Nearly brain-dead from heavy infusions of Calvinism, I decided at last to risk Ray Bradbury’s high imagination.
In 1975 came the release of The Singer, an allegorical retelling of the gospel by Southern Baptist pastor Calvin Miller. The book went on to sell over 350 thousand copies and helped to reclaim the imagination as redeemed territory for conservative Christians. In this, the fourth in a series on the authors who have influenced contemporary Christian writers, Calvin Miller pays tribute to the one who quickened his imagination, science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury. A longer version of this essay along with 16 additional essays make up the recently released book Reality and the Vision (Word).
It was during my time in seminary that the works of Ray Bradbury first fell into my world (or perhaps I fell into his). The scholarly tedium of learning how to be “truly spiritual” can coat all things bright and beautiful with dullness, and somewhere between hermeneutics and apologetics I needed something to wake my imagination to wonder. I had previously told myself that Bradbury was not for me, naïvely assuming that all his work would focus on Yorgs galactically skimming about in astroconvected starships. But after two semesters of trying to find joy in the Pentateuch, I felt I needed to get as far from all things seminary as possible. So, nearly brain-dead from high infusions of Calvinism, I decided at last to risk Bradbury’s Yorgs.
What a surprise! There were no Yorgs. This gentle science fiction dealt only casually with the world of tomorrow and spent its energy analyzing and challenging the reader in the world at hand. I thus discovered Bradbury not on Mars but on Earth, my own address. Yet Bradbury’s Earth was not the one I thought I knew. Nor was this science-fiction writer at all like the one I had imagined.
I started with Fahrenheit 451 and immediately went on to read The Martian Chronicles. I was hooked. An enthralling sense of cosmic mystery pervades Bradbury’s work, suggesting that reality is always more than meets the eye. In this sense his works are “mystical.” Bradbury seems to attest that all things of worth and meaning are “things of the spirit.” He plunges us into the delightful world of a reality unbound by merely natural phenomena.
Why has Bradbury contributed so much to my own way of seeing life? Perhaps because he satisfies my basic reasons for reading fiction. Those reasons are four.
I am not sure all people read to celebrate art, but I do, and that’s my first reason for reading. Maybe it is because I am a watercolorist that I see art, or the lack of it, everywhere I look. Light, form, color, perspective, image—these snag my errant eyes and bid them see what might otherwise elude their nervous flitting.
All artists—painters, sculptors, writers—possess persecuted psyches that are caught between the created world and the world where they pay rent. When I spend myself on my art, I despise the stress and wish I were doing something else. But when I do anything else, I long to be back at my art.
For storytellers the act of creating other worlds often moves them far away from the world at hand. Earth must be a mundane home for anyone whose imagination can dome Mars with glass, for instance. And Bradbury must surely speak for himself when his rocket man, who often finds himself homeless in every world, testifies: “Don’t ever be a rocket man … because when you’re out there you want to be here, and when you’re here you want to be out there.… Don’t let it get hold of you” (“The Rocket Man”).
The writer begins by creating an artificial world, one that he controls completely. But the writer must live as both the hunter and the hunted. Once the story begins to take form, it—with a life of its own—tracks the storyteller. The teller becomes the quarry of his own art. Many a midnight I have been driven to my typewriter by some demanding half-tale that wanted to finish itself whether or not my groggy mind was up to the job. Bradbury depicted such sufferings by making himself (and every storyteller) into a tangible metaphor he called “The Illustrated Man.”
Poor and to be pitied is Bradbury’s illustrated man. His body was a mass of color, form, and lines. Everywhere he looked was a story. More than tattoos, these colorful and ever-changing illustrations played themselves out on his skin. He had but to look at his hand and see a short narrative. To take off his shirt was to open the floodgates of untold tales that soon drenched his tortured mind.
My own storytelling has often left me feeling like the illustrated man. I write stories to souls who may never want to read them, all the while trying to convince myself I really do have readers out there. I would like to shed my stories and live straight, without my torment, but I cannot, alas. “I’d like to burn them off! I’ve tried sandpaper, acid, and a knife!” says the illustrated man. Still, on and on the stories come, and they must be written down!
Yet from such torment, we who tell stories find out who we are and why we are born. I keep reading Bradbury because for 20 years he has helped me understand this process. Bradbury quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins in citing his reason for being in this world: “What I do is me, for that I came.” When people ask me where I get my imagination, I simply lament, “God, here and there, makes madness a calling.”
A second reason we all read is to broaden our understanding. Sometimes the mind broadens in a flash, a breakthrough to a new level of consciousness that suddenly indicts older views of reality as inadequate—a conversion.
The Dill Brothers Combined Traveling Shows brought their seedy carnival to Waukegan, Illinois, several times in the late 1920s. Each time, the young Bradbury was there to watch the sideshow assistant throw the switch and proclaim, “Here go 10 million volts of pure fire, 10 million bolts of electricity into the flesh of Mr. Electrico!” At the surge of current, Mr. Electrico’s hair flew, his eyes blazed, and a haze swirled about his flesh. And then he would take his glowing sword and touch the shoulder of a mystified child—inevitably, young Bradbury. As the skittering current lit the boy’s system, Mr. Electrico said simply, grandly, “Live forever!” It was heady stuff for a tinselman to bequeath to an imaginative child, especially since Mr. Electrico’s gifts came the same year as the boy’s parents gave Ray a toy typewriter. Together, the two gifts were fodder for a fancy that would astound his times.
I know no “Mr. Electrico,” but my first pastor was Sister Rose, who headed our small Pentecostal assembly. My Christian conversion at age nine had changed my life. Sister Rose might just as easily have been “Sister Electrico.” She spoke of hell and demons and highflying archangels. She made us quake with her apocalyptic description of the “great whore on the great beast.” Whores and beasts were both mysteries to me then, but I was “converted” to a world of picturesque thought. I wanted to know more. Because of Sister Electrico, my imagination grew, my world broadened (the Hebrew word yasha, translated as “to save,” means to create space). Conversion, as Bradbury attests, is glorious and expansive. To be converted, even to Christ, does not reveal everything religious at once, but it offers a generous first step into a larger, roomier world.
Reading Bradbury exposes the reader to the possibility of sudden, mind-expanding experiences, but not only that. His works are also suffused with his wide learning from the classics, and that love of the classics gradually threaded its way into my own affections. Shakespeare surfaces in one of his titles, Something Wicked This Way Comes (from Macbeth). “We’ll go no more aroving” is a haunting theme of the early voyages to Mars. I first discovered the verse of Sara Teasdale in The Martian Chronicles. The title of one of Bradbury’s volumes of short stories is based on a Whitman line: I Sing the Body Electric. His love for the art of the Renaissance seems to affect his own visual style in much the same way that Hemingway’s love of impressionism colored the way he wrote. Bradbury enriches me by making his learned life part and parcel of my own.
Maybe it is because of his subject (space) or maybe because of his magnanimous spirit, but Bradbury seems to find boundless excitement in learning. He commented enthusiastically on the tenth anniversary of the moon landing, “We have insured our place in the universe.… We can move out to the planets … to Alpha Centauri.… Our race will go on forever.” Bradbury (then 59 years old) does not sound like a man ready to shutter his world view. And Bradbury, while not often explicit about the content of his faith, professes a glorious, self-declaring confidence in God. I have scarcely heard Pentecostals more rapturous than Bradbury’s exuberant declaration on that tenth anniversary of the Apollo landing:
This is the most exciting time in the history of the world.… Landing on the moon was our greatest achievement. Now we’re touching Mars and flying past Jupiter.…
We are gifted with miracles we forget to acknowledge or think about.… We are the only creatures … who have seen the stars and know what we’re looking at. God has privileged us with the ability to represent Him in this part of the cosmos and to go out and change things—one hopes—for the better.
Our descendants will circle Alpha Centauri or some other sun. And all the knowledge that we have developed in the past 15,000 to 20,000 years will go on with us. Shakespeare will survive and live with us in space. Christ will be there in space. That—to me, anyway—is exciting.
My own concept of God can never remain static after coming into contact with the fictional output of a man driven by such near-spiritual forces, a writer with such a dynamic view of the God who leads man toward scientific maturity. Bradbury, at his best, is not only a prophet for a depressed people; he is a kind of deliverer, awakening our sensibilities.
A third reason that I read is to escape the heaviness of the moment. With a writer like Bradbury I can, paradoxically, have my mind stretched and expanded even as my spirit grows lighter.
The past invites reflection; the future, speculation. But now is where we must live, and now is therefore the heavy time. All the tonnage of life presses down in present tense. Through the Christian disciplines I can wriggle out from beneath the awesome heaviness, and in my best sermons I enthusiastically claim to soar. But when I am honest I confess that my heaviness knows one other great Sabbath: fiction.
The truth is that most of us, as T. S. Eliot said, can only bear so much reality. We cannot live without some mystery. Although scientifically aware, Bradbury acknowledges that great meaning rarely issues from science alone.
In one Bradbury story, “The Exiles,” a rocket ship heads for Mars filled with logical men on a mission to stamp out the last vestiges of fiction. On the red planet lives a colony of the damned—literary greats like Shakespeare and Dickens—who are making a last stand for mystery. (Most of their books had already been eliminated, the same year that “Halloween was outlawed and Christmas was banned.”) Edgar Allan Poe wants the classic writers to move on from Mars and colonize a planet farther away from the destructive and scientific literalists. Poe laments the passing of imagination from the fiction-deadened world: “ ‘What must it be on earth,’ wondered Poe, ‘without Christmas? No hot chestnuts, no tree, no ornaments or drums or candles—nothing, nothing but the snow and wind and the lonely factual people.’ ”
Bradbury warns us away from any science that leaves no room for imagination. I find a similar danger at work in some Christian circles. The gospel itself may be made harsh by precepts void of warm narrative. In spite of the fact that the Bible is filled with parables and stories, our zeal to evangelize and to encounter secular cultures with moral reform has shackled evangelicals to deadening presuppositions. These presuppositions do not kill because they are false (they are indeed true) but because they strip away mystery and process—the very ingredients of a good story.
I yearn for Mars when life gets too heavy on Earth. But Bradbury’s Mars is not just a planet. Mars is anywhere the world unfolds greater meaning. The elusive Martians who stand at the center of The Martian Chronicles are a curative myth. In pursuing them, I am healed of the excessive heaviness of Earth.
Finally, I read, and reread, Bradbury because I need to believe in a better world. Since we all inherit the future, we need the future to be there, and to be a place of goodness and hope. Bradbury’s stories offer that prospect of both goodness and hope.
Throughout, Bradbury’s work expresses a hungering after morality. Goodness is a fearsome but all-important business. Charles Holloway hears this account of it all in Something Wicked This Way Comes:
Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town … is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and there are smiles: learn to tell the dark variety from the light.… And men do love sin well, how they love it, never doubt in all shapes, sizes, colors and smells.… For being good is a fearful occupation: men strain at it and sometimes break in two.
But hope is the real stuff of Bradbury. A Christian positivism pervades his works, and that quality, more than anything, marks his work as distinctively Christian in tone. In the glorious finale to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jim Nightshade is brought back to life by a father and son dancing and singing “Camptown Races.” Joy is the only cure for every evil monstrous work.
Hope may be Bradbury’s greatest contribution to our age of despair. To my knowledge, no other contemporary writer sees the world so full of possibility. Bradbury’s latest offering, The Toynbee Convector, is perhaps his most buoyant celebration of hope. Craig Bennett Stiles, 130 years of age, is the inventor of, and sole traveler in, the Toynbee Convector, a time machine he had last used in 1984. The year is now 2084, and the time traveler, who has lived in silence for 100 years, at last agrees to make his exploits public. He will be interviewed at that precise moment in 2084 when his marvelous time machine from 1984 appears in the Southern California sky: thus Stiles will be the only man from two eras to appear in the same place at the same time.
World excitement over this unique event runs high. Earth in 2084 is a mature and optimistic world, due in no small part to Stiles himself. It was Stiles who, a century earlier, on his journey to the future, brought to the world of 1984 this glorious and transforming news:
“We made it!” he said. “We did it! The future is ours. We rebuilt the cities, freshened the small towns, cleaned the lakes and rivers, washed the air, saved the dolphins, increased the whales, stopped the wars, tossed the solar stations across space to light the world, colonized the moon, moved on to Mars, then Alpha Centauri. We cured cancer and stopped death. We did it—Oh Lord, much thanks—we did it! Oh future’s bright and beauteous spires arise!”
But the world of 2084 waits in vain for Stiles’s appearance from 1984. The earlier Stiles never shows. He is forced to confess that he had lied. The Toynbee Convector had in fact never flown, and the wonderful photos of 2084 (shown to the world of 1984) were contrived. The older world had been redeemed by a lie—Stiles’s lie. Why had he lied?
Because I was born and raised in a time, in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, when people had stopped believing in themselves.… Reason … no longer gave itself reason to survive.… Everywhere was professional despair, intellectual ennui, political cynicism … incipient nihilism.
You name it, we had it. The economy was a snail. The world was a cesspool.… Melancholy was the attitude … bombarded by dark chaff and no bright seed, what sort of harvest was there for man in the latter part of the incredible 20th century?
As a Messiah symbol, Stiles is ambiguous, for he has used a wondrous and magnificent lie to save. Still, the story is blatantly, overwhelmingly positive about the future. It offers hope. As a symbol of his confidence in the future of Earth, Bradbury dedicates this latest, joyous volume to his four granddaughters, who may one day live to discover the world of the Toynbee Convector.
John of Patmos once rocketed forward in time, returning to bring God’s final joyous image to despairing Christians in the age of Nero. John saw a “Toynbee-ized” or rather “Bradbury-ized” vision of the New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). Vance Havner once quipped that all Christians should view history optimistically—we have, after all, read the last chapter.
In this current year, it seems clear that Marxist-Leninist communism is losing its grip on the world. Eleven years before, in 1979, Bradbury seemed to see the direction of things, prophesying:
As Jean-François Revel has written, the only true and lasting revolutionary country in the world is America. We have the only revolution that works.… We’ve made it possible for people to reach the age of 80 and say, “What have I always wanted to be? I’ll do it now.” That is why I think America’s future is exciting.
I’d like to come back every 50 years to check us out. I’m that certain about our future.
Optimism is not only Bradbury’s great gift to a despairing culture, but it is his great gift to me personally. I was first awakened to the possibilities of God in my life in the rural, fiery Pentecostalism of Enid, Oklahoma. The only eschatology I ever heard was definitely “Henny Penny.” We listened to the evangelists whose breath, hot as hell, billowed the sides of their gospel tents. We branded a succession of world leaders as the infamous Antichrist. This demiurge would put his charcoal “mark of the beast” on everybody’s head in Garfield County (like the Catholics did on Ash Wednesday), and then the fire would fall.
I have since lost all interest in who the Antichrist may be. Bradbury, 16 years older than I, has fast-forwarded my confidence, and now I see so much further than I used to. Age has a way of brightening our certainties, even while it shores up our honesty.
Skeptics have long said the future is always like the past, once you get there. Not true! We never “get to” the future—it beckons us, never to receive us. But it is always there, and it is a place of hope! Such an insight we need in order to get up in the morning. This insight, which I sucked from the very marrow of Bradbury’s bones, is also the ultimate promise of Christ. Christ is alive—this is the transforming Easter news! But Jerusalem—made new—is descending: This living vision is the hope that guarantees our future.
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