Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Musing on 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

Recently, my husband and I finally got around to watching the remake of the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. While I didn’t see the original in its entirety until a little over a year ago, I really enjoyed it—for both its story and the God-talk it generates. But, while I really wanted to like the remake, I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed—though the film does still generate its share of God-talk.

The film keeps the same basic plot—an alien named Klaatu (this time, Keanu Reeves) comes to warn Earth's inhabitants of their impending destruction. Well, not really. Actually he seems to come to Earth to set off that extermination with only a half-hearted attempt at warning its leaders. And instead of wanting to protect us and the other space-faring races in the universe from our bent towards destruction through war, this time Klaatu has come to protect the earth itself from our bent towards the destruction of our environment. It’s only after he spends a (very) little time with Helen (a scientist played by Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) that Klaatu begins to rethink this plan.

If I sound a little snarky, well, I am. And it’s not because I don’t think the way we treat the world around us—Creation—needs to be dramatically addressed and rethought; I really do (and I'm intrigued by Flourish as a recent approach to this from a Christian perspective). I’m more irritated by the lack of exploration of the sacredness of life—human and creation—and the connectedness between us all. I’m also irritated by the holes in thought, plot and character in the film (which Peter Chattaway gets at in his review at Christianity Today much better than I ever could.) And, if I’m honest, I guess I’m irritated at the potential the film didn’t fulfill as well as the genius of the original that was lost.

Not that the film doesn’t have its moments. I like Scott Derrickson and his work, and personally I think he does a good job with what he’s been given (as Chattaway also gets at in his review). The film has some beautiful shots and moves at a good pace. And I also really appreciated the moments in the film that challenged me to think about things in a deeper way.

For example, I really resonated with the premise that it often takes getting to the brink of destruction—as individuals, communities and entire civilizations—in order to get us to rethink the choices we are making, the way we are acting and what we believe. This makes me think again of Mark Scandrette’s way of thinking about repentance in Soul Graffiti: to “call into question our previous ways and awaken . . . to new possibilities.” These are often moments when we have come to a point where we either choose to continue on the same path of destruction or embrace a new way of thinking and living.

And I also appreciated a scene near the end of the film, which provides a thoughtful image we can explore when it comes to considering sin and Jesus’ work on the Cross. (Caution: spoilers ahead.) By this point in the film, the robot Gort has transformed into an ever enlarging swarm of nanonite-type beings that destroy buildings, vehicles, signs and, yes, people—everything, it seems, except for what occurs naturally on the earth itself. Even though Klaatu tries to protect them, the nanonites infect Helen and Jacob. As Klaatu uses his power to pull the destructive nannonites from the bodies of the scientist and her son and into his own, I couldn’t help but think of how Paul and others in the New Testament talk about how Jesus has taken our sins from us.

But, ultimately, the image isn’t large enough for me. For while Klaatu pulls death and destruction from Helen and Jacob—giving them and the rest of human civilization a new chance at life—he leaves them on their own to change (as does the Klaatu of the original film). And that falls dramatically short of the message we get from Jesus. He doesn’t simply take our sin from us (or stand between us and destruction, as did the Klaatu of the original), but opens the way into the Kingdom, where as we walk with and trust his action in us, (as Paul puts it) we “find that God's Spirit is in [us]—living and breathing God,” transforming and changing us not only as individuals but as a community of his people. He doesn’t simply remove or protect us from the thing that threatens to destroy us but also makes us new, filled with real life. And he invites us to work with him as he changes us and the world around us, growing us into the people he intended from the beginning.

Interestingly, I think this aspect of the story accurately reflects a common misconception among us about who God is and how he operates. When we assume a limited view of the gospel—i.e., that Jesus simply takes care of our sin penalty or condition and then leaves us on our own to change and make our way through life—that kind of theology can lead to a great deal of frustration and even disillusionment because we’ll find we can’t live or don’t experience the life that is laid out in Scripture. Which makes sense, because we simply can not live that kind of life on our effort.

But God doesn't leave us on our own. All that work—from that moment in the Garden to Jesus' incarnation to the Cross to the Resurrection to the fire-tongued Spirit—invites us back into the relationship we were designed to have from the beginning. As we walk with and trust that he is who says and can do what he says, he starts to enable us to live as we were created to, not only as individuals but even more so as the community of God’s people. Maybe part of the reason this kind of distant-God theology is so prevalent is because we misunderstand the full extent of the Gospel. Recently, New Testament scholar Scot McKnight began exploring something like this at Jesus Creed—it’s worth the read: Kingdom Gospel 1, Kingdom Gospel 2, Kingdom Gospel 3, Kingdom Gospel 4, Kingdom Gospel 5.

Bottom line, while the film wasn’t what I’d hoped it could be, it does have its moments and it brings some thought provoking God-talk into open spaces.


(For another interesting God-talk subject, see the latter part of Chattaway’s review at CT.)

(Image: 20th Century Fox/Alliance)

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