Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prometheus and the Christian God

I wrote the following  for The Dialogue, the newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.

            Over the weekend, I saw the new movie Prometheus, which if you didn’t know is a sort of prequel to the classic 1981 science fiction/horror movie Alien.  The director of the 1981 film, Ridley Scott, returns to direct this new one.  Whereas the film 30 years ago was in many ways an exercise in simplicity (future astronauts inadvertently bring aboard an alien killing machine and then meet their demise in a claustrophobic space ship), the new film moves to the other end of the complexity spectrum and dares to ask all kinds of really big questions about life, existence, faith, the creation of the universe, etc.  In the end, I guess I found the movie unsatisfying, but it did leave me thinking and actually having interesting conversations about it, which is more than I can say for most Hollywood fare.   
            Director Ridley Scott is no stranger to using the genre of science fiction to ask questions about what it means to be human.  One of my favorite science fiction films is Scott’s 1982 film BladeRunner, in which organic robots called “replicants,” who are indistinguishable from human beings, try to find their creator.  To their dismay, the replicants (who are used for dangerous manual labor in space) discover they were made by a soulless corporation, and the CEO of that corporation views them as products not people.  [SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to start giving out details of Prometheus, so stop reading here if you don’t want to know those details.]  Similarly, in Prometheus another search is underway for a creator, but this time the ones doing the searching are humans.  Set in 2093, archaeologists have discovered ancient pictures of aliens, who apparently initiated the process of biological evolution on earth, and they set off across the stars to find the aliens who made us.
            The very first scene of the movie shows the aliens creating human life, and thus my disappointment began there.  As many movie critics have pointed out, ever since the publication of the book Chariots of the Gods? in the Sixties and the resulting 1970 “documentary” based on the book, it’s been a common sci-fi trope to talk about aliens inspiring ancient human civilizations, if not creating human life itself.  Chariots of the Gods? was ridiculed as “pseudo-history” and “science fiction pretending to be history,” but Hollywood saw an opportunity.  Probably the best example of aliens creating human civilization comes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey.  Of course, there was also the cheesy but oh-so-fun 1980’s TV show Battlestar Galactica which began with the narration: “Some believe that life down here. . . began out there.”  I seem to recall a bad sci-fi move Mission to Mars back in 2000 that had a similar plot point.  Who knows how many other films used the same device?  Prometheus is not exactly breaking new ground here.
            Trite science fiction plot points aside, Ridley Scott has biblical thoughts on his mind.  In a recent interview in Esquire, Scott remarks that his intentions were to address questions of human origins, God and creation.  He says, “I'm really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don't care who you are, it's what we all think about. It's in the back of all our minds.”  At least some of the film’s characters share Scott’s questions (at least the ones not inserted just to be gruesomely killed by aliens).  In Prometheus, the heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, wears a cross and we learn via flashback that her faith in God goes back to her believing father.  Shaw remains faithful even when it is confirmed that human life came from aliens.  When her boyfriend asks why she continues to wear the cross after finding out that aliens rather than God made humans, she replies by asking, “Yes, but who made them?”  Shaw is joined by a human-looking robot named David who seems keenly aware of the human emotions and desires he does not possess.  In one scene, David asks a scientist why he was created; the response: “Because we could.”  David offers the jarring rejoinder that perhaps the aliens created humans just “because they could.” 
            Prometheus may have been overdone, but the questions it wrestles with are real, namely does scientific inquiry reveal that we humans were made by an impersonal process rather than a personal God?  If so, what does that say about the worth and purpose of humanity?  What does it say about me?  The Christian response is that however God created the universe and humanity in particular (divine fiat, evolution, space aliens, etc.) such creation was done with love.  God loves the universe so much so that God came in Jesus Christ “to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20).  It is the fear that we are unloved and that our lives have no inherent purpose which drives so much of the Christian response to debates between science and religion.  This is unfortunate, because all kinds of awful things are done when people are afraid.  Besides, we are told in our scriptures that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  From the Christian perspective, this “perfect love” enables us not to fear what science discovers or even what science fiction dreams up, because we can, along with the father of Prometheus’  Elizabeth Shaw, “choose to believe” that we are loved by our Creator no matter the method of our creation. 
            Okay, I’ll confess that my experience of God’s “perfect love” may leave me unafraid of Prometheus’ plot point that humanity was created as a part of an alien race’s biology experiments, but it does little to stop me from screaming my head off when later in the film an alien bursts out of somebody’s stomach.  Some fears are unrelated to the meaning of existence, they’re just fun.
            Grace and Peace,

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