In the distant future, the Church has become a footnote in earth’s history. Its one remaining cathedral serves more frequently as a tourist attraction than a place of worship. The 29-year-old bishop, Peter, carries a ridiculously long collection of grand-sounding titles representing defunct denominations, but he worries that his primary role will be to bury the last remaining Christians. After another of his members is killed in an attack by one of the nihilistic suicide bombers called Denunciators (“nuns” for short), Bishop Peter considers that the congregation is down to eleven members, fewer than even Jesus had. The tiny group doesn’t seem to stand a chance at survival, much less growth.
But one day, an unusual young woman calling herself “Sophia” pitches her tent on the cathedral’s doorstep, and both Peter and his flock find themselves unexpectedly transformed by the encounter.
J.F. Alexander is writer-in-residence at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in San Jose. He was raised in the Texas panhandle and earned degrees from Austin College (my alma mater also), Tufts University Fletcher School, and Stanford Law School. He was a Newbigin fellow in theology, and has worked in the fields of law, business, and NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Alexander brings various aspects of his study and experience into dialogue with a science fiction novel that wrestles with theology. This may not really be a stretch. Science fiction lends itself to an exploration of bigger questions in a way that readers from a humanistic or faith context can both engage.
Our more secular society has for a couple of centuries been fascinated and maybe increasingly disillusioned with what once seemed an endlessly hopeful vision of science. Can humanity solve its societal and personal challenges, though, by reprogramming “problematic” people’s brains or by starting over on other planets? Will there still be a role for religious faith and practice in the future, or will the Church become a museum exhibit?
My perception of the novel’s weaker points are that it sometimes doesn’t seem to trust the reader enough to put things together and can over-explain. At points, the dialogue feels more like a treatise or philosophical essay, with the characters just there to voice it.
Some of its strengths are its exploration of theodicy and human relationships. I was moved by the sensitivity and insight around a scene involving a sexual assault, which functions as a crucifixion event. Bishop Peter experiences transformation at the intersection of his love for Sophia and his pain at what he initially perceives as betrayal. He later realizes he misjudged what he saw, and apologizes, not only for failing to show compassion for her suffering, but also for centering his own pain and blaming her for that as well. This passage challenged me consider how, in railing at God or at another person from the place of my own pain, I often have no awareness or even curiosity of what’s happening inside anyone else. This moves the problem of pain out of a self-focused framing into a larger, more complex and ultimately more hopeful vision.
I Am Sophia delves into ageless issues along with a more modern fascination for space exploration, in the face of existential concerns for the future of the Church, humanity, and the earth itself. Its message is one of hope. Alexander clearly loves the Church and has confidence in our future while also offering critique of our tendencies toward self-preservation over mission and compassion.
The Rev. Tracie Middleton is a deacon residing in Beaumont, Texas and is currently President of the Association for Episcopal Deacons and a Crisis Intervention Coordinator for the Rape and Suicide Crisis Center of Southeast Texas. She is a graduate of Austin College and Lamar University and attended the Iona School for Ministry in the Diocese of Texas.