In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
1 Corinthians 14:10-11
10There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. 11If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
1 Corinthians 13:12-13
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
For the next six weeks, my sermons will feature aliens, samurai, WWII medics, wizards, airplane pilots, and jazz pianists. If you’re relatively new to First Presbyterian Church, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute…I don’t remember any of those things in the Bible.” But if you’ve been here awhile, you know that this is the time of year when we talk about movies. Not just any movies, but some of the most watched or crititically acclaimed movies of the past year across a broad spectrum of styles and genres–usually everything from historical drama to science fiction and fantasy, comedy and romance to action-adventure, animated family film to art-house films. I try to include something for everyone, while also stretching people beyond the types of films they usually might see.
But why movies? Shouldn’t we stick to just the Bible? Isn’t that the only story that really matters? Well, yes and no. As Christians, the Bible is our greatest, most cherished story. But there are many other stories out there, too, that reflect who we are as 21st century people–our hopes, dreams, and fears. Bringing the stories of our culture into dialogue with the story of our faith helps us to understand each one better, to recognize common themes and messages they share, as well as how all of our stories shape and influence us, in our faith as well as our day to day lives.
So with that, let’s take a look at our first film, Arrival.
Three Minute Film Summary
Since not everyone has seen this film yet, I like to start with a brief plot summary, which is tricky to do without giving too much away, and even trickier in the case of this film, because the story is non-linear–things don’t happen in chronological order, but rather jump backwards and forwards in time. There’s also a huge plot twist right at the end that I’ll try not to give away, but which actually puts everything into a whole new context.
The film begins in darkness with the voice of a mother telling her daughter, “I used to think this was the beginning of your story.” We watch as a baby girl is born in the hospital, followed by images from her as a toddler playing with her mother, then as a young girl telling her mother “I love you,” then as a teenager telling her mother “I hate you.” Next we see the teenaged girl back in the hospital, dying of cancer as her mother grieves, and we hear her voice saying “And this was the end.” Fade to black again. After awhile, the mother continues, “But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings or endings. There are days that define your story beyond your life… like the day they arrived.”
The mother, Dr. Louise Banks, is a linguist and a college professor. We watch next as her class is interrupted by news that 12 giant strange objects have appeared in the sky at various places throughout the world. Louise Banks is recruited by the United States government to make contact with the alien species, try to learn their language, and figure out what they want. She is assisted by Ian Connely, a scientist, and a team of military personnel who are all racing against the clock as tensions rise in the country and throughout the world, and as some governments move to take a more hostile approach to the alien visitors.
The big breakthrough in the movie comes when Louise discovers that the aliens’ language is non-linear: Thoughts are conveyed without a beginning or end. As Louise learns the language, she is transformed by it, and she begins to think outside of the bounds of time itself. She is able to use this newfound gift not only to understand the aliens’ peaceful intentions, but also to communicate with other world leaders and difuse the global crisis, and to understand her relationship with her daughter (and her daughter’s father) in an entirely new way.
If you haven’t seen the film, that summary was probably more confusing than helpful, but it’s the best I can do without giving too much away. While this film is, on the surface, a science fiction movie about aliens and time travel…at its heart it is a movie about language, communication, relationships, and love.
And a whole lot of other things. Really, there’s so much to this film it would take three sermons to cover everything, so I’m going to walk through several things as quickly as I can.
If we’re watching this film through Bible-shaded glasses, at some point, we should be reminded of Noah’s ark. The alien ship in the film is shaped like a giant ark turned on its end, and the aliens inside it come two by two. So do our human protagonists. Noah, in the bible, sends out a bird to see if its safe to land, and the humans in the film bring a caged bird onto the alien ship to make sure the atmosphere remains safe for them (think Canary in the coalmine). The story of Noah is gray and rainy until the rainbow at the end, and this movie is dominated by gray colors, cloudy skies, until the revelation at the very end. Noah’s ark offers salvation for Noah’s family and the human species, and the aliens in this film travel across space in their ark seeking salvation for their species.
In the film, the name of Louise’s daugher is Hannah. She notes that the name is a palindrome–the letters are the same backwards and forwards, so no beginning or end. But Hannah is also a biblical name. In the film, Louise becomes a prophetess, the first human able to see the future, and she gives birth to Hannah. But in the Bible, Hannah gives birth to the first Old Testament prophet Samuel, who has the ability to see into the future and to speak from beyond the grave (no beginning or end).
The film is called “Arrival” because the narrator remembers both the arrival of her child, and also the day in which God-like supernatural beings came down from the heavens in order to bestow a great gift upon humanity. We have a story like that too. We just celebrated Christmas, where we remember the day that God came down to us from the heavens as a small child, in order to bestow the gift of salvation upon humanity. At one point in the film, one of the aliens sacrifices its own life in order to save Louise and Ian from an explosive device that a rogue soldier has placed in the alien ship. That should sound familiar, too.
As both a pastor and former high school English teacher, I can appreciate that part of this film is one big lesson on linguistics, translation, and cultural miscommunication, as seen by the following clip:
This is exactly the same sort of situation the Apostle Paul found himself in when writing his letterr to the Corinthians. Corinth was a melting pot of different languages and cultures and religious practices. Paul acknowledges this when he says to the Corinthians that “There are doubtless many different kinds of languages in the world,” but if “I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
In the film, Louise translates a phrase the aliens seem to be saying as “offer weapon,” while on the other side of the world, her Chinese counterparts are interpreting that same message as “use weapon.” They take this as a sign of alien aggression, but Louise points out to her superiors that “weapon” could also mean “tool” or gift. She turns out to be right, and the aliens are offering a gift to humanity, the gift of their language.
As Christians, we often teach that the biblical story is God’s Word, God’s gift to humanity. And yet, that gift has the capacity to be misunderstood, mistranslated, and used as a tool, or worse, as a weapon. And sometimes those who are most certain they understand God’s word are the ones who should frighten us the most.
Early in her encounters with the aliens, Louise realizes that she’s not ever going to make progress understanding what they are saying unless she begins to build a relationship with them, unless they can see her, and unless she can approach them. There’s a great lesson in this. Translation–whether its a language, a culture, or the Bible–works best in the context of a relationship.
Smoke and Mirrors
For most of their encounters with the aliens, the humans and the aliens are divided by a giant wall of glass. On the alien side, there’s also a foggy mist that permeates everything making it hard to see them clearly. The glass and the fog are actually recurring symbols throughout the film–we see similar things in the house Louise lives in with her daughter, in her college classroom, in the military camp next to the alien ship, and the gray, foggy weather that saturates the film. They are both symbols that represent the barriers that separate us from each other, the things that hide and obscure our understanding of each other. And not just aliens from humans, but people from other people.
Once again, the Apostle Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a glass, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Where languages and communication, and even words fail, love is God’s universal language. Love alone has the power to cut through all the fog and the barriers that divide us. In the climax of the film, Louise confronts the Chinese general who is determined to start a war with the aliens, and she changes his mind by whispering to him the last words spoken to him by his dying wife–words of love. Likewise, interspersed throughout the tension of the world over the alien encounters is the deeply personal story of Louise’s love for her daughter, and the non-linear story of her daughter’s life, spoken in the language of love.
I want to end with one more clip. It’s interesting in that it’s not quite from the film, although it was made by the film’s producers to illustrate a core message of the film, which I believe is a core message of our faith as well. We are all part of a greater whole, and the love that unites us is greater than all the barriers of language and culture and even time that divide us.