After watching District 9 last week, I was struck by the allegorical nature of aliens in pop culture. After this realization, I thought of all the “alien” films I’ve seen over the past few decades and began to wonder if each of these movies were actually existential explorations of human issues that need philosophical or theological resolution. Thus, I decided to take a week to look at limited selections of concepts and ideas that aliens can represent in film and literature. What follows is a collection of those ideas…
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Day One: Is There Anybody Out There?
Even before the telescope recast our planet as merely one of many specks of dust flying around in a vast universe of worlds, earth’s thinkers and religious leaders have speculated that there may be life on other planets. But since the moment when geocentricity was dislodged and a more accurate picture of the universe took its place, theories regarding life on other planets have been increasingly common in science, philosophy, religion, and pop culture.
So this week, I specifically want to look at some of these pop culture references to see if there are any philosophical ideas being expressed though the use of extraterrestrial life forms.
One of the earliest stories to include extraterrestrials is a 10th century Japanese Folk Tale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” In it, a girl from the moon brings wealth to a family who shelters her. Through a series of misadventures, the Emperor of Japan falls in love with her, but is rejected over and over again. And when the girl’s people return for her from them moon and she leaves an immortality elixir behind, the Emperor refuses to drink it; for life without his love- the girl from the moon- would be worthless to him. Instead, he has his guards set the elixir on fire at the top of Mt. Fuji, thus giving Fuji a name (Fuji means immortality) and also providing an origin story for why Fuji, smokes from time to time.
But whether we’re talking about a fairy tales, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds or films like District 9, ET, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, each of these pop culture references asks the question “…is there anybody out there?”
I think we want to know the answer for a couple of reasons:
1. Our Own Sense of Self Importance
Are we the only ones like us? Given the fact that our universe is as big as it appears to be, it seems unlikely that we’d be the only planet where life abounds. But as we look into the heavens, there’s a tendency to feel both small and huge at the same time.
We see the vast array of planets and star systems and we feel small in the wake of the enormous amounts of stuff out there. How could anything we do or anything we say amount to significance when faced with the reality of our size in comparison with the rest of creation.
At the same time, however the fact that we seem to be the only planet and species that’s capable of interplanetary communication and travel beyond the confines of our own atmosphere leads us toward a sense of pride. It we are truly the top dogs in a universe of fungi and bacterium, then our problems are the most important and significant. Our seemingly insignificant debates about where to eat or what to do with our lives are the pivotal decisions of the universe if we are truly the only highly intelligent beings in the Universe.
2. Our Own Choices as a Species
In The Day The Earth Stood Still, alien invaders come to earth as emissaries from the rest of the galaxy to assess whether or not humans should be allowed to interact with the rest of the universe or be quarantined off into our own solar system.
The reason? Our planet cannot escape warring with each other and the universe wants to protect themselves from our violence and our inherent selfishness.
If others exist- aliens in this case can be representational of other human beings- it follows that my actions cannot proceed purely from an individual perspective. When something or someone other than me is affected by my decisions, I must take this into consideration when I act.
I cannot act as though I am the center of the universe when I am not, in fact, the center of the universe. The Church had a hard time letting go of their own geocentric paradigm during the decades surrounding the Inquisition. Many scientists paid the price through exile, excommunication, and even death.
Aliens often represent the fact that something or someone “other” than us needs to be taken into consideration when we are making decisions.
3. Our Own Loneliness
Probably the most obvious, but understated metaphor that aliens represent, is an answer to our own loneliness. Loneliness is one of the sentiments that all of us share- we live in the reality that we were made for relationship and we hurt deeply when we are cut off from other people.
So taken on a macro-level, is it any wonder that humanity longs for companionship just as individuals do?
Perhaps extraterrestrial creatures represent nothing more than an attempt to reach out to the world around us and know that we’re not alone. We want someone else there along with us so that we can fill the void of emptiness with something meaningful. Even when that something turns out to be terrible- every alien invasion film ever written- it could be argued these references are still an attempt to engage with something or someone beyond ourselves.
When I was in High School, a few of us made up a silly little theory about the non-existence of Wyoming. Since then, I've actually met a few people from Wyoming and seen license plates that reflect the State, so I guess I'm going to have to resort myself to the fact that they DO exist after all. However, someone from Wyoming must have passed the word around that I didn't believe in them- because they're apparently boycotting my website. Here's a picture of my Google Stats for the year.
Every State here in the US is represented, except for Wyoming.
Help me out Wyoming, I want to believe in you!
I went to see District 9 last weekend and it got me thinking about aliens.
That’s why I’m dedicating a week to exploring Aliens & Philosophy. This week, I’ve got a couple other thoughts to share about music & marijuana, but I wanted to give you a sneak preview of next week’s agenda… I’m really excited about it and I hope you’ll join in the discussion and conversation.
Day One: Is There Anybody Out There?
Day Two: Fear & Loathing in South Africa
Day Three: Victims and Victimizers
Day Four: The Man of Steel and Other Alien Christ Figures
Day Five: Aliens & Philosophy- Additional Questions That Need Answers
I hope you can join me!
I don't get out to the movies very often anymore. When I do, it's usually so I can write a Blog series like the one I'm working on for this week called: Aliens & Philosophy
That said, my new friend Neil has a really good site for film reviews called: A True Review
I'll be linking there whenever I mention films in the future so that you can get a better idea of whatever film I'm discussing here on my blog.
Check it out. It's good stuff.
One of the things I've been pondering (mostly due to my research on Heidegger) is primal ethics. What this means is that I’m considering the sort of ethics that emerge without education, power, or critical thinking. Heidegger was concerned with the state of being that Dasein inhabits- one that is universal to all people whether they are scholars of world renown or mere peasants living in the rural areas of Germany, post World War 1. So along the same line of thinking, I'm wondering about the sort of ethics that transcend to all people, whether they are giving a lot of thought to ethics and philosophy or not. This is one of the problems that I have with both Consequentialists like Mills and Deontological philosophers like Kant.
Utilitarian ethics (Consequentialist or Outcome-based ethics) require actions to be magnified under the lens of universal good. This requires a certain critical thinking ability to consider ALL people, not just yourself or those close by. I don't know that all people in all cultures truly have the ability to consider "everyone" and whether their actions will truly cause the "greatest good." This seems to me to be the “thinking man’s” ethics. Each decision must be carefully thought over to make sure that the eventual outcome achieves the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Most of us don’t have the time or ability to think that much about our actions and so I can’t fully buy into the notion that this is rudimentary enough to use as a standard we should apply to everyone.
Likewise, the problem with Kant and other Deontological ethicists is that merely obeying the "rules" means that we have to be aware of what the "rules" are. Since there isn't universal agreement on what's right and wrong, it's really hard to apply a rule-following ethic to all people. I suppose that at the base of this theory lies a disinterest in self, and so one could argue that disinterested obedience (obedience that springs from following the rules because they are right rather than because it profits me, personally, to do so) is something that we could apply to all people, even if they aren’t disinterestedly following the same rules- except for the fact that this particular notion seems to be a reaction from Kant and other Western philosophers against the innate selfishness of man. If selfishness is truly innate, it’s hard for me to rationalize that we’d be able to come up with a Universal ethic that rebels against human nature. So, I can’t apply this to everyone, either.
That said, I'm wondering what the universal ethics are?
What are the things that are innate to all people whether they be poor or rich, strong or weak, native or alien, smart or ignorant, and whether they live under a dictatorship or democracy?
If it doesn't truly express the human experience, is it truly an ethical philosophy that will transcend cultures and time, or is it specific to a particular people?
You know those people who seem to make everything better when they show up?
Maybe you're down in the dumps or reeling from one problem or another when this person walks into the room and act like a balm, soothing the wounds or at least distracting you from them long enough to gain some relief from the trials of life. Maybe they do it with a joke or a kind word. Or maybe it's just their presence. They're such a warm, compassionate person that the world seems like a better place because they're in it.
I'm wondering it these experiences with other people are shadow plays of a bigger reality that God wants to invite us into? Perhaps, God is SO good that simply being in His presence makes everything- the good, the bad, and the ugly- into wonder and excellence. Perhaps Heaven and Hell aren't all that different, it just depends on who you spend it with (or without).
Because in my experience, there are some glorious things that simply aren't worth experiencing alone and there are some trials that seem like joy when spent in the company of those I love.
Maybe this is why the writers of scripture spend so much time telling us about the Goodness of God. Perhaps when they say that all things work together for good... they mean that they work together for good when we're in the presence of the right person.
And maybe that's why Jesus says that He's only the way to the Father? When you're in the family, you can make exclusive claims like that!
If it wasn't clear already through our discussions here, the founding fathers were really big on the rights of individuals and the rights of local and state governments, rather than the rights of a central federal government. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was convinced that Federalization would be the end of the checks and balances that were framed in our Constitution. He wrote, “When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”
Most of the time, we look back at History and view State Rights as an issue that lead to the Civil War and assume that States only used State Rights as a way to keep Slavery Legal and oppress their citizens. But that's not the reality.
In fact, if you'll take a look at this article from the Tenth Amendment Center, you'll see that State Rights were often used to PROTECT their citizens and residents from intrusions from the Federal Government that weren't authorized under the Constitution- intrusions that would have put them in danger or taken their rights away. Read more about that here: http://www.tenthamendmentcenter.com/2009/03/04/the-states-rights-tradition-nobody-knows/
One brilliant example in this article is how State Rights were used to counteract Fugitive Slave Laws. These laws would extradite runaway slaves to their original owner without trial or jury. It gave the Federal Government the right to uphold Slavery and police escapees. States rebelled and resisted by claiming their own rights under the Constitution and were able to repeal and counteract some of the inhumane treatment of other people by our own government.
What a radical variance from the traditional State Rights were only used to uphold the evils of slavery. Make sure you read the full article and get informed about local movements to restore the tenth amendment!
For this week's edition of Interview Thursday (which is actually every other week) I got to speak with Jeff Flowers. He is a Pastor in Cincinnati and we met about 6 or 8 months ago through Twitter. He's a good guy with a lot of good questions and conversations on his blog regarding Christianity and the current status of "Church Culture." I think you're really going to enjoy the conversation we had this week.
Also, check out his site http://www.cincymissionary.com for more on Jeff!
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NATHAN KEY: First, Jeff, thanks for giving me a chance to interview you. You're the first "Pastor" I've had the opportunity to talk with for my Thursday sessions. I guess that means you've got the power to really take this thing anywhere you want to. Scary, huh?
JEFF FLOWERS: Thanks for having me, Nate. I’m honored to be a part of your Thursday sessions. I tune into your blog every week and I’m glad we’ve hooked up through Twitter, it’s been a fun connection.
NATHAN KEY: It has been fun.
**Side note to my readers: If you are using Twitter, be sure to look up Jeff - he uses the name: Cincymissionary.**
Speaking of connection- you recently joined a church plant in Cincinnati. I'm sure it took a lot of courage to move from full time employment to "missionary" work. Can you tell me a little bit about what made you and your family head in this direction with your ministry?
JEFF FLOWERS: Yes, I recently joined The Bridge as the Executive Pastor. The Bridge is a church plant located near the University of Cincinnati Campus in uptown Cincy. I have always wanted to do ministry in the city. I believe the city is where culture is made and where I can impact the most as a Christian. The Bridge came along at the right time.
NK: Now, I hate to say that "Church planting" is all the rage these days, but it does seem that a lot of churches are moving toward house churches, church plants, and multiple campuses instead of the Mega-Church Model of the 80's and 90's. Why do you make of this trend? Is it merely a cultural correction to institution or do you think there's some sort of deep theological shift that's moving the church in this direction?
JF: Great question. You’re correct that “church planting” is the rage these days. In the 80’s you saw a conservative religious resurgence in America. And in a far-swung reaction, the “seeker” movement was born in the 90’s and that’s where you saw the mega-church and mega-personality pastor really take off. For about ten years now, the “church-planting” model has been the birthing of “little” mega church models with a heavy emphasis on church health and creativity. The next ten years will be about one word: mission or missional.
Now are these theological shifts? Unfortunately, no they are not. A lot of emphasis has been placed on “cultural relevance”, but there are a few good young pastors that are focusing on truth and theology and its transcendence over relevance that are reaching the millennials.
NK: You just said that it's unfortunate that there haven't been a lot of theological shifts that are causing the "church planting movement." What are some theological shifts that you think need to take place in order for us to continue aligning ourselves with Christ?
JF: I think the evangelical church in America needs to shift toward the primacy of biblical preaching. I recently had a medical doctor as a guest at The Bridge and she told me she was tired of relevant, she wanted truth. This is true of a lot of young Americans in this post-Christian era we’re heading toward.
There also seems to be a lopsided emphasis on “spiritual formation” being more about the quest for a greater self than for a greater God. Somewhere on the journey, we have forgotten about the personal nature of God and His plan for redemption. We want to approach our relationship with God in ways that makes Him a mystical experience to pursue. Our discipleship takes the form of “figuring out what God is up to in our lives” instead of believing He is an ever-present loving God that never changes. This is the picture of God that Jesus gives us in the parable of the prodigal son.
And this is the “difficulty” in following God. We take too seriously our fickle and weird nature. We try very hard to change so God will reveal Himself, or accept us. The Bible is very clear. In Jesus, we have the full revelation of God and we need nothing else. He is our sufficiency. He is fully accepting of who we are and not as we should be.
These are theological issues. It’s theological to believe that I must decrease and He must increase. It takes theology to understand suffering and humiliation. It takes theology to have a solid belief in the power of God to make one righteous. To have “spirituality” without substance can be destructive to one’s faith.
Whew. You got me started with that question, sorry for the rambling.
NK: No worries. And I agree with you that we've often sacrificed substance for relevance. At the same time, however, we obviously don't want to go too far the other way and isolate ourselves from culture, right? So, are there any solutions you can think of that will help us communicate in the language of the people we're serving without compromising the Gospel as we do it?
JF: Balance? I guess the longer I follow Christ the more I don’t believe in balance. I may get a lot of push back from this answer, so here it goes.
Is the Christian to live in balance with the culture? A lot of us -and I include myself here- are afraid of becoming irrelevant to the culture around us so we swing back and forth on this never-ending question to find how we will maximize growth without compromising the message. I don’t think this is the thinking of a missional Christ-follower.
Here’s what I mean. Most Christian’s have memorized Romans 12:1-2- you know, the verses about not conforming to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind? These are the ultimate verse about our relationship to the world as believers, right? But, have we understood these verses in context? I challenge you to read Romans 12:3-21 today. Is this the Christianity you see in the world today? It seems to me that we should be less worried about communicating in the language of the people and more concerned about not thinking too highly of ourselves (v. 3), letting our love be genuine (v. 10) and associating with the lowly (v. 16). This is the “relevant” language all people are looking for everywhere. This is best said by Jesus, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden (isolated).” Therefore, the best way to serve without compromise is to allow the light of Christ to shine in my life so people will glorify (make relevant) my Father in heaven. This is the relevant language of God.
NK: I love that. And I agree with you that there are some things, like love, that are never irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how you dress them up, or fail to dress them up, the core fruit of the Spirit isn’t at risk for being rejected. People want to be loved and they want hope and peace. So yea, we should probably get back to that, huh? OK, This is totally off topic, but I was wondering about gotees. You’ve got one, yourself, and it seems like gotees are sort of standard issue for a lot pastors these days. Thoughts?
JF: Ha. Yes. There’s a funny graphic or YouTube thing out there about gotees and other prerequisites for the job. I look like a baby-face without mine.
NK: That’s funny. I want to talk about your blog for a moment. On there I've seen a lot of good thoughts and discussions regarding "what church is" or "what it should be." Have you come to any conclusions about where "church" should be headed or what it should ideally "look like" in order to be not only effective, but also a truer reflection of what Christ intended it to be.
JF: Yes, there are some “lively” discussions on the blog. I think the truest reflection of what Christ intended the church to be is that the authenticity of my love for Jesus Christ should be measured in how I relate to people everyday on the street. Church should look like Jesus.
Most of the discussions today are about style and substance as it’s relevant, again, to the culture. Most churches try to minister in reaction to the culture instead of going to where the centers of culture are and joining the conversation. Remember, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” A biblical church is a sending church. That’s why I call myself a missionary to Cincinnati.
NK: One last question before we go. Sometimes people put pastors into a little box where they don't seem like real people. I'm convinced that planting a church is probably not your ONLY passion in life. So, could you tell us about some of the other things you're crazy about?
JF: Sure. I think more and more people are relaxing on the “pastors in a box” thing. But, you’re right, the minute someone finds out you’re a pastor, the atmosphere in the room changes. I love Stephen King short stories, blogging and NASCAR (I know, sorry). I have a tattoo and will be getting a second after swim season. Mostly, I’m crazy about my wife and 4 kids (2 girls, 2 boys), they are the coolest people I know.
NK: I can understand that, I get more crazy about Beth and Ethan every day! Jeff, thanks so much for allowing me to ask some of these questions. I’m excited that I get to continue following your story. Thanks for the interview!
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If you’ve enjoyed these thoughts from Jeff Flowers, be sure to check out his website/blog: http://www.cincymissionary.com
When I began working for Media Partners Corporation back in 2007, my boss Jim handed me a book called Save The Cat which soon became a treasured resource for storytelling and screenwriting. Blake Snyder's guidance and thoughts on story structure were invaluable.
I recieved word yesterday that he passed away, suddenly, from Cardiac Arrest. It was a curveball that I almost mistook for a publicity stunt. Unfortunately, it was true and Mr. Snyder is no longer with us. And that means the world is a little more dim than it was yesterday.
If you've had any interest in storytelling or screenwriting, then you really need to take a look at Snyder's book because it is so tremendously important. I usually shy away from formula, but his structure is such a benefit to writers that I can't help but suggest it. Read it. Use it. And Enjoy it!
(I believe I've got a link to it on my Amazon Affiliate sidebar.)
And check out his website, too, for further tools and discussions: http://www.savethecat.com
Did you know that the Founding Fathers of the United States were absolute skeptics about direct democracy and the "popular vote?"
None of them weren't really big fans of democratic election because they didn't trust that the average Joe was educated enough on politics and the law to pick out their own leaders. Until 1913, the only directly elected members of Congress were the House of Representatives.
Until then, Senators were elected by each State's Legislator and the Electoral College elected the President and Vice President. When the Electoral College actually work correctly, each State was allowed to decide for itself how they would elect their Electorate. It could be done by popular vote, appointed by the governor, decided by the State legislator, or whatever they wanted. I suppose they could have put the names of each resident of the State into a hat and pulled out 12, or 17, or however many Electorates the State was allowed to have. And of course, Judges are appointed by the President- not the people.
It wasn't that the Founding Father's thought that the Average Joe was stupid or ignorant. It was merely that they didn't want all these powerful positions to be decided by the whimsy of group-think. Mobs of people don't always make the best choices based on the facts at hand. And so the decision was made to give the people the chance to elect representatives from their community who would make it their job to explore each circumstance and vote accordingly.
Even today, with as much information and technology as we have- I think this system is a good thing. In fact, I sort of wish we could go back to the Senators being elected by the State and the Electorate elected by each State. It's not that I don't want to have a vote. It's that I don't have time to keep up with everything in the world of politics and theory. Neither do any of my friends- even the most politically active ones.
So, instead of being caught up on who to vote for, we'd elect people from our community who we know and trust to learn and vote on our behalf. It's democracy by proxy and it's the way that our Country was supposed to work.
Nathan Key likes to think about faith and philosophy and talk about it with others. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. He doesn't always refer to himself in the third person.