The Star By Arthur C.Clarke Essay

In Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” religion and science converge in order to assist humanity in its quest for universal knowledge. Religion has always given humanity purpose and solidified its existence within the universe, and science has become a means to test religious beliefs. However, what happens when humanity achieves the knowledge it seeks, but it does not match certain expectations, or provides more information than humanity can truly handle? On the quest to establish that science proves the existence of God, the narrator finds himself questioning his faith at the precise point where science and religion literally converge. Though the narrator seems troubled by his faith, Clarke illustrates that because of the nebula’s scientific and religious significance, the narrator’s uncertainty truly stems from his inability to accept that humanity is no longer the center of religion or the universe.

Throughout the story, there is a constant juxtaposition of religious and scientific symbols. In the beginning, the narrator is “star[ing] at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI computer” (Clarke 517). The most prominent and most significant symbols of religion and technology — the crucifix and the computer respectively — are shown together in order to establish the importance that each have to humanity and its pursuit of knowledge. The narrator also has an engraving of St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, alongside the spectrophotometer. The image of St. Ignatius who brought Jesuit enlightenment is paired with a scientific instrument used to measure light. Showing that both religion and science produce light or knowledge, whether philosophical or scientific, illustrates the similarities that both religion and science possess. The parallels in meaning behind the juxtaposed religious and scientific symbols create a relationship between the two, which establish them as converged rather than seemingly independent of one another. In her essay, “Nature’s Priest: Establishing Literary Criteria for Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’,” Patricia Ferrara states, “The universe cannot speak, yet continually demands to be recognized as the foundation of ideas about God and man” (156).

The narrator and the Phoenix Nebula are both physical manifestations of religious and scientific convergence where the narrator is a Jesuit-astrophysicist and the nebula is an example of scientific exploration and religious symbolism. Both also share significance in their names, or lack thereof. The fact that the narrator remains nameless identifies him with humanity as a whole rather than one, specific man. His emotional response to the knowledge he gains becomes as universal as his findings. The Phoenix Nebula, later identified as the Bethlehem star, becomes a symbol for Jesus’ birth and the birth of religion. Christianity rises, like the phoenix, from the death of the star and ultimately the death of another civilization.

Though the nebula gives the narrator scientific and religious knowledge, the existence of another civilization and its sudden demise at the hands of God is what the narrator is unable to accept. In exploring the nebula, the narrator never realizes that it may disprove humanity’s superiority in the universe. Not only does finding the other planet show humanity no longer as the center of existence, but it shows the indifference God and the universe have toward existence in general.

The narrator is reminded of humanity in the other civilization’s similarities, which forces him to see the possible fate that may await them. The narrator states, “One scene is still before my eyes — a group of children on a beach of strange blue sand, playing in the waves as children play on Earth” (Clarke 520). The image of children looking out into an ocean of eternity resembles the narrator’s initial mentality before the information he acquires forces him to stray from his beliefs. His pursuit to prove God’s existence allows him to see a vast range of possibilities, which maintains his hope in achieving his goal. His own once-youthful optimism is paralleled in the image of the children on the beach. He recognizes them as hopeful, but unaware of their impending fate at the hands of a possibly unmerciful God in the same way that he was unaware of the consequences his pursuit of knowledge would ultimately have on him. The narrator is unable to rid himself of this image, because it parallels his own feelings in the beginning and his imminent downfall. A civilization, especially one resembling human civilization, sacrificed at the height of its glory so that Christianity can be born illustrates how humanity may very well succumb to the same fate, because the greater glory of God supersedes the glory of humanity or any existence.

In his essay, “Character as Perception: science Fiction and the Christian Man of Faith,” Daniel Born states that the narrator’s faith is capable of being compromised by his responsibility as a scientist (258). Because of his scientific evidence, his reaction is limited to three possibilities: acknowledge God as perverse in his deliberate destruction of a civilization in order to create the star of Bethlehem, recognize that God’s purpose may be unfathomable to human understanding, or stop believing God exists (258).

However, the narrator admits that his findings do not reject the existence of God: “There is no divine justice, for there is no God. Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort” (Clarke 521). He acknowledges faith’s enduring possibility though the parameters of his own faith have been restructured. In the end, the narrator is not questioning faith, but rather what faith means for human kind within the universe. He knows that “God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the universe can destroy it when He chooses” (Clarke 521). However, he still cannot come to terms with humanity’s possible destruction at the hands of God. He states “[H]ard though it is to look upon whole worlds and peoples thrown into the furnace” (Clarke 521). The narrator cannot grasp but must acknowledge that the greater glory of humanity is secondary “ad majorem dei gloriam” (Clarke 518).

Clarke once stated that “religion is the malevolent of all mind viruses,” which is illustrated in the narrator’s constant struggle with himself and his faith over his religious findings (Cordeiro 48). Clarke’s “The Star” does not ultimately question God’s presence, but rather questions man’s arrogance, because “the story presents no definite image of God, but rather a challenge to the morality of viewing God and the universe as man-centered” (Ferrara 157). It is not in proving or disproving God that the narrator’s faith becomes troubled, but in his realizing that he is no longer at the center of all things including religion. The convergence of science and religion allow humanity to achieve knowledge, but it is human-kind who must ultimately choose what that knowledge means for humanity and its future.

Works Cited

  • Born, Daniel. “Character as Perception: Science Fiction and the Christian Man of Faith.” Extrapolation 24.3 (Fall 1983): 251-271. Rpt in Short Stories for Students. Ed. Kathleen Wilson and Marie Lazzan. Vol.4. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Oct 2010.
  • Clarke, Arthur C. “Star” The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke. Ed. Patrick Nielson Hayden. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., 2000. 517-521. Print.
  • Cordeiro, Jose. “A Tribute to Sir Arthur C. Clarke.” The Futurist: World Future Society (August 2008): 47-50. Bethseda, MD, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Oct 2010
  • Ferrara, Patricia. “’Nature’s Priest’: Establishing Literary Criteria for Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’.” Extrapolation 28.2 (Summer 1987): 148-158. Rpt in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Joseph Palmisano. Vol. 73. Detroit: Gale, 2005. Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 Oct 2010.
Some science fiction -- for example, Star Wars or Star Trek -- is really not much different than any other action- adventure story and does not really require the reader or viewer to think very deeply. However, Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" forces the reader to confront one of the most important issues of our day, the conflict between science and religion. The reader may enjoy both the clever surprise ending of the story and skillful use of imagery to emphasize the serious theme of the story, but what really makes the story worthwhile is the portrayal of the priest-narrator's struggle to reconcile the very different scientific and religious interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem story.

That's right! The mysterious Phoenix Nebula that the crew of the spaceship has been studying turns out to be the remains of a supernova which was visible on Earth about two thousand years ago and which found its way into the Bible as the Star of Bethlehem. For readers who value surprise endings, the story is a success. It is not until literally the last word of the story that Clarke reveals that the space scientists have been visiting the remains of the same star that attracted the three Magi to Bethlehem:

There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there are so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem? (307)
That's the kind of surprise ending most readers look for and enjoy in science fiction short stories.

In addition to that startling surprise ending, readers can also enjoy the clever use of imagery to emphasize the main issue in the story, that is, the conflict between science and religion. In the first paragraph of the story, for example, we see a crucifix -- a small cross with the body of Jesus on it -- mounted on the wall just above the Mark VI Computer. (303) A few paragraphs later we learn that there is a reproduction of Peter Paul Rubens' famous portrait of Ignatius Loyola -- the founder of the order of priests to which the narrator belongs and which is known today as the Jesuits -- mounted just "above the spectrophotometer tracings." (304) The cross versus the computer and Father Loyola versus printouts from some sort of scientific instrument -- what better selction of images could be chosen by a literary artist like Arthur C. Clarke to emphasize the contrast between the values of religion and the values of science?

What really gives serious value to "The Star," however, is Clarke's portrayal of the narrator's internal struggle to reconcile the contradiction between his original view of the Star of Bethlehem as a hopeful symbol and his new view of what that star meant. 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 he looks at his crucifix now, he is afraid that now "it is no more than an empty symbol." (303) "How," he asks, "could [the destruction of a whole civilization] be reconciled with the mercy of God?" (307) Science has taken this man of God to "the point when even the deepest faith must falter." (307)

At the end of the story, it seems that the clever little sci-fi story with its skillful use of imagery and its surprising revelation about the Star of Bethlehem is forcing us to think about the way that our scientific knowledge about astronomy sometimes makes it hard for us to see a divine plan in nature. Athur C. Clarke's priest-narrator has become a symbol for all modern people who have ever had to struggle with the conflict between science and religion.

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