One of the reasons science fiction is a cinematic genre with enormous potential to shape the imaginations of viewers is that it can explore mysteries that are normally out of reach within the horizons of ordinary dramas. Those who tend to be dismissive of science fiction are revealing more about their class prejudices than they are about their literary or intellectual discernment.
It’s possible for characters to speculate about the nature of time over morning coffee, for example, but it’s difficult to turn time itself into the drama. Flashbacks, flash forwards, and other such techniques can give the appearance of playing with time, but in the end the viewer can sort out the time-line of the story, always set in normal chronological time.
Edge of Tomorrow, the newest adventure starring Tom Cruise, actually plays with the nature of time itself. Earth is invaded by an alien that learn as a day proceeds, and can reboot that day to take advantage of what it has learned. It can never be defeated, since it can always refight every battle with the knowledge it needs to be victorious. But then the unexpected happens: an ordinary human soldier inadvertently slips into the alien’s time loop. He too can learn in his defeat, and then be booted repeatedly to live the same day over. If you are thinking Groundhog Day (1993) meets the apocalypse, you won’t be far off.
There is a lot going for Edge of Tomorrow. Apocalyptic stories are popular. There is some strong acting: Emily Blunt (as Rita), Brendan Gleeson (General Brigham), and Bill Paxton (Master Sergeant Farell) play their roles brilliantly. The first third of the film reveals the director didn’t take things too seriously, including scenes and dialogue that made me laugh aloud. The film has the quality of an exciting video game, with endless possibilities to reboot and eventually win. And the mystery of time is attractive even if we do not have a philosophical bent. We live in time, fit in it as creatures, yet yearn to be free of it, worrying about wasting it, wishing there were a few more hours in our day, or that we could “do it over” and this time keep from screwing things up so badly.
Sadly, Edge of Tomorrow is a failure as a film. There is simply too much that is so implausible that it became difficult for me to buy into the plot. Cruise, as Major Cage, sports an unkempt haircut that no military unit would tolerate. Worse, after being tasered by MPs while being arrested for refusing General Brigham’s order he comes back to consciousness lying on a pile of duffle bags in the middle of huge, sprawling military base. Now, I haven’t been in the military nor tasered nor arrested by MPs, but somehow Cage’s end point doesn’t strike me as likely. Major Cage is a combat novice, volunteering to do PR for the army so he wouldn’t need to fight, yet soon becomes a warrior of legend. Aliens are tricky beasts, but this one was utterly unbelievable, able to reboot time but consisting of metallic squid-like fighters telepathically linked to a huge underwater glob pulsing with light. It would have been far better to show nothing at all. And the movie’s happy ending is not that the human race is saved (by Cruise/Cage, of course) but that he is now free to romance Rita.
So, you might be asking, why write so much about a film I am not really recommending? The reason is I believe the mysteries of reality—like time—are one of what Charles Taylor calls a “cross-pressure” for our secular age. When the default position is to find all meaning, morality, and fulfillment within a worldview that discounts the existence of God, such mysteries tend to haunt human beings, bringing a whispered hint that perhaps there is some slight possibility that the transcendent is real. That what we believe to be impossible and implausible might in fact be true.
The difficulty, from a Christian perspective, is that at a time when our culture needs to explore such things, much of the church is incapable of entering the conversation. The primary reason, it seems to me, is that we tend to think wrongly about God. We think of him as a separate being, out there, known by us to be spirit, absolute truth and righteousness, from everlasting the same. Our difficulty is that we imagine we have a handle on what God is because we interact with other beings all the time, so we are familiar with beings and comfortable with them. God is simply bigger than all other beings—indeed he is the very biggest of all. As David Bentley Hart points out in The Experience of God, however, this imagining is actually closer to believing in the ancient Greek notion of a demiurge than it is the biblical idea of God. We don’t mean to, but our thinking about God is simply too limiting, and limited.
“God is eternal,” Hart insists, “not in the sense of possessing limitless duration but in the sense of transcending time altogether. Time is the measure of finitude, of change, of the passage from potentiality to actuality. God, however, being infinite actual being, is necessarily what Sikhism calls the Akhal Purukh, the One beyond time, comprehending all times within his eternal ‘now’; all things are present to him eternally in a simple act of perfect and immediate knowledge” (p. 136). As God told Moses, he is the “I am.” Our error comes when we try to grasp this and end up situating God’s infinity in the flow of time that we experience and know. So, for example, events separated in time, we assume, must be simultaneous with God. But, Hart says, they are not “really ‘simultaneous’ with God at all—he has no time to be simultaneous with” (p. 137). To experience events as simultaneous is to experience them in time, just at the same time. But God transcends time altogether. Or consider the notion of choice, such as God’s decision to create in the beginning. We experience the freedom to choose as an event in the flow of time, but must not translate that to God. “His freedom,” Hart says, can be understood as consisting not in some temporal act of decision that overcomes some prior state of indecision, but in the infinite liberty with which he manifest himself in the creation he wills from everlasting” (p. 139).
That this is difficult to comprehend should not surprise us, since we are finite creatures talking about an infinite God. The fact that we are unfamiliar with such notions should suggest that perhaps our thinking about God has become so simplistic as to be unworthy of belief, to say nothing of being unworthy of God. And the infinity of God suggest we might have reason to believe that Christianity provides a singularly satisfying account of reality and its mysteries—so satisfying that it staggers the imagination.
Time and the mysteries it presents to finite creatures are indeed signals or hints of transcendence, and so will naturally appear in the stories we tell that try to make sense of life and reality. Some of those stories will be better than others, but the topic will always be a great place to begin a conversation about the things that matter most.
Edge of Tomorrow (directed by Doug Limon, U.S.A., 113 minutes; 2014. Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material.)
One way to think about art is to understand it as an attempt to use human creativity to help us see life and reality with greater clarity. Which is why setting aside time for unhurried visits to art museums and galleries is so essential to growth towards maturity. All the elements that come together in the visual arts—color, form, line, shape, depth, composition, light—are reflections on aspects of creation that somehow reflect the goodness of the Creator who called them into being as good gifts for his creatures. Just as God is the final source of Truth so is he the ultimate spring of Glory, and believing one is more essential than the other is to place our preferences over his revelation of himself. God’s revelation of truth is glorious, and his glory is true, world without end.
Just as some aspects of truth are difficult to capture with words and arguments, some aspects of life and reality are so difficult to capture in art as to seem impossible: the flow of time, air, water; things that are real yet transient and ephemeral; living shapes in inanimate materials. Enter Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who lives in Scotland and whose work is lovingly embedded in nature even when it appears in urban settings.
It is never easy to describe art in words. “Writing about art,” comedian, actor and painter Martin Mull noted, “is like dancing about architecture.” You can do it, and it can even be full of insight but the best plan is to simply receive the art itself. And if it difficult to write about art in general, the problem is compounded when talking about Goldsworthy’s art because often he is interested in capturing something that is natural.
One good way to approach Goldsworthy’s work is in Rivers and Tides, a documentary film that simply follows the artist so we can watch him create and listen to him reflect on what he is doing. It also allows us a lovely glimpse into the creative process, at least as Goldsworthy experiences it, that is both accessible to non-visual artists as well as a fine study, for Christian viewers, of what it means to demonstrate one essential aspect of being made in the image of God.
Goldsworthy makes his living by commissions, teaching, and by photographing his most ephemeral works to allow us to see them when they are too remote and too temporary for viewers to experience. The fact that he uses such simple, ordinary materials to produce such stunning pieces of art, and that his appreciation for nature is so unpretentious and tender is enough to render me speechless and grateful.
I recommend Rivers and Tides to you
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time, directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer (2001, 90 minutes). Available on DVD and on YouTube.
Philosopher Charles Taylor has spent a lifetime of careful study unpacking the meaning and development of secularism. One of the things he demonstrates in A Secular Age (2007) is that one of the most common assumptions about modern secularism is, in fact, so completely erroneous as to constitute a myth. Yet, it continues to be believed, and has assumed such mythic value that to question it can elicit surprise if not shock.
The assumption involved is what Taylor refers to as “subtraction stories.” The idea is that previous generations, as they became more enlightened and educated, shed unfashionable and increasingly untenable beliefs about demons, miracles, virgin births and other propositions that science had revealed to be dubious. This process of subtracting traditional and unproven beliefs allowed people to get back to a view of reality that was simply natural and obvious—and entirely secular. Taylor says that’s not the way it happened.
James K. A. Smith, in How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (2014), defines it this way:
Subtraction stories Accounts that explain “the secular” as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. In contrast, Taylor emphasizes that the secular is produced, not just distilled (p. 143)
Near the beginning of A Secular Age, Taylor puts the issue this way:
I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. (p. 22)
The significance of this is considerable.
The myth involved in subtraction stories suggests that secularity is the more primordial view of things, what human beings would tend to believe if they were allowed to come to their beliefs without outside interference from parents and preachers. As Taylor demonstrates, this can be shown to be untrue in a careful reading of the history of ideas. So, the ideas and assumptions that led to modern secularism can be examined, must be examined, and must not be assumed to be more natural or obvious than religious beliefs.
Another implication of this involves having confidence that the simple call to faithfulness for Christians—opening our lives and homes in warm welcome, giving the gift of unhurried time, sharing simple meals and conversation, listening and asking questions, probing into what our neighbors believe and why, providing safe places for people to be honest—remains radically countercultural even in our secular world. Christian faith is not contrary to humanness. The advent of advanced modernity does not mean only philosophers can bear witness to the vibrancy and relevance of the gospel.
Every believer will not need to work through the 850 pages of dense argument presented in A Secular Age. Only a few of us need to do that. I would, however, encourage Christians to work through the 143 pages of How (Not) to be Secular, because the ideas presented here, though seemingly abstract, actually touch on what it means to live in the secular world of advanced modernity.
Child of God (1973) is Cormac McCarthy’s most disturbing book, and the film is hard to watch. The story is of Lester Ballard (played with an uninhibited intensity by Scott Haze) who, deeply traumatized, marginalized and disturbed descends into increasingly violent depravity. We first meet Lester when an auctioneer, accompanied by a band and pickups full of eager buyers and on-lookers pull up into his family’s farm that has been repossessed by the county and now is to be sold off. “To watch these things issuing from the otherwise mute pastoral morning is a man at the barn door,” McCarthy writes. “He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps” (p. 4).
James Franco, who directed the film, co-wrote the screenplay and plays a minor role, makes certain we hear that description of Lester. That is good because it is the essence of what McCarthy is trying to say to a culture that wants so badly to be hopeful about the promise of future technological, economic and educational advances and finds that to maintain that hope it needs to explain away the evil and brutality that maddeningly will not disappear quietly into the past of human history.
I can’t simply recommend this film, since it is far too raw and brutal for that, a story of murder, rape and necrophilia that like the novel is determined that we face human depravity in all its horror. Some will want to watch this film, and for the rest there are good reasons to decline. Though the film is unfortunately choppy (due to the editing), it contains some very strong performances—by Scott Haze as Lester Ballard and Tim Blake Nelson as the sheriff—that may garner attention if not awards. The landscapes, sets, and cinematography are also remarkable, so that the rough rural woods, small towns and hollows of East Tennessee seem to take on a darkly foreboding cast. As usually occurs when novels and made into films, a key scene in the book is skipped in the movie, a flood that becomes a metaphor for divine judgment.
Watch the film with care. It speaks truth, though the truth it depicts is neither pleasant nor easy. I hope Child of God prompts my non-Christian neighbors will think deeply about the human dilemma and about how the stubborn existence of evil in human affairs and hearts will not be solved by reorganizing society, expanding opportunity, and providing treatment. A far more radical solution is needed. And I hope my Christian neighbors will join me in reassessing how easily we reduce evil to embarrassing sins rather than owning it as the deadly power that seeks, every moment, to devour our souls and fill us with darkness.
- Denis Haack
- Good conversation and a leisurely meal, shared over fine dark ale, is a precious gift. We can't sit and talk in our living room at Toad Hall, so this will have to do. I am a generalist, interested in almost everything, and my posts reflect that. I cherish your comments, for or against.
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