Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

Mars_23_aug_2003_hubble

No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.

Jesus of Hollywood

What hath Hollywood to do with Boston? Not enough, apparently. In this week’s Time magazine, an article entitled “Films Are His Flock” by Josh Sanburn revisits the ark. Actually, it throws the doors open a little wider—it looks at Hollywood’s effort to woo the religious. Ironically, although universities all across the country offer courses in religion in popular culture and the Bible in popular media, they are constantly trying to rid themselves of the detritus known as biblical scholars. High brow is in, while Hollywood makes no secret of its love to the common people. For Americans the common person is religious, or at least doesn’t block out religion like the educated crowd does. And they come with pockets lined. Religious movies, if marketed well, can be phenomenal successes. In my four years teaching at a secular state university, my Bible classes were filled to capacity each semester. Still, Rutgers coyly refused to hire me full-time. “There’s no interest,” they seemed to say. “Nobody reads the Bible.”

Meanwhile, according to the article, Jonathan Bock, founder of Grace Hill Media, a marketing firm that sells the Bible to Hollywood, knows a good thing when he sees it. Noah is about to come splashing into theaters. Son of God has already incarnated. Exodus is yet to come. And those are only the movies that are explicitly religious. I had no trouble pointing out to my long-suffering January term classes that religion plays a role in many movies, most of them explicitly secular. Those in Hollywood know that religious themes—the Bible even—resonate with the general public. Having grown up in, or maybe even below, John Q. Public, I have always known that the Bible makes good movies. Doubt it? Ask E.T. As he appeared risen, ascended, and glorified, the stranger from above wearing a white shroud and backlit with a nimbus, many of us squirmed in our seats for we had seen a clever representation of our Lord.

Perhaps it is resistance to the McCarthyism of the 1950s that so many intellectuals associate with religion, but academics just can’t seem to understand that this is important. The Bible business is a multi-million dollar industry, and yet, universities would prefer to ignore the implications. Meanwhile in Hollywood, they’re trying to make sure they get the blend just right. Theatrics and theology. You’ve got to be careful whom you choose to offend. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on a novel written by a devout Nikos Kazantzakis, just didn’t perform as a Scorsese movie. It is the job of people like Jonathan Bock to figure out why. And it isn’t hard to see that it’s a buyers market on America’s left coast. Indeed, without a hint of cynicism the Bible will bring in a flood. But that’s just academic. Or it should be.

Noah looks down over Times Square

Noah looks down over Times Square

Star Tracks

Star_Trek_The_Motion_Picture_posterLong ago in a galaxy far away—1979 in rural western Pennsylvania, to be precise—the local inhabitants were surprised to learn that James T. Kirk was now an admiral. Two years earlier Star Wars had thrilled us with special effects first mastered in 2001: A Space Odyssey but a more accessible plot. Robert Wise, who had not only given the world The Sound of Music, but also The Day the Earth Stood Still, took the helm for the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek geeks, of which crowd I do not count myself, hadn’t really taken their cliched role in the emerging high tech society, and CGI was still a few years off. Nevertheless, rumors in school had it that the movie featured a bald woman and had boldly gone where no man had gone before. The original crew was all there. So on a Friday night I dutifully made my way to the Drake Theater to watch and left saying, “is that all?” Star Wars was action-packed and fun, filled with archetypes and wise-cracking robots. Star Trek had Voyager 6, like E.T., trying to phone home. In a word, the movie was forgettable.

On a tour of the original Star Trek world, I finally sat down to watch The Motion Picture, with its grandly archaic-sounding name, last night. I shuddered to think I’d last seen it 35 years ago—that makes me as old as the crew was starting to look—but this time I was able to see things I hadn’t before. Spoiler alert! Voyager 6 is looking for God. The original Voyager 1 reached the end of our solar system a couple years back, but in 1979 there was no reason to suppose that we wouldn’t try again and again to reach out to parts unknown. We were rapidly become materialistic, and the universe could be a known quantity. Three centuries in the future, Voyager 6 is headed home, having been rebuilt into an unstoppable living machine. When the creator—humanity—doesn’t pick up the phone V’ger poises to wipe out the carbon-based infestation until it learns how to physically, biologically merge with a human being (cue the bald lady and otherwise superfluous Captain Decker). Lots of colorful lights and we can all go home.

Even now I can’t muster the courage to say the movie is profound, but it does touch on an issue that has only grown over time—we have voluntarily left our deities behind. In our rush to reduce the world to the least common denominator, we have pulled the plug on the cosmic phone. The Voyager program ran out of steam as the Cold War was heating up down here on earth and we were being told we were all just a bunch of atoms fooling around anyway. The machines, in the meantime, had come to believe. I probably won’t survive another 35 years to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture again, but I do hope that in that time we may become more aware of our humanity. And I do hope that if someone divine does happen to call, that we’ll at least pick up the phone.

Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again!

Yesterday MSNBC reported that the Vatican has again called for a conference involving serious scientists to discuss the implications of astrobiology — life in space. Despite the mocking sneers of the media, growing numbers of serious thinkers are doing the calculations and scratching their heads. When I was a child, I was assured that earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe were virtually impossible, statically. Now we know of several rocky orbs circling distant suns. Our own sudden advances in technology have started some to think that if we raced from heavier-than-air flight to the moon in only 66 years, and from landline to audio implant in about a century, maybe other intelligent life could do the same? What would the implications be for the geocentric world of Genesis and the Gospels?

The Catholic Church and Science are hardly best buddies; frequently they are not even on speaking terms. No, the tide did not change to a warm embrace with the (centuries late) apology to Galileo or the sudden realization under John Paul II that evolution is “more than just a theory.” All one has to do is think of the issue of stem-cell research and the eagerly offered hand is suddenly withdrawn. But on the issue of aliens, perhaps the church can race ahead of the projected God-of-the-gaps, do an end-run, and be ready to embrace E.T. when he finally makes himself known.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that the Vatican has embraced evolution and thumbed its Roman nose to the creationists. (They deserve even more than that!) I am glad they are considering the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. There is, however, a nagging doubt in my mind that they may be coming to the conclusion that the late Larry Norman once did that “if there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that he must know, and he’s been there once already and has died to save their souls.” What good is advancement in science if mythology refuses to budge? What would an extra-terrestrial priest look like? What if they don’t have blood to fill their chalices? Do they have trumpet-horns on their saucers to announce the second coming? Yes, let’s explore our universe, but let’s not forget to update our credibility meters as well.

ETpriest

Our father which art in heaven?