We live in a dystopia. This world is filled to the brim in dichotomies: poverty and extreme excess, hunger and mountains of food, disease and cutting-edge medicine, materialism and an immense environmental crisis, and hour-long walks for water and hour-long luxurious baths. There are so many parts of our world that are not just unfair, unequal, broken and undesirable, but violent, traumatic and deadly. And, sometimes it feels like it is only getting worse, or at least, again teetering on the edge of yet another catastrophe.
Most of the world’s religious traditions agree that this is not the way the world should be. My own religious tradition, Judaism, traces this separation between the Creator’s utopia, the Garden of Eden, and our current situation all the way back to the beginning of humankind. The actions of the first two humans resulted in exile from the Garden: enter the world diametrically opposed: dystopia. Nonetheless, the Jewish religious tradition’s call for tikkun olam (repairing the world) suggests that it is possible to lift the veil between the Divine and us and consequently recreate the utopian Eden once again. One could say it is why we are here.
That being said, while the dystopian genre has been around for many decades, I have noticed a recent rise in the popularity of dystopian fiction. While I have always had a keen interest in science fiction, from Star Trek to FireFly and beyond, I myself have, as of late, become an avid reader of dystopian novels. I blasted through the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, have reread The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk more times than I can count and just began my dip (25 pages) into The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver – not so action-packed as the others. I’ve also been, one could say, addicted to dystopian films (yes many were books first) like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Gattaca, The Fifth Element and Serenity to name just a few.
Interestingly, as I have been reading and watching and rereading, I began to notice little to no discussion of religion within these tales. While there is a whole genre of end-of-the-world apocalyptic (evangelical) Christian books and movies out there (which I would add I see as part of completely different genre), religion as a whole is largely absent from the more mainstream material. The Divergent Series, for example, discusses how each of the factions understands the divine differently based on their faction’s values. Yet, it is not part of the main focus, drive or motivation of the main characters. Any discussion of religion is completely absent from the movies as far as I can remember. (Of course, Starhawk’s book is full of spirituality/religiosity but it really is the exception to the rule.)
Taking into account that most religious traditions posit that we live in a dystopia, I find the absence of religion odd. Shouldn’t the two go hand-in-hand? I mean, many people working to repair the world find their reasons for such work in religious teachings and traditions. Take, for example, the role of many in the Jewish community in Selma.
At the same time, I question why I am so drawn to this genre as of late. For now, I can say the following: while I see no end to our current dystopian state, dystopian literature attracts me because there is change. Usually, not just an outcome but an end to dystopian existence occurs. Normally, this end is accomplished by one person or a small group fighting against the powers that be to overturn the destructive, corrupt system. Furthermore, the corrupt leader is now dead or newly revealed information means life, as it was lived before, is now not possible.
In dystopian fiction, there is not just change but also deep-seated hope. Religion too has built-in hope. Hope may even be the foundation of religious sentiment. Yet, the hope of religion differs drastically in terms of time from the hope of dystopian sci-fi. We know that our hopes for a better world do not come after 750 or 1000 pages or three two-hour movies.
Adding to this sense of timelessness is the acknowledgment that utopian worldviews differ. In secular society as well as within and among religious traditions this occurs. So, now what? Not only are we waiting, there is no timeline, no utopian agreement and no definitive or assured plan. Our dreams of a better life seem not just lamentable but unattainable. Once again: so, now what?
I’m not so sure I have an answer. Perhaps, we continue the work. Maybe we live melancholically, or bitterly, or angrily, or, even, in resolute sadness. Maybe we find reason to lose hope. Perchance, we escape to the world of fiction and find comfort in the dreams and actions of others. Assuredly, that is what I have been doing.
Dystopian fiction offers ready, accessible and, most importantly, timely hope. Unfortunately, this genre seems to be doing a better job than most religious traditions on this front. Like generations before, many people are tired of waiting and so escape into a realm where they are inspired that, even in the most dire of circumstances, change is possible. When change seems possible, it is so much easier to work towards it.
Nonetheless, religious traditions, even if they are having a hard time offering quick, accessible hope, they do have a long history of teaching us a very important lesson: the end to our dystopian world only comes when we work for it. We cannot sit on our hands waiting for someone else to create the utopia of which we dream; no, that is our job. In addition, by teaching us this lesson, I think religious traditions preserve hope for the long haul even if on occasion we find fiction more inspiring in the short-term. Religions say: if there is more work to be done, then do it.
Perhaps, one day dystopians will only exist within the pages of books: religious or otherwise. I am all for it.