Saturday, April 23, 2011

Doctor Who

An Inter-Dimensional, Inter-Stellar Look at Resurrection, Regeneration, Humanity, and Salvation

Doctor Who (1963 to the present) has the distinction of being the longest running science fiction show on television for a simple reason: regeneration.

In 1966, to keep the show going when faced with the pending departure of lead actor William Hartnell, the producers decided to introduce the idea of regeneration - where The Doctor would transform into a new body when the previous incarnation had "died." So in that year, a new actor (Patrick Toughton) was able to step into The Doctor's shoes thanks to this ingenious idea.

This brilliant programming move allowed eleven actors to assume the titular role over the decades since. It's the same essential character, but eleven different incarnations with unique physical and emotional characteristics.

For Christians, this sounds a bit familiar. As we approach the Easter holiday (which may or may not be coincidentally linked to the season premiere of the series each year), regeneration hints at the concept of "resurrection." Of course the two ideas are theologically different, but one can't help but find parallels and similarities:

In order for regeneration to take place, the body of the previous Doctor needs to physically die - just as the resurrection of Christ could only occur when Jesus had been crucified.

Even though Jesus knew of his resurrection, he still feared death as seen in his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, even though The Doctor knows he will regenerate, he is truly frightened and anxious about his current body's eventual death.

In most cases, the Doctor dies to save another's life, sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity, which is precisely the reason Jesus died upon the cross - to sacrifice for and save us.

And when regeneration happens, the Doctor acquires a new appearance, unrecognizable at first to anyone, even his companions. But when he speaks, people somehow know it's still The Doctor. In much the same way, we hear in Scripture of Mary Magdalene and the disciples on the road to Emmaus not being able to recognize the Risen Christ at first; but once he speaks, their hearts burn within them - and they know with certainty that this is Jesus.

Now let me be clear: The Doctor is not The Messiah. But his fictional tale gives us a new yet timeless dimension (quite literally) to the Christ Figure.

Doctor Who reminds us that we need to be saved. In almost every episode, humanity (or some alien race somewhere in the universe) is under attack in one way or another. To respond, people (or extraterrestrials) usually look to violence and weapons to save themselves. But it never seems to work out so well.

"Put your sword away, for all who live by the sword shall die by the sword!" proclaims Jesus (Mt. 26:52) and echoes The Doctor, who prefers to save people without using a single weapon. Like Christ, The Doctor's words, compassion, and sacrifice are the things that save the day.

One of the bad habits of society today is our need to fix everything ourselves. We seem to have this belief that because there is hardly a problem we cannot solve, we can save ourselves from any problem. The economy, medical conditions, poverty, and rush hour traffic are all things we keep trying really hard to save humanity from... but try as we might, we cannot do it all. Look at the weather: everyone's been complaining about it since the dawn of civilization, but no one has yet been able to save us from hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and cloudy days.

Even in our struggle with our own selves on this planet (in genocide, oppression, and terrorism), we have this misguided notion that we can take care of everything - and in this conviction, we often turn to violence and war as the route to salvation.

But this is what is so radical about resurrection and about Christ (and echoed so well in Doctor Who)... we are saved by the peace, selflessness, compassion, and sacrifice of God - who loved us so much he came to earth, took our form, showed us the way of the gospel, and died upon a cross to truly save the day.

In a way, these stories remind us of our helplessness - and this is a word few of us want to claim. It makes us feel weak, unimportant, and vulnerable. Everyone wants to be the superhero. Few want to be the damsel in distress. But it is a good reminder for us, Doctor Who fans or not, to recapture our humility and to let go of our desire to fix everything. Sometimes we simply need to call upon a higher authority.

This is the meaning of resurrection: that salvation doesn't always come by our hands.

Scholars for generations have tried to explain or describe "resurrection" and "salvation." But just like explaining the nuances of inter-dimensional travel in a 1950s British police box that's bigger on the inside than on the outside, these theological concepts go beyond our comprehension. Catholics call it a "mystery," which has caused some to throw up their hands in desperation because they cannot fix it or understand it... but again, even in defining the terms, we are called to humbly admit our helplessness.

This notion challenges me as well. I like control. I like to fix things. I want to save the day when others need me. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn't - and I am reminded of my place in the universe. Luckily, Doctor Who helps me to let go.

The Doctor reinforces the fact that, at any given point, there are a million problems waiting to be solved - whether they are Daleks poised above the earth, Silurians plotting their return underground, Weeping Angels waiting in darkness and stone, or our own wars, diseases, and traffic jams. With all that, what can I do on my own? Answer: very little.

But that's when The Doctor swoops in on the TARDIS, taking care of those pesky problems in short order - a fictional analogy to Christ, who is the source of all hope and the one for whom the multitude of problems we face is never overwhelming. God will always have the final word.

So this Easter, when we celebrate the victory of compassion, love, and justice over all the struggles that the world can throw at us, let us be thankful that we are a people worth saving and that being dependant upon God isn't such a bad thing after all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Agony in Bedford Falls

" strengthen him, an angel from heaven appeared." Lk. 22:43

Some days, we feel like George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Like him, we've grown up with dreams that would take us far - yet still remain grounded in reality, hoping for a big break sometime soon. And like him, we're now enduring our own great depression in the early 21st century, trying to make ends meet and not knowing when relief is coming. We go to work, do our part, help where needed - with what little we have.

Yet living in such circumstances means that we might also be on the precipice, like George Bailey, worried we could fall at any moment and snap under pressure.

Whether it's one more thing piled on us at work or whether it's yet another thing going haywire at home, we might know what it's like to be there. Whether we're struggling with a relationship or the lack thereof, whether we're overwhelmed by anxieties about our health or someone else's, or whether we're lost somewhere in life, we may very well be at the end of our rope.

It's at those low points in life, when we feel almost alone, we wonder where we go next. George Bailey found himself stumbling to a snow-covered bridge in Bedford Falls, looking at the freezing water below, hoping for all the pressures to just go away.

In that moment of desperation, he quietly calls upon God.

It recalls the story of another man, Jesus of Nazareth, overwhelmed by pressure from the authorities, betrayed by his own inner circle, and frightened for himself and what might come next, who felt so alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death," he confessed to his closest friends (Mt. 26:38).

Looking into the night sky that night in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, in his moment of desperation, he called out to God: "Abba, Father, since all things are possible to you, take this cup away from me..." (Mk. 14:36). He, too, wanted all the pressures to just go away.

Jesus, and George Bailey, remind us that, in our darkest hours and when all the anxieties of the world (or at least all the anxieties of our life right now) seem to weigh us down on us, the best thing we can do is be still for a few moments and call upon our God. Internalizing all the fear and frustration will only destroy us from within. Passing our anger and aggression onto others will only destroy our relationships. Instead, we are called to turn to the heavens.

Yell at God if we must. Complain, scream, and curse to the Almighty, if it helps. God can take it.

So what will happen when we look to the Lord in prayer? Will a miracle wipe away all that pains us? Will a flash of light reveal the answers we seek? Probably not. But that's not the way God responds to our prayers.

In the Scriptures, we are told that " strengthen him (Jesus), an angel from heaven appeared." (Lk. 22:43). We're not sure how that happened, no matter what artistic interpretations have shown us over the centuries... but I like to think of it like the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) in Wonderful Life.

In the film, George's angel isn't swooping in with wings unfurled or majestic light beaming from the skies. This angel seems like any other guy on the street, albeit a bit stranger than most. In fact, had Clarence not told George he was from on high, no one would have ever guessed it.

Perhaps the answer to our prayers is more akin to this popular holiday movie. Perhaps after taking a quiet moment to lay our concerns at the Almighty, we just need to open our eyes and go back into that harsh world we're trying to escape. Perhaps there we will meet our "angel."

But yet again, we also need to be cautious not to rely on an "angel" suddenly appearing in the course of our lives to take away our pains. (and remember that Clarence didn't take away George's problems either; he simply reminded him of his own worth). We simply need to be open to others, to humility, and to moment of discernment. Sometimes taking time to look back on our horrible day or frustrated life is a worthwhile exercise in prayer.

We all have had and will continue to have Agony in the Garden moments. We might all find ourselves on that snowy bridge in Bedford Falls, at the precipice of indecision. It's okay to be there. God will listen. And we believe that somehow, someway, God will also respond.

The question for us will be: are we ready to receive the response God has in store for us?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Source Code

"And who is my neighbor?" Luke 10:29

Source Code is a captivating sci-fi movie with technological, ethical, and moral questions swirling around at an incredibly fast pace. Amid the action and intensity of this film, social and theological issues regarding the dignity of life and human consciousness, about use and abuse of our technology and our understanding of quantum physics, and about the cosmic reality of alternate universes linger with audiences far beyond the credits.

There are so many religious and spiritual matters at stake here that one could write volumes of blog posts on this film - enough material to last a whole year of conversations.

But for Source Code, what really engaged me spiritually weren't those mind-bending philosophical questions - but instead the perspective of the main character,

Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), an army helicopter pilot now on a mission he can't quite understand. He is sent digitally to a Chicago Metra train for the last eight minutes of its morning commute to discover the origins of a bomb that exploded there this morning. Stevens' mission is not to save the people on that train, but to root out and find the terrorist before he unleashes an even bigger attack on the entire city of Chicago, potentially killing millions of people.

Stevens is sent back in time for those eight minutes over and over again. His military handlers, Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), won't let him stop until he finds the bomber using whatever means necessary. But each time he returns, even though he learns more and becomes more strategic in his outlook, the bomb again explodes, killing those Metra commuters in yet another universe.

(the following contains plot spoilers, so be warned)

Finally, after many attempts, Stevens locates the terrorist, American extremist Derek Frost (Michael Arden) - and despite being killed in the alternate reality - is able to pass on the details to Goodwin and Rutledge, making this new technology (tapping into a brainwave "source code," hence the film's title) a major success in stopping terrorism before it can occur.

As a soldier, Stevens is taught that the sacrifice of the few is okay for the safety of the many. But it eats him up inside that in one reality or another, those Metra commuters still die (and the fact that millions were saved is little consolation to him).

Capt. Stevens' dilemma is similar to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37) where two people pass by a dying man right in front of them in order to do something that could save many more souls, yet a third traveler is able to see and fix the tragedy right in front of him.

Jesus posed his parable after telling an opponent that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love one's neighbor unconditionally. When challenged, "And who is my neighbor?" (Lk. 10:29), Jesus goes into this familiar story.

Capt. Stevens might also ask his handlers, "And who is my neighbor?" His duty is to save the country, but in so doing, must he also risk the lives of the people before his very eyes? Aren't they neighbors too?

With the help of Capt. Goodwin, Stevens is able to go back one final time to save the people aboard the supposedly doomed Metra train. At first annoyed by these people, he learns to love each of them (and their quirks) with each passing trip into the past, especially Christine, the beautiful woman sitting across from him (Michelle Monaghan).

Those commuters are like the beaten and bloodied traveler in Jesus' parable - that are expendable to Dr. Rutledge and others like him, but who are so very important to the Good Samaritan Stevens. He must save them.

In our own global world, with our eyes so focused on big issues and international concerns, we sometimes lose sight of the neighbors before our very eyes. Like those Chicago-bound commuters, they can be annoying or quirky, but Jesus says they're worth it, too.

When we advocate for life, for instance, we can easily get wrapped up in legal arguments and working in very big ways for the eradication of abortion or capital punishments. But how well do we tend to the life before us - in our daily experiences? How well do we treat the pregnant mother? How often do we pray for the prisoners on death row? How do we maintain the dignity of life for the people in our office, those we pass on the street, those we meet at the restaurant, and those we stumble over on our way to the next important thing?

Jesus calls us to be like Capt. Stevens, fighting for the expendable ones, the forgotten ones, and the seemingly mundane ones in our day to day lives. It's great that we're soldiers in the fight against social wrongs and for the least in society at large, but not at the cost of the people we meet every day.

In one respect, Stevens had it a little easy. It's not hard to care for a beautiful woman like Michelle Monaghan sitting across from you on a Metra train. One wonders if she weren't in his leaps to the past if Stevens would have bothered to care for those other commuters. Thankfully he did, but the bigger challenge lies for us in our everyday lives.

Those seemingly expendable people won't all look so good - yet we are still called to care for them, to look out for them, and to love them unconditionally like the Good Samaritan - for they are our neighbors just as much as the global community in which we live now.