perhaps my response was colored by the personal connection, but I loved the movie. I can’t think of any film adaptation that is more faithful to the genius of the original work.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Card said something I thought was funny: “In a way, being a Mormon prepares you to deal with science fiction, because we live simultaneously in two very different cultures. The result is that we all know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land. It’s not just a coincidence that there are so many effective Mormon science fiction writers. We don’t regard being an alien as an alien experience.”
Simpsons fans may remember that Homer has trouble differentiating between Mormons and extraterrestrial beings. But it’s actually not unusual to be an alien in mainstream American society. That’s the story of our nation, innumerable ethnic and religious minorities living with one foot in their subculture and one in the broader society. Do most American subcultures produce more sci-fi writers than would be expected for their population size? I don’t know, but I doubt it. I see a better explanation for why Mormons are especially adept at sci-fi: our theology. Like good sci-fi, Mormon theology is logical and expansive.
Much of “Ender’s Game” is about the interesting realities of waging war in a zero-gravity environment. There’s no up or down. Once a body is set in motion, it’s helpless to change direction until it collides with something else. Brushing up against something doesn’t cause a glancing blow; it causes an object to spin. When the protagonist Ender Wiggins and his comrades first enter a zero-gravity training room, they are disoriented. The laws of physics haven’t changed, but without the Earth’s pull, they must adapt to realities they never before imagined. They must change the way they think, the way they strategize.
Mormonism is to Christianity what a zero-gravity environment is to Earth’s environment. Perhaps the best example of this is our foundational story of a pre-mortal existence. We believe that everybody who ever lived or ever will live on Earth was once together in heaven with our Spiritual Father (and Mother–but that’s another blog post). He oversaw the creation of the Earth and presented to us a plan designed for our progress. We would go to Earth where we wouldn’t be able to remember Heaven, where we would acquire bodies, where we would learn and prove ourselves by confronting evil and death. In this situation, would we fight valiantly for life and truth, or would we turn to darkness and despair? Those who proved themselves true and faithful would be able to progress toward the ultimate goal of becoming like our Heavenly Parents.
Jesus Christ is still a central figure in this story. He’s the Father’s firstborn son who was more capable than his younger siblings (us). Because the plan meant descending out of God’s presence into darkness, we would need a Savior to rescue us. Jesus volunteered. Lucifer, another prominent spirit, also volunteered. The trouble with his offer was he wanted to change God’s plan; he wanted to ensure that everybody would be rescued by robbing us of our agency (free will). We believe this plan would not have worked; it would have thwarted God’s purposes. Our Father chose Jesus, of course, and Lucifer rebelled and became Satan. He persuaded a third of God’s children to follow him as he was cast out of God’s presence. We refer to this conflict as the War in Heaven (We believe chapter 12 of the biblical book of Revelation is about this conflict).
I learned this story as a toddler. Now I teach it to my own toddlers. I grew up singing songs with words like “I am a Child of God” and “I lived in heaven a long time ago, so did you.” I love this story. It’s at the heart of my identity. It’s the story by which I measure all other stories. It teaches the infinite capacity of humankind while explaining the reason we encounter evil in this life. It also enshrines free will as the most valuable gift other than life itself.
It troubles many Christians, though. It’s disorienting to theologies that begin with Earth. Which way is up? Which way is down? Does it degrade God to say that humans can reach His height? Ultimately, this story brings God closer to man. In fact, all of Mormonism brings God closer to man. That is why it’s a powerful religion. It expands on the Christian belief that God made Himself knowable by sending His Son into mortality. And it holds humankind to the highest standard of being, literally, God’s children.
In an interview with Salon magazine, Card was asked, “Are any aspects of the two books particularly Mormon?” “Not really,” he answered, “except in the sense that they’re written by me and I’m a committed, believing Mormon.” Sometimes I say “Not really” to mean “Kind of, but this isn’t a good time to talk about it.” I think this is what Card meant because I see many Mormon themes in “Ender’s Game.” It doesn’t seem he intended the novel to be an allegory in the fashion of C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” I’m guessing he wanted to tell a great sci-fi story that explored the human condition and ended up retelling part of what is for Mormons the story of all stories. (Seeing as he’s an insightful man and has spent decades thinking about “Ender’s Game,” I can’t imagine he’s never noticed the parallels.)
For example, one might ask, “What kind of Father sends his Son to do the dirty work and overcome death? Why didn’t the Father come to Earth himself?” Most Christians don’t ask this question because they don’t believe Jesus is literally God’s son, but simply God in mortal form. In Mormonism, though, this is a real question and there’s no pat answer. The obvious assumption is that the plan couldn’t have worked that way. In “Ender’s Game,” Card gives us a possible answer as to why this is the case. Why didn’t Colonel Graff fight the war of all wars himself? Because he couldn’t. He was too mature. But he did know how to select and prepare someone else to do it. Jesus was God’s prodigy, as Ender was Colonel Graff’s prodigy.
And in Mormon theology, what is Earth but a simulator, a perfect game or test to prepare us for the next step in our journey toward becoming a Commander? The conditions here on Earth are as close as possible to the realities of eternity so that we’ll be prepared for them. I love how the climactic battle of the movie isn’t a simulation as Ender had supposed it was. This reminds me of a long discussion I had with my brother. He’s inclined to see mortality as only a simulation. I’m inclined to see it like the Graduation Battle, the warriors thinking it’s an important dress rehearsal but afterward discovering that this performance has real, lasting consequence, including casualties.
Another principle of Mormonism is that God operates by faith. Faith is the power by which the worlds were made, by which Christ atoned for our sins. It’s the power by which everything good is accomplished. And we also define faith as “not to have a perfect knowledge of things,” but a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Colonel Graff believes Ender is the only one who can save humanity from destruction. He believes Ender is “perfect” for this role. But others doubt him, and he doesn’t know perfectly whether he’s right until the plan is actually executed. Did the angels of heaven—like the commanders in “Ender’s Game”—watch in trepidation while Christ atoned for our sins and overcame death for all mortals? I think they did. I think God the Father watched God the Son with perfect faith, and the rest of us tried to mimic that.
Can you see now why Mormons might be uniquely prepared to tackle the interesting questions of sci-fi literature? Because our theology blows out of the water many of the assumptions our society has formed around Christianity. We use the same Bible, the same laws of physics, if you will. But we use them without the mental gravity of viewing Earth as the beginning and end of reality. This view is disorienting—at first. Then it’s empowering.