Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.
But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.
Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.
Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.
The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.
This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.
The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).
Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.
At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.
The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.