Reflections on Amy Adams, Aliens and Advent
SPOILER ALERT - contains major plot spoilers for the film Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve 2016).
Arrival is one of those movies that stays with you. Amy Adams’ wonderful performance as Louise Banks, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s haunting score, and the macro story of world meltdown set against the micro story of family love and loss are just some of the elements which play on your mind and keep you reflecting on the film. It has expansive enough themes that many people will take different messages from it, and not all of these will be so resonant with the Christian story. But for me, at least three parallels have been emerging since I watched it a few weeks ago and as we’ve been journeying through Advent.
1) Not everyone welcomes newcomers with gifts
In the film, twelve spacecraft arrive carrying aliens (heptapods), who come to offer a gift to the world. Predictably the human race is hesitant to receive this gift, reacting with distrust, selfishness and even outright violence. The humans argue amongst themselves as they respond with fear and hostility towards the unknown visitors.
During Advent we anticipate another newcomer to our world, also offering us a priceless gift. The arrival of Jesus two-thousand years ago was also met with suspicion (Joseph’s initial reaction, Matt 1:19), lies and slaughter (Herod, Matt 2:3-18). As humans we struggle to trust outsiders, to receive a gift of grace with humility and gratitude.
John writes “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11). As we offer the gift of Jesus to others this Christmas time, in our services and our witness, we too may be met with rejection. But for those who will “prepare him room” in our hearts, the arrival of this baby, this God-made-flesh, is a world-changing revelation. “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12).
2) Language transforms us
The gift offered by the heptapods turns out to be their language, or at least, their visual language. Louise Banks is a linguist brought in to try and communicate with the aliens, and she explores the theory that the way you communicate transforms the way you think. This suggests that words do not only express our thinking, but form the way we view the world, ourselves and other people. As Banks learns the alien language, the way she sees the world changes, including the way she views time itself.
Whether or not you fully buy-in to that idea, the parallels with worship are fascinating to explore. The language that we learn in worship can and should transform the way we see the world. John Witvliet writes “When formed by liturgy to speak in certain ways, to relate to God, the world and those around us in certain ways, we live most faithfully when we let those speech patterns, and the deeper relational capacities they inform, become our daily, spontaneous responses to God, the world, and those around us.” (in Alexis D Abernethy (ed), Worship that Changes Lives, p. 48).
As an example, the language of Advent worship can change the way we view the world. It immerses us in a different story. We can sing and pray “Come, Lord Jesus”, turning us away from the manic-consumerist version of Christmas, or away from a hopeless despair at world events, or away from a saccharine, naive celebration of the festive season. To pray “Come, Lord Jesus” in a world of the Refugee Crisis, Brexit, Trump vs. Clinton, the John Lewis advert and the iPhone 7 is to look to a more lasting vision of hope, peace and joy. It is to align ourselves with a different kind of Kingdom, under the humblest of Kings.
3) Embracing a painful future
Louise Banks is given the gift of seeing the future, and in it she sees heartbreak. And yet this revelation does not prevent her from choosing to continue on that path. In fact she embraces it wholeheartedly, the joys and the sorrows.
The coming of Jesus is good news, but it will also open our eyes to the realities of pain and suffering, for us and for others. We can’t know the extent to which Mary anticipated what was coming, but we know that even though she was “greatly troubled”, she responded “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:26-38). Later when Jesus was presented in the temple (I know I’m skipping through the church year here…) Simeon prophesies over Jesus and Mary “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (2:34-35). It is not often we see those verses quoted on a Christmas card or in a carol…
For us, being “in Christ” does not mean an easy life. It is no insurance policy against tragedy, struggle and doubt. Consider our brothers and sisters in the Coptic Church, whose cathedral in Cairo was bombed on 11th December. There is a biblical worship response to such tragedy - it is called “lament”. As Christians during advent we can sing with those who “mourn in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears”. And in the midst of pain, Advent also offers a story of hope. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says God through Isaiah (40:1). The Son of God will appear.
In the movie, Banks finds her peace in the aliens’ strange blotchy picture language. These circles convince her that time should not be seen as a straight line, and instead that endings and beginnings loop back around themselves. This is rather like the Eastern religious philosophy of Saṃsāra. On the contrary in the Christian story, salvation history moves not in circles but forwards towards a certain day, when Jesus will “arrive” once more, God will dwell with his people, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21:1-4). This is not a blind optimism based on human leaders coming together (although we should work and pray for that), but a trust rooted in the person of Jesus Christ.
So as you worship your way through Advent and into Christmas, let us be awake to the “arrival” of Jesus’ Kingdom amongst us. Lets allow the language of our prayers and songs to help us see an alternative story. And lets embrace the future with all its joys and sorrows, looking forward to the day when we see not space-ships but “Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).