Archive for October 11th, 2008

A Book Review of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land

Posted on October 11, 2008. Filed under: Book Reviews, Science Fiction |

Genesis 3:1-7 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

Robert A. Heinlein’s book, Stranger in a Strange Land (published by Putnam’s in 1961, winning the Hugo prize in 1962), is a wonderful/horrible book that uses a wonderfully told tale to promote some horribly bad ideas that were culture rocking in the 1960’s and have lingering effects today. This strange combination of science fiction, religion, philosophy and sex was a powerful book that has withstood the test of time; but it is about as wrongheaded and empty as the generation that received it. I read the book because I have heard of it for decades, I am a long time SF fan, and I knew it was a “classic” in the field. I was, however, ignorant of its message, and I cannot recommend it except to those who want to know a bit more about the ’60’s and the sexual revolution.

Don’t get me wrong- this is an important book and I am glad that I have finally read it; and I would never want the book banned. But as a conservative Christian of the Reformed Baptist tradition, I am opposed to Heinlein’s ideas at a very deep level. I haven’t felt this way about a book since I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a couple of years ago- feel like I need a shower. And don’t think I am some prude when it comes to reading about sex either, the sex in Stranger was strange at times, but not graphic at all. (I did read the 1961 edition that was severely edited and not the uncut edition released by Heinlein’s widow in 1991). But there was a great wrongness in this book.

The book is wonderful in its satirical look at our society: government, business, the press, religion especially, and morals. The criticisms of our culture are a rightness for the most part; it is Heinlein’s answers that are a wrongness. It is one thing to perceive a problem, another thing altogether to perceive the correct solution. One cannot simply make problems disappear by willing the universe to conform to your ideas. This essay will be a theological interpretation of Heinlein’s masterpiece because, in Stranger , Heinlein most definitely makes some theological statements, not the least of which is, Thou art God.

This book combines a couple of significant literary themes into one book: it is a coming of age novel and it deals with the first contact of earth with an alien race. Most of all, however, it is a theological/philosophical book of Heinlein’s libertine views. Heinlein wants to look at 1950’s American culture through the fresh eyes of an innocent Martian/Human and he would have you believe Michael is an “angel” who teaches corrupt man how to be free and wholly human, to Love in a sinless way. But the sad reality is that Michael is corrupted by his contact with sinful man and though he tragically yet, predictably, dies a martyr’s death at the hands of an ignorant, hate filled mob, the cry of “anti-christ” rings true.

Let me begin before the beginning.The title of the book was at first going to be A Martian Named Smith, but Heinlein was not finished with it, so he set it aside. A few years later he picked it up again, this time titled The Heretic, an apt title but still not quite right. A few more years passed and he finally completed the novel in 1960 and named it The Man From Mars. It was published the next year as Stranger in a Strange Land. I prefer that title, and I think it most appropriate for the story. But who chose the title? In my little bit of research I have not been able to discern if it was Heinlein or an editor. Whoever chose the title seemed to grasp the Bible and the book and how they intersect.

Taken fromExodus 2:22 “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” the title follows a biblical theme of being a sojourner, one who is in a land not their own, but merely passing through. Other Scriptures develop this theme:

Eph. 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, [1] but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,

Heb.11:13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

Heb. 13:2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

Michael was a Stranger passing through this earth. His heart and mind, his soul, were Martian; he was from above and descended to earth. Right from the beginning then we see Valentine Michael Smith as a Christ figure. He certainly has godlike powers and exercises prerogatives that belong exclusively to God like omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. He seems to have a limitless ability to love, and to make love.

Even his name reveals a few themes and foreshadows key events. Valentine-he is a romantic and a famous lover by the end of the book. He loves many. Michael- the archangel, he has an angelic face and appearance early in the story, then by the end of the book, he is an angel. Smith- the most common name in English, he seeks to live a normal common life for a while. He wants to grok humans, to be human.

In 1948 Heinlein and his wife brainstormed about a science fiction story patterned off of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book where Mowgli is raised by the animals; Stranger is similar. In Heinlein’s story, Valentine Michael Smith is the lone surviving person of the 1st Mars expedition, born on Mars but raised by the Martians. Thus he is of Human descent physically, but mentally and emotionally he is Martian. The second Mars expedition finds Michael and the Martians allow (send) him to go back to grok the humans (and to spy).

Thus we get one of SF’s major themes as an essential part of the story: What is man? This happens to also be a major theme in philosophy and in Christian theology. Stranger puts it this way:(p.6) “”…This man Smith must-”

Captain van Tromp decided that it was time to throw a tantrum. He could excuse it by his own very real fatigue, he felt as if he had just landed on Jupiter. So he interrupted. “Hnh! ‘This man Smith-‘ This man! Can’t you see that he is not?””



“Huh? Explain yourself, Captian.”

“Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man. Until we came along he had never laid eyes on a man. He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian. He’s been brought up by a race which has nothing in common with us- they don’t even have sex.”

The “what is man” theme in SF goes all the way back to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein, but is also seen in the Robot stories of Asimov like The Bi-Centennial Man or in the Movie AI. Heinlein has Michael growing in his Martian powers as he grows more human- he seems human and divine, “two natures” in one person, Martian and Human. Again notice the similarities with Christ who is classically defined as the unique God-Man, Son of God and Son of Man, two natures, human and divine, in one person. On page 428, during Mike’s martyr scene, he makes his clothing disappear and he stands naked before the mob, “Mike said gently, ‘Look at me. I am a son of man.” This symbolism is too tight and specific to be accidental. Heinlein is deliberately demonstrating, throughout the book, that Mike is a type of Christ.

This kind of symbolism is not unusual in SF and Fantasy literature. It goes beyond the archetypal hero that is common. The Christ figure does what no mere mortal can do. God-like powers are present. In Asimov’s Foundation series it is Hari Seldon and, in another way, the Robots themselves. In Tolkien it is Gandolf who dies and rises again and has magical powers and an overwhelming goodness. With Valentine Michael Smith, there is the innocence and the powers and the death.

It is reinforced in the next to last chapter, p.434, as the band of followers (disciples) eat the body of Michael. This is no mere cannibalism scene, this is again pointing at Christ’s followers who symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of their risen Saviour in the eucharist, the Lord’s supper.

While there is nothing clearly pointing to the Holy Spirit, the telepathy, the way Mike and the others can share their experiences and communicate, comes close.

The religious motif of Heinlein’s work is shown not just in the title and not just in the man Smith, but in how Heinlein organizes the book sections and titles them. His Maculate Origin- as opposed to Christ’s immaculate conception. Smith is born out of an adulterous relationship and is technically a bastard. Many pointed to Jesus of Nazareth in the same way

John 8:19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.”

John 8:41 They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.

In the section His Preposterous Heritage the story is dominated by his time in Jubal’s household. Jubal will later be called Father by Mike and his followers. Michael is therefore raised by a man not his real father, again like Jesus of Nazareth. In His Scandalous Career Heinlein uses a word, scandal, that St. Paul uses of the mission of Christ to come and die- scandalon- a stumbling stone. And of course in the final section, His Happy Destiny, we see Mike going deliberately, Happily, to his death, and once again there is a touch of the story of Christ here who set his face to go to Jerusalem where he knew he would be betrayed, arrested and executed. It was his destiny, his calling and his choice.

Probably the dominant biblical theme developed is that of sin. Heinlein pokes well deserved fun at popular American religion with the Fosterites. This wacky cult legitimizes drunkenness, adultery and orgies, gambling and just about anything else by stressing Happiness. This is so on target, even today, with the Church in America, whether it is the Catholic Church with all the scandals of predatory homosexual priests molesting children, or the zany antics of the Health and Wealth gospel preachers of TV. It is also scoring hits on the more tame evangelicals!

Of course what the Fosterites do out of passion, the followers of the Man from Mars in the Church of All Worlds do based upon “reason alone”. Mike denies that the faith is really a religion, stating that it is really science. But he also states that all religions are true and that the Church of All Worlds does not conflict with the Fosterite faith (Patty says that on page 337). Mike understood that Digby was a dangerous fraud and disappeared him. But he shows a more perfect way to happiness in his own new religion.

What Heinlein is doing here is attempting to deal with the sin nature in man. He does this with the Fosterites by simply redefining sin as unhappiness, and then saying that good is doing whatever you want with good intentions. Thus all the sex and drunkenness is defined as good by Digby and his followers.  But that is the spoof, that is what many good religious people do, so that is why Heinlein points it out in comic terms.

What he has Mike do is very different. He still has sin redefined so that Mike and his followers can have all the orgies they want. Jill becomes a voyeur, exhibitionist, bi-sexual slut and chief priestess of the sex cult. She does all the new members. But because they do it out of “love” and with right thinking, using Martian Logic, it is all now magically a rightness. Magically, all anger, jealousy, envy go away. Lust is good. Greed disappears as they realize that they can make money, all the money they can want, with the Martian abilities Mike has taught them. Mike can overpower all the laws, courts, police and military as he disappears people left and right, and it is all a goodness. Mike can do no wrong because he defines right from wrong.

Heinlein is trying desperately to answer the crucial question: Why are things not the way they are supposed to be? Why is man a sinner? Like the Christian Scientist religion, Heinlein says it boils down to wrong thinking. When you finally grok humanity, you stop being a sinner. Heinlein recognizes that we sinners need outside help to overcome sin. We cannot save ourselves, so Heinlein invents the Martian logic to come and be taught to us by the miraculous Mike, who changes all from the inside out. Heinlein, like many other writers (Asimov), shows our sinfulness, and our need of a Saviour, but provides a Saviour created in man’s image and likeness.

One of the stranger images of sin being transformed into good in this novel is Patty, the tatooed woman, and her pet boa constrictor, Honey Bun. On p. 386 she has her pet boa on a bed watching the two babies who are Jubal’s god-children. This shows the serpent from Genesis 3 that tempted Eve to be a tame serpent after all, in Heinlein’s mind. The other side of the serpent lying down with the child is from Isaiah 11:8 “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” I have no doubt that Heinlein was looking at that scripture as he wrote this scene. It fits too perfectly with the ideas of harmless serpents and babies, knowledge and water.

Heinlein’s promotion of free love made this book a “bible” for the hippie generation of the sixties and their communal living and free sex. There is a neo-pagan religion that practices polyamory built upon the work of Heinlein. The book was taken seriously and applied. This aspect of the book resembles the message of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Brown too, argues for a return to paganism and a sexual libertine lifestyle. Welcome to the 90’s and the 21st century and the world of STD epidemics, AIDS and an incredibly high number of out of wedlock births. But with Heinlein, Mike has taught everybody how to heal their sicknesses and the ladies only get pregnant when they will it. Convenient.

On p.366-7 is a long dialog between Jubal and Ben about Mike’s sexual ethic. Jubal (clearly Heinlein’s voice in the book) basically says that the Commandment against adultery and against coveting your neighbor’s wife is what causes the problem to begin with. “The code says, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.’ The result? Reluctant chastity, adultery, jealousy, bitterness, blows and sometimes murder, broken homes and twisted children….Is this commandment ever obeyed?…Now comes Mike and says: ‘There is no need to covet my wife- love her! There’s no limit to her love, we have everything to gain- and nothing to lose but fear and guilt and hatred and jealousy.” Heinlein basically blames the law for creating sin and problems. St. Paul teaches us in Galatians 3 “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith….Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…the law was our guardian until Christ came.” And in Gal.5 “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Again I think Heinlein was aware of this scripture, but he distorts love into a sexual thing. Fundamentally, Heinlein denies the fallenness of man and thinks that somehow, somewhere, someway, we can just think clearly enough to do away with all the “bad” sins like jealousy, hate and prejudice, but we will be liberated to practice the “good” sins like sexual promiscuity. Good luck with that.

Christianity teaches that the world should “know us by our love”. The Church is to be a loving place where we serve one another. The sad thing is that in my own experience, the Church has been a mean, ignorant and hateful thing…at times. We have been so bad that the satire is absolutely fitting. But should we throw out the baby with the bathwater? Heinlein awaited, longed for, some kind of a savior. But the saviour he created was all too convenient.

SF writers identify the sin problem, but fail to recognize the Holy. Redefining sin never works. The Holy must be correctly identified and embraced, though it cost us everything.

The ultimate saying in Stranger is “Thou art God- but who isn’t?” on the very last page. Here we go back to Hinduism or even Mormon theology. Everyone is god, god is all, we all become gods, yada yada yada. Right. Lost man does have a God shaped hole in his soul, and constantly seeks to fill it with everything but the real Thing. With a touch of Hindu pantheism, a bit of the Muslim sexual rewards in heaven (and Mormon), Heinlein covers all the baser bases. Jesus says that we will be like the angels in heaven, not given in marriage.

In conclusion, it saddens me that I cannot really recommend the book. Even though it was highly creative and thoughtful, it is a deep wrongness. I enjoyed the book, though disagreeing with so much of it, and am glad to have read it. I thoroughly enjoyed Starship Troopers and may write a review on it soon, but I doubt I will do much more of Heinlein. I see the fruits of his philosophy all around, and the pain it brings.

Here is an excellent article by Christianity Today about the spiritual impact of Sci Fi:

Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )


    This blog exists to study the bi-vocational ministry, explore the Bible & Theology, and look at current events, history and other world religions through scripture, and have fun doing it!


    Subscribe Via RSS

    • Subscribe with Bloglines
    • Add your feed to Newsburst from CNET
    • Subscribe in Google Reader
    • Add to My Yahoo!
    • Subscribe in NewsGator Online
    • The latest comments to all posts in RSS


Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...