In the last three years, I’ve seen three movies in the theater. I share that to say, I’m not an avid moviegoer. But for reasons of cultural interest and paternal pressure, my sons and I have gone to see the last three Star Wars in the theater. And thus, I offer a belated reflection on the movie.
Only, I will not commend or critique Rian Johnson and his interpretation of the Star Wars canon. I am not nerdy enough, I mean, knowledgeable enough to do that. Rather, I want to make a few observations about the whole movie going experience and how a family-friendly movie is far from faith-building unless coupled with intentional, proactive biblical reflection. (This isn’t a scree against movie going, but a call for biblical reflection on all things, especially watching movies).
Three Looming Threats to the Christian Worldview
Stepping out of dark theater into the cold sunlight on the day after Christmas, my head spun with galactic laser beams and forceful plot twists brought on by The Last Jedi. Still, I couldn’t help but think of three other things that happened in the movie—actually, before the movie—that caused me greater concern. These three things are, I believe, common to all movie going these days and deserve thoughtful reflection if we take seriously the call to make disciples and bring every thought captive to Jesus Christ. Here they are:
1. ‘All’ the trailers previewed movies with a spiritual or supernatural storyline.
Like Star Wars itself, whose pantheism shines brightly in The Last Jedi, spirituality and supernaturalism filled the previews. Jurassic World, Alita, A Wrinkle in Time, Annihilation, Avengers: Infinity War tapped into various supernatural, paranormal, technological, or spiritual themes. If it were just one film among the previews, it would be one thing. It would be like seeing a single motorcycle traveling down the street. However, like in a motorcycle rally, when movie-after-movie all come displaying super-human elements, something else is going on.
In fact, this was made all the more striking when the only human interest story (at least that I remember) was 15:17 to Paris, the amazing true story of American soldiers who stood up to terrorists on a French train. Yet, even here the movie is made to be hyper-real, as the movie is played by the actual heroes from the train. More than just a “based on a true story” movie, the producers have again ratcheted up the intensity by including the heroes on the train. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but it must be observed how it fits into a predictable pattern—to overcome the malaise, every movie must feed the moviegoer with more action, better graphics, more nudity, or more something—hence, the profusion of the supernatural.
The effects of consuming such movies without vigilant reflection is not benign. In fact, because of the way our world is trained by the screen, such a canon of movies catechizes the moviegoer to be open to spiritual things, while posturing them to reject or question the one God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
2. The Google Pixel 2 wants to be your iGod.
Before the trailers came the commercials. And just like the trailers, these too pound a worldview. Don’t believe me watch this commercial.
In this phone commercial, Google steps up to the plate to unseat the iPhone from its technological throne. And in short order, it touts a phone that is more like the all-knowing computer on the Starship Enterprise than a phone. Only, the new phone goes even further. Instead of just giving mechanical information, the commercial portrays the “phone” as offering assistance to know what you want before you want it.
What? When did a phone become so all-knowing? But that’s just the point. This phone is not a phone. It is a god who will make you happy. In fact, this is the whole selling point. This phone will do more than help you stay in touch or raise your productivity, it will make your life quantifiable happier.
This promise cannot be fulfilled by a piece of metal. Only a piece of metal raised to the level of an idol—see Isaiah 44—can make this appeal. Already, we’ve known cell phones can become idols. But what was shocking here is the way Google is purposefully marketing its phone as an idol—whether its buyers can perceive that or not.
3. Human-android romance will come through the movies.
To be honest, the supernatural nature of movies is to be expected and the blatant idolatry of the Google Pixel 2 is not surprising. What floored me, however, was the introduction of romantic interest in the movie Alita: Battle Angel.
Here again we find a futuristic movie replete with artificial intelligence (AI). AI has been in the news and now it comes to the movies—well, it has been for a long time. But now, as advocates of transhumanism keep pressing the bounds of robotic dolls, we find in the movies plausibility structures for what portends to be a very dangerous step in the future—namely, the romantic interaction between humans and non-humans.
In Alita: Battle Angel, the main character who goes by the same name is not “completely human.” As her name suggests and trailer portrays, she is the creation of man, “a battle angel”—whatever that is—who will end up, it seems, fighting a whole ‘race’ of android creatures. Again, I don’t know the storyline, but that’s not my point. My point is that in the storyline there is a romantic relationship between Alita and another young man, and in the trailer as they move in for a kiss, ‘she’ asks: “Does it matter that I’m not completely human?”
Well, that’s the question. And if we have learned anything from the history of science fiction—what is on screen in one decade will be in our pockets in the next—this is not a theoretical or theatrical question. Rather, with the ever increasing creation and, dare I say, normalization of androids—just see the kids program Annedroids—we can see in this movie how romantic relationships with non-humans will be advanced. It won’t be logical, scientific arguments that acculturate romantic relations with androids; it will be movies like this.
What Habakkuk and Haggai Have to Say to the Modern Movie(goer)
Are you depressed yet? I hope so and yet I hope not. While our world continues to offer counter-narratives and material alternatives to the God of the Bible, the truths of the Bible are unchanged. God still reigns supreme, and we have great reason to hope. Yet, observations like this unmask how easily we can be ensnared by falsehood. Going to the movies is not, and never was, a safe way to relax. Rather, entering the movies calls for the heaviest worldview artillery. And thus, it calls us to go to the movies with our minds continually renewed by the Scriptures.
Interestingly, that’s what happened when I watched and not by any pre-planned operation. In God’s providence, my daily reading gave me Habakkuk on the same day I watched Star Wars. Amazingly, God’s ancient words proved once again to be ever true—not to mention relevant to watching Star Wars. So, I share how this minor prophet and another one (Haggai) teaches us how to watch the movies and engage our world.
1. God’s story of redemption contains a greater display of glory than any movie ever can.
Ask yourself: Why do Marvel Comics and all the other super hero brands have to keep increasing the intensity of their movies? It used to be a single victorious protagonist satisfied the audience, but now it requires a whole team of superheroes. Or, taken from another angle, Why do theaters have to keep offering more options, more specials, more food, and more 3-D? Because, just like pornography, each experience requires a greater high the get the same “effect’ next time.
Indeed, this is the principle of diminishing returns and evidence that God created humanity to be satisfied by himself alone. Therefore, it is not accidental that the Bible is a story, a master narrative that unfolds over centuries, involves millions of people, covers vast geographic locales, includes the greatest Enemy and enemies, centers on a superlative ‘romance’—Christ dying for his bride—and finishes with the greatest come from behind victory imaginable. Indeed, every other story pales in comparison and plagiarizes God’s Script(ures).
In Habakkuk and Haggai we see this clearly—both in the power of the enemy and the greater power of God. First, in Habakkuk 1 the LORD speaks of the Chaldeans and their immense military might. He reveals to the prophet how he, the holy God, will use the army of Babylon to destroy the wickedness of his own people. Verses 5–11 bespeak a battle scene greater than anything James Cameron has conceived. Sure, Cameron’s medium (cinema) is more exciting to our visual tastes, but don’t miss the action of these verses. Whereas this scene is akin to the climax of a Cameron pic, this is but one episode in God’s yet-to-be-completed story. And we should read it accordingly.
In fact, this is exactly what we get in the Prophets. While Habakkuk tells the disappointing loss of Jerusalem’s glory at the hands of the idolatrous Babylonians, Haggai as one example speaks of the Lord’s glory returning. Haggai 2:6–9 says
For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’ ”
What is more powerful than this—for the God of Israel to so control the nations that he uses the Babylonians to destroy his people, only to return centuries later and bring salvation to his people. And why? So that his glory might stand on the earth.
Are you getting the picture yet? Hollywood can’t match the story-telling power of God. And, even more, all that God does is imminently real. While movies tempt us to escape; the Word of God teaches us to engage. It empowers us to learn a new way of life and then it empowers to live that life out. Still, this only happens when we pull away from movies long enough to inhabit a different set of stories, the one true story of God.
2. While Google beckons us to call on its phone for everything, God invites us into his temple, to be still and live.
Again, going back to Habakkuk we see again how the ancient prophet speaks with modern relevance. In context, he reveals how the victory of the Chaldeans will come to nothing. Whereas God permits them to conquer his rebellious children, their pride will be their downfall. Therefore, in chapter 2 Yahweh calls Habakkuk to pronounce a series of “woes,” concluding with these words,
What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. (vv. 18–19).
What words would be more fitting for the voice-led pieces of metal in our pockets? Yet, Habakkuk is not done. He contrasts this condemnation of man-made idols with the presence and peacefulness of God in his temple: “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (v. 20).
While every phone beckons us to speak to it in order to make it come alive, the Lord calls us to be still before him and listen. Since the fall, it is the human temptation to justify ourselves with our speech and to use our words to save, satisfy, or secure ourselves. But in truth, such speaking only grows tired. By contrast, the God who speaks and who has spoken the world into existence, beckons us to come and lay our words aside. He calls us to be still, to listen, and to hear his good and loving words.
In truth, Google only provides IT support to morgue. It cannot give life to the dead, however. Only God can do that. And though the rising forms of technology, especially information technology, will tempt us to ‘think’ we can make a better world. Habakkuk and the rest of the Prophets teach us: this world is going to be shaken beyond repair and only those who dwell in the safety of God’s temple will find life.
Don’t be deceived. No phone can make you happy; it will either amplify your life or your death. But God is able to raise the dead and give life through his word. But this requires closing our ears to the sirens of the cinema, in order to listen to him and adore.
3. No matter what the future holds, God remains in control.
The thought of cyborgs, androids, and human-nonhuman relations is most apocalyptic and frightening to me. And yet, Habakkuk again speaks comfort to my soul.
In the face of imminent destruction for his nation, his home, and his God’s dwelling, Habakkuk settles into trust in the Lord (2:4). And more amazingly, he finds soul satisfaction in the God who gives and takes away. In chapter 3, he prays for God to remember mercy in the midst of his wrath (3:2). Instead of resisting God’s plan or falling into a state of denial, he accepts the perilous fate of his people, and he clings to the God whom his nation has abandoned.
In this step of faith, he glories in the greatness of God, reminding himself of the glory of God in the midst of his wrath (3:3–16), and he concludes with this prayer of trust,
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
Once again, his words apply well to our age.
We don’t know what the future holds. The technology of AI is growing and few are the restraints in culture that would stand against the push for human-nonhuman relations. Indeed, for all the ethical challenges we face with transgenderism today, it is not too much to say that soon we will have to contend with even more unnatural romantic interests.
Still, in those cases, God still reigns. His character remains unchanged. And his people can trust in him. This is what Habakkuk had to learn. And it is what we must learn. Yet, such learning will only come as we sit at the feet of the Prophets and push back against our culture.
Watching the Movies with the Prophets
Pushing back doesn’t mean withdrawal from culture, but it does mean that we can casually pick up our popcorn to sit back and passively take in a movie. In truth, those days never really existed. Only now, we can see it more clearly.
We must, instead, go to the movies with Habakkuk and Haggai and all the Prophets speaking in our ears. Only then will we be ready to watch the movies and not become enmeshed in their snares. At the same, by spending ample time in the Prophets, we might just discover that the Good Book is a far better place to spend 3 hours on a Saturday.
After all, with the coming complexities of our world and opposition coming from its leaders, we will need all the help we get take to walk faithfully. To that end, may watch carefully the movies on the silver screen. And instead, may we give ourselves to the Prophets and all the Scripture so that by endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Photo by Conner Murphy on Unsplash