Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Friday, December 02, 2005

Aliens and Advent

I was one of the first customers to score the new War Of The Worlds DVD from Netflix this week and we watched it tonight. Anybody else disappointed?

And yet something about the movie sticks with me. I think it has more to do with the story than with this most current telling of it. Maybe I expected too much from the duo of Spielberg and Cruise after enjoying Minority Report so much. This version does better when it approaches things with a detached, epic disaster-movie feel; humans trapped like ants, being destroyed by forces beyond their control. When it starts to focus on people, letting them talk, things start to get ugly. Let's face it, Tom Cruise has spent too much time inhabiting his charismatic Top Gun persona to be convincing as a loser dad. And Dakota Fanning is hardly believable as a human. She's TOO precocious, too mature, too prescient, and has too much presence to come off as more than a realistic special effect. Then there's the guy that plays Cruise's son. He probably does a fine job, but his character is poorly written and annoying. I don't believe ANYTHING he does. He is inserted into the weak script to provide convenient conflict, transparent emotional manipulation, and a shameful warm fuzzy at the end.

I'm usually drawn to character-driven movies, but this one is at its best when it's clinical. To be sure, there are some great Spielbergian scenes: the river of death, the train, most of the Tim Robbins basement sequence (although part of it is a reworked Jurassic Park raptor-in-the-kitchen scene, and Robbins' character himself is a contrived annoyance). But by far the most powerful scenes are one of human helplessness, where people are hunted and slaughtered by an unstoppable malevolent force. Those were powerful to me, not because of any pornographic need for bloodshed, or of any lingering junior high sense of what's cool, but because it serves as a reminder. This story is still being told 107 years after being written because it reminds us that in spite of our need for an illusion of control over our lives, we are in a cosmic sense, helpless. We surround ourselves with stuff and technology to make our lives stable and safe, but one alien-induced burst of electro-magnetic energy (or one earthquake, or hurricane, or tsunami), and we lose those things, we are lost. Sometimes the realization that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control is as threatening as the force that stripped us of our illusion in the first place.

I preached on the first Sunday of Advent the sheer unbelievable-ness of a God who would come and be with us, of a God who would dirty himself to associate with us. A God like that is not unheard of outside scripture, but the manner in which Jesus did it is mind-blowing. Zeus occasionally came down off Mt. Olympus, but only as a powerful warrior, impervious to any human threats against him, unable to be hurt. He only came in power, knowing that he would be safe anywhere he went. But not Jesus. Jesus lived for nine months inside a human. He was born an infant, simply incomprehensible. I have a ten month old daughter. She's amazing to me, but she would die within hours if not for the care of her mother and I. She is not powerful; in fact, she is so very delicate, so very easily injured. My three year old might last a matter of days on her own, but she too would die if not cared for. If I don't wrap her in the walls of our house and carry her where she can't go, and hold her hand as we cross the street...the world would crush her. She is not protected, except by her parents. Jesus threw off not just the power of the creator of the universe, but also the power to protect himself, and placed himself in the care of humans. It didn't have to be this way, but he came in a form where viruses could make him ill, where splinters could get infected, and where a whip wouldn't just bounce harmlessly off his back, but instead would shred and tear. He gave up not just comfort and security, but also invincibility...he gave up the reality of the illusion we strive for so mightily.

We may convince ourselves we are invincible and in control by molding and shaping our bodies to be strong and powerful. But a simple gunshot can relieve us of that fantasy. Most of us do it by acquiring plenty of stuff and technology, which boils down to money. Want to know why we live in a disgracefully materialistic society? Our stuff gives us the illusion of control. We surround ourselves with it for security. The bigger the house, the larger the SUV, the more state-of-the-art technology, the more impenetrable we feel. And War Of The Worlds illustrates what happens when we lose all that. We fall on the mercy of a mysterious other (this story also serves as a metaphor and condemnation of imperialism, looking at it from the losing side), and suddenly the always-available supplies of food, water, electricity, and other comforts are cut off. We can almost envision those for whom the alien death ray would be a welcome release from living (like much of the world does) without those things we take for granted. This story exposes the illusion for what it really is. We are so helpless that only God can get us through, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

At the end of the movie, humans prevail, sort of. But even that just illustrates our true impotence. Those who subdued us and met every force we threw at them, are subdued by the smallest and most inconsequential organisms on the planet: bacteria. The irony is almost biblical. Just like the coming of Jesus, when the power of sin threatened to destroy us...we were saved by the powerless, the unimportant, the vulnerable...a baby.


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