“It was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the speech of all the world. It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.” Gen. 11:9
There have been a number of people who have compared Babel (a Best Picture nominee for the 2006 Oscar race) to last year’s Best Picture winner Crash. But I would argue that this film is the anti-Crash.
In that phenomenal film, people from different walks of life came together, they literally crashed together, and found hope in the midst of hopelessness. Babel, in a direct allusion to its Biblical reference, shows how people who have once been together have gone away from each other and in that isolation have found nothing but hopelessness.
This film follows the stories of four families who have not only grown isolated from each other, but also have isolated themselves from others in their part of the world.
The first is Richard and Susan Jones (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), a husband and wife estranged because of a past family tragedy; the second is a Moroccan father whose only connection to his two sons seems to be related to firearms; the third is Amelia (Adrianna Barazza), an illegal Mexican immigrant who is separated from her son and her family by the Mexican-American border; the fourth is Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) a mute and deaf Japanese teenager who is torn apart from her father because of the death of her mother and her own sexual impulses.
At one time, these families might have experienced an inner and outer unity, with fellow family members and with other families of other cultures. But as the movie opens, these people are worlds apart, and their own fear and suspicion keep them from each other and causes even more problems as this film unfolds.
Because of fear and suspicion, Amelia hides the Jones’ children in her care as she illegally crosses the border; because of fear and suspicion, the Moroccan children aim their gun at American tourists; because of fear and suspicion, Richard must be left to fend for himself in a foreign desert wilderness as his wife Susan slowly dies with no medical care available; because of fear and suspicion, Japanese teenagers mistreat and ignore Chieko who is dealing with internal battles about her own sexuality and family history. As the movie progresses, this fear and suspicion only turns worse, landing these estranged people farther from each other.
The story of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) was written to show us a deeper truth – namely, that we will be far from God when we are far from each other.
Contrary to popular belief, what separates us from each other in this world is not our languages or cultures, our geography or our technology. Instead, what keeps us apart is the fear and suspicion we hold for one another. In this movie, every family on screen is afraid of the others and within every family, there is also a nagging suspicion.
In Robert Putman’s book, Bowling Alone, the author observes how disconnected we are in our society today. Instead of building communities, we have created isolated vacuums. Not only are we no longer speaking to our neighbors on our front porches, but also we aren’t even speaking to each other in our own homes. Older adults are suspicious of teens and young adults. Young people are suspicious of their elders. We are disconnecting from each other day by day.
Babel shows us how this disconnect can truly harm us. When we watch this film, we are left uncomfortable, uneasy, and unsure about our society and ourselves. Are we really that disengaged from one another? Are we really that isolated? Are we really capable of anger fueled by fear and suspicion? This movie leaves the viewer with these lingering questions.
So what are we going to do about it? What are we called to do?
The New Testament gives us an anti-Babel moment in the experience of the first Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). Instead of nations separated out of fear and anger towards each other, the Pentecost moment united those same nations through one voice: namely, the voice of the gospel, the voice of love, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and dialogue.
When Peter gets up to speak about these values, the crowd says to each other, “…and we can each hear them in our own language.” (Acts 2:11) There is hope for us, still. We don’t need to resort to the disconnect shown in Babel; we have a new language given to us by Christ. If only we spoke with that language, there would be no more “babbling,” and we could start to see the world as one.