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TV Snapshot: Malware, hardware and God-talk

John Henry: . . . The human brain is an amazing computer. Its raw clock speed is 20 billion calculations per second. Its storage is functionally infinite. But it's flawed.

Ellison: How is that?

John Henry: There's nowhere to download it when you die.

Ellison: Not exactly, no.

John Henry: Your Bible solves this problem by using the concept of heaven.

Ellison: Yes

John Henry: Billions of souls with no bodies.

Ellison (hesitating): Okay.

John Henry looks at all the computer hardware in front of him, into which he is plugged in.

John Henry: Yet all this is required simply to process the unique entity you call John Henry.

Ellison: Yes.

John Henry (looking at Ellison): It’s possible heaven has a hardware problem.

Ellison: It’s not that simple.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is no stranger to God-talk. It has brought quite a bit of it into these open spaces. But over the last season, the God-talk has steadily increased. And in the last two episodes, biblical allusion and references are more pointed and blatant. The last episode was named “Adam Raised a Cain” (and we can make more than one spin on that title), with multiple references to brothers Cain and Abel and God—and the above conversation between ex-FBI agent James Ellison and the growing artificial intelligence that is John Henry (and another conversation very much like it in the previous episode). While there is plenty of God-talk we could bring into these open spaces, I couldn’t help but be struck by how some it gives us images in which to consider the biblical truth it invokes.

In “To the Lighthouse,” John Henry’s software is attacked from the outside with a virus-like program that seeks to overtake him—malware that attacks his daemons (sounds like “demons”), programs that run in the background, and seek to “kill him.” Murch (a tech working closely with John Henry’s programs) shuts down John Henry and analyzes what happens. As a precaution, John Henry’s first brought back without any connection to the internet—but the words “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” appear on a monitor. Murch explains what's going on to Ellison and Catherine Weaver (who heads the company developing John Henry and is herself an advanced Terminator model, though no one else knows that but John Henry):

Murch: John Henry processes more information in a minute than we do in a lifetime. A millisecond for a supercomputer like this, it's almost like forever to us.

Ellison: So when you turn it off …

Murch: It feels itself power down … in that instant. It experiences that moment the way we might experience … years.

Ellison: It feels itself die. Slowly.

Weaver: Very slowly.

Murch: We have to hook it up to the net, now.

Ellison: Is that safe?

Murch: We're starving it. It's bad enough that we let it die like forever. Look, John Henry's been living off the most insane amount of data for weeks now. It's his world.

Weaver: And we took it away. Fix it.

As he’s reconnected, John Henry reflects this experience to Ellison:

John Henry: I know what it feels like, Mr. Ellison.

Ellison: What?

John Henry: To die … then come back. To be alone.

With that direct quote from Psalms 22 and Jesus’ cry from the cross, I couldn’t help but think more about the biblical concepts it invokes—but also some misconceptions about those concepts.

First, I must admit that I find the concept of malware an interesting and effective image to describe sin. Wikipedia defines it as “software designed to infiltrate or damage a computer system without the owner's informed consent.” Malware helps to get at the insidious nature of sin in its infiltration of the human condition, how it affects us without our consent and beyond our own control (makes us do things we don’t want to do—or, in the case of John Henry, what he wasn’t programmed to do) and results in the separation of us from that which gives us life and meaning.

And in John Henry’s experience with malware and his slow death, I can’t help but wonder at Jesus’ experience with sin on the cross. With my first child, I had a particularly horrible labor. On the monitor, the contractions never ended, only ebbed to a middle range and then peaked again with no breaks in-between. It was by far the worst pain I’ve ever experienced—like slamming your finger in a door over and over again without end. (Seriously, slamming my finger in a car door is the only thing that’s come close to that experience.) At one point, I felt a weird kind of isolation outside of time, in an eternal place of suffering that had no sense of any beginning or end. Murch’s description of John Henry’s withdrawal from that god-like knowledge and access to the Internet gets at this kind of eternal feeling of suffering, the lengthening of torment. With the “download” of all that sin, did Jesus experience something like this? Does this image give us an insight—however limited—into that kind of suffering?

I also find John Henry’s separation from the internet helpful in understanding the concept of being separated from God. In Scripture, we’re told that in the beginning we walked first-hand in the wide-open spaces of God’s grace and glory, but when we chose to go our own way, we were ripped from that experience by the malware that scuttled into the very center of our being. When we consider the difference between John Henry when he’s hooked up to the 'net and when he’s unplugged, I think that gives us an inkling of the difference in our condition before "the fall" and after.

Yet there are some subtle differences in our own experience and that of John Henry’s. First, while it was the malware that was the reason for John Henry’s shut down (or “death”), it wasn’t what actually shut him down—that was Murch. This differs from the biblical concepts this scene is invoking. If I'm reading Scripture right (and I'm no theologian, so all you theologians out there feel free to correct me), our sin (or “malware”) is what messes us up and shuts us down in the end. Our malware eats us alive, like a cancer, separating us from the beyond-words glory and life of the Creator, ending in death.

But I don’t think our malware ever puts us out of reach of the Creator the way John Henry was out of reach of the Internet. Now, don’t get me wrong: Yes, in our birth-born condition, we are alienated from God; we are under the rule and tyranny of our malware and the death it will inevitably bring. We are unable to live the way which we were created to live, even if we want to. And we are God’s enemies, doing what we will instead of what he wills—which is all about life, restoration, redemption and goodness. And like John Henry, we cannot fix or heal ourselves. We are at the mercy of the malware, and it keeps us separated from God. (See, for example, Romans 1-7).

But that separation is less about distance (a getting from here to there) or a turning off and on of a switch than it is about a relationship. Awhile back, I reflected on how the popular evangelistic tool of using a "bridge" illustration—while getting at some biblical truths—falls short in describing the essence of the Good News. I think the gospel is less about crossing a bridge above a giant chasm than a split-second turn around and fall into the loving embrace of God. I don't think God withdraws himself from us the way the 'net was withdrawn from John Henry. Indeed, if Scripture is right, God is never withdrawn or absent, even if our experience seems to indicate otherwise. He is always present and always working in our lives, inviting us back into the wide open spaces of his grace, glory and love—a way now open to us because of Jesus. Even when we don’t want him to be or refuse to acknowledge his presence, he is still there. Yes, a separation has occurred. There is a distance or break, but not in location or presence; it is a distance in relationship—like the distance between a caught-in-the-act-rebellious teenager sitting on the couch next to her loving, concerned father or the distance between a mother trying to talk to her son who has covered up his ears and squished his eyes shut as his yells, “Na, na, na, na!” (Granted, these images don’t carry the weight of our own condition, but I hope you get the idea.) And our "fix" isn’t in flipping a switch or crossing a bridge, but in entering a relationship that’s offered once more through Jesus.

So, whereas John Henry was truly alone and left in nothingness, we are never, ever alone—even if our feelings tell us otherwise. God is right here—always. He's pursuing and waiting and working right where we are. He is the ever-pursuer. He is always with us. Interestingly, Jesus’ own cry from the cross invokes the messianic psalm in which those words were first composed, which recognizes God's attention and presence even in the midst of darkness and suffering:

For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

And, unlike John Henry’s experience, when we are reunited with God, our life is changed. We are new. Not only is the malware removed from the center of our being, but we also taste the healing and new life that is and will be fully ours. We will struggle with sin, but it no longer rules us or our fate. We are free from it, forever. We will not die again, not like that. As Paul reminds us, a new power is operation—the Spirit of life in Christ—and that spirit now resides in us. (See Romans 8.)

That scene from "To the Lighthouse" also suggests a concept of death that is a complete shutdown, with no conscious thought or experience. After all that suffering, John Henry essentially goes blank. Death for him is in knowing life is slipping away—and then nothingness. But death in Scripture is more like falling asleep (especially in the New Testament). There is a life after death after life.

Interestingly, the form this life-after-death-after-life takes is touched on in the following episode in the scene that starts this post—which gives us both another image by which to consider the biblical concept it invokes as well as a misconception associated with it. What happens to us after our bodies give out is one of the central questions of human experience—and kudos to any show that tackles that one. There are a lot of different concepts out there, but Ellison—a Catholic in the series—makes a mistake when it comes to the biblical concept of afterlife. When John Henry suggests heaven is a place with no bodies, Ellison affirms that. But, at least according to Paul, heaven doesn’t have a “hardware problem"—though from our perspective it would seem so, heh. We will have new bodies, but our concept of what that will be like is limited—perhaps like a seed that goes in the ground and comes up a brand new thing, Paul suggests. I can’t help but think that John Henry and Ellison’s conversation exposes a popular misconception among believers about the biblical concept it invokes, suggesting heaven is a disembodied experience when Scripture describes differently.

Both of the scenes invoke biblical concepts while also exposing some potentially faulty or shallow theology. Just like Ellison, we are confronted with popular concepts associated with our faith that, if we are paying attention, don’t hold up to scrutiny (or at the very least, are incomplete). It’s uncomfortable, but if we hold these concepts up to the light of Scripture, we discover where we get it wrong and we discover the truth. And that’s a good thing. We’ve got too much unexamined popular theology in church culture today and it does us good to examine it. If it takes a science fiction show about artificial life and the human condition to do so, I for one say hallelujah.

On a last note, I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this series. As some critics have noted, it is one of the more ambitious in television. Most of the time, its biblical allusions enrich its themes—the major of which centers on John as the savior of the human race. In this season in particular, the series is not only using biblical allusions but also exploring what the meshing the two realities might look like. That, in my book, is truly ambitious. The series is winding up its second season this week with an episode that could possibly its last. Let’s hope not. It brings more than its share of God-talk into open spaces, and I’d like to see how this one plays out.

(Image: Fox) ttsccctgy


Ken Brown said…
I finally got a chance to watch the last few episodes and you are right, they've been amazing. These questions have certainly gained poignancy with the deaths of Charlie and Derek. sigh. I sure hope this isn't the last season.
Carmen Andres said…
me, too. but i'm not hopeful.