1O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
When I first heard about the premise for the movie Interstellar, I was pretty excited. As a self-professed science fiction nerd, I actually have a real problem with the vast majority of science fiction films that have been produced in the past two decades. Invariably the message of recent sci-fi films can be boiled down to this: Space is dangerous and it will kill you, so don’t go there. If there are alien life forms out there, they are dangerous and they will kill you, so don’t go looking for them. The same is true about most sci-fi films when it comes to technology. The message is that new technology (whether its robots, artificial intelligence, or machines) is dangerous and it will kill you, so don’t invent it.
This is actually a horrible message. It sells movie tickets for the same reason horror movies do…we like to be made afraid in the controlled environment of a movie theater with cushioned seats, air conditioning and large quantities of popcorn. But it undermines the golden age of space exploration in the 1960s and 70s, when brave pioneers like Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong inspired the world to dream of what was possible. Space is dangerous, and in our real life space program, real lives have been lost. But in the 60s and 70s, we as a nation and a culture decided that the risks, the danger, were worth the cost. And many science fiction movies and shows of that era reflected that optimism, that strong belief that we should boldly go where no one had gone before.
The movie Interstellar doesn’t shy away from the risks and dangers, but it’s message is clear: Go. In the end, it will be worth it.
The film begins in the near future, on a farm somewhere in the midwest. The main character, who goes by his last name, Cooper, or Coop, is a former NASA astronaut turned farmer, and a father to son Tom and daughter Murphy. But in this future, giant sandstorms, famine, and blight ravish the land. Crops are dying, and the earth’s food supply is quickly running out. All of humanity’s resources are diverted away from science and exploration, towards producing food instead.
Around this time, the few remaining NASA scientists discover a wormhole in our solar system that would allow us to travel to another galaxy, and potentially place new, habitable worlds within our reach. Cooper is the only remaining qualified NASA pilot, and so is recruited to lead an expedition through the wormhole, to find a previous expedition of 12 astronauts (the Lazarus project) who had earlier gone in search of habitable worlds.
With great difficulty, Cooper leaves behind his family and embarks upon a journey into space. Before he leaves, he promises his daughter that he will be back. Due to the laws of relativity, and some pretty hardcore (and credible) science surrounding a giant black hole, days and weeks pass for the expedition in space while entire decades pass on earth, straining the relationship between Cooper and his daughter, as she begins to believe he won’t keep his promise.
After a series of disasters and betrayals on worlds that prove to be less-than-inhabitable, only Cooper, his fellow astronaut Amelia, and one potentially habitable world remain, but not enough resources to reach it, or to return to earth. Cooper comes up with a plan to use the black hole’s gravity to slingshot Amelia to that last planet, in the process sacrificing his own life by plunging his landing vehicle into the black hole itself.
Rather than dying, he finds himself trapped in a space-time singularity, an anomaly that allows him to transcend time and space, transcend the 4th dimension, reaching out to his daughter in the past. At first, he uses this anomaly to try to stop himself from leaving her all those years ago.
When that fails, he shifts his focus from the past to the future, and is able to communicate to his adult daughter information that she uses to save the people of earth, leaving behind the dying earth and bringing them into space, to a new home. When Cooper finally escapes from the black hole, he is reunited with his daughter near the end of her life, just as the hope and promise of humanity’s future finally seems secure.
Recognizing Christ Types
One of the reasons I do this series every year is to teach us to recognize sacred themes, images, and symbols in secular culture. As Christians, our entire faith is centered around the story of Jesus Christ, so in literature and in film, the “Christ type” should be the most recognizable symbol to us. What do I mean when I say “Christ type?” It’s a character who in some ways resembles Christ, either intentionally on the part of the writers and directors, or more often subconsciously, in what Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell referred to as the “archetypal characters” that permeate throughout western culture, literature, and film. Look for someone who comes to save mankind, an innocent who is betrayed, someone who dies sacrificially and comes back to life. A Christ type is not always all of these things, but usually several. Four out of the six movies we’ll discuss this year feature Christ types.
In interstellar, Cooper leaves this world to prepare a better one for humanity, but first tells his daughter, “I’ll love you forever, and I’m coming back.” In John 14, Jesus tells his beloved disciple, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”
At one point in the film, Cooper is betrayed by another astronaut, appropriately named “Dr. Mann.” So basically, sinful Mann betrays him. Cooper sacrifices his life for Amelia (and all humanity), by descending into death, the black hole (described in the film as “a literal heart of darkness). He conquers death, and in the black hole, becomes Godlike, able to transcend time and space. Omniscient, and Omnipresent. Incidentally, Cooper’s son Thomas “doubts” his father and loses faith in him. Finally, at the end of the film, Cooper goes off to join Amelia in a new world to be its first inhabitants. That makes them a “new Adam” and a “new Eve.” The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 refers to Jesus as the “new Adam.”
One more thing, and this is what convinced me that none of this was subconscious but rather intentional: Nowhere in the movie is Cooper’s first name revealed. But in the script to the film, in the screenplay, he is listed as Joseph Cooper. His initials…are JC.
There are so many Faith-inspired themes in the movie. I’ll rattle off a few, and probably some of you noticed ones I didn’t even catch:
- Leading the people out of the dusty desert into the promised land
- The need to adapt, which echoes our Presbyterian motto of “reformed and always reforming.”
- Providence, which is reflected in Cooper’s philosophy that “everything that can happen, will happen.”
- My favorite theme, however, is love. It was a pleasant surprise to find in such a crunchy science movie. There’s a great scene where Amelia (a biologist who is generally pragmatic and rational) at one point says “Listen to me when I say that love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable, powerful. It has to mean something. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. I’m drawn across the universe to someone I haven’t seen in a decade who I know is probably dead. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”
Is Our Destiny Among the Stars?
One final thing I’d like to address. It’s a central question of the film: Is it our destiny to leave the earth behind, and colonize other planets? Cooper says at one point, Mankind was born here; we weren’t meant to die here. And what’s a good Christian perspective on this question? What are we to believe, we who believe that God created the earth and gave us dominion over it? Some Christians believe that we are living in what they call “the end times” and that God will soon destroy this world and take faithful Christians supernaturally to another one. Those of you who remember my sermon series on Revelation a couple of years ago already know my thoughts (and my profound disagreement) with that interpretation.
But I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that we ourselves could destroy the world God has given us, or simply exhaust its resources, or even be the victim of some natural or cosmic disaster, like a meteor impact. And what then?
In the film, Cooper says “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The author of Psalm 8 says something similar: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Today’s anthem put it this way: O Lord our God, the majesty and glory of your name transcends the earth and fills the heavens.
God’s name transcends the earth–it goes beyond the earth–and fills the heavens. And as he often does, I think God beckons to his children to do the same. In ancient Hebrew, and in ancient Greek, the word Heaven is always plural: The Heavens. And long before it ever came to mean the place where you go after you die…it simply meant up there. Out there. Among the stars. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Thus both the earth and the heavens are part of creation. And then in Mark 16:15, right before he ascended from earth to the heavens, Jesus told his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” That word that we translate as “world?” Go into all the world… It’s not the Greek word Γαῖα (Gaia) which means the earth, this land, this planet. It’s the Greek word “κόσμος.” It means the world, but more than that. It means the universe. Jesus said, “Go into all the cosmos, and proclaim the Gospel to all creation…the earth and the heavens.
I’ll end with the words of Joe Cooper, J.C.: “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.”