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Provocative Stories for Disillusioned Catholics

Sister Magpie vs. H.G. Wells

We called her Sister Magpie, inspired by the black and white of her nun’s habit, her nimble movements, and those glinting eyes ever alert for that bubble gum we smuggled into her library.

The comic books she confiscated from beneath the world atlas where we feigned an interest in Madagascar were invariably returned at the school year’s end with POPPYCOCK  in large black letters written across their covers. Not even what were called ‘Classic Comics’ escaped this sign of Cain in what she seemed to regard a further stage of Original Sin. War of the Worlds; When Worlds Collide; The Time Machine, my favorite; all alike bore POPPYCOCK.

“But The Time Machine is by H. G. Wells!” I protested as she plucked it away. (Wells remained a demigod among youthful devotees, though some his best science fiction was more than a half-century old.)

“Poppycock!” she said. It had begun to sound like the squawk of a real magpie hopping about in the cow pasture of my farm home.

Plotting to get around Poppycock and save H. G. Wells, I joined the Doubleday One Dollar Book Club using my younger sister’s name as an alias. Its enticement was a set of five books for 99 cents, postage paid. Among them were a world atlas and Wells’ The Outline of History.

My sister eyed them suspiciously when my books were stuffed into our roadside mailbox with her name on an address label.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll straighten this out later.”

Annie knew better, but she always went along with my conspiracies even when she was dragged in. That was her way.

I brought my Outline of History, thick as a Bible, into Sister Magpie’s next school library study period. With all human history apparently on my side, I marched up to her desk on a pedestal platform two steps up from everything else in the library. It was like an altar where suspicious books might have been burned to honor a god called Poppycock.

“H. G. Wells,” I said as if to say, Put that in your pipe and smoke it! This was an expression everybody was using in those days when they knew for sure they had the upper hand.

“Worse than Poppycock,” said Sister Magpie staring down at me over the top of her wire-rimmed glasses.

“But it’s the whole world,” I protested. “It’s everything that ever happened!”

“That makes it all the worse,” she said.  “And don’t leave it lying around here for the other boys to read.”

“It’s my sister’s,” I said lamely.

“And, James, don’t make up stories involving Annie.”

Back home, I hid Wells’ history under my bed and sometimes studied it by flashlight when everyone else was sleeping. Babylonians danced through my head beside Genghis Khan; Phoenician ships drifted the Mediterranean; Marco Polo crossed whole continents with spices from the mysterious East…

All the while, like a lookout, I watched for signs of Poppycock ready to leap out at me between Wells’ lines or on the next page I turned. I began to think of Wells as an invisible, sinister presence. I could imagine Sister Magpie, arms crossed, smiling knowingly.

Not long after, she heard us boys calling her Magpie. She was as ready for that as anything.

“Make that Sister Mary Magpie,” she said.

At year’s end, our comic books always came back. At the onset of the last of those, my senior year, when I had gotten well beyond comic books and the One Dollar Book Club, Sister Magpie did not return.

Instead, from her was a book left in my locker, inscribed: To Jim, with the hope that this good talk of a highly civilized mind may delight you for years to come.  Sister Mary Magpie.

She had even underlined Mary.

This was almost sixty years ago.

There is a future, but in some matters ironically it turns out to be the past.

Whenever I pick up a book given me as a gift, especially if it is inscribed, I inevitably recall something that person said. In this instance, the other day, I picked up Literary Distractions by Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957), published by Sheed and Ward in 1958 with Evelyn Waugh acting as his literary executor.

Literary Distractions was my gift from Sister Magpie in 1959. Naturally I recalled my science fiction comic books; my small library of bound H. G. Wells’ books, including The Time Machine; a collection of his short stories; his The Outline of History read cover-to-cover; and POPPYCOCK, the imagined book god I never found there.

I am sure Sister Magpie never lived to see popular visual media’s sensationalistic special effects intensified by turbo-charged technology and a consumer-driven entertainment world. H. G. Wells’ science fiction spun off in comic book adaptations and popular films of her era had told her all she needed to know. She certainly must have known that a spaceship named Poppycock would propel us at warp speed into an almost narcotic fascination with science fiction and its tunnel-vision notions of human progress.

Was Sister Magpie’s aversion to science fiction itself pure poppycock or was she onto something we have missed or dismissed in this age of Star Wars, Star Trek, ostensibly Christian Sci-Fi, and artificial intelligence?

As a knowledgeable Catholic religious, did she foresee her students’ interest in science fiction as worshipping a false god called progress and perhaps a soul-selling threat to Christian spirituality? Like Moses had she come out of a desert to destroy this golden calf we secretly worshipped in her study hall? Did she see such things as time travel, space aliens in flying saucers, and alternative realities with warps, wrinkles, and wormholes leading us into godless voids where all our questions could be answered by strange gurus?  Did she perceive that science fiction was imitation science and artificial fiction, and that the two of them conjoined with the power of mass media had the potential to poison true spirituality?

As I held in hand Knox’s Literary Distractions with its luminous essays on Pascal, Chesterton, Belloc, and Robert Louis Stevenson among others, I began to wonder if Knox would have agreed. And what about Chesterton and Belloc?  Had Sister Magpie been right about Wells (1866-1946), Chesterton’s friendly adversary, and prolific author of some of the best science fiction of the age? What about Jules Verne?

The questions kept coming along with time machines, robots, wars between worlds, and Chesterton’s insistence that science for all its practicality was almost beside the point.

It was then that I finally glimpsed what Sister Magpie may have meant by dismissing science fiction as poppycock, a near blasphemy in a world so enraptured with it, then and now. She was warning us about a compelling mythology of scientific answers much as Chesterton had been in his good-natured disputes with Wells. She was not a science denier, and neither was Chesterton. Both were attacking the meme that an explosion of scientific progress was about the truth, nothing but the truth, and the only truth.

This is precisely what she saw repackaged in science fiction which in her day was the stuff of comic books, cheap paperbacks, second-rate Hollywood films, and a few notably good writers like Wells, Jules Verne, and—later on—Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

While Christians were still attacking Charles Darwin and Huxley, the sensational Scopes Monkey Trial (1925) made national headlines, pitting Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. Defenders of Faith and spirituality were looking the wrong way. The real threat was fake science posing as human destiny in novels and short stories, on radio, in comic books, and soon ‘coming to a theater near you’. Art, anchored in truth and universality, had swung precipitously in the direction of addictive entertainment. Heaven had become a day trip to Alpha Centauri.

Chesterton anticipated this in ways large and small. He remarked upon visiting Manhattan that all those colorful, flashing neon lights were an amazing sight if only one couldn’t read. He knew very well that most people could read, albeit not very well in the blinding context of Broadway’s phantasmagoric and hypnotic visual effects.

Knowledge transmission growing ever more visual, ever more sensational, was overwhelming print. The delicately illuminated manuscripts of the medieval world and all the print churned out since Guttenberg’s time would not suffice.

Chesterton, a visual artist trained at London’s Slade School, must have seen what would happen when moving magic pictures were mass-produced in color. This exploding kaleidoscopic world need not be particularly literary or true; the actual artwork could be abysmal; the plot utterly implausible. None of this would matter. All that was needed was the promise of a cheap thrill packaged for mass consumption and passed off as science, dubious philosophy, and a gauzy sense of otherworldliness.

Chesterton loved the world’s mysteries. He would not have been the least perplexed if real magpies hopped upside down or real fish danced upon desert sands. He would have been delighted to say so, but he would have been among the first to correct a notion that fantasy was entirely benign. Among his contemporaries were many who regarded Christianity as childish, anti-intellectual fantasy, his congenial rival, Wells foremost. Chesterton regarded Wells’ bestselling The Outline of History (1920) as dismissive of Christianity’s singular importance.

His opinion notwithstanding, Wells’ gigantic tome sold two million copies, made him a millionaire, and eventually showed up as an enticing premium in book clubs. The prolific Wells had previously churned out sensational film-worthy science fiction: War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, etc. But The Outline of History established him as an interpreter of history and a science-based intellectual to be taken seriously.

Chesterton, recently converted to Catholicism and encouraged by Knox, saw the danger, and went into action with Hilaire Belloc joining him to oppose a new frontal threat to Christianity.

They would never have known how much Sister Magpie and hundreds like her subsequently joined the battle.

At school, the teaching Sisters regularly tested our eyes to see if watching television was ruining our vision, or so they said. It must have been our minds and our interior vision that really fretted them.

But no efforts could suffice to stem a tide sweeping Wells’ science fiction stories into the mid-twentieth century and into a comic book collection under my bed. Radio drama, film adaptations, and pulp magazine versions were still mesmerizingly popular and influential in 1958 when Sister Magpie left me with a copy of Knox’s Literary Distractions, hoping—I suppose—that by then I had freed myself from distractions less literary.

And still, the Wells tidal wave kept rolling—into that new TV in almost every home and the movie theaters of small-town America where kids lined up for afternoon matinees.

Chesterton’s notable suspicions were evident in Knox’s critique of The Everlasting Man. It was possible to see a thing for the first time because all your nine hundred and ninety-nine previous glimpses of it had missed its essential truth. Chesterton might have gone on to say that it was equally possible to see a thing that many times and miss its essential deceit.

The universe may be incomprehensibly large, but universality is earthbound. Without plausible universal application to the human condition, genuine artistry cannot exist, spirituality cannot be rooted in human experience and consciousness, and religious faith cannot be distinguished from superstition and magic shows. You cannot make sense of human beings anywhere but on earth without encountering false gods in alien worlds.

The desert mystic Saint Anthony, Mother Julian of Norwich, Saint John of the Cross, and the Trappist contemplative Thomas Merton make inspiring sense because of who they were and where they were, all places you call home. Yoda of Star Wars can only murder syntax while sounding like an oracle disgorging Chinese fortune cookies among fake geological formations.

I have begun to see what Sister Magpie meant. It goes like this: Truly artistic literature cannot happen in utterly impossible, other-world settings. Science fiction might be entertaining; it might be fanciful, but universality dies in the dark matter of an expanding universe which for all science can tell us about it remains much as Saint Paul describes Heaven, something eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor human hearts imagined. For now, in her time and ours, the mingling of science fiction and Christian beliefs risks making poppycock of Christianity, far outweighing any limited value for enhancing understanding.

Christ’s New Testament parables more than suffice.

Ages ago, the Greeks and Romans made gods and goddesses of the planets. It worked for a while, but only till science supplanted it. Science and Faith may one day become boon companions, but science fiction will always be fiction, and Christian science fiction risks making poppycock of Christianity.

You cannot make sense out of Adam on Mars or a Martian in the Garden of Eden. Sister Magpie, an English teacher, would have known that on a list of the Solar System’s planets, earth is the only one correctly spelled as a common noun. While Mars has its Martians, earth has its earthlings. All other planets and their moons are named after ancient gods, but our sun alone has always been the sun, our earth the earth, our moon, the moon. It is as if an innocent child had named them. Chesterton, who seems to have noticed everything, must have noted this somewhere.

It is the deepest of ironies that the post-Vatican II Church, in an effort to look more modern, gave up on Saint Christopher as legend and mere superstition when scholars like Tolkien, Jungian psychologists, and poets would have cautioned that such legends are the very core of human spirituality and man’s understanding of himself.

Somehow in the name of reform, an unhistorical Saint Christopher was abandoned midstream with Christ on his shoulder. Statues were discarded from churches and homes while children brought home plastic figurines of science fiction heroes. Church reforms discarded Latin while space aliens spoke fascinating gibberish.

The story of our Faith need not be loaded onto a spaceship and sent off at warp speed to a universe we only pretend to understand simply because we have sent a few digital toys to photograph inconsequential marbles called planets.

Wells would surely have smiled.

“More POPPYCOCK,” Sister Magpie would have said.

“I now owe your book club over thirty dollars,” said my sister Annie.

“Tell them it’s pure poppycock,” I said.

We never heard from them again.

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, Astronomer, Physicist and Mathematician (1882-1944)