Fire Bearer

Prometheusposterfixed

Part prequel and part religious odyssey, Prometheus both treads familiar ground and explores new territory. In keeping with my invariable sense of timing (I saw none of the Alien trilogy in theaters), I waited until well after the fact to see the movie. I had heard Prometheus called a prequel, but even if I hadn’t some of the Ridley Scottish touches might’ve given it away: a large ship bound for a distant planet, evidence of unexpected inhabitants—yes, they knew about the “engineers” (we could call them “watchers”) but not the proto-Aliens they were breeding. We even have the android that understands science’s need to be greater than that of human need. Déjà vu. Still, there’s something very different here—direct discussion of religion and how faith plays into the work of scientists. Elizabeth Shaw, the sole survivor, wears a cross as she tries to work out what her father’s teaching about religion might mean. The cross isn’t hidden in the background—it is brought out into the open and discussed.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the premise is that ancient artifacts (including the ubiquitous Sumerian, Egyptian, and Mayan templates) added to a new discovery in Scotland, demonstrate that a race of giants have been inviting us to their planet for thousands of years. In fact, they had engineered us. (Ironically, the biologist who espouses Darwin is among the first to die.) Peter Wayland, industrialist billionaire who doesn’t want to die, funds a trip to meet these engineers. The engineers, save one, died long ago. Apparently of some plague (cue the aliens!) that were created to destroy humans. They were about ready to send the nasty beasties to earth when they were overcome, with only a single survivor. No coincidence that this planet was reached on Christmas day. It becomes clear to Dr. Shaw that these engineers were intent on destroying the human race they created. And still, she slips her cross back on before facing the engineers of life and death. This was Noah without all the water (and much better writers).

Of course we think we know the rest of the story. Sigourney Weaver bravely led us through three alien attacks before sacrificing herself in a New Testament kind of ending. But what about Elizabeth Shaw? She who bore and aborted the mother of aliens in a very maculate conception? She is off to a prequel’s prequel to find out why these engineers wanted to destroy us. Rumor tells of Prometheus 2, and I wonder if we will get to meet our maker’s makers. Although Scott is an atheist, he brings us Moses later this year, and has already given us Mary and Jesus wrapped up into one with Ripley and her spiritual mother, a sci-fi St Anne, in Elizabeth Shaw. After all Elizabeth was cousin to Mary, and now that the question of faith has been openly discussed, it will have to be more fully addressed. Among the unanswered questions is whether I be able to make it to the theater on time to see this one, or will two years vanish before I find the time to address the eternal questions that Ridley Scott always seems to pose.

True Metaphors

I have a bad habit of taking road signs metaphorically. Not that I ignore the instructions, it is just that I consider their wider implications. While I was a tormented layman at Nashotah House I was pleased to see a road sign go up along the county lane that led directly to the main campus entrance. “Detour Ahead” it read in its reflective orange glory. I knew immediately that it was a metaphor for my life.

Yesterday as I drove to New Brunswick (New Jersey) for a student’s thesis defense, a large traffic sign that allows its message to be programmed and changed easily sat beside the road. “Expect Delays” one screen read. The next tersely stated, “Church Services.” Yesterday was, naturally, Good Friday, but I couldn’t help reading a bit more into this curt nugget of truth. My mind wandered to Galileo, Bruno, and Darwin. And to thinkers who nudge conventions outside the sciences. In fact, to societal progress itself. I thought of how often human good has been blocked by the agency of religious believers. When something new and beneficial is discovered it has to go through an approval process longer than that of the FDA – by the Church. Is this new information dangerous to doctrine, to preconceived notion? Will it damage our power structure? Can it be permitted?

Back to Joseph Campbell. Raised in the context of a Christian culture, Campbell did not believe any one mythology – he believed all mythologies. He keenly felt the loss that society incurred when it forfeited its mythic heritage and jettisoned its gods. Are we better off without them or not? The answer is still unknown. Perhaps the most appropriate traffic sign of all is “New Traffic Pattern Ahead,” and the most damning is “One Way.”

The ultimate heresy

The Truth is in Here?

Constantly trawling for the shattered detritus of truth that rests scattered around our lonely little planet, I have often supposed they were here. I have never seen them, but in the Drake Equation there is a high probability that they exist. And now the newspaper says they may have been here all along. And closer than we thought.

Aliens. These latter-day angels and explorers of the cosmos are often pictured like E-T or the little gray aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The latest findings suggest they could even be quite a bit smaller than that. Paul Davies, a physicist from Arizona State, believes that life may have developed multiple times on earth, and perhaps some of the googol of microbes on our planet may have their origins in space. These potentially extraterrestrial microbes, he stated could be “right under our noses – or even in our noses.” Yikes! Time to put up the intergalactic “No Trespassing” sign!

Stop the alien menace!

In all seriousness, however, this concept of multiple origins of life, I fear, will be latched onto and misread by our Creationist fellow-life forms. I can see the fingers stiff from grasping at straws claiming that now there is scientific proof that different species do have different origins, thank you Mr. Darwin. The price to pay, if they apply logic, however, is not one evolutionary track, but many.

The movie Creation, focusing on Darwin, opened this past weekend in the United States. Delayed because of concerns that Americans can’t handle the truth, this film about Darwin’s sad voyage to the inevitable truth of natural selection will surely raise evangelical ire. Nevertheless, we did not design this world we evolved into, we simply inherited it. And the closer we peer at it, the more complex it becomes. These multiple evolutionary tracks may also explain the origin of Creationists – could they come from different stock than scientifically minded folk? In any case, the news today provides yet another reason to keep our noses clean and our eyes on the skies.

Eager for Eden

In a recent email from the Clergy Letter Project, Michael Zimmerman reports that the movie Creation is shortly scheduled to be released in the United States. To quote from the Project newsletter:

“You may have heard that the film, Creation, about Charles Darwin and his struggle with his faith after his daughter, Annie, died had trouble finding a US distributor because it was seen as being too controversial for the American public, particularly after being attacked on Movieguide.org, an influential site which reviews films from a supposedly ‘Christian perspective’.”

It is disturbing that a non-fiction film has been blocked from American viewers because distributors found the content too controversial. The controversy has nothing to do with sex or violence, but an assault on the fantasy of a literal interpretation of Genesis. Disturbing fact challenges comfortable fantasy.

In a related story, an article on CNN.com explores the sense of depression that several viewers of Avatar felt after the movie ended. While the reasons are deep and complex, the overall theme seems to be that these viewers can’t shake the image of a pristine world that seemed so real for two-and-a-half hours. They long for a paradise that doesn’t exist. A paradise that has never existed. I am not unsympathetic. Although I could not view the film, I left from the theater with a similar, if less intense, feeling. It is a similar emotion to that when a truly special event takes place and the mind plays it over and over like a new and significant song. Impressions and hazy images and euphoria wash over you, and a longing for a moment that can never be recaptured consumes your consciousness. These are some of the most bittersweet moments of life. They are the very heartbeat of fantasy.

There never was an Eden. Human existence has been brutal and harsh since we first stood upright and wondered why we could think. America is a nation in deep denial about this harsh reality. We would rather believe the biblical Eden is a literal paradise and that our aching imaginations are somehow giving us glimpses of a fabled utopia where life was perfect. Well, almost perfect. The movie Avatar presents a paradigm that many Americans can relate to: an electronic world of endless possibilities shielding us from the stark realities of illness, pollution, tragedy, and death. We are insulated in our surreal environment that we have created for ourselves.

The human capacity for wonder is perhaps the greatest asset that consciousness has deigned to bequeath us. We can imagine a world where all creatures live in harmony with their environment and love and peace flourish. But that is not our world. A good corrective to these tempting fantasies is to read some good old classic Greek tragedies. These imaginative explorations of the human condition are as true to life as dreams of utopian worlds are removed from it. It is all a matter of perspective. And the Greeks were writing B.C.E. — Before the Computer Era — when reality had not been hidden behind a haze of ephemeral electrons.

Fundamentalist Foibles

Podcast 11 deals with the phenomenon of Fundamentalism, particularly biblical Fundamentalism, and its history. The podcast begins by setting the historical parameters, in the early part of the twentieth century, and considers some of the reasons that the movement may have begun. German biblical criticism, Darwin’s theory, and the First World War among them. A brief sketch of the movement is then offered, starting with the Niagara Bible Conference and the publication of The Fundamentals. The basic tenets of the belief system are summarized, again with suggestions as to why this may have been the case. A cautionary conclusion ends the presentation.