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The Incarnation and Interstellar

The start of the month of December this week reminded me that it’s time to sync my spiritual and mental clocks, so that I’m consciously focused on and preparing for the miracle that we remember on December 25th: the Incarnation, an event which, for every Orthodox Christian, constitutes the promise of salvation.

It may seem self-evident that we are keeping our hearts and minds trained on the approaching Christmas celebration throughout these next few weeks.  After all, as Orthodox Christians, we acknowledge the miracle and the Divine Mystery of the Incarnation each and every time that we speak the Nicene Creed, whose precise formulation is our statement of faith that, “…Who for us men and our salvation, He came down from Heaven and was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man.”  Likewise, the prayers and hymns of the Church, as well as the breathtaking beauty and gentleness of the icon of the Theotokos and the Christ child, remind us to take notice of the joyful promise of the young Mary’s exclamation about our Incarnate God: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior…henceforth all generations shall call me blessed (Luke 1:46-47.) Similarly, Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world, that he gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16), a message that communicates the direct connection between the event of the Incarnation and the hope of the Resurrection—a connection that liberates each of us from “the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2) and that suggests the possibility for the restoration of the wholeness of humankind and all the created order. 

In addition to the roadmap designed through the wisdom of the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy (the wonderful term popularized by the late Eva Catafygiotu Topping), by which the Incarnation links the Annunciation to the Resurrection, Orthodox Christians in America are inundated with ubiquitous reminders of the approaching Nativity, offered up by secular society in these United States.  Whether it’s the sounds of Bing Crosby or Perry Como or Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Christmas carols on most radio stations, or the month-long cable t.v. offerings of Christmas classics like Little Drummer BoyA Christmas StoryThe Nativity Story, and Elf, or the deluge of paper circulars and e-mails that advertise everything from Christmas fruitcake to Christmas destination vacations, Christmas, the event of the Incarnation, is being branded into our collective psyche, for 25 consecutive days.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Are we actually alert enough, conscious enough, reflective enough, to recognize that the motif of the Incarnation runs throughout our Orthodox prayers, hymns, iconography, and Liturgical life?  Answers to this question inevitably require that we engage in self-critique, that we take stock of our level of spiritual literacy, our commitment to spiritual training and education.  Whatever measuring stick that I might use, I cannot pretend to be satisfied with either the consistency or the sophistication of my contemplation of the Incarnation.  And, really, do we actually believe that the commercialization and secularization of Christmas in our society will help us to focus on the Incarnation?  My own sense is that the glorious celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is under continual assault, degraded by a political correctness which aims to stifle the kindness of heartfelt wishes of “Merry Christmas” with family, friends, and strangers, and perverted by the pathological shopping frenzy, the bread and circus, that begins with “Black Friday” and stretches up to the eve of Christmas.   

Admittedly, I was not contemplating the Incarnation when my husband and I settled comfortably into the Lazy Boy-style recliners that have been installed as ergonomically-correct, luxurious seats in the refurbished, suburban Cineplex near our house, to watch Interstellar.  This newly-released, science fiction film centers on the journey of an intrepid team of NASA research scientists braving cross-galaxy space travel through a wormhole, in order to determine which of three possible planets might be hospitable for mankind facing its own destruction in the face of the implosion of the Earth’s ecosystem. The movie boasts an Oscar-caliber cast (Michael Cain, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Matthew McConaughey) and a decorated team of directors and cinematographers known for their vanguard visual-effects work on other futuristic films.  All these factors, coupled with the reality that we were viewing Interstellar because our first choice—Jon Stewart’s directorial debut film, Rosewater, which depicts the true-life story of a British-Iranian journalist imprisoned and tortured while covering the summer 2009 elections in Iran—had been crowded out of the cinema by zillion showings of the latest installment of The Hunger Games serial, meant that we were surprised, intrigued, and provoked, by the ethical and moral questions that we encountered in Interstellar.

Because I have no expertise in writing movie reviews, and because that’s not the point of this blog post, I’ll refrain from any detailed critique Interstellar and, instead, will leave the assignment of tomatoes or stars to your individual preference, in the event that you see the movie.  In fact, I would encourage you to view Interstellar, simply because it’s an absorbing, if unusual, opportunity to think about and ponder on the Incarnation, catalyzed by two-plus-hours of a visually-stimulating and morally-sobering, narrative.

Here are some of the big themes and memes treated by the film:

1.     Faith and science may be (ir)reconcilable.  The wormhole is the main device for exploring the faith-science conundrum, since the scientists admit that there is no scientific explanation for the mysterious origin and location of the wormhole without which mankind’s hope for salvation would be impossible.  Did a “higher being” incarnate the wormhole?  Science’s nod to God also comes through in the importance of NASA’s previous “Lazarus Missions,” which have transmitted data from three (is the number a coincidence?), possibly salvific, planets.  Furthermore, the 10-year-old girl who eventually emerges, as an adult woman (Chastain, as Murphy) as the hero of the movie demonstrates an incorruptible faith in the deliberate and good intentions of “higher beings,” which she initially thinks is a “ghost,” that she believes is sending the indecipherable intelligence coding to her bedroom walls and floor. But the faith-science stand-off is, ultimately, unresolved in the movie.  For example, does Murphy hold the key to salvation because of her faith in and love for her father (McConaughey, as Cooper) or because of her faith in the rationality and empiricism of science?  And what of Murphy’s recalcitrant brother, Tom (Casey Affleck), who would rather die, and let his family perish, than trust in the scientific and medical assessments of his sister and her colleague?

2.     Salvation occurs relationally.  Interstellar leaves no doubt about the inextricable connection between the sustainability/destruction of planet Earth and the survival/eradication of mankind.  The NASA explorer team understands the risks of their search for the Lazarus Mission results as a responsibility towards all humanity, and at different junctures in the film, Dr. Amelia Brand (Hathaway), Cooper, and Romilly (Wes Bentley) step up to sacrifice their lives in order to sustain the mission and to keep alive the possibility for all of humanity’s salvation.  Even the artificial intelligence characters in the film, two robots named TARS and CASE, are willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the whole, hinting that they have absorbed their human programmers’ messages that there is no salvation alone.  Dr. Mann (played by Matt Damon, in one of his few film roles as a villain) brilliantly illustrates the message of the rupture in communion that is the Fall.  His Ego has driven him to evil, since he tries to murder Cooper as the first step to corralling the NASA spacecraft, the Endurance, back to Earth—a move that would have terminated prematurely the exploratory mission and, therefore, would have ended the possibility for humanity’s survival.  The character of Mann (man) was defined by his disregard for the collective consequences of his individual actions, a message that was played out in the revelation that Amelia’s father (Michael Caine’s Dr. Brand) knew all along that the only hope for human survival lay in Plan B—a harvested bank of fertilized human embryos that would be activated on the new planet, once all of Earth’s created order had been destroyed.  Dr. Brand confessed that his great ruse, whereby he had convinced NASA to build a colossal space station to take Earth’s remaining humans to another planet identified by Lazarus and Team Cooper-Amelia-Romilly, had been based on this straightforward assessment that people needed to be deceived into working cooperatively towards mankind’s (not necessarily their own) salvation.

3.     Love is the sine qua non for salvation and is the Incarnation.  The meme of unconditional love, which is the essence of the Incarnation, is echoed throughout the film—from the mysterious “They” who might have created the wormhole, with no intention other than compassion for humanity’s continuation, to Dr. Brand’s desperate plea (a scientific soliloquy on love) for The Endurance to go directly to the planet where her lover has been marooned.  However, it’s the evolution of the character of Murphy which offers the film’s most interesting, if sometimes convoluted, treatment of incarnate love.  In her growth from childhood to adulthood, Murphy moves beyond her disappointment and rejection of her father for his decision to leave their family to pilot the NASA vessel, to remember and to listen and to be alert to the quantum physics data that Cooper ultimately transmits back to her about the fifth dimension that holds the promise for humanity’s deliverance from death on Earth.  Murphy moves beyond her dejection and repudiation of her father, to forgive and to trust in his choice, thereby returning to him (as the prodigal), reconciling with him, and loving him unconditionally for the choices that he made. 

It might seem a stretch to go from an event as miraculous and incomprehensible as the Incarnation to the pedestrian platform of a sci-fi flick that, at times, is preposterous and pretentious.  I think that the stretch is worth the effort: simply put, if a movie helps me to contemplate, focus on, pray about, and give endless thanks for the miracle of Christ’s birth, then that movie is more than worth the price of admission.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she Co-Chairs the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group.

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