Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The God/Human Struggle of Blade Runner

My wife and I recently saw both 'Atonement' and 'There Will Be Blood' at the movies. These 2 flicks have been widely acclaimed in critical circles and are gobbling up all sorts of nominations and awards. Yet, my wife and I were decidedly underwhelmed by both. Such disappointment with what's passing for 'great' filmmaking these days incited a desire to go back and watch a movie (recently altered/improved by Director Ridley Scott) that truly was great, 'Blade Runner'. Most of the spirited debate surrounding this movie over the last 25 years has centered on whether the Harrison Ford character of Deckard is or isn't a replicant (Scott's 2007 Final Cut seems to lean toward the affirmative, although in my view, it remains a tantalizingly open question). But an equally interesting (and not unrelated) current in the movie concerns the nature of humanity and its relationship to God. I would suggest that Blade Runner offers us a provocative mixture of Judeo-Christian and Nietzschean influences which offer much food for thought.

I apologize in advance for those not particularly indoctrinated in the Blade Runner storyline, characters, or terms. This post might sound like it's in code. But similar to my take on the use of language in the Fourth Gospel, I would encourage readers to use this post as an impetus to see the movie and become familiar with it. It'll be worth your time.

Set in the year 2019 (which is unfortunate; 2020 would have been better given the almost constant drumbeat of eyes and eyesight throughout the movie), we are told that the Tyrell Corporation has specialized in creating 'replicants' of humans for purposes of off-world exploration and other dangerous missions/tasks. Importantly, their motto is 'More human than human', and the rest of the movie very skillfully analyzes the implications of this both from the standpoint of replicant and human (Deckard's vague status on the spectrum only adds to the depth of these issues). These replicants have the ability to feel and express emotion, and in a major advance, the latest models have been implanted with memories so that it is no longer easy for either humans or the replicants themselves to know that they are replicants. This, of course, is one implication of the movie - if a being has emotions and memories, how unhuman are they?

At the beginning of the film, the audience is treated to a panaromic scene of the Tyrell Corporation headquarters. I would suggest that in many ways, the building resembles a great Temple. When Deckard visits Tyrell, the man who created the Tyrell Corporation, one immediately gets the sense that Tyrell is a Nietzchean godlike figure. He is frail, emotionally detached and distant, his vision is weak, yet he nonetheless has the power to 'control the weather' (when Deckard says it's too bright in his office, Tyrell effortlessly dims the impact of the sun), and to create 'life' in creating the replicants. Tyrell is a flawed puppetmaster in the Nietzchean mold.

The replicants created by Tyrell have the ability to feel and express emotion. But these emotions are very immature and unpredictable, and problems have resulted. As a result of this, replicants are built to have only a 4 year life span so that they are automatically 'retired' (terminated) before their emotions spin completely out of control, and they are not allowed on Earth once becoming operational. The problem is that 4 replicants have escaped from an off-world colony and are roaming the streets of a decaying Los Angeles. The leader and most advanced of these replicants is Roy, played by Rutger Hauer. As it turns out, as he nears his automatic retirement, Roy has come back to Earth primarily to speak with Tyrell about extending his life span. This sets the stage for the dramatic interplay between Roy and Tyrell at the corporation's headquarters - an interplay between religion and Nietzchean anti-religion.

With the aid of a high-level Tyrell employee named JF Sebastian, Roy penetrates the Tyrell Temple and gets on the elevator to go up and see Tyrell. Similar to the curtain layer in the OT Temple/tabernacle, the elevator initially only goes so far up the building. Tyrell lives in the top of the building, and no one is allowed in without his say-so. This is a clear allusion to the Holy of Holys in the OT tabernacle/Temple where the Ark of the Covenant and God's Spirit resided. Sebastian and Tyrell have been engaged in a long-distance chess match. With Sebastian and Roy in the stopped elevator and Tyrell on speaker, Sebastian (following Roy's instructions) delivers what he believes is a decisive move that results in checkmate (again, we see that Tyrell is flawed). The amusely impressed Tyrell invites Sebastian up for a talk, unaware that Roy is with him. The elevator then moves up to the Holy of Holys where the confrontation takes place.

Once inside this holy of holys, Nietzche's flawed god meets Nietzche's Uberman, Roy. The exchange between them is filled with biblical imagery. Tyrell proudly refers to Roy as the prodigal son who has returned home, while Roy, in an almost devotional tone, refers to Tyrell as 'Father' and considers Tyrell to be 'his maker'. Having met his maker, Roy pleads for a longer life. Even though Roy is a replicant, the pursuit of immortality is 'more human than human'. Tyrell says that nothing can be done about Roy's lifespan; that it was fixed during the creation process and cannot be changed. Roy proposes various ideas for how it could be done. Tyrell, being the godlike figure in the story, has already investigated and tried them all, and tells Roy that none of them work. Tyrell is confirming Roy's death sentence here. Roy then confesses that he has done 'questionable things', which is a clear confession of sin where Roy is coming to his god to find forgiveness. Instead of offering forgiveness, Tyrell excuses Roy's indiscretions by pointing out the 'great things' Roy has done.

What happens next is classic Nietzche. Roy realizes that 'his maker' is actually a flawed, immoral, distant and ultimately impotent god who has ingrained his created beings with irreparably fatal flaws. Roy then proceeds to kill Tyrell as both an act of anguish and liberation. The classic Nietzchean line of anguished triumph, "God is dead, and we have killed him", is displayed for us in this powerful scene. For Nietzche, and for Blade Runner, man stands in judgment over God, and he is right to do so because this god is no god at all, but simply a flawed puppetmaster condemning his creatures to death while living above it all. To lash out and refuse to be a puppet any longer is the most human thing we can do in this paradigm.

In the end, Roy becomes a poignant figure who saves Deckard's life before giving up his own life. Roy's death scene at the end of the movie (which is again filled with religious imagery) is one of the most moving scenes I've ever seen, and is at once haunting, tragic, beautiful, and convicting. Roy becomes something of a christ figure in the end. It is not incidental that Ridley Scott considers himself to be a very deliberate agnostic. Scott has said elsewhere that in his mind, being a Doubting Thomas enables one to ask the best and toughest questions, which is something atheism and fundamentalism are incapable of doing because they are too certain and absolute about their beliefs.

In respectful response, I would say that in framing the spectrum this way, Scott himself is being entirely too absolute and is avoiding being confronted by tough questions that hit too close to home for him. Blade Runner reflects this with its co-mingling of diametrically opposed worldviews. In the end, Scott's presentation of God is a convenient one that justifies a certain stance on humanity's grasp and pursuit of the infinite that leaves us in an ethical and ontological mess. While such conclusions are considered marks of sophisticated avante-garde thinking, this isn't automatically so. Scott's god in Blade Runner is a god that ironically doesn't ask tough questions; it only makes arrogant decisions. It should be no surprise that humans who ideally do more of the former than the latter would rebel against this god. But by stacking the deck this way, Scott conveniently avoids addressing the much harder question of whether humanity's relationship to God really looks like this, and what happens if it doesn't. After all, one might say that Scott's vision of God lacks thoughtful probing and is a rather arrogant endeavor in its own right. It has often been said that if Deckard is in fact a replicant, he is the very thing he is hunting down. One might say the same about Scott and Tyrell.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Denominational Loyalty

It is considered a cutting-edge observation these days to remark on how church-goers seem to have less and less denominational loyalty than previous generations. Within traditional denominational structures, this phenomenon is lamented by many liberals and conservatives alike. Among non-denominational structures, the phenomenon is celebrated by many liberals and conservatives alike. The laments often focus on how something precious is being lost, while the celebrations often center on what is being gained. In my view, it all misses the point.

Let's be clear about a few things shall we:

1) Liberals in mainline denominations long ago forfeited the right to lament eroding denominational loyalty. By so watering down their theological emphases in favor of blob theology, what exactly do they think people are supposed to be loyal to - an instititution that has chosen to sacrifice its distinctives on the altar of blobbish tolerance? When Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists start swapping clergy, buildings, programs, and find their identity/inspiration for ministry in parachurch institutions and even the UN, what exactly do the lamenters of eroding denominational loyalty think is going to happen? Such denominational labels become devoid of theological meaning and become little more than descriptors of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. While it's natural for members of that hierarchy to lament a loss of loyalty, one truly has to be slow on the uptake not to understand why it's happening and are not able to see it coming.

2) But denominational conservatives don't have much right to complain either. While seemingly counterintuitive, conservatives have often been at the forefront of advancing an individualistic brand of Christianity to a me-first culture that sucks it right up. For denominational conservatives who have fought and broken free from compromised denominational leadership, it is quite understandable why the Christianity they offer would be focused on the lives and convictions of individuals, and would be wary of ecclesiastical structures that they know from experience can corrupt and compromise the Gospel. But just as with the blob theology of the liberals that loses shape, texture, and meaning, the conservative gospel of personal salvation and personal responsibility to the near exclusion of communal factors renders an emphasis on larger ecclesiastical loyalty irrelevant and even a non sequiter. It rings hollow for churches to talk about Christianity almost exclusively in terms of individual salvation and then lament the logical consequence of individualistic Christianity - me-first fragmentation.

3) Those who celebrate a loss of denominational loyalty also miss the point. It is fashionable to say that being loyal to Christ should supersede being loyal to a denomination, and this is true of course. But it's not always true if it is meant in mutually exclusive terms. Traditionally, denominations were born out of streams of theological emphases that have hundreds and even thousands of years of helpful tradition and theology that helps anchor us in today's faddish theological times. Those who celebrate a loss of denominational loyalty are often dangerously close to advocating the severing of the Christian's 2,000 year strong historical theological tradition. And this, my friends, is theological suicide. If we believe that the church is God's house on earth (Eph 2), and that the Holy Spirit has preserved and guided his church in understanding Christ, ourselves, and the world through the responsible interpretation of the Scriptures, to minimize this tradition and its importance to us today is to minimize the Body of Christ itself and the ministry of God the Holy Spirit in shepherding this Body. And it also lends itself to arrogance by suggesting that we don't need tradition to keep us loyal to Christ, because we know better. Those who think this way don't know better, and are usually the ones most in need of the theological grounding that faithful denominational traditions offer us.

In America, we have passed the point where denominational loyalty will be in vogue. As children of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the 1960s, Watergate, and ecclesiastical scandals of all varieties, we 'passed go' on denominational loyalty a long time ago. We distrust institutions, we believe they are corrupt and out of touch, and we feel that we only have ourselves to rely on to protect our interests. This has been the American way since King George, and the church has too often gone along rather than challenge the tide. For liberals in the church, this translates into absurd attempts to dissolve theologically-based institutions for unbiblical reasons while also trying to maintain and strengthen hollowed-out administrative institutions for equally unbiblical reasons, and the results are in. For conservatives in the church, this translates into the fool's errand of taking the reins and trying to guide in one direction millions of individualistic Christians who are flying around in every possible direction. And the church only has itself to blame, because it has knuckled under to the culture in an effort to be relevant. Being loyal to Christ doesn't mean we bend the knee to the denomination. But it doesn't mean spitting at the denomination either.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Love and Discernment

In Philippians 1, Paul does something very dynamic, even though it often goes overlooked. In v9, he prays that the Philippians will experience increasingly abundant love through knowledge and depth of insight. In v10, Paul explains why he wants to see this growth - so that the Philippians will be able to discern what is best and be pure and blameless before God.

Often times, we have a tough time bringing love and knowledge together. We are prone to see knowledge primarily as an intellectual thing, while seeing love primarily as an emotional thing. The result is often that we have trouble marrying the two, so that what we believe doesn't translate into how we feel and act. But Paul's description of the human constitution doesn't break down along these popular lines. For Paul, the relationship between the head and the heart is not a mutually exclusive one, as if both exist in separate containers. To the contrary, Paul links the two at a very basic level, and in doing so, offers a vision of humanity that sharply differs not only from the pagan dualistic thought of his day, but also the tendency in our day to compartmentalize the human constitution. Love is informed by knowledge, and knowledge is informed by love. Put them together, we arrive at the kind of discernment that results in the kind of perspective that yields good godly decisions.

There is little doubt that in our world, making godly decisions, or even knowing how to properly analyze a thorny situation, is a difficult yet regular experience. Paul is very helpful to us here in Philippians, particularly as it relates to what love looks like in difficult relationships.

For example, how should we handle working for an unethical boss? How should we handle a difficult spouse? What should our response be to a hurtful sibling? Scripture gives us the virtue of perseverance, but also dramatically gives cases where separation is necessary. How are we to know which posture is correct at any point in time in any given relationship? The Bible is not a cookbook with point by point instructions on how to deal with the myriad of difficult situations we can find ourselves in. What does love look like in cases like this? It is here that Paul helps us.

Many of us operate with certain default settings, and this certainly holds true in regards to our response to difficult people. For some, the immediate response to a toxic relationship is to cut it off and remove one self from the situation. For others, the response is to stick it out at all costs, because of fear of making waves, rocking the boat, and creating tension and friction. These responses are not confined to individuals. The church at large also tends to adopt such postures, with some regularly ringing the bell of separation, while others insist on 'togetherness' at all cost.

As we've said, both postures can be biblically supported in a vacuum, but it is precisely because Scripture supports both postures that we should be wary of adopting either posture as some kind of universal rule of the cosmos. For Paul, in order to discern what is best in difficult situations, love and knowledge must both be part of the equation, with both mutually informing the other. Paul tells us that in part, what abounding love looks like in tough spots is influenced by the degree to which our love is growing through knowledge. Rightly loving difficult people in difficult situations requires discernment that is informed by knowledge. Heart and mind working together to rightly inform the will.

It is through godly discernment that we determine how long to persevere with some person or situation. Discernment helps us avoid erring in one of two directions. It is possible for people to err in separating too quickly from a situation, and also to err in persevering too long in a situation. It is godly discernment informed by knowledge that guides what love looks like in these situations. Most separations in the home and church are sinful, but not all are. For those who are struggling with where to draw the line and how much to commit, Paul offers us some sage counsel. Do not trust your feelings to the exclusion of knowledge - that's not discernment. Don't compartmentalize or marginalize the faculties you possess in formulating solid responses to difficult spots. It only makes sense that difficult situations that tax our whole being should be met with a godly response that takes the faculties of the whole being into account. By linking love and knowledge, Paul gives us a realistic, sensible, and biblical rationale to engage all of ourselves in the difficult task of successfully making godly decisions in a fallen world. The health of ourselves and the health of the church warrant following Paul's grid.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hospitality Lectures Online

I've mentioned in previous blog entries that starting in January 2008, I would be teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church on Christian hospitality. The course will be between 10-12 weeks, and I will have a lecture script for each week. These lessons are now available online. Interested readers can follow the 'My Hospitality Course' link on the right side of the blog page. At the time of this blog post, I've only completed the first 4 lectures, so other lectures will be incorporated into the overall pdf document that the blog links to. The handouts I give to the attendees each week are the lecture scripts in outline form.

The church I attend has been very gracious in not only allowing me to teach the course, but to make the lectures available online. Last Sunday was our first class, and we had a good turnout. I am very excited about the material, and not only teaching it to others, but learning from them as well.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Situation in Kenya and Uganda

For the past several days, a Ugandan reverend in the Anglican Church and his wife have been staying with us. We rang in the New Year together, toured Washington DC together, and introduced them to several of our friends, some of whom are taking a direct missionary/ministry interest in Uganda. Their time with us was a high point of our year, even though 2008 is only a day old. I knew them from my days at seminary. We started out in summer Greek together (talk about a bonding experience!), and during the course of the 3 years I was there, we became very close. As much as anyone I know, these two wonderful people from Uganda represent the real deal when it comes to Christian conviction, joy, and vibrancy.

But as wonderful as our time together has been these last few days, it was saddened by the recent news coming out of central Africa. The situation in Kenya is clearly deteriorating. The recent presidential election was very close, and there have been many accusations from both sides of vote rigging and election corruption. This has resulted in tribal violence that has turned ugly. It has been widely reported that 50 people and perhaps more who were seeking sanctuary from the violence in a church outside Nairobi were burned alive and killed. What has not been widely reported is that Uganda is also being impacted by what is happening in Kenya. Most of Uganda's national petroleum supply comes through Kenya, and this supply has been severely cut off due to the tribal violence in Kenya. In addition, Kenyan refugees are already fleeing west towards Uganda and will probably enter Uganda in great numbers if peace and order are not quickly restored in Kenya.

My Ugandan friend told me that what is happening in Kenya right now resembles the beginnings of the Rwandan genocide in the 90s, in that the tribal dynamic is very similar. Things in Kenya have clearly not deteriorated to that point yet, but it is possible that it might get that bad. The mere possibility of another Rwanda should be getting all of us on our knees.

The church needs to be in fervent prayer for Kenya and Uganda. Only God can overcome long-standing tribal grudges and frustrations with peace and reconciliation. The Rwandan genocide educated the world about how lethal these kinds of conflicts can be, and how quickly madness can consume an entire country. The stakes in Kenya are very high, and things are very critical at the moment. We need to pray that God will intervene before the situation gets completely out of control and chaos is allowed to reign. We need to pray that the church, as God's prophetic voice, will reiterate the basic Christian belief that all people are made in the image of God, and will insist that people be treated with the dignity that such a status requires.