Thanks to Netflix I got around to watching "Cloud Atlas" yesterday, and it was almost 3 hours of my life I'll never have back. I remember when the book came out (I think I was still working in the bookstore) and I couldn't get interested in it then, nor in the movie 5 years ago. But hey, I'd already paid for Netflix, so....
It ended, of course, happily (no idea how the book ends, I can only report on the movie), if by "happily" you mean humankind escapes earth for a plant where earth is a blue smudge in what looks like the Milky Way in the night sky: so, Utopia, which is to say "No Place." Stephen Hawking's dream, I suppose; but along the way we find out we are all either Tom Hanks or Halle Barry or Susan Sarandon or Hugh Grant or Hugo Weaving: although in fact we are all Tilda Swinton playing "Orlando" (still one of my favorite Virginia Woolf works, as well as an hilarious poem by (well, shit, I can't find the book right now, and I can't remember everything!)...and hilarious poem, nonetheless. But not Virginia Woolf's character brought to life by Tilda Swinton. And much more of a character than any of the character portrayed by any of the previously named actors, even as all of them cross-dress and portray members of not-their-gender. And no, Tilda Swinton's not in the movie; but she would have been wasted, anyway).
The Wachowskis will have their fun.
The stories are supposed to be intertwined or perhaps connected across time and space, so that there really is neither time nor space, merely love; or some force that drives our fates and actually binds us together and in the end makes everything, even suicide, even slavery, okay. I kind of lost the premise somewhere in there, except the future depends on an artificial Asian woman who manages all kinds of insights by reading Solzhenitsyn and watching a bad movie about the memoirs of another character (Jim Broadbent, who also plays a woman at some point, IIRC), and just learning stuff. Learning is boring so they skip over that part lightly, but somehow this empty vessel (purposely, not a slight on the actor or the character, but her character is meant to be an empty vessel) comes up with revolutionary stuff that inspires humanity after the Fall (nuclear war? Not clear, but probably something to do with radiation, apparently) to see visions and persevere and maintain some kind of social order until the angels come to take them to that planet I mentioned (not really angels, other humans living elsewhere when the Fall happened. At this point I'm thinking of one of the final chapters of The Martian Chronicles, where the people on Mars see earth literally lose a big chunk in some massive explosion that Ends It All. Everything old is new again.) Her insights, which she broadcasts from a pirate radio station in the future where everyone lives under corporate control (because Stalin and 1984 is so yesterday!) and somehow her words inspire new hope, but it's like seed cast far and wide, and some falls among weeds, and some on stone, and some on fertile ground....
....Wait, that wasn't in the movie! But it might as well have been. Sheer away all the Platonic metaphysics of Christianity (been there since Augustine, at least, and not going away soon, though it is withering) and all the theology (the nature of God) and you're left with love (which Hollywood, well, loves) and some nice thoughts about living with each other and being communal, not individual, animals.
Which is the revolutionary stuff that survives the Fall and apparently makes it to the next planet, where people aren't so different, they just aren't mean (the bad guys are left behind, or wiped out. It's not really clear.). People who need people are the happiest people in the world, so reach out and touch someone, recognize we need each other, and love is all you need (love is all you need love is all you need love is all you need). With this humankind will finally realize that time doesn't matter and space doesn't matter and gender doesn't matter and race doesn't matter (oh, yes, the slave trade in America plays a role here) and apparently nothing before the 19th century matters (odd lacunae, that; but the earliest story line is the American slave trade one, pre-Civil War). There's even an evil philosophy to oppose: "The weak are meat, and the strong do eat!" It would make Hobbes shake his head at how stupid and simplistic it is, and make him wonder if humankind had abandoned all sense of governance and civilization sometime in the 19th century, because that line is uttered by Tom Hanks then, and after the Fall (i.e., in the unforeseeable future). But somehow, it's kinda sorta about Christianity, because a savior will be found (the Asian woman who is filled, somehow, with wisdom; her story is all about being discovered, escaping Herod's attempt to massacre her innocence (lots of people die so she might live), and finally being executed (not quite crucified, but still) for her message. And her message is kinda sorta Christian: you need each other, and all that matters is each other.
And yet it's still not as radical as the unbrokered kingdom Dom Crossan espouses, or the prophetic justice discerned by Walter Brueggemann. Instead its just for to kumbayah, and if the right people survive to get the technology to leave the planet and be good people without the bad people (the weak are not meat if there are no strong to eat), then all will be well and all manner of thing will be well.
Stephen Hawking's vision of paradise, in other words.
Now, I can critique that; or I can just mention Crossan and Brueggemann, and assume if you're reading this you know what I mean (or you can search my blog for more; one or the other or the other). I can even say that, more than Augustinian metaphysics and the hole in our soul where God goes, will carry Christianity forward. What I can't see, however, is what the church is for in that mode. I can't see a model that brings Millenials and younger generations together to worship and keep those ideas alive and vital in the world.
The model in "Cloud Atlas" is Anthropology 101, where are all know "primitive cultures" use medicine men and seers and prophets, or an Abbess, as Susan Sarandon is called, who has visions (which are rhymes supposedly provided by the dead Asian girl centuries gone now, which rhymes guide Tom Hanks on his quest to help Halle Barry contact the people on the planet where Earth is a blue smudge in the night sky (Awwww!). We all know that's how primitive cultures work (who needs church when you have Sarandon?!), even though the Delphic Oracle was a live and hallucinating (or envisioning, depending on your preference (and uttering gnomic utterances at the time of Socrates, and I've yet to encounter anyone who thinks Greece at the time of Plato was a "primitive culture." So there's that. Church in the future doesn't wither away, it's lost in the Fall (!), and yet we are saved by a seer who is an Abbess who has visions when she touches Tom Hanks (not the reaction I'd expect to touching Tom Hanks, but who knows?).
We have no model, in other words; but worship is no longer the communal event it once was. And if it isn't, what replaces it? The 19th century hymns of my youth are no longer compelling, except at Christmas time (and yes, some are older than 2 centuries ago by some age, but still), and then they drive us bonkers in stores, not to gather in churches against the coming winter. This, to me, is still the question: what is church for? The message, a more muscular one than in "Cloud Atlas," is not some fuzzy notion of community that will bring us together if we all just learn to think alike (ironically that idea comes from a future where the "Unanimity" wants to control everyone. The ideas espoused by the "savior" are just an alternative to "Unanimity," not a counter force to it.). the idea of the unbrokered kingdom, of the justice of God, is not an idea which we all must agree to in order for it to work: it is the path of wisdom, but a wisdom that comes from God, not from human knowledge (the woman in the film gets all her ideas from human beings, so there's another limit to her appeal). Do we need to fear God in order to accept that wisdom? No, it's not about consequences; it's about ability. As a lawyer (!) here in town said to a reporter about the issue of school finance in Texas: demands without supplying the resources to meet them is not accountability, it is simply punishment. If through God all things are possible, it is the "through God" part that is important.
But how do we get that across to people outside of church? And how do we keep these ideas alive across space and time, without church? Can we create Bonhoeffer's religionless Christianity? Must we? Do we have a choice?
It is a puzzlement; and certainly more interesting than how movies like "Cloud Atlas" ever get made.