“Love’s the only engine of survival” – reflections on the Christianity of Interstellar

I recently went to watch the latest Christopher Nolan movie called ‘Interstellar’ – and this is a reflection on the film that includes discussion of the ending, so if you like to watch your science fiction stories completely unspoiled about how they turn out, best stop reading now.

Interstellar is one of my favourite sorts of movies, by one of my favourite modern directors (he was also responsible for Inception and the recent Batman trilogy). It is what is known as ‘hard’ science fiction, whereby the story is intentionally grounded in what is considered to be ‘proper’ science. In this case, there is even a book by the physicist Kip Thorne, who was a technical adviser on the movie, which discusses the astro-physics of black holes, which is the means by which humans travel from one star system to another – hence the ‘interstellar’ of the title.

Nolan is, I believe, an atheist. At the very least, he is a humanist, and this takes a particular form in the film. The premise of the story is that, some time in the near future, the earth is dying, for reasons unexplained but probably as a result of human pollution. There is a ‘blight’ which is killing off most of the food crops in the world and consequently all the economic resources on earth are going towards agriculture rather than space exploration: “We need farmers, not engineers” as one character says. In order to support this shift of emphasis, the history of space exploration has been suppressed. Text books now describe the moon landings as a propaganda coup against the Soviets, a televisual sleight-of-hand used to intimidate political opponents.

In this context, to seek to explore the stars is a defiant act of hope. The film as a whole can be taken as an attempt to re-inspire the watcher with a desire to voyage into the final frontier, “Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here”. The story of the hero, which has a significant amount of emotional heft (in ways that I shall not spoil here) is very affecting, especially for fathers of daughters. At the conclusion of the film, the hero is forced to make a leap into the unknown, and this is where the humanism of the director is shown most clearly. Where there might seem to be a deus ex machina – a God intervening in the system in order to set things right – in Nolan’s story, the deus turns out to be humanus – human beings from the future that have learned to manipulate time. One might say ‘God is one of us’.

However, although that is the surface truth of the story, there are two ways in which the film actually draws deeply from the Christian mythos, in ways that make me consider the film to be quite orthodox in its message. By ‘orthodox’ I mean ‘informed by the resurrection’, that is, seeing the world with a Christian point of view. The Christian perspective seems to subvert even the most consciously humanistic of intentions!

The first way in which the story draws from the Christian mythos is simply in terms of the narrative arc. The salvation of humankind is at stake, one man has to move forward, leaving behind all his ties to his family and ends up journeying alone into a black hole where he expects to die, and yet – miracle of miracles! – something happens to transform the situation and the hero is enabled to return, to be reunited with his loved ones one last time, before he ascends once again into the heavens. I trust that this description is enough to show the parallels with the Christian story.

However, that first parallel with the Christian story is itself quite a slim point. It is the story of the redeemer, which, although it undoubtedly has a definitive form in our history in the Christian gospel, can be found in other cultures in very similar forms. Where I found the film to be most deeply compatible with the Christian story is in the fundamental message about love, articulated by one of the co-stars, and the one whom the hero voyages to pursue at the end of the tale. The co-star gives a moving speech at a crucial moment in the plot about the way in which love guides human activity, and that love is not bound by time. It is, in a sense, the faculty in human beings which (in the language of the film) allows us to access the ‘higher dimension’ of time and guide us, and which the hero directly uses later on in order to guide his decisions and achieve the salvation of humanity. This is an understanding of love which sits directly within the mainstream Christian tradition. To adap St Paul’s language: love bears all things, love hopes all things, love never ends – death has been swallowed up in victory.

Nolan’s Interstellar is a great film – some wonderful action sequences, a solid plot with emotional weight, and an inspiring message delivered with awesome imagery. That message, it seems to me, is quite profoundly Christian – despite a superficial coating of humanism. Our society is still haunted by the Christian imagination, and whenever a creative artist in our society seeks to express something transcendent they cannot, despite themselves, avoid drawing from baptismal waters. In our own time we have entered, if not the end of the earth as a whole, certainly a time of great tribulation and trauma. We would do well to be guided by the message of Interstellar: love will guide us through the abyss.

“You’re so rude!”

Courier article

I would like to return to the theme of political correctness this week, and expand on one element from my last article. One of the aspects of Jesus’ ministry which is regularly missed (although those who know me will recognise that I am on something of a campaign to raise awareness) is that he was exceptionally rude. This was always for a particular purpose, and mostly that purpose was to expose the wickedness of those in positions of power – both secular and religious – and defend those without power, the ‘widows and orphans’ of his time. Yet the most exemplary example of Jesus’ rudeness comes not when he is criticising the powerful but when he calls a foreign woman a dog, which was just as much of an insult in his time as it is in ours. Why does he do this?

His disciples had just become very nervous about Jesus being rude to the religious authorities – “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard [you]?” – and so Jesus takes them away from the city and they meet the foreign woman, who has a grievously ill daughter. The foreign woman begs Jesus to help but he does nothing – first he ignores her completely, “Jesus did not answer a word” – and then, when the disciples get fed up with her begging and ask Jesus to do something, he basically says ‘get lost’, saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, in other words, not to foreigners like you. Then, when the woman persists in her begging, comes the insult, that it is not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs, ie the foreign woman.

Notice that whilst all this is happening, the disciples make no complaints about Jesus’ rudeness to the woman. In contrast to the Pharisees, whom the disciples deemed worthy of protection and respect, this foreign woman doesn’t count – and so all the examples of Jesus’ rudeness to her don’t register with them. They see what Jesus is doing as completely conventional and unremarkable, it is exactly what they would do in his situation. Which is why it is so shocking when Jesus grants her request and says to her “Woman you have great faith!” In other words, in contrast to the Pharisees, here is someone who is modelling what God is looking for – and I’m quite certain that this Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he took his disciples out of the city.

Now, in retelling this story, I am not wanting to simply defend rudeness. I am, after all, very much a supporter of kindness and gentleness. Yet what Jesus could see clearly was the way in which the political system can enforce certain cultural standards which work to keep power with some people and prevent others from gaining access to it. In other words, if we pay attention to language, and notice what is generally acceptable and what is not, then we can gain an insight into where the power lies within a particular community. What Jesus was doing was bringing his disciples face to face with the political reality of their time – and ramming home the contrast with what God was looking for. The foreigner had absolutely no status with the disciples, yet she demonstrated great faith. The Pharisees were the opposite, on both sides of the equation.

I conceived my last article as essentially about a defence of the poorer and often older working class man. The sharpest opposition to what I said has come to me from richer and younger women. I believe that this is an indication of where the power lies in our society and I also believe that this is one of the clearest symptoms of how disconnected our society has become from reality.

After all, it is amongst the traditional manual labourers that there is the clearest and most obvious link with the production of economic value; in addition, if those men get removed, society will cease to function extremely swiftly. I say “men” because it is men who do these jobs, and there is very little pressure from wider society for gender-based and egalitarian quotas. This is for the simple reason that women don’t want to do such jobs, and so the political apparatus does not seek to impose such quotas. I am thinking of jobs like working on an oil rig, or fishing at sea, or collecting our rubbish bins early in the morning. Jobs where there is very little glamour but where there is also a distinct lack of cushioning from reality, where a mistake doesn’t cause embarrassment it causes significant injury or death.

I came across an extremely interesting statistic the other day, that the average man is stronger than 90% of women. This, too, is a reason why the jobs that I have in mind tend to be overwhelmingly male, for they are physically demanding and there simply aren’t that many women who can cope with the level of physical exertion required. In other words, here is a difference that isn’t due to some political campaign of oppression but is simply part of the fabric of reality. This is the world that we live in.

So am I now arguing for women to get back into the kitchen, preferably without shoes? Not at all. The issue is about how we look after all the members of a community, and that includes working class men. They, too, must be included. I believe that those men on whom we depend so absolutely for the essentials of modern civilisation have become excluded from the circle of concern in our culture. Where a healthy society would treat such men with a very great deal of respect, acknowledging the vulnerability of a community without what they provided, we have instead cultivated a society of scorn, which looks down on manual labour with a sneer, oblivious to the truth that without them, all will collapse. There are still Pharisees today.

Our polite discourse has settled around a practice of discounting the contributions of working class men. I think that this is wrong, it is an injustice and it is immensely self-destructive. When people seek to express the concerns of this group of people, it is not enough to respond with a squeal of self-righteousness, as if the voice of authority in our culture were a Graham Norton figure saying ‘You’re so rude!’ and pouting. It is because the concerns of some of us are not regarded as legitimate by the rest of us that our political system is going through such upheaval. This will not come to an end until all are included in our circle of concern.