Friday, September 24, 2010

"Uncle Ira" Gets Suspicious

Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Siegel (1956)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 1990 Concert: A Non-Religious, Liturgical Event in Post-Pinochet Chile

Above we have two songs that Richard Elliott features in his article "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance" written for the British Postgraduate Musicology journal.1

The song on top is Victor Jara's "Te Recuerdo Amanda."
The song on the bottom is Silvio Rodriguez's "Unicornio."

English translations of the lyrics can be found in the above article.

I ran across this article by chance for a class on Worship and Politics. We're reading William Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist,2 which witnesses to the horrifying acts of systematic torture perpetuated by the military dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile in the 70s and 80s. Cavanaugh also documents the painfully slow response of the Catholic Church in Chile to be a prophetic voice against the atrocities committed by the state. A major component of Cavanaugh's argument is that the church responded slowly due to a theology that advocated an "untouchable 'spiritual' space for the church which is both interior to the person and transcendent to the state."3 As a result of putting this theology into practice, the church left matters of social justice and common good to the state, forming a partnership with the state that Cavanaugh refers to as The New Christendom. With the church left neutered of its power to speak against the state, and the state systematically destroying any threat of opposition in the form of political parties, labor unions, and most other organizations, the Chilean people suffered.

The above article hints that a voice for the voiceless existed outside of the church in the form of musical movements for social change such as the nueva cancion. The church would eventually play a major role in advocacy for the Chilean oppressed, but during times when it was silent, folk protest songs spoke on behalf of the people. Elliott explores one particular concert as an event of personal and communal transformation that gave the people back their memories, identities, and voices. It is noteworthy that this event took place outside of the boundaries of the church. I'll ask more questions about this fact below.

In the article, Elliott talks about a concert that occurred in Chile in 1990, soon after Pinochet was voted out of office and democracy was restored. This concert featured the Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez and formerly exiled Chilean folksinger Isabel Parra, both prominent members of socially-committed musical movements within Cuba and Latin America, the nueva trova and the nueva cancion movements respectively. The concert was held in an arena in front of 80,000 Chileans and was recorded on video.4 Rodriguez dedicated the concert to Victor Jara, a Chilean musician and artist who was closely associated with the campaign that brought Marxist Salvador Allende to power in the early 70s. Jara was arrested, tortured, and murdered by Pinochet's military forces following the coup. We have a video of a live performance of Jara on the left.

Elliott argues in the essay that the concert (featuring prominent voices of resistance and their songs of protest, loss, and hope) functioned as a cathartic event in which Chile could participate in a communal act of mourning. But this performance was not only a looking-back, but a looking-now, and looking-forward. By providing the concert attendees the opportunity to publicly come together and reflect and hope and simply be together in a safe space, the concert opened up hopeful possibilities for the past, present, and future. Elliott describes this phenomenon referencing Walter Benjamin's use of the Jewish concept of "Messianic Time." There are certainly religious connotations here. Elliott asks, "Can we see performative musical events such as the stadium concert as ritualistic processes analogous to other ritualistic events (sacred or non sacred)?" Although I doubt whether Elliott is writing from a religious perspective, there is no doubt that he is aware of the transformative potential of the concert and the spiritual element at play therein.

As this concert opened up a performing space in which Chileans could reclaim their identities individually and communally, the concert stood as a drama in direct opposition to the drama of state-enacted torture that ruled the Chileans' lives for so long. Whereas torture divided communities into suspicious-minded, broken individuals, the concert brought them back together through familiar and emotionally-cathartic music. Whereas torture conflated time to the horrifying present, the concert recalled the past, and gave hope and possibility back to the present and future. Whereas torture broke down their bodies and minds, sometimes splitting the two apart from each other, the concert brought mind, body, and spirit back together in communal song. Whereas the torture was private and the scars made invisible, the stadium concert was as public as can be.5 Although it is a bit much to say that the concert mended what torture had torn apart, the concert at least became symbolic of the movement back towards wholeness. Elliott is right to note that the video recording is a testament, a monument even, that can serve as tangible evidence of this movement. Part of this movement involves the exorcism of the right-wing terror that had inhabited the Chilean people. This is a powerful image. Can communal song expel the demons of torture?

Communities that are dislodged from time, identity, body, etc., take comfort in anything that can bring them back to the ground of their existence. Elliott notes that there was a great attempt in the concert to provide this ground. The songs above, for example, were well-known tunes, but they also featured lyrics that carried connotations of loss and disappearance that jogged vivid memories for the concert attendees. Perhaps in these songs, the attendees rediscovered (at least for a time) their grounding in history.

This all sounds awfully familiar: analogies to Christian worship, anyone? The concert provided a liturgical experience of transformative healing outside of the church. Was this worship? I have more questions than I have information. I wonder whether the concert goers treated the concert as worship. I wonder what the Chilean Catholic Church's view of the event was, and what their stance was on these radical, musical, social movements in general. I wonder what the Chilean people's view of the church was by the end of the Pinochet years. I wonder what healing role the church tried to play around this time.

Beyond these historical curiosities, from a theological perspective, I would want to wonder about God's presence in non-religious, liturgical events such as this concert. Certainly I would affirm the concert as a site where transformation happened. I would also want to ask: What IS the role of the church in providing healing for the victims of torture? What can the church offer that a non-religious event cannot, if anything? And vice versa, what can a non-religious event offer that the church cannot, if anything? More specifically, is it presumptuous of me to ask what this concert provided that the Chilean churches could not? I realize that I'm taking one historian's interpretation of history in picking out one specific event to represent the healing of the Chilean people. There would certainly be other events to choose from. From what I gather of the structure of Cavanaugh's book, he gets to examples of how the church provides the site for transformation as well (I'm not there yet). I can guess one example: Eucharist.

PS. If you have time please read all of the Elliott article. It's fantastic.

1Richard Elliott, "Reconstructing the Event: Spectres of Terror in Chilean Performance," British Postgraduate Musicology 8 (Jun. 2006).
2William T. Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).
3Ibid., p.181.
4Since the above video on the right is cited as from 1990, I wonder whether the performance is from this very concert!
5Cavanaugh, pp. 21-71.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Approaching the Christmas Window to See a Friend

Curse of the Cat People - Wise and von Fritsch (1944)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Head and Soul

Untitled (Skull) - Jean-Michel Basquiat (1984)

Pentecost by Derek Walcott

Better a jungle in the head
than rootless concrete.
Better to stand bewildered
by the fireflies' crooked street;

winter lamps do not show
where the sidewalk is lost,
nor can these tongues of snow
speak for the Holy Ghost;

the self-increasing silence
of words dropped from a roof
points along iron railings,
direction, in not proof.

But best is this night surf
with slow scriptures of sand,
that sends, not quite a seraph,
but a late cormorant,

whose fading cry propels
through phosphorescent shoal
what, in my childhood gospels,
used to be called the Soul.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reaching For Bela's Head

The Body Snatcher - Robert Wise (1945)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Theological Aesthetics and Luther - Part 3 of the Series

I continue my search for some theology of Luther's that might be used to support my independent study's foundational question of "Why not the image as a source for theology?" In reading Luther’s “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” I may have found just that in his incarnational theology. First let's take a closer look at the confession:

Luther draws out this theology in his argument that Christ can be both present in heaven and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. As Christ is both God and man in one single person, Christ has three modes of being according to how finite and infinite beings occupy a space: circumscriptively, as a person occupies a position in space, the space and person corresponding exactly; definitively, as a spirit occupies space in a nonpalpable, immeasurable fashion; and repletively, God’s mode of being in that God is both simultaneously present in all places and at all times and is at the same time without measure or circumscription.1 It is the second mode of being that Luther says makes sense of Christ’s saying, “This is my body” in the Last Supper. If Christ’s body can be present in and pass through spaces entirely occupied by stone and wood— the closed doors of the room his disciples had fearfully locked themselves in post-crucifixion (John 20:19) and the stone at his grave (Matthew 28:2)— why would he not also be able to occupy the bread and wine in a similar uncircumscribed manner.

For our purposes, it is the third mode of being that will especially accommodate a justification of images. Since Christ is of one being with God, it follows that Christ shares with God the repletive mode of being, whereby wherever God is present, so Christ is also, and since God is everywhere at all times in this mode of being, so Christ is also. Also the opposite: wherever Christ the man is present, God is also present. This is the radical nature of the incarnation. At the same time, this God is altogether incomprehensible, and beyond our reason. Indeed, God is beyond creation as well; God is not contained by God’s presence. As Luther says, God is “a supernatural, inscrutable being who exists at the same time in every little seed, whole and entire, and yet also in all and above all and outside all created things.”2 And yet, “He is according to his nature a God who comes out to meet us… God is by his nature the God who becomes really present.”3

With this incarnational theology in hand, we come to some understanding that God wants to be involved in our existence. If Christ is present in the body and bread of The Lord’s Supper, might he not also be present in the stuff of art through the irregular nature of the Word?4 Though Luther does not use his incarnational theology to justify images as equally effective as other bearers of the Word, in that his theology points to a radical God and Christ who fill every little seed on earth and are yet beyond our comprehension, there is ample room to do so.

1Timothy Lull, ed. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), pp. 265-266.
2Ibid., p.272
3Simo Peura, “What God Gives Man Receives: Luther on Salvation,” Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p.86.
4See previous post.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mythic Pluralism in Stalker

*Note: there has got to be a better phrase for what I'm looking for than mythic pluralism. Suggestions welcomed.*

For the final unit of my independent study, the focus is on myth. I've read parts of Paul Ricoeur's The Symbolism of Evil, watched Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and referenced a number of different resources on Tarkovsky and his film. Bear with me as I try to put some of this great material together.

Though some might question as to whether Stalker is a science fiction film since it portrays no special effects-driven futuristic world, I would maintain that the film is science fiction at its best. It is like Children of Men (please refer to this previous blog post for reference) in casting a mirror back on the ills of the present world— in this case, the spiritual ills— by offering a journey to the alien world of the Zone. The Zone appears as an intrusion into the present reality, and, according to the Stalker, the spirit guide of the Zone, grants its supplicants and seekers their innermost wishes. Though perhaps not so forceful in its truth-telling as Cuaron's film, Stalker offers the viewer a meditative space in which to consider the collision of a variety of different myths (and the symbols that ground them) and the crisis of faith that may occur when confronted with mythic pluralism.

Myth as Paul Ricoeur defines it:

Myth will here be taken to mean what the history of religions now finds in it: not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today, and in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in his world.1

In the present world, there are a number of myths from which to choose (although there have always been a variety of options; hence, for example, religions' inherently syncretistic nature). I suppose there is some question as to whether we can choose myths, whether we subconsciously inherit them, or whether we are forced to accept certain myths in order to function in society, etc. I'd rather not get into this anthropological discussion. Mark Heim adequately describes the situation for the purposes of this blog post: "Individuals and communities live their way through a cloud of live, alternative possibilities. In their passing, they make some of these possibilities rather than others concrete, as the act of detecting an electron 'collapses' a quantum probability distribution into an actual location or velocity."2 In Stalker, Tarkovsky lays out the myths side by side in his symbolically-charged sequences. I will briefly attempt to represent what I see as the myths in play in Stalker in one of its most famous dream sequences.

Consider the following clip (about 18 minutes into the second part):

Stalker - Andrei Tarkovsky (1979)

The dream sequence here takes place in the course of the journey to the Zone. The Stalker leads the Writer and Scientist outside of the city confines, eluding the military that wishes to restrict access to the Zone. The Zone is a room couched in a set of decaying, unoccupied rural buildings. Having left the city and entered the general vicinity of the Zone, the three follow a haphazard course, set by the Stalker (the longest route is the least risky), through the ruined military machinery and green fields that surround the buildings, and then the buildings themselves, which contain claustrophobic tunnels, flooded and trash-strewn antechambers, and sand-filled halls. Over the course of the buildings lying dormant, nature has begun reclaim the space; greenery tugs at the walls, moss grows on almost every human-built surface, and water is ubiquitous. The dream sequence occurs during a moment of rest for the pilgrims on their journey.

The camera moves forward through (or inches above?) the water covering the floor of the roofless hall in which the three rest. While facing downwards, the camera glides over a number of objects resting on the floor of the sometimes inches, sometimes feet-deep water. One could easily deem these objects as symbolically-charged: syringes, gold dishware, coins, a broken glass fishbowl with fish inside, pages from a calendar, a gun, metal coils and wire, a religious image of John the Baptist (from a famous altarpiece by Belgian painter Jan Van Eyck). These objects could be seen to represent various myths (or micro-myths) at play in the present world: the myths of pharmaceutical medicine, financial wealth, human dominance over nature, military might, technology, and religion. Perhaps these micro-myths are not best seen as independent myths, but better seen as aspects of the overarching myth of civilization. I would rather not reduce them all into one myth, however, because, as Heim alludes to above, not everyone's syncretization of myths will be the same; there is no one myth of civilization. In showing us objects that are symbolically-charged and point to these various micro-myths, perhaps Tarkovsky is wanting to have us consider the objects that accompany the various myths that may frame our lives.

If we are right in this assumption, perhaps Tarkovsky also points to the role that these objects play in our limited and fractured modern existence; by pointing to and embodying the myths that ground our ultimate concerns, they become sacred objects. Ricoeur says that myths attempt to restore some wholeness to a world in which the supernatural, natural, and psychological have been torn apart. The wholeness signified by the myth, but so little experienced, "becomes available only when it is condensed in sacred beings and objects which become the privileged signs of the significant whole."3 The objects Tarkovsky shows us are elements of wholeness in people's lives when framed by the myths the objects signify. Though perhaps it is not consciously recognized as such, for a person dependent on the micro-myth of modern medicine, the syringe is a object symbolic of that ultimate structuring narrative. In a way, the syringe is a sacred object for that particular mythic structure. In laying out these objects, Tarkovsky shows us the sacred objects of modern culture.

Another element that is important to consider is the manner in which Tarkovsky presents these objects. They are submerged in murky water, rusting, decaying, and broken. They have been dislodged from their primary location of meaning (eg. the machine gun removed from a scene of violence, the rusting coil removed from the machine it helped operate), and placed together here in a filmmaker's still-life. As such, their meanings bleed together; the myths bleed together. As such, it is hard to say exactly which objects relate to which myths. Does a broken fish-bowl have to represent human dominion over nature? What is the meaning of placing these myths, these sacred objects side by side?

Tarkovsky calls attention to the objects as sacred objects in the midst of this journey of faith, and yet also obliterates their referential meaning by placing them in the still-life in a setting in which human civilization no longer has any firm hold. Without a clear mythic structure, the object loses its particular sacrality. A piece of bread is just a piece of bread outside of the structure of communion. It is important to note this element of ambiguity in the imagery of the sequence.

We notice then that it is hard to place some of the objects; where, for example, do we place the upside-down image of the tree? What myth does this symbolize? Is the image a photograph or a reflection or what? How does the image of the tree fit with these other objects? The symbolism is not altogether clear.

Still we press on with the idea of micro-myths in play in the sequence. If we pay attention to the audio of the scene we're immediately struck with more questions. What do we make of the voice-over reading of Revelation 6:12-17 describing God's judgment as a force of nature? Does Tarkovsky mean to frame all of these micro-myths inside of the Christian myth? By coupling this spoken text of God's judgment through nature with the imagery of the ruined sacred objects of the modern micro-myths, it is hard not to see the sequence as a pronouncement of judgment on the human idolatry of the trappings of civilization (religion is even included in the St. John the Baptist imagery). The question then is, does Tarkovsky wish to remind us of the deeper divine reality grounding all human endeavors such as myth-making?

Confronted by the pluralist reality of myths in the sequence, we wonder why this phenomenon occurs so often in history. Ricoeur offers an explanation: "The Sacred takes contingent forms precisely because it is 'floating'; and so it cannot be divined except through the indefinite diversity of mythologies and rituals."4 The disaster described in the Revelation narrative forces all of the people of the earth, the kings, generals, slaves, free, rich, poor, the faithful, the unfaithful, regardless of the myths to which they cling, to recognize and fear the Lord of Heaven and Earth. In a way, framed by the Revelation reading, the sequence is a foretaste of the apocalypse, when all of the trappings of civilization, all of the myths fall away, and reveal the Hidden God. Myths offer an ideal of wholeness, but wholeness cannot be fully realized until the eschaton. In the still-life of decaying sacred objects, sacred no more, Tarkovsky exposes the fallibility of the micro-myths to which the objects point.

What is interesting about this apocalyptic reveal, if we can use this sequence as a reference point for the film as a whole, is the role that nature plays. I have already alluded to this to some extent, but allow me to try to put it together. Tarkovsky puts nature and civilization in a dialectic tension in the film. The following comment from Tarkovsky will be helpful for understanding his position:

It is obvious to everyone that man's material aggrandisement has not been synchronous with spiritual progress. The point has been reached where we seem to have a fatal incapacity for mastering our material achievements in order to use them for our own good. We have created a civilization which threatens to annihilate mankind.5

Though he doesn't mention this explicitly in his book, in Stalker, at times, I wonder if Tarkovsky means to set up nature as antidote to the ills of civilization by exposing civilization's finitude. In the very sequence above, we can see the tension between nature and civilization. The murky water works at the objects of civilization, breaking them down, obscuring their functions. The forces of nature in the Revelation reading— the earthquake, the eclipse, meteorites, the moving of mountains and islands— all run counter to the normal functioning of civilization. They also can quickly destroy or swallow up the constructs of human civilization, the architecture, infrastructure, etc.

I doubt whether Tarkovsky would mean to romanticize the occurrence of natural disasters; certainly they cause immeasurable human suffering. Perhaps, though, at the very least, we can notice that when natural disasters happen, they can reveal the ultimate concerns of a society. They can expose human mythologies. For example, when natural disasters happen, we get still lifes such as the one described above: objects are strewn together, dislocated from their primary loci of meaning.

I have a personal example from a mission trip I took a couple years ago down to New Orleans to help hurricane victims. As we know, Hurricane Katrina caused great destruction, with the Gulf rising over the levies, flooding homes, dislodging precious objects from their mantels, and throwing all sorts of household items together in unexpected and haphazard piles. While helping clean up some of the homes, I noticed in particular, the soggy, photo albums that featured family pictures. Water had caused the colors to run together, obscuring the faces and ruining the pictures. Once invaluable as family memories, they were now worthless as they could no longer function as tangible manifestations of the memories. The faces in family pictures serve as reference points for the memories.

In this way, natural disasters (but even the everyday working of natural forces of wind, water, sand, etc.) can be seen to expose the limitations of all human projects. Architecture breaks down when left to the elements. And yet, one wonders about this tension in light of the fact that humans are a part of nature. In what way is human civilization and technology a part of nature (this has been a central question for this independent study)? What do we make of the Tarkovsky's contribution that humans can destroy themselves (and I would add, destroy nature)? The Zone and its surroundings make for a space in which we can, along with the Stalker, Writer, and Scientist, consider the place of humanity in creation, and consider the myths of civilization that inform that understanding. It is telling that humanity would need a place apart, even an alien space, to have the appropriate room for such consideration. The Stalker's remark upon their return to the greenery of the Zone landscape is also telling: "Here we are... home at last." What would it mean that we have a home outside of civilization?

In his imagery, Tarkovsky sets up the tension between natural spaces and the spaces of civilization. Tarkovsky films the city scenes in which civilization has its hold in sepia tone. There is a drabness and a griminess to the urban landscape that makes one wonder, why would anyone want to live here? Is this home? Upon reaching the general Zone area (now outside of the grasp of civilization), Tarkovsky floods the camera with the green of nature. The sensual effect of this switch is a joyous occasion for the viewer: ah, green again. We identify with the Stalker in his above words. The film slips back into sepia tone for the dream sequence above, which features the sacred objects of civilization.

Then also, over and over again, Tarkovsky frames his characters through doorways or claustrophobic spaces, so as to say, it seems to me, that these characters are confined by their surroundings. Confined within civilization, do we have room to consider the myths that order our lives? Tarkovsky gives many images of the characters trapped in drab and somewhat horrifying architecture in a manner that reminds one of the fish in the fishbowl of the above sequence. As such, in his imagery Tarkovsky clearly seems to delineate a tension between nature and civilization, and perhaps suggests that one over the other would make a better home, a better space to occupy.

Note the contrast in color and mood between the indoor (in the, aptly named "Meat Grinder" tunnel) and outdoor scenes:

And yet this line of thinking is not entirely representative of what the film offers or "says," if one were to be so bold as to venture a guess. There are questions that complicate this vision of deconstructing civilization, deconstructing myth to get at the true grounding of our reality, God. For instance, given that the apocalypse is still not imminent as far as we know, and this is also the case in the film's narrative, what do we do? The spirituality advocated by the Stalker and Tarkovsky does not merely comprise a deconstruction of belief. If we deconstruct in the way highlighted above, all we're left with is a belief in an unknowable God. That is hardly satisfying.

And so the Stalker believes in the Zone. A new mythological structure and accompanying ritual actions have been set up around the spiritual pilgrimage to the Zone. It is a purifying, humility-giving action to make it through the course that the Stalker stakes out. Realizing the need for this kind of action, Stalker says things like, "Hardness and strength are death's companions, weakness and pliancy are expressions of the freshness of being" and "The Zone lets wretched people pass." It is easy to recognize the Christian undertones in such sayings, and yet, the Stalker has clearly gone beyond the realm of Christianity to accommodate this new religious reality of the Zone. The Zone has given the Stalker his vocation and his hope, which neither civilization, nor his family can give him, it seems. As such the Zone makes him an outsider. He wonders, should I force my family to live in the Zone, or should I give up on the Zone because no one believes in it but me? He cannot seem to do either. What should the Stalker do then? Return to the myths of civilization that we see represented in the discarded objects of the dream sequence? What hope does Tarkovsky give us finally?

Robert Bird has an answer. He says, "In the final analysis, it would seem unimportant whether one is 'supposed' to believe in the Room of Desires or not; what is important is the performance of the act of faith."6 The question then is, what is the act of faith portrayed in Stalker? The act of faith is a common theme perhaps portrayed more clearly in other Tarkovsky films. For example, in Nostalghia, the final scene portrays the act of faith in the poet attempting to walk a lighted candle across the length of an empty, desolate pool. Bird suggests that it is the Stalker's daughter that portrays the act of faith in the miracle of telekinetically moving the glasses across the table. I'm not so sure. Is not the act of faith also the Stalker's recurring pilgrimage to the Zone?

At any rate, Ricoeur links the act of faith to a pre-myth reality, which would seem to make ritual more elementary than myth. He says:

According to the phenomenology of religion, the myth-narration is only the verbal envelope of a form of life, felt and lived before being formulated; this form of life expresses itself first in an inclusive mode of behavior relative to the whole of things; it is in the rite rather than in the narration that this behavior is expressed most completely, and the language of the myth is only the verbal segment of this total action. Still more fundamentally, ritual action and mythical language, taken together, point beyond themselves to a model, an archetype, which they imitate or repeat; imitation in gestures and verbal repetition are only the broken expressions of a living participation in an original Act which is the common exemplar of the rite and of the myth.7

Using Ricoeur's thinking, I would make an argument for the Stalker's first pilgrimage being the act of faith, since it can function as repeatable ritual, as opposed to the daughter's telekinesis, which would seem to me to be secondary to faith, a miraculous empowerment as a result of faith perhaps.

Do acts of faith comprise a satisfactory answer for the hope we can have in the midst of the pluralism with which we are confronted? What would comprise an authentic act of faith?

One criticism I would have to Tarkovsky's act of faith being the answer is that the examples that Tarkovsky gives us are often solitary, alienating acts. They are acts of existential angst: rituals that require the individual to cut himself off from all others to be successful. Even in the case of the pilgrimage to the Zone, which features a group of three, the Stalker attempts to have the other two focus on their personal, innermost wishes, and their personal state of mind. The Stalker often seems frustrated with the ongoing conversation between the Writer and the Scientist, as if the pilgrimage was best meant to be taken in a silent, devotional state of mind.

How do we construct myths and rituals based on these inward acts of faith? The monastic life seems like an option. Perhaps leaving civilization behind and living a hermetic life in nature would be another. However, most of us post-modern or late modern folk need an answer that will allow us to participate in communities of the world: families, churches, cultures, nations. The need for nature and places apart from civilization is well taken, however (we all have a need to unplug, to go out into the wild for a time). And in light of human-driven environmental disasters, it would be better to recognize that we need to be led by different myths than the myths of capitalism, human domination over nature, endless technological and scientific progress, and military strength. Though perhaps Stalker does not offer a constructive answer, the film does point to a deeper mythical ground to which we must return.

1Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil Trans. by Emerson Buchanon (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967), p.5.
2Mark Heim, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp.30-31.
3Ricoeur, p.168.
5Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, Trans. by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986), p.234.
6Robert Bird, Andrei Tarkovsky: Elements of Cinema (London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2008), p.168.
7Ricoeur, pp.166-167.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Old Testament Social Justice Texts

In connection with the previous posts, I think it's interesting to frame some of Cuarón's truth-telling concerns in Children of Men next to some of the concerns of the God of Israel in the Old Testament. These are hard images I'm pulling from the film; likewise, the OT texts are forceful in addressing injustice towards the outsider, poor, widow, orphan, etc. These texts still speak to us today, in a very different way than do the images. The images raise awareness of injustice; the texts directly enlist us to address the injustice and threaten judgment on those who ignore the call.

Children of Men - Cuarón (2006)

"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry." — Exodus 22:21-23

"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." — Leviticus 19:33-34

"For scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. Like a cage full of birds, their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?" — Jeremiah 5: 26-29

"And I said: Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice?— you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones, who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron. Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have acted wickedly. Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths." — Micah 3:3-5

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am." — Isaiah 58: 6-9


I do not share these texts to say, oh, in light of the injustices perpetrated by those participating in the ruling narrative in the film, that this is a reason for their infertility. Some sort of divine justice. I don't want to go there. To claim that natural disasters, for instance, are the result of God's wrath is a dangerous move. I am, however, wanting to present the alternative narrative that God would have structure our society. It is a narrative that reminds Israel of its time of slavery in Egypt. It is a narrative that would have Israel show care and grace towards the outsider among them.

I am also wanting to point again to the incisiveness of the film in holding up a mirror to the injustices of the present. The film shows us that these Old Testament social justice texts are for us as well. We have to carefully consider, for example, our immigration laws. We have to show caution in how we interrogate those we would label our enemy. We should be careful in labeling people as "terrorist" and "illegal immigrant." We must not let fear rule the way we treat others. The disasters of Abu Ghraib, My Lai, and Dachau are not natural disasters. They are unnatural, horrific events that reveal the worst of which humanity is capable. The potential for another of these disasters is always there, and we cannot allow ourselves to become unmoored in history such that we forget. The Old Testament social justice texts won't allow us to forget.

In America, unless we have Native American blood, we should remember that our forefathers immigrated here, many of them leaving behind harsh circumstances and coming to America with little or nothing of value to their names. This land is not our land. This land is for everyone. We would be wise to heed the truthful speech of the prophets and the film, to show care and concern for those unfortunate among us (or even those not among us). It will be a better world if we do. There would be less violence and hatred. There would be more compassion, more peace, more of a hint of God's fullness erupting in the world. I want to live in that world.

I don't mean to get preachy; it's hard not to get wound up with these matters. God grant us the grace to feel moved to loving, truthful speech and action.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parrhesia in Children of Men

Children of Men - Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

"There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanization which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It."

- Susan Sontag, "The Imagination of Disaster," in Gregg Rickmann, ed. The Science Fiction Film Reader (New York, NY: Limelight Editions, 2004), p.111

Writing in 1965, Sontag did not have the opportunity to see Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. If she had, I'm guessing she would not have been able to make the above statement. Children of Men is most definitely a science fiction film: set in the year 2027 in a world staring down impending disaster because women can no longer become pregnant. And yet the film also operates as a mirror for the present in highlighting problems facing society.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek relates how the film holds up this mirror to the present:
In Children of Men, there are no new gadgets, London is exactly the same as it is now, only more so— Cuaron merely brought out its latent poetic and social potentials: the greyness and decay of the littered suburbs, the omni-presence of video-surveillance… The film reminds us that, of all strange things we can imagine, the weirdest is reality itself. Hegel remarked long ago that a portrait of a person resembles it more than this person itself. Children of Men is a science-fiction of our present itself.1

What is the present the film is trying to mirror? Compare the screenshots from the film (including the one above) with a couple of U.S. news items that have found significant play recently:

Al Jazeera, Monica Villamizar reporting, Apr 24, 2010

Al Jazeera, Tom Ackerman reporting, May 9, 2009

In Children of Men, in the wake of the political chaos and mass migration caused by humanity's infertility, Britain has shut down its borders and imposed strict penalties on illegal immigrants and those harboring illegal immigrants. The police and military have been given free reign to treat the immigrants as brutally as they wish. And the government is running a propaganda campaign through the media to win over the public to its cause. Clearly, as seen above, the images we get from the film are not unknown to us. We have seen imprisonment, humiliation, and torture of outsiders labeled "illegal immigrants" and "terrorists."

It is happening today, due to a climate of fear. Žižek says that fear is the mode of politics, the mode of mobilizing political groups made up of people who are afraid of immigrants, radicals, too strong of a state, and taxation.2 Fear plays a significant role in how we treat one another as populations come into closer contact in light of globalization. Franco-Bulgarian philosopher, Tzvetan Todorov, adds to this point:
This new contact of populations is, I think, dominated by two major passions, and these two passions come out of a reaction to our inequalities. These two passions are called humiliation and fear. Humiliation is experienced by the powerless toward the more powerful. It encounters on the other side, fear, and fear is just as powerful a source of violence. In fact if we think of major violences of the recent times, they all come out of fear. It is because we were so afraid of what will happen that we accepted torture. And if you are really frightened you get accustomed to different transgressions of the rules of normal life between human beings.3

This climate of fear, Žižek says, is the infertility of today's global society which Children of Men is representing literally. What does our theology have to say about this crisis of fear and injustice and how does Children of Men fit into the theological discussion?

When struck down with a sense of helplessness about these matters, when perhaps, the suggestion that the world is heading for disaster does not seem so far-fetched, it is not inappropriate to question humanity's role in the disaster. However, it is perhaps also apt to wonder: where's God in all of this? The question of theodicy will always, to some extent, indict God. If God was God, why would God allow disaster and evil to run amok?

Eschatology might have an answer to this question. Clearly we are in a time of "not yet." Sin and evil abound. Yet God does not impose on the freedom God granted creation. Eschatology points to the future when God will draw creation back into God's fullness. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, "God's being is coming, that is, God is already present because his future decides what becomes of the present. But this also means that he is not present in the way of his unmediated and immediate eternal presence. His future is our presence, and his presence will be our future."4 History, then, says Moltmann, is the time of hope.5 Faith is belief that God will be God, and not only that, but that God will be God for us in bringing creation into God's fullness. It is a matter of faith to stand with the Marys at the empty tomb and in fear and amazement, receive the angel's news that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee and that we will see him, just as he told us.

Yet, what does our hopeful expectation of this future have to do with the present? So far, this eschatology seems rather lukewarm on addressing the dire matters outlined above. Moltmann has an answer to this too: one must view together the expectation for the future and the predicament at hand. He says, "Christian eschatology is not an apocalyptic explanation of the world and also not a private illumination of existence, but the horizon of expectation for a world transforming initiative through which 'the renewal of the world is anticipated in this age in a certain sense."6 We are enlisted through Christ's life and death to be "construction workers" in the Architect's world transforming initiative.

The initiative, if we look to the Bible, always finds God on the side of the humiliated, outsider, and immigrant. Insofar as we participate in sinful societal structures in which fear allows us to turn a blind eye to injustice against the "outcast" among us, we find ourselves indicted. Moltmann says that the proper response to this accusation is "through the verum facere of the Christians [and all others] in their various vocations directed to the world of misery."7 The Latin phrase Moltmann uses means truthful action, action that speaks to the truth of God's loving initiative. Part-and-parcel with this truthful action is truthful speech. Truth speech and action can be practiced by anyone in myriad vocations.

Brazilian theologian Vitor Westhelle also has a word for our discussion when he analyzes the Greek word for truthful speech parrhesia. He uses the word in light of its connection to the cross' full disclosure of the unjust nature of societal and human relations. Parrhesia also means: to speak the truth boldly, or plainly saying it all without reserve.8 Parrhesia has a transgressive quality to it; speaking the truth in this way requires one to be unafraid of breaking the boundaries of the ruling societal narrative and exposing the systems of knowledge, convictions, and power that are propped up by the ruling narrative. 9 As such, parrhesia points to an alternate narrative, one full of hard truths but grace as well. Westhelle notes that the cross, in pronouncing the death of the old narrative, the "law of this age," empowers one to truthful action.10 I would add in eschatological terms: in that we believe in God's fulfilling action throughout history, as well as hope for God's final consummating activity, both of which reveal God's transforming initiative, we are freed and empowered to speak truthfully to the sinful structures of this world.

The next question, then, for this post is: in what way does Children of Men fit in with this eschatological truth-telling? I hope I have made it somewhat clear already that I believe the film engages powerfully with the issues of our time, especially in its imagery. When many Hollywood films shirk from provocative issues, Children of Men is set on exposing them for all to see. Cuarón did not have to feature this particular background to his action-heavy, sci-fi foreground. Already well known for previous work, Cuarón could have played the genre straight, the way Sontag would expect. However, Cuarón took the risk that the film would speak to people despite the "downer" factors in play. Indeed, even though Children of Men met with critical acclaim and three oscar nominations, it lost money at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Business Blog called it "another grim dystopian look at our future that simply cost too much money to make a profit."11 In this way, as a risky bit of filmmaking that holds up a mirror to the ruling societal narrative, I would argue that Children of Men is a form of parrhesia.

A couple of points to support this suggestion. One point to emphasize is Cuarón's use of one-shots, continuous shots of a longer duration, the longest of which runs 454 seconds. In response to the question of why one-shots in an interview with Kim Voynar, Cuarón said:
"Another thing is not to use editing or montage, trying to seek for an effect. It is to try to create a moment of truthfulness, in which the camera just happens to be there to just register that moment. So that leads into the long shots. Because then you just register the moments as they go. So what becomes important, then, is not the camera, but the moment. If you are going through life and something happens, you don't have the luxury of going, 'Stop, stop, guys, and let me get a close-up!'"12

In attempting to create these moments of truthfulness, Cuarón allows the material of the film to speak rather than trying to control it. The gritty, documentary feel of these shots (which are also the result of the set design) add a somber air of realism to the scenes; they are unblinking in their portrayal of this future/present dystopia. Holding onto the truthfulness of the moment, rather than cutting away, Cuarón creates a tension that draws the viewer into the filmic world. Perhaps the idea is that, having been drawn into the world of the film, the viewer can more easily become involved with the ways in which this world reflects back on the world off-screen. Thus, accusations of the film being a "downer" betray real involvement on the part of the viewers; the film is hard to watch because it touches a nerve in its viewers. They also reveal Cuarón's commitment to speaking the truth about our times.

Lastly, the film portrays a sensitivity to the underdog (running parallel to God's world-transforming initiative). For one, the film gives special attention to the background characters. The caged immigrants and refugees are not only part of the landscape in which Cuarón's protagonists move; they are the silent soul of the film, driving Theo (Clive Owen) to protect Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her baby as a hope for all, but especially for the downtrodden. Second, there is the character of Kee, a young woman who comes to be pregnant when no one else is so blessed. Kee and her baby should be the miracle the world is waiting for. Yet Kee is an immigrant, black, single mother, ostracized from society. Even though it is the first birth in 18 years, we wonder whether the government would recognize the baby since the baby comes from ignoble origins. Cuarón plays up this aspect of the narrative as part of his truth-telling; society rarely treats outsiders with respect, and even less so in times when fear rules. The story is as much about Kee and her baby as it is about the anti-hero Theo, who stumbles into the task of protecting them.

It is the baby that gives Todorov optimism for the future of humanity, even as we sink deeper into self-perpetuated disaster:

"If we have reason not to be fully pessimistic, it is because of basic features of human beings. The human child only becomes independent after something like six or seven years. This means that during one-tenth of our lives we are dependent on others, which is not true of other mammals. So for a long time, we all know that our small ones are completely helpless and we have to protect them, to nourish them, to take care of them. This attitude, of which every single human being has been the beneficiary, is inscribed if not in our genes, at least in our minds. This means that we in some instinctive way know that we can only survive if we take care of the weaker ones, of the baby."13

Indeed, one scene in particular points to Todorov's hope. Theo, Kee, and the baby, find themselves in the middle of a war between the British military and rebel forces. All hell is broken loose, as the military fires shells into the apartment building in which the rebels have taken roost. The three are stuck on the third floor. Yet, the baby begins to cry, and everyone in the building is stunned by the sound; they have not heard a child crying in so many years. Calls for cease-fire ring through the building and out onto the broken streets. As Theo, Kee, and the baby make their way out of the building, the buildings' beleaguered residents reach out to touch the baby. The military men and women give way as well, with looks of wonder on their faces. Some, still clutching their weapons, drop down on their knees while crossing themselves. The baby is more important than their war. There are no questions asked of this vulnerable party of three. Yet as they leave the scene, the gunfire starts again.

It is refreshing to find a film that doesn't flinch from portraying the challenges facing our society. Children of Men does not have easy answers, yet there is hope portrayed in new life. The sound of a baby crying can remind us most viscerally to put aside our worldly concerns and care for the least among us. Christians remember the beginnings of another child of questionable origins every Christmas. Throughout the rest of the year, we trace the child's adult ministry. We note that Jesus was never afraid to say and do the things that would bring about a better world. Truthful speech and action become more attainable in light of the fact that Jesus and God go before us to show the way.

1Slavoj Žižek, “The Clash of Civilizations at the End of History,” 2006.
2Commentaries by Slavoj Zizek, Tzvetan Todorov, Naomi Klein, Saskia Sassen, and Fabrizio Eva, “The Possibility of Hope” bonus feature, Children of Men, DVD. Produced by Alfonso Cuarón et al., Interviews by Riccardo Romani. Universal Studios, 2006.
4Jürgen Moltmann, "Theology as Eschatology," in Frederick Herzog, ed. The Future of Hope: Theology as Eschatology (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1970), p.10.
5Ibid., p.21.
6Ibid., p.36.
7Ibid., p.47. Brackets mine.
8Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), pp.84, 86.
9Ibid., p.90.
10Ibid., p.91.
11"Children of Men: Brilliant But Expensive," The Hollywood Reporter Risky Business Blog, November 19, 2006.
12Kim Voynar, "Interview: Children of Men Director Alfonso Cuaron," Cinematical, Dec. 25th, 2006
13“The Possibility of Hope” bonus feature, Children of Men, DVD.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Objection

"Our self-transformation into androgynous cyborgs is not a prospect to be celebrated and blessed, for it marks a callous disregard for the embodied particularity that defines us as finite and temporal creatures, created in the image and likeness of God."

- Brent Waters, From Human to Posthuman: Christian Theology and Technology in a Postmodern World (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006), p.121.

In the above referenced book, Brent Waters is responding to what he sees as a failing of much post-modern theology in regurgitating posthuman discourse in a Christian dialect without offering an attractive, alternative moral vision. The above quote highlights a caution he gives to consideration of human transformations through technology. It would appear that Brent Waters would have some objections (from a theological standpoint) as to the breakdown of gender dualities (and other "particularities") that are definitive of the molecular conception of an individual. Bukatman's terminal identity is also in question here.

I realize that I didn't properly address in the last post the prospect of terminal identity being amenable to a Christian faith. To what theological resources would Waters point to argue against embracing a terminal identity that would lead to the breakdown of embodied particularities (if he were indeed to do so)? I want to know more about what Waters means by embodied particularity in the phrase "the embodied particularity that defines us as finite and temporal creatures, created in the image and likeness of God." Is the embodied particularity of keeping the following dualities intact - male/female, human/non-human, organic/inorganic - necessary for remaining creaturely in the manner intended by the Genesis creation texts?

In two films I've seen recently, Videodrome and The Man Who Fell to Earth offer images of bodies losing gender specificity in a technologized, sci-fi space. In the former, Max Renn develops a massive, vaginal slit in his stomach to receive the Videodrome program's videocassettes. In the latter, the alien Thomas Newton and earthling Mary-Lou are captured in a gender-neutral image that recalls the melding of Alma and Elizabeth in Ingmar Bergman's Persona. In both of these films, these visuals are backed up by other narrative and thematic elements (which I won't get into) that emphasize the androgyny of the male protagonist.

Videodrome - David Cronenberg (1982)

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Nicholas Roeg (1976)

A third film that I will spend a little more time with - Tron - at times paints a similar confusion over gender and sexuality visually but in every other way tries to erase this confusion. Taking place for much of the action in a cyberspace world in which computer programs find representation, it is curious that these programs are anthropomorphized in a distinctly homogeneous manner: "Computer programs are human - in fact, computer programs seem to be white, heterosexual, and chaste."1 Visually, there is the androgyny of the programs in their appearance (common uniforms, the lighting) as you can see below.

Tron - Steven Lisberger (1982)

However, in many other ways, there is an emphasis on the division between male and female (it is no small wonder that the film is a Disney film) and the establishment of the heterosexuality of the main characters. For instance, there is the love triangle that is awkwardly set up between Tron, Yori, and Flynn in the virtual world to parallel that of Alan, Lora, and Flynn in the real world. In no scene is this more apparent than in the scene where Flynn is introduced to Yori (at around 1 hour, 12 minutes in). Flynn recognizes Yori as Lora's corollary in the virtual world and steps towards her to be cut off by Tron, who, playing the protective and domineering boyfriend, is wary of Flynn's approach. The rest of the scene involves a series of dialogue cuts between the Flynn on the right of the space and Yori and Tron on the left. In the film world, the three are still standing right next to each other; yet, the way the scene is shot, the scene explicitly captures and separates the three in their heterosexual roles. Flynn is the charming lone ranger desiring a woman who has been deemed "hands-off" by Tron.

Yori is captured as stereotypically feminine in her submissive lower positioning on the screen in the shots with Tron. In the image below, she looks fawningly at her masculine lover. In addition to Tron playing the possessive boyfriend, Tron is clearly in control in this relationship: he is the one that does the talking in the scene. Thus, there seems to be the distinct attempt to represent these traditional stereotypes of the male/female duality (and traditional male/female roles in a relationship) to overcome any potential element of terminal identity that might be expressed in the virtual representation otherwise.

Returning to the original objection of Waters, I do share his questioning of what it might mean for dualities such as gender to crumble in future human becomings. To the extent that we occupy a terminal identity in engaging with films that feature these gender-neutral human becomings, for a Christian skeptic of such matters, viewing such films could be seen as a dangerous activity. However, and perhaps this is my critique of the idea that engaging terminal narratives comprises a significant factor of human becoming in the direction of terminal identity (my last post), I think it's quite possible to establish a reflective distance from these narratives such that we consider them but don't embody them in such a way that they dictate our becoming.

I do see the benefit for Christians to take a reflective stance on the traditional ontological dualities. When viewing the shattering of these dualities, we ponder the way in which many aspects of these dualities are socially-constructed. For example, male-ness and female-ness are often defined in crude terms by society, such as in Tron, and to laugh at these representations is one step towards freeing ourselves from oppressive societal definitions. Establishing a distance from these gender distinctions, we recognize that we are beloved in God's eyes even if our personalities and bodies don't align with societal expectations about gender. We recognize that others are also beloved and we treat them lovingly.

There is, of course, the matter of God creating us biologically male or female, human, and organic, and perhaps this is more precisely what Waters is concerned about. These particularities could be seen as what God intends for us. It might be undesirable, then, for our bodies to in any way be changed. Certainly, a sex change would be a radical example of this, but a tattoo, or glasses, or a piercing could also be seen as distortions of God's original creation of our bodies as these foreign objects become a part of our bodies in some way. What is the line at which we say that we are sinfully altering God's design for us? Is there a line? If there is a line for us personally, should we hold others to the same standard? Should we condemn films that portray individuals crossing it?

1Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p.222.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Science Fiction and Human Becoming

Tron - Steven Lisberger (1982)

"We cannot get rid of our technology, for we can no longer survive without it. We depend upon the existence of technology, as much as our technology depends upon our cognitive abilities. Our relation to technology has become one of symbiosis between humans and machines."

- Taede A. Smedes, "Technology and Evolution: The Quest For a New Perspective," Dialog: A Journal of Theology 44:4 (Winter 2005), p. 359.

Starting out this study with the question "What does it mean to be human in a technologically-driven society?" presupposed a consideration of technology. However, it's become apparent to me that even if I were to ask the question without the qualifying second part - "What does it mean to be human?" - I would still have to consider technology. For example, a theological anthropology without reference to technology's impact on human beings and becomings would be unpersuasive. However, simply because we have to consider technology does not mean that there is not a place for legitimate struggle with Smedes' conclusion of symbiosis between humans and machines. Scott Bukatman, drawing on Freud, makes the suggestion that confronting this proposition of symbiosis is an ego-smashing moment on the level of Copernicus declaring that the earth is no longer the center of the universe or Darwin situating humans in an evolutionary process of descent from the animal world.1 I hope I have been demonstrating and continue to demonstrate the way in which sci-fi film and theology offer spaces to grapple with these issues. In this post in particular, I'm going to look at the way in which science fiction embodies this struggle.

Bukatman has a great deal to say on this subject. He says that science fiction is able to give us this wrestling space through "the narration of new technological modes of being in the world."2. Let's pick up on the narration part of that phrase first.

Indeed, it is apt that we would find a space for struggle through narration as story is a primary place for human meaning-making. For example, Christian biblical stories contain the primary myths and symbols relevant to the Christian faith. It is not a huge leap then to follow Philip Hefner's statement that "we are dependent upon story for the meaning of technology, or, we might say, of human meaning in a technological culture."3. Science fiction, according to Bukatman, remains the genre that has represented "the most sustained attempt to identify and narrate the ambiguities that mark the technological contours of contemporary culture."4 Sci-fi films frame an imaginative moment in our vision of technology through which we have the opportunity to engage in the filmic space to construct meaning.

However, the consequences of such an engagement are potentially much more explosive than I've been suggesting. Bukatman and Hefner might want to go further. One could look at the meaningful narration as a significant aspect of not only hypothetical, fairy-tale, technological modes of being in the world, but our potential technological modes of being in the world. In other words, referencing my previous post, such story-telling could be seen as part and parcel with a molecular conception of individuals: a conception of individuals that focuses on human becomings.

Terminal identity is the term that Bukatman uses (coined by the sci-fi author William Burroughs) to describe science fiction's role in human becomings. In terminal identity, "we find both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity," constructed by engagement with the wide range of media in which the sci-fi narration finds a home.5 In establishing a terminal identity, we construct a worldview in which traditional ontological understandings of body, mind, and memory are challenged and destabilized. Science fiction narrates this in part through a breakdown of dualities: male/female, organic/inorganic, image/reality, artifice/nature, human/nonhuman.6 Bukatman points to the symbiosis of humanity and machines when he concludes, "Terminal identity is a form of speech, as an essential cyborg formation, and a potentially subversive reconception of the subject that situates the human and the technological as coextensive, codependent, and mutually defining."7 It seems that through engagement with science fiction, we take on the speech of the cyborg's terminal identity, spurring a transformation in us. Perhaps, though, the transformation has already taken place and sci-fi terminal identity narratives reflect and consummate this fact.

Hefner has a somewhat similar notion of our becomings being connected to imagination and story. Imagination gives us stories about what the present could be like, and we construct technologies to make our imaginings a reality. Hefner says, "Stories are inseparable not only from the conception of our technology, but also from the uses we imagine for these technologies."8 Thus, in that stories help us realize technologies that become integral to who we are and who we want to be, stories are linked with our potential technological modes of being in the world. It is apt that Hefner engages with such sci-fi films as A.I., Blade Runner, and Gattaca to demonstrate his points about technology and human becoming. He is aware of the implications of this choice: he asks, for example, whether A.I.'s director Steven Spielberg has, "recounted the trajectory of human becoming that everyone of us, in fact, must say is our journey?"9 Implicit, I think, in his question is the idea that the sci-fi story is instrumental in this journey.

Can this journey of struggle and becoming through engagement with science fiction be a Christian journey?

Although there are good reasons for some level of skepticism, I believe that the kind of journey outlined above can be part of a faith journey. The reality is that we are dependent upon technology and must define ourselves as persons of faith in a new way as a result. Science fiction narratives give a space for struggle and redefinition, and persons of faith can use this space as well. Engaging with the space with others (as a community of faith, for example) can be especially helpful as dialogue brings fresh ideas and challenges.

We are dependent upon technology but not captive to it. By actively engaging with stories about our technology, and by making meaning out of these stories from a perspective of faith, we outline desired human becomings that are essential to Christian life. These becomings do not neglect traditional sources of theology - scriptures, for example - rather, the traditional sources are assumed as foundational for the community in which the person of faith participates. The suggested becomings outlined above are not the only aspect of human becomings sum total. They are an important aspect to consider in light of a highly technologized context.

Hefner offers an example of how this might be done. As he engages with the questions posed by the science fiction narratives (and other writings, art, and cultural artifacts), he notes the theological nature of these questions. He asks what all this means for God, creation (us included), and God's relationship with and intention for creation. These questions are essential for one's faith journey. No narrative has all the answers (not even the Bible!), but through our engagement with science fiction narratives, we can address these theological questions that are inevitably raised for us in struggling with the idea that our relation to technology has become one of symbiosis between humans and machines.

1Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p.8
3Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 65.
4Bukatman, p.6.
5Ibid., p.9.
6Ibid., p.10.
7Ibid., p.22.
8Hefner, p. 61.
9Ibid., p. 19.