Thursday, June 11, 2015

O Tomorrow! O Tomorrow!

So, the future, according to Elon Musk, is that we will be living on Mars.  A one-way trip, but hey!  Living on Mars!

Right?  Away from all these people, where we can do what we want!  O, Pioneers!  Right?  (although actually, much, much closer to Forster's machine, except if the machine breaks down, life really does end.)

According to Ridley Scott and Andy Weir, if anything can go wrong on Mars, it will.  But still, a resolute individual will be a shining example of survival to us all (sort of like Elon Musk, only without the electric car).  And besides, there's a basic human instinct to help people in trouble, no matter who they are.  (Which is the most laughable part of that trailer.)

And then there's the question of Christian eschatology.  Not apocalyptic eschatology, but the effort to "engage today’s realities against the horizon of an ultimate divine future."  I connect the film and Elon Musk to this question through this:

Eschatological active. It demands engagement....This is not the case for Tomorrowland’s futurological optimism. In this Disney-world there are a select few who are chosen to go to Tomorrowland as the innovators who will shape our future. Our hope is in them. Our hope is that someone else will do the work needed to right the world’s wrongs. We can go about our business, confident that someone out there is doing what needs to be done. We can feel free to ignore what is causing those problems, to avoid asking who benefits because of them, and to neglect considering what it would take to fix them.

As in the film, when something momentous occurs, it won’t be on account of us. We, like them, will simply raise our smartphones and post pics. Doing something to change the world? That’s for the elites. For the chosen. Not for me.

Of course, the writers of Tomorrowland certainly mean for us to identify with the heroine. We are supposed to understand ourselves as one of the chosen, with a contribution of our own to make. However, the trope of the Chosen One in such stories always entails the fact that there are many more who are not chosen than who are, more who stay at home than who embark on the hero’s quest.

From a futurological perspective, this makes perfect sense. Building a better world is for those with requisite aptitude and training. From an eschatological perspective, though, this is anathema. The theology of active, worldly engagement that a critical eschatology extols takes its model from Jesus’ open invitation to all to turn toward and labor on behalf of the kingdom of God. All are charged with loving God with their whole hearts and minds and with loving their neighbors as themselves, which means that all carry the responsibility of contributing to the furthering of God’s eschatological mission.

There are to be no spectators.

In stark contrast, Tomorrowland exhorts us to take comfort in the existence of an elite cadre of gifted technologists who, among themselves and apart from most of us, will “make the world a better place.” This is a false messianism that short-circuits hope.

Eschatological hope, on the other hand, causes us to question our world without ceasing because we know that no human technology or system comes without a cost to someone somewhere. It causes us to address suffering and injustice where we find it because that’s what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. Unlike holding out for a hero, this hope charges us all with taking on that responsibility. The exceptionalism of American-style individualism has no place in eschatological hope, which is held in common for the common good by the common disciple.
Granted, a film like "Tomorrowland" is not a film like "The Martian," but the two aren't that far different, either.  American action films demand a singular hero who saves himself and/or saves the world.  Usually if the hero saves himself (and it's always a "he"; Ripley in "Alien" is the exception that proves the rule), he saves the audience, too, by proving grit and determination and persistence will overcome any enemy (as in "Alien;" or any other action movie).  We don't have to do anything but root for the hero.

We are merely spectators.  We identify with the hero, but we don't have to do any of the work of the hero.  Ironically, Christopher Nolan understood this in his "Batman" trilogy.  Bruce Wayne wanted to inspire Gotham City, not protect it (which is all Tony Stark can imagine doing in "Age of Ultron.").  In the final film, he finally achieves his goal, and he leaves the city to the people he has inspired to make it a place to live, rather than a place to cower.

The basiliea tou theou it isn't, but there are to be no spectators left in Gotham City.  Matt Damon's character, on the other hand, is only there to prove to us that some of us can, under extraordinary circumstances, do extraordinary things.  With the right equipment, we can "science the shit outta this!"   Damon's character won't save the world, but he does make us feel better about ourselves, without requiring us to do anything but watch.  This, too, is a false messianism that short-circuits hope.  It's Beowulf, without the death of the hero and the grim reality that now we are doomed without our hero.  Damon's hero makes us feel all that effort and technology is worthwhile if we can at least save the life of one white man (do you think they'd have made the film with Idris Alba stranded on Mars?).

I dare say there's almost nothing in that film that makes us "question our world without ceasing because we know that no human technology or system comes without a cost to someone somewhere."  Nothing about an action film "causes us to address suffering and injustice where we find it," nothing about watching a hero prevail against all odds "charges us all with taking on [the] responsibility" to address that suffering and injustice.  Matt Damon is not rescued, despite the stirring (and silly) words that open the trailer, "for the common good by the common disciple."  He's rescued because the film proves him worthy of our admiration and our effort.  If he wasn't an exemplary individual, a figure of American-style individualism, we wouldn't cheer others risking their lives to save his.

The common good is really only applicable to those we think worthy of it's protection.  Which is why Christian soteriology came up with the Rapture and various visions of the Tribulation (as I remember from my college years when I did some research on the subject, the three schools were:  Pre-millenialists, Post-millenialists, and, of course, amillenialists.  All a matter of who got to enjoy the "Millennium" and who got to suffer the Tribulation when.  Can't be givin' that grace o' God away without a price, now, can we?).  But eschatological hope that expects the arc of the universe to bend towards justice is not necessarily a hope for punishment, too.  Yes, justice is frightening to the unjust; but that's one of the core teachings of the Hebrew prophets:  not that God is anxious to smite evildoers (the hoary cliche that somehow judges Christians but never Jews, although it's false to both), but that to the unjust, justice would be a living hell.  Mostly because those who had been enjoying the fruits of injustice would lose that privilege, and those denied justice would finally bath in its waters.

Or, as Jesus put it:  the first would be last, and the last first.  Because justice as humans practice it, is never real justice.  The justice of the baseliea tou theou comes from outside humanity; it comes from God.

And there is nothing more terrifying than to fall into the hands of the living God.  It isn't terrifying because you will be punished; it is terrifying because it will be true justice; and who among us wants to be truly treated justly?

Except, of course, the Hebrew prophets always see that as a paradise: a holy mountain upon which nothing is harmed; a beacon to the nations (the people of the world, not nation-states) that will draw them as they want to live as that nation exhibiting God's justice, lives (sort of the way America inspires the world to be consumers, but with much less injustice and wanton waste).  The vision offered by America just demands you participate by buying, by consuming.

The vision offered by eschatological hope is that you participate by making it happen.

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