Thursday, March 15, 2012

Will and cause in "John Carter"

Walt Disney Pictures (via AllMoviePhoto)
Tardos Mors: Maybe this is the will of the Goddess. 
Dejah Thoris: No, this is your will.

Last weekend, my husband and I took our kids to see John Carter, Disney’s ambitious adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fiction novels. Critics are mixed on their reviews and the film has a long history of industry controversy, but I thought it a fun film—and one that touches on something about human nature and the causes we for which we fight.

Through an unexpected encounter in a cave in Arizona, former Confederate captain John Carter finds himself on Mars—and in the middle of an epic fight between the giant cities of Zodanga and Helium (and the scheming machinations of the mysterious and malevolent Therns). When Tardos Mors, the ruler of Helium, tells his daughter that she must marry their enemy in order to save the city, he tells her it might be the will of the Goddess. Dejah’s response is resigned but insightful: “No, this is your will.” All too often, out of fear, shame or selfishness we will use the idea of fate or God’s will to justify our own actions and decisions. But really, those choices and actions are born of our own will.

In Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard says that the will—or “spirit”—lies at the center of who we are. Our actions, says Willard, are not merely an outcome of or movement of the will alone, however: “Often—perhaps usually—what we do is not an outcome of deliberate choice and a mere act of will, but it is more of a relenting to pressure on the will from one or more of the dimensions of the self.” Our will, says Willard, is influenced by our whole person—including feelings, thoughts, social contexts and desires of our bodies. Our will, in other words, “is very largely at the mercy of the forces playing upon it from the larger self and beyond.”

As for Tardos Mors, his will is influenced by his desire to maintain power and protect his city—these are his causes. His love for his daughter, however great, and his commitment to (as Dejah puts it to John Carter later) the “noble cause” of the survival of Mars as a whole are relegated lower. When he tries to persuade Dejah to go along with his decision by suggesting it is the will of the Goddess, she sees through his words and to the heart of the problem.

The film also illustrates the struggle of the will to overcome these influences—from both within and without—and act out of selflessness and nobleness. We see this particularly in John Carter, whose horrific losses during the Civil War have left him cynical and wary of joining any side in Mars’ struggle. But even if Carter claims he has no cause for which to fight, just like Tardos Mors, he does: his own fears and desires. Recently, I heard a quote from Rebecca Manley Pippert’s Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World: “Whatever controls us is our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by acceptance. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives.” But Carter’s will and cause begin to change. While the film doesn’t explore this theme in great depth, Carter starts making one decision after another and gradually his will begins to consistently act out of the best interests of something (and someone) other than himself.

We can see this kind of sacrificial transformation happen all around us as people learn to love and place the best interests of others above their own interests. But our own Story tells us that that our will is created to operate and loves best when it is line with God’s will. This process of transformation takes place when we bring our will under God. “The spirit must first come alive to and through God,” says Willard. And “once the spirit comes alive in God, the lengthy process of subduing all aspects of the self under God can begin.” Spiritual transformation, says Willard, “only happens as each essential dimension of the human being is transformed to Christlikeness under the direction of a regenerate will interacting with constant overtures of God’s grace.” As we work with God to bring our whole selves under his will, we gradually find our own will transformed; we start to become the “kind of people” we were created to be: those who love God and others.

And just as Tardos Mors and John Carter find their will shapes their causes, so we find our wills shape ours. In our Story, that cause is a mission: to join with God in his deep longing and work to restore a broken world and a broken people. It is a mission towards healing, right-ness, justice, life and reconciliation, a mission always inviting others in, a mission of Love. For that is how it began: "For God so loved the world..." Henri Nouwen says, "Jesus' central message is that God loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.” Our mission is rooted in this Love.

And as the noble cause of Mars’ survival and well-being as a whole becomes the context in which John Carter joins with others in his mission, we too will find our context for gathering with others in our mission. In A New Testament Trilogy, Tom Johnston and Mike Chong Perkinson tell us that the biblical concept of koinonia, “the basis of community, cannot take place unless there is a sense of commonality of heart and purpose—a mission that unites us.” This mission “begins with Jesus as we enter into communion with our risen Lord and from that relationship participate in the greater mission” and “out of this partnership comes a genuine and deep koinonia that knits souls together in a way that normal social gatherings at church cannot.

I resonated with John Carter as he transformed, finding a new home and a new people. It reminds me of my own journey and the reality of the Story we live in—and that brings God-talk into these open spaces.

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