Saturday, December 3, 2016

The "Arrival" of Jesus Christ

(Warning:  This post contains important movie spoilers!)

Typically, posts on this site pertain to the political, but the Christmas season and a recent film have prompted a change to my norms.  And, to be very candid, one cannot ignore the impact of Jesus Christ upon the world.  Yet, Christmas, the annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, has taken on a secular meaning that attempts to rival the religious.

Despite the political arguments about a 'war' on Christmas, so many people miss the Christian parallels and allegories in popular culture.  During this Christmas season (or any season for that matter), would it not stand to reason to genuinely seek out the meaning of who Jesus Christ truly is?

Understanding Jesus Christ is not easy, and it requires study of the Bible, which most people find daunting.  The nature of Jesus Christ, though, is sometimes reflected in popular culture, particularly in film.  While more obvious examples exist, such as The Passion of the Christ (2004) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), more subtle movies exist with Christian undertones.  The Matrix (1999) was a popular allegory for Christianity embraced by churches throughout the country.  Man of Steel (2013) portrayed comic book legend Superman as a 'messiah' of sorts.  

This fall, the film Arrival has picked up the mantle of the latest movie to generate discussion of a religious theme.  The film's plot centers around the mysterious arrival of alien ships appearing above 12 random locations in the world.  The ships provide opportunities for humans to communicate with the aliens, and the American government calls in Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, to establish a connection.  Banks is joined in her mission by Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a scientist, who assists in the first contacts with the aliens, which are dubbed 'heptapods' (because they have seven legs).

Banks and Donnelly initially have little success with verbal language, but experience a breakthrough with demonstrating written language.  The heptapods respond in kind, which generates true progress.  In the written language of the heptapods, complex sentences and thoughts are communicated through what appears to be variations of a circular shape.  Banks becomes engrossed in her work, so much to the point where she has constant flashbacks and dreams to her own personal failures and pain, including a difficult divorce and the chronic illness of her daughter, which ultimately ended in the death of the child.  The flashbacks had been occurring before, but seem more frequent.

While the academics working to speak with the heptapods are genuinely curious, the government officials in charge of the expedition are more concerned with the security of the world and want to know precisely why the aliens have come to Earth.  Through tireless work and with the help of technology, Banks develops the ability to effectively communicate with the heptapods.

The daily message exchanges reveal key facts about the aliens, including their intent, which is to provide a gift to humanity — their language.  Of course, the obvious question to humans concerns how a language could be considered a gift.  Some nations even believe the aliens have created a ruse and have translated the gift to mean 'weapon.'  

Banks and her team also discover the aliens do not see or view time in the linear fashion that humans do.  They experience time differently, and they do not have an understanding of the linear, which explains why the creatures are puzzled by algebra (we've all been there).  This relates to the reason why the heptapods have arrived.  We learn that their gift to humanity is not entirely selfless, as they will need humanity's help thousands of years in the future.  By providing humanity with their gift of language now, the heptapods will equip us with the words we need to rescue them in some way during the future.

The revelations made to Banks greatly concern military figures who control access to the aliens, who are concerned about ulterior motives and potential conflict.  This is of great concern after the Chinese convey plans to attack the alien ship in their territory, which they are convinced is a  threat.  Banks makes one last attempt to communicate with the heptapods, who provide her with the stunning information that she already has the gift, and now, she need only use it.  

It is at this point, the viewers are treated to a nice plot twist.  Throughout the film, we are led to believe that Banks is remembering the past of her divorce and the death of her child.  However, the reality is that she has been seeing glimpses of the future.  Banks comes to the understanding that these visions are not so much visions, but her experiencing time and space in the way that the heptapods do.  Time is no longer a linear experience.

The exposure to the alien language has irrevocably altered the way in which Banks thinks (and there is a discussion of this concept earlier in the film).  She can experience time in the moment, and more significantly, in the future.  This is particularly significant when the Chinese are poised to attack the heptapods.  At this moment, Banks experiences the future, when she is attending a black tie event, and is introduced to General Shang, the Chinese leader who was prepared to order a strike against the aliens.  

Through her conversation with Shang in the future, Banks is able to use that information in past events to prevent him from ordering an attack.  Of course, this presents an interesting paradox.  Banks' future is only successful because of the information she received in the future.  Which event caused the other?  How could a past event be caused by a future only possible through the past which it must cause? 

The paradoxical event aside, there exists a much more interesting subplot.  Banks becomes aware that her future husband is Donnelly, the scientist she has worked closely with in communicating with the heptapods.  She has a difficult decision to consider.  Would the joy of the experiences be legitimately worth the degree of pain we would endure during the process? 

At its root, this could be viewed as a cost-benefit analysis — no different than any other economic choice.  If we look at this from an intellectual level, we should probably avoid the pain of a divorce, and not have a child who will die at a young age.  Perhaps it would be better to not have it happen, so that we could be spared the suffering, and prevent our own child from experiencing such a life.  

However, we know that the emotion of our humanity does not bend to the rules of economic decision making like other issues.  Love motivates people to override their instincts, logic, and sound decision making.  There is no cost-benefit here.  Banks chooses the life laden with suffering because of the joy coupled with it.

This is where we begin to see the parallels to Jesus Christ.   In terms of decision making, Jesus Christ saw his own future and experienced the rejection, pain, suffering, and sin of humanity for a brief moment in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Faced with the possibility of dying for the sins of humanity and experiencing ultimate suffering in their place, Jesus could have easily walked away and left us with a fate we rightfully earned. Yet, Jesus saw the agony that awaited humans and the wrath God intended to pour out on them, and Jesus chose to take that punishment for them.

For Jesus Christ, the pain he endured was worth it.  And for those who would follow, Christ bids us to make a similar choice with our own lives.  He asks for his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.  Take heart when you encounter suffering, because the end result is worthwhile for the Christian.  It would be easier to avoid difficult situations and pain, but there is something greater in the selflessness.

For Louise Banks, the experience of connecting with the language of the heptapods left her changed forever.  She began to experience the world in a way that would not allow her to return to her old life.  An encounter with Jesus Christ will produce the same result.  It leaves you transformed, and there is no going back.  No so coincidentally, the "word" of God is a language unto itself that will change how a person lives, permeating through every aspect of their life.

Additionally, the arrival of the alien ships causes an upheaval in humanity, which leaves an indelible mark on society.  Jesus' time on Earth radically reshaped humanity in such a way that his impact is still echoing through the world.  More than a billion people throughout the world claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and acknowledge him as God.  That, in itself, is astonishing.

Jesus was also able to alter the way people think about the world around him.  He demonstrated that we all have deeper flaws than we could have seen, yet are more loved than we could have hoped.  Jesus' message was also radically more inclusive than any religion or worldview.  He included the rich and the poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, the sick, the lepers, and tax collectors, and even sat down to eat meals with the very people who would later be instrumental in his crucifixion.

In Arrival, when the alien ships appear, there are no signs of hostility from the Earth's visitors, yet the world's powers are threatened by the existence of a power greater than themselves, so they plot in vain to strike against the heptapods.  This is akin to the reaction of the Pharisees and other individual powers in first century Judea, who were terrified at the power Jesus held over people that diminished their own authority.  Their response was to plot to kill Jesus.  Humanity seems to have a default setting that leads us to want to destroy anything that we cannot control or understand.

There are smaller nuances about the film that point towards a Christian theme.  The heptapods have seven legs, and they land in 12 different locations above the Earth.  Both numbers are featured throughout the Bible.  The aliens experience time differently than us, where they are not bound by a linear perspective.  This is how we imagine God would view time, not bound by its constraints and freely moving back and forth.  When the aliens have taught us what we need to know, they fade away out of existence.

Despite being a well-made film, every analogy breaks down at some point.  Arrival is no different in this regard, and it is assuredly not an adequate substitute for studying the gospels.  However, it points us to something greater than ourselves, and should push us to further examine who Jesus Christ is.

The strange irony of modern society is that we love the trappings of Christmas.  Buying and wrapping presents, decorating, and work Christmas parties are part of what we do, yet we toddle along through the season without paying that much attention for whom the holiday was named.  Since Christmas is coming, would it not be a wise choice to consider the truthfulness of Jesus' claims that he is God?
The world applauds us when we seek out the truth, yet demonstrates a terrible disdain for anyone who asserts that they have found the truth.  Jesus himself stated that he is the truth.  This Christmas, I hope that you would see the truth and proclaim the coming of a savior.  Merry Christmas!

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