Waterloo native sees science fiction as way to evangelize
By Dan Russo
DES MOINES — A deacon with roots in the Archdiocese of Dubuque is aiming to use science fiction to expose as many people as possible to the Christian message, while entertaining them at the same time.
“I think fiction offers a great opportunity to reach out to the secular world and nonbelievers and expose them to belief and spiritual thought,” said Deacon Thomas Starbuck of the Diocese of Des Moines.
Drawing on the examples of Jesus, who utilized parables to teach, and Catholic writers like J.R.R. Tolkien, who revolutionized the fantasy genre, the deacon recently became a published author with his first novel called “Deadly Ground,” that he co-wrote with author Judy Belshe-Toernblom.
The plot centers on the character “AB.” Due to a genetic anomaly, the man is one of the only survivors of a virus that wipes out most of humanity. The book tells the story of his search for other survivors. The decisions AB makes along the way completely readjust his thinking and his perspectives on what is left, and the new world.
“(AB) is not a religious person, but he’s deeply spiritual,” explained Deacon Starbuck. “After all the ups and downs, he understands that peace comes from a higher authority. (The book is) about being persistent in faith.”
Before Deacon Starbuck began writing the odyssey of AB, he engaged in his own unique journey of faith. Born and raised in Waterloo, the deacon is a graduate of Columbus Catholic High School. His brother, Father Jim Starbuck, is known to many for his work assisting at parishes and leading retreats around the Archdiocese of Dubuque.
After high school, Deacon Starbuck attended Drake University in Des Moines for a while, before volunteering for the Marine Corps in 1969. He served in parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam. Throughout his young adult life, even when far from home, he continued to stay connected to his faith.
“Any time Mass was available, I took advantage of it,” he said of his time in the military.
The deacon completed his education and was married to wife Marge after leaving the Marines. For a time, he worked selling artwork through his own business and then transitioned into the financial services industry, retiring in 2009 after 32 years in the field.
Deacon Starbuck began to hear the call to the diaconate in 1988 after witnessing a deacon preach at his parish in Des Moines. He attended an information session after Mass as a result of the encouragement of his wife.
“It was kind of a very abrupt moment in my life,” recalled Deacon Starbuck. “I thought I could do this.”
Since being ordained in 1993, Deacon Starbuck has assisted with the sacraments, faith formation and other endeavors in the church. He is currently a member of St. Anthony Parish in Des Moines. His initial inspiration for the science fiction story came in the early 2000s while he was fulfilling one of the obligations of a deacon.
“As a deacon, I am required to engage in an annual personal retreat, and that is where it all began — while returning from my annual retreat at Conception Abbey (in Missouri), at a time when the SARS and Bird Flu pandemic viruses were detected in the Far East, I began formulating a storyline whereby an untreatable airborne virus was initially discovered in Africa and rapidly spread globally wiping out all primate life on Earth,” recalled the deacon. “It was in the process of developing my main character, AB, I realized he needed to have a unique feature, which would allow him to escape the ravages of this vicious strain of virus. It was around that time I remembered having seen a documentary on a unique genetic condition referred to as being a chimera. A chimera is a condition whereby twins are incarnated but only one of them develops to maturity retaining both distinct sets of DNA. The premise is that for whatever reason, God saw fit to give AB the responsibility of being the second Adam and to restart the human race.”
Deacon Starbuck initially wanted to create a pilot for television, so he teamed up with Judy Belshe-Toernblom, a professional screenwriter, to create the script. Over time, the writers found that they were having trouble getting funding for an independent production of the show, so they decided to convert the story into a novel.
The book was reviewed and accepted by a Christian publisher. It was officially released in April 2018. Since then Deacon Starbuck has been part of several panel discussions for Iowa authors and other events. The novel is available wherever books are sold. He and his writing partner are now contemplating a sequel.
“I believe my faith in an all loving God’s grace and blessings, a positive karma and some serendipity along the way all truly factored into my journey of becoming a published author,” reflected the deacon.