December 14, 2014

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Christmas Lights, The Star of Bethlehem, and “The Star” – Another Interpretation
I love Christmas lights! If you ask my family, I would leave them up all year and light them as the mood struck me. I did that very thing one particularly busy year.

Why do I like them? Because they bring to mind the glory of the heavens and connect God and the Universe with the science of astronomy and in particular, they remind me of the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men from the East to the nativity of the Savior.

Christmas lights were not the impetus for Sir Arthur C. Clarke to write “The Star” –“...Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘2500 AD.’ ‘I realized that I had a theme already to hand. The story was written in a state of unusually intense emotion; needless to say, it wasn’t even placed among the ‘also rans.’”

However, the glory of the heavens and the connection between God, super novae, and Christmas certainly was. While Clarke was an outsider [someone who does not hold that the tenets of Christianity are factual; Kinnaman, Lyons, UNCHRISTIAN] when it came to Christianity (“I don't believe in God but I'm very interested in her.”; “It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God - but to create him.”), he was well aware that as he wrote this (@ 1954) the vast majority of Europeans and those of European descent at least gave lip-service to Christianity, so he wasn’t going to be openly antagonistic.


Maybe he wanted to torpedo the faith of people like me. Maybe he wanted to slap God in the face. Maybe he wanted to win a contest and wrote the most notorious thing he could think of – calling into question the existence of a loving God. By his own admission, he wasn’t dispassionate when he wrote it, though he doesn’t give an indication why he was in “a state of unusually intense emotion” – at least not that I can find (if the reason is written elsewhere, LET ME KNOW AND I’LL INCLUDE IT HERE!)

The story has certainly been dissected (see below). It certainly won the Hugo (science fiction’s Emmy award) in 1956 for best short story. I certainly remembered it. But why I remember it and why others remember it may be for markedly different reasons. I’m pretty sure that when I think of it, it’s in a way I’ve not run across elsewhere.

Most people look at it like this: “Before his journey to the Phoenix Nebula, the priest clearly ‘believed that the heavens declared the glory of God's handiwork,’ (303) but now he has learned that the supernova seen as the star of Bethlehem wiped out a whole civilization when it exploded. Before his journey he could visualize the star as ‘a beacon in that oriental dawn,’ (307) that is, as a symbol of hopefulness and of new life. Now that he has learned the scientific truth, he no longer can see the star as a positive symbol and when…’” “I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer...for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.”

And again, in another review: “What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.”

Maybe the reviewers are people of faith. I don’t know, but it seems to me that they ascribe an unwarranted fragility to Christianity – that once these incontrovertible, scientific facts are discovered, the entire faith will collapse in on itself and be no more.

Another incontrovertible fact is that I look at the story as something that Clarke may not have intended; something that might not even be acceptable. Maybe the Jesuit priest has tunnel vision; maybe he’s simply exhausted from his journey to the farthest reaches of the known universe. I will argue that instead of dashing God against the rocks of scientific reality, “The Star” foreshadowed the sacrifice that the Son of God would make at the end of His earthly life. Given Clarke was an outsider, I doubt that this was his intent. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time words launched in one direction ended up hitting an entirely different target.

I’m for the serendipitous interpretation. Besides, it’s not entirely out of line with Clarke’s view of the universe: “I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”

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