Faith and Film and a Fan of Sci-Fi

I do not regard myself as a movie-buff, by any means.  I watch movies but most of the time I only have the energy for a brightly colored Marvel romp or some kind of comedy that makes all of my children fold over in laughter.  Thoughtful, philosophical works of art that explore perennial human themes and questions, cinematographic genius that tell and retell our collective stories and longings – this sounds wonderful but I need something that I can fold the clothes to.  Nevertheless, in spite of this … or maybe because of this, I am looking forward to our Faith and Film festival this year.  This year will be my first time and the organizers are even letting me moderate one of our post-film discussions.  See you there!

Because my family life generally dictates my movie choices, I rarely get to indulge in one of my favorite genres, science fiction.  By science fiction, I don’t just mean space stuff.  Star Wars etc. are fun frolics but there is very little science in that fiction (midi-chlorians?—are you kidding?).  They are just cowboy movies in space which always comes down to a fist-fight on a bridge.  No, I like the old 2001 Space Odyssey kind of science fiction movie … ponderous, long, scholarly and metaphysical. It’s probably no wonder that I only get to watch these by myself on airplanes, when I’m traveling to and from conferences.

Last year, I got to watch Ad Astra on an American Airlines ride. It was a visually beautiful movie (even though I had to watch it on a small screen on the back of a plane seat), following the tradition of the clean technological aesthetic that Stanley Kubrick perfected for the genre. And like 2001 Space Odyssey, the quotidian, get-the-job-done ethos of the protagonist is set against the background of massive themes of meaning and purpose. Science fiction, because it inevitably pushes the viewer back to a perspective of incomprehensible proportion inherent in cosmic space and time, tends to problematize the traditional, religious answers to these questions even as it raises mysterious new possibilities beyond the mere secular. In Ad Astra, however, this is accentuated by a surprising inversion. All of the scientists are explicitly religious/Christian and even the goals of science itself are expressed in such terms. Only the protagonist, Roy (Brad Pitt) seems secular. In many ways, the entire movie is a riff on Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” musings.

On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 took one last picture of earth before leaving our solar system. At about 4 billion miles away, our planet appeared smaller than a pixel, just a pale blue point of light in the middle of a scattered ray of sunlight. Commenting on this image, Sagan writes:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Ad Astra is a fitting parable to Sagan’s sermon. Yet to convincingly portray the  “we are all we’ve got” narrative, the movie must borrow and invade the Christian narrative to sell its arguments for secularism. Subverted themes of redemption abound throughout, (I won’t offer spoilers here) but the moral conclusion—to receive the world and our relationships to one another as a gift—is expressed nearly as the participatory lex Christi of Galatians 6:2. The final lines of the film: “ … and I will share their burdens, as they share mine … I will live and love.” It is a beautiful conclusion, but to sustain it, to support it, the secular needs saving. The Christian story of redemption must infuse it which, ironically, defeats its own secular logic.  As others smarter than I have said, secularism is truly a Christian heresy.

Be that as it may, for me science fiction continues to channel our aches and longings even if it is not solid enough to satisfy them.  For that reason, such movies continue to be a medium for meeting each other and, perhaps, open up a path to meet the One who will truly “save us from ourselves.”

Erik Herrmann

Dr. Erik Herrmann is professor of Historical Theology, dean of Theological Research and Publications and director of the Center for Reformation Research at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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