“NASA Twins Study Confirms Astronaut’s DNA Actually Changed in Space.” That’s the headline that makes you choke, then narrow your eyes, and forget what you were searching for.
Come on. This isn’t The Twilight Zone. A man left earth and came back as somebody else? If you saw this on the cover of a grocery-line tabloid, you’d roll your eyes, you’d push your cart.
But wait—this isn’t the Enquirer or Weekly World News shouting at you. This is Newsweek. You’ve grown up with some measure of trust that Newsweek is actual news. Leaning in, you scroll past the headline and read that seven percent of Astronaut Scott Kelly’s genetic code “did not return to normal after he landed, researchers found.”
Researchers. Found. So, this isn’t speculation?
You open other news sources—not the sensationalism and fearmongering of conspiracy sites, but those with reputations of reliability. You find that the story is spreading: NASA launched Astronaut Scott Kelly, identical twin brother of Astronaut Mark Kelly, into space for a whole year’s work on the International Space Station. You remember this. You remember reading about his return from this record-setting assignment. But now you learn that not all was well with him when he climbed out of his suit: NASA tested him in comparison to his earthbound brother and found that the Kellys were no longer identical twins.
This means that if you ever become the space traveler that your seven-year-old self dreamed of becoming, if you break the gravitational hold of your home planet, someone else might return in your place, an amalgam of your body parts spiked with something extra-terrestrial.
For a moment, adult astronaut Dave Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey rises up through your moviegoing memories, then drifts helplessly off into darkness, only to return eons later as a glowing, moon-sized fetus. No, you tell yourself — let’s not get carried away. Still, seven percent of Scott’s DNA has been hacked, updated with foreign programming alien to his family code. Who is he? What is he?
You close your laptop, unsettled.
Meanwhile, a thousand screenwriters are already pounding on their keyboards in a race to be first with a screenplay called something like Illegal Alien, A Cosmonaut Reborn, or Alteration.
The Threat of Annihilation
They won’t be the first to play with this idea.
Three weeks before this news hit newsstands, I found myself in a toxic and dangerous place called “the Shimmer”: ground zero for a meteor strike. Or was it? Something had hit Planet Earth—a missile maybe, or a UFO—producing a strange soap-bubble dome that expanded, engulfing everything in its path, and confounding scientists.
Okay, I wasn’t really there, but it felt like it. I sat next to Josh Larsen, author of Movies are Prayers and co-host of Filmspotting (by my lights, the gold standard of film podcasts), in a packed Seattle theater, squirming through an opening-weekend screening of Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror film Annihilation.
It’s an unsettling story. Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) returns home from a mission of heavily armed men who ventured into the Shimmer seeking to discover the source of its power. He is not himself: Kane’s wife Lena (Natalie Portman) knows this right away. He doesn’t remember much. His body language and voice aren’t quite right. He might be an imposter. An alien invader. Is this the same body? If so, is this the same soul?
Compelled by a need to face her fears, Lena, an ecologist, joins a team of women who each have reasons of their own for approaching the Shimmer: a psychologist driven by a sobering secret; an anthropologist grieving the death of a daughter; a paramedic who has struggled with addiction; a physicist, her arms scarred arms with signs of a painful past. Packing research equipment and machine guns, these women represent varied expertise in matters of mind and body. They are, in a sense, united by wounds: They’ve been injured by their experiences, but not overcome. Not yet.
As they advance, they begin to discern the Shimmer’s influence. Wild animals—or, better, wild amalgams—lurk in the shadows. The Shimmer merges its inhabitants. These monsters are evolving hybrids of familiar creatures: They really are what they eat. Bizarre vines wind their changeling way, blooming unpredictably. And then, detail by detail, the distinctive characteristics of our heroes begin to shift, their identities merging right down to their tattoos.
One, the physicist—Josie (Tessa Thompson)—takes a surprising position on the troubling discovery. Her arms, bristling with tiny green sprouts, are open. She is willingly merging with her surroundings as she goes. She is becoming—and I mean this literally—a vegetable. Is this death? Or evolution? Both?
We’re Dying to Be Other, But…
This stuff sells popcorn.
Name that ‘70s movie: A little girl, once beloved and seemingly innocent, suddenly speaks with the voice of the devil, her features distorted and green. She is not the girl she used to be. Name that ‘90s television series: Space heroes flee the grasp of the Borg, agents of an alien “hive mind” who spread an epidemic of identity theft called “assimilation.” Maybe you’ve seen the murder-mystery television series in which the enemy could be anybody if their soul is overcome by a dark spirit called “Bob.” Maybe you’ve binge-watched a TV franchise, inspired by countless genre precedents, in which humanity strives to survive an undead apocalypse.
The most terrifying moment in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not, for this moviegoer, the moment when a cult leader extracts a human heart from a sacrificial victim. No—it’s when young Short Round runs to Indiana Jones, his reliable guardian, for help, and finds out the hard way that a Satanic power has overwritten Indy’s consciousness, hardened his heart and ignited his eyes with an alien energy. Indy turns and strikes the child’s face. We recoil, bruised, frightened by the madness in Harrison Ford’s eyes. Indy is onscreen, but Indy isn’t there. Our hero has trespassed in enemy territory and this hostile environment has converted his code. He’s been revised. At least, that’s what it looks like.
Don’t worry. Jones is okay. It’s just a momentary glitch.
In the movie The Fits, directed by Anna Rose Holmer, young African American girls on a community-center dance team start falling, one by one, into alarming and mysterious seizures. As I show this film to students in my class on writing film criticism, Seattle Pacific University undergraduates who are accustomed to horror movies find themselves unusually troubled by the lack of an explanation for these spastic episodes, and even more by the suggestion that these alarming attacks might permanently change those who suffer them. It’s almost as if they’re worried that an unresolved question is, in some way, a vulnerability, a danger.
I understand their discomfort. It’s the stuff of nightmares: this idea that our identities are unstable.
My earliest memory of being terrified by images on a screen comes from an unlikely occasion: Switching TV channels on a black-and-white television, I stumbled onto a pivotal moment of Disney’s The Shaggy D.A., in which a man’s bathroom-mirror reflection reveals that he’s morphing into a sheepdog. Six years old and unfamiliar with the primitive wizardry of special effects, I almost threw up.
In my morning commute from home to school, I hear promotions for front-door cameras and security systems, inventions designed to protect me from those who are out to steal my identity or break into my home. I hear advertisements for medicines, insurance policies, and the military—agents that shield us from erasure, that preserve the lives we recognize from transformative change. Testimonies about the effectiveness of treatments for addiction or for the effects of getting older shout from the speakers: “I had become someone I didn’t recognize. I wanted my life back.” I hear political campaign ads promoting would-be Presidents who promise to protect our society from the threat of change.
Others, meanwhile, are promising change above all. And I hear about “services” that appeal to our desires for extreme makeovers: cosmetic, psychological, spiritual.
And when I see your vacation photos—Brice Canyon’s bizarrely beautiful wonderland of stone, the green glory of Alaska’s Denali, the otherworldly allure of Iceland—I know the feeling that prompted 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon to exclaim “I want to go to there.” When I say that my own first road trip across New Mexico changed me, I mean something more than the immediately obvious alteration of my culinary preferences. When I tell that story, I often conclude, “I was never the same after that.” Or, “It was a formative experience.” In short, I’m saying, “Good times!”
We live our lives in maddening contradiction. In “Slide,” Joe Henry sings it so concisely: “We’re dying to be other / But we kill not to become.”
The Familiar vs. Faith
So why are we so afraid of losing what we’ve defined as “selves”?
Such threats and countermeasures consume today’s front pages: Build the wall, they say. Tear down that wall. “Outsiders,” some say, “are threatening to transform the complexion of our culture. Take us back to what we were. Familiar. Safe.” “We are a culture,” others reply, made of outsiders—so what’s the threat? We are only beginning to fulfill the promise of that vision.”
Me, I tend to favor the open door—at least, that’s what I shout into my social media megaphone. But if I faced the threat of personal revision, wouldn’t I do what most of these explorers in Annihilation do—what Lena does—and lash out? If some pending change looks likely to cost me, my fears, my sense of self-preservation, might win out. I might take the safety off my shotgun. I might fight.
Maybe it all comes down to the matter of consent. We quake at the prospect of something altering us without our permission, but if we can obtain some guarantee of satisfaction—if we can avoid the uncertainties of faith—then, well, bring it on.
But God does not deal in certainties. He promises change. He keeps the details to himself. And he says, “Fear not.”
Check Your Sources
It’s not just that I’m troubled by the questions rising to the surface of this NASA study. It’s more than that: I’m suspicious of its validity.
This story about Scott Kelly appears on March 9, 2018, while America is arguing about #FakeNews. I’m reluctant to distrust Newsweek; I value news sources that have a longstanding reputation of credibility. And, as an occasional journalist and a teacher of academic writing, I take it personally when government officials dismiss, demonize, and (worse) silence the press for reporting inconvenient truths.
But I also know that journalism can be a tricky business—emphasis on business—and that sensationalism taints even time-honored news sources. It’s a dangerous process, opening ourselves to new information. What we believe, what convinces us, shapes us. My students know that I want them to read and write with caution. To test claims. To back up their own claims with sound evidence. I want them to question where they get their information and why, and whether their sources are trustworthy. I want them to consider the context of a story’s publication and ask “Cui bono?”
So, let’s check this NASA story.
CNN backs up Newsweek: “Spending a year in space not only changes your outlook, it transforms your gene expression.”
I check a third source—TIME.com—and read that the genetic code related to Kelly’s “immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia” have been revised.
Yikes. I’m beginning to believe it. And that means I must reconsider much of what I believe about human nature and identity. If genetic engineers add rabbit DNA to bird DNA, Planet Earth has a new creature in its hands. If outer-space experience replaces pieces of a human’s basic operating system, is it a stretch to say that Scott Kelly’s wife is sleeping with a stranger now? Perhaps she should keep her distance until she gets to know him.
As a child, I dreamed of piloting my own spaceship to other planets. Perhaps, in view of NASA’s report, it’s better to stay home, safe and sound.
After the end credits roll for Annihilation, Josh and I find ourselves tracing the influences of other movies and other filmmakers on writer/director Alex Garland. (This is what film critics do; it’s in our DNA, in a manner of speaking.) We’ve seen Garland’s earlier narratives: Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, and Ex Machina, directed by Garland himself. But Annihilation feels like a film made by an advanced Alex Garland, someone who has been exposed to—has marinated in—the ideas and aesthetics of Darren Aronofsky, James Cameron, John Carpenter, and others. And the Shimmer reminds us of the mysterious “Zone” in a mutual favorite: Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece Stalker. In both films, the blast zone is unnervingly transformative for those who step inside.
Josh and I discuss where the movie might be too derivative: Is it just a collage of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, or does it have a vision and a soul of its own? We do not arrive at any conclusions. Not yet. Annihilation is still new territory for us. We might find that it falls away (like so many films), becoming a foggy footnote in our filmgoing history. Or we might find that it haunts us, burning like the hot spot of a camera flash in our minds, influencing how we see other films, and drawing us back for further contemplation.
I’ve heard friends talk about how profoundly Annihilation disturbed them, how it made ordinary things outside the theater suddenly seem unstable and threatening. I suspect that Garland’s premise gets under our skin because we know, on some level, that the danger is real. The movie shakes up our sense of security.
As it turns out, Annihilation will not earn a place on Josh Larsen’s top ten list for 2018. Nor will it appear on mine. And yet here I am, still writing about it, still wrestling with its implications, more than a year later. I spent only two hours in that theater it. It’s a part of me now.
Most pastors and church leaders who “revised” my thinking as I grew up made their ultimate goal clear: They wanted me to be “born again,” and they wanted everything I do—and, thus, everything I write—to persuade you to be born again.
That’s the core vocabulary of the community in which I grew up. From the time 5-year-old Jeffrey prayed the Sinner’s Prayer, the church installed my life within a frame and gave the image a caption: Jeffrey is a new creature in Christ.
My old, unsaved self? Annihilated. My code had been rewritten.
“Saved” (allegedly), I focused my attention on learning to make converts of others. I was now an agent of a sort of Shekinah Light Shimmer, part of a Christian influence spreading like a soap bubble, baptizing the rest of the world into conversion. I was prepared for the world’s resistance; many sinners would fight assimilation. But we, the Reborn, would persist until the whole world saw the world the way we did, spoke our language, learned to follow our Sunday morning routines.
Jesus’s promises comforted me. But this idea that my top priority now, in everything, was to advertise him to others and persuade them to put on my team’s jersey… suffice it to say that it made me anxious. It made me self-conscious. It turned friendships into Projects. It made the incompleteness of others my primary concern.
If you’re like me, you don’t welcome the approach of door-to-door salesmen. You can sense the baited hook in their greetings. You can smell the agenda.
And anyway, I wasn’t sold on everything they had told me about this New Creature I had become. I wasn’t ready to abandon some of the curiosities and compulsions they dismissed as inclinations of “the Old Self.” Jeffrey 2.0 began feeling guilty for his attraction to forces he’d been told would corrupt his soul.
This was particularly true when it came to the arts.
The Dangerous Gospel of Portland’s Z100 FM
I close my eyes and I can see the faces, hear specific voices raised in song:
Oh Lord my God,
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made…
Our church organist is leaning on those keys like a rider surging in the Kentucky Derby. We’re singing the Sunday service finale at Portland Gateway Church. The choir director, his suit as blue as Barry’s in Punch-drunk Love, is leading us now. I feel his impressive bass notes resonating in my ribs.
I see the stars
I hear the roaring thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
I also hear the roaring of the woman in the pew behind me, the one whose church-lady fragrance wafts about the sanctuary, perfuming us all. (Is this why this bench is called a pew?) My fellow Baptists have taught me to be suspicious of Catholics who fill their sanctuaries with “smells and bells,” sensory enhancements that distract us from God. Nevertheless, in this congregation, it seems a mark of a woman’s virtue if she’s bathed in Chanel No. 5.
Then sings my soul,
My savior God, to thee…
This Sunday-morning and Wednesday-evening church life is what I I know. I speak their language, follow their rules. I memorize the Bible verses they deem significant. This community runs on the same operating system as that of my Christian middle school, just a few blocks away, where we pray before class and attend weekly worship services called Chapel. This is my home planet, where my identity feels fixed and secure. And I recognize outsiders by their strange vocabularies, priorities, and fashion.
My parents linger after church for “fellowship.” I’ve long had the sense that time I spend within these walls strengthens my soul the way weekly basketball practice improves my performance in actual games. I’m striving to be a champion Christian, whose faith will succeed in life’s challenges because of my discipline. Giving attention to anything beyond this community and its Scriptures, I might suffer exposure to volatile substances and toxic forces in that alien zone we call “The World.”
Still, I’m edging toward the aisle as we sing that last “How great thou art / How greaaaat, thouuuu, arrrrt.” I’m answering a call, surrendering to a seductive summons from beyond stained-glass. I slip my bulletin into my Bible, concealing all of the toothy monsters and otherworldly rocketships I’ve drawn in the margins. And when I hear the last “Amen,” I bolt like a jailbreaker to a getaway car.
Baptized by the seemingly endless Portland rain, cleansed of the perfume glaze, I dive into the family Subaru station wagon and slam the door. Sealed into my spaceship, I blast off into the strange, the new. I fall into the arms—and the arts—of The World.
Sometimes it’s a fantasy novel. Sometimes, the newspaper. Most of the time, it’s Portland’s Z100 rock radio. I turn the key far enough to activate the AM/FM, and echoes of hymns fade in bright rays of a new song:
I want to run
I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls
that hold me inside.
I want to reach out
And touch the flame
Where the streets have no name…
I’m singing along with Bono, a secular rock star, as I crank up the volume until the car doors vibrate. Gray men in suits and ties walk past the car and scowl. Under their gaze, I feel like a prodigal, a hypocrite who has launched himself beyond the bounds of safety.
Don’t they remember? They saw me immersed in the baptismal dunk tank. “You cannot lose your salvation.” They promised me that. My spot’s reserved in heaven.
But their expressions, and my pastor’s weekly rants against The World, make me wonder. Has the warranty expired? Was my security assured only so long as I stayed within the context of Christian company, reading Christian texts, attending to Christian entertainment? They speak as if the cosmos beyond our American, middle-class, white, Protestant, evangelical sphere—its ideas about culture, sexuality, science, history, and faith—is full of ideas that can undo our minds. With rare exceptions that have been vetted as “clean” by church authorities—like the movie The Sound of Music, TV’s Little House on the Prairie, or the gospel performances of Johnny Cash—everything from the art on the walls to the content of the sermons I hear is designed to keep us separate. We are a people who are nice, respectful (to each other), and welcoming. We are an inoffensive people who avoid being offended.
But here I am, drifting through constellations of dazzling new songs, learning to differentiate the hit-makers: Peter Gabriel and Peter Cetera; Robert Palmer and Robert Smith; the Jacksons—Michael, Janet, and Jermaine; the Twins, Thompson and Cocteau; U2 and the B-52s; Prince and Sting and Falco.
What was my gateway drug into this addiction? What weakened my shields? Was it those love songs in animated Disney films? The catchy alphabet choruses on Sesame Street? Perhaps it was that playfully patriarchal courtship serenade in The Sound of Music: “I am seventeen, going on eighteen / I’ll take care of you.”
Whatever the case, I’m learning pop-culture liturgies now. And I’m developing rationalizations to defend my trespasses: If I become well-versed in cultural references, I’ll have better chance of conversing with—and eventually converting—my neighbors, right?
But the opposite is true: I’m the one being converted by The World. It isn’t pop-culture currency that makes me vulnerable. It’s the sounds. Those wild, surprising, infectious sounds. They get their hooks into me, just as my pastors warned me. They are changing the way I spend my money. They are complicating my mixtapes.
Each week on Z100 FM, new noise arrives like those extra-terrestrial blazes in Steven Spielberg movies. By osmosis, I am receiving an education in excellent songcraft. I’m developing a sense of what makes a song good, of why a new release by a popular artist is perceived as “more of the same” or “a brave and risky step forward.” I’m noticing the role of a record producer: a good producer can revise an artist’s sound and make musicians I’ve ignored seem surprising and new.
It feels like learning a new language that might allow me to converse with my late-‘80s culture. I love the snarls and groans of guitar solos by Mark Knopfler on Brothers in Arms; the dizzying dexterity of Eddie Van Halen on 1984; the propulsive rhythms of The Edge on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. I love the irresistible bass and beats of Michael Jackson’s Thriller singles, and the unshakeable earworms of choruses from The Go-Gos and The Bangles. And as these sounds become familiar, my whole body responds—I want to move, to stamp my feet, to clap my hands, to sing. To tear down the walls that hold me inside. It’s a strange feeling, one I rarely feel in church. It feels like growth. Like gratitude. I am transformed by the renewing of my record collection.
If I were to describe to these arched-eyebrow churchgoers how this new cosmos of Worldly creativity ushers me into a state of “awesome wonder,” I know the response I’d get. Drugs will give you a sense of awesome wonder, too! Perhaps I am, out here in the church parking lot, tuning in to the devil’s signal, absorbing by osmosis the patterns of “The World.” Perhaps.
Or… perhaps the renewing of my mind that began with my embrace of the Gospel is actually getting to me. Perhaps I’m beginning to get what Jesus means when he insists that the Kingdom of God is not waiting for me, after death, as some promised Ultimate Destination, but that it is (to quote another ‘secular’ pop song) “right here, right now,” waiting to be apprehended and enjoyed in the World that God so loves. Perhaps the transformation of salvation has set me free from the calcifying effect of a static system, so that I might live in relationship with the Spirit, experiencing it wherever I find truth and beauty. Perhaps this way of living in flux, in the ongoing transformation of attentive learning and speaking in new tongues, is the work of bearing witness.
Still today, when I (in awesome wonder) attend to the music that my ‘secular’ neighbors, exercising God-given creativity, compose; when I see stars—Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Rhiannon Giddens, Radiohead, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Wilco, Over the Rhine, U2, David Bazan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or today’s latest prophetic voice; when I hear the rolling thunder of drums and guitars, God’s power, throughout the worlds of rock, pop, country, soul, and hip-hop displayed… then sings my soul.
In 1987, I am sixteen going on seventeen. And I am changing.
But here’s the thing: It wasn’t true.
I should have sought confirmation from scientific journals, you scold yourself.
A few days after Newsweek broke that February 2017 news, NASA tried to stem the spread of misinformation. “Complete hogwash”—that’s what Brian Resnick, at Vox, calls the reports that ran in Newsweek, TIME, and CNN. “Scott Kelly did not mutate into a genetic freak during his year living aboard the International Space Station. … The episode was a complete communications misfire, stemming from a misinterpreted press release from NASA.”
Scott’s DNA did not fundamentally change. … What researchers did observe are changes in gene expression, which is how your body reacts to your environment. This likely is within the range for humans under stress, such as mountain climbing or SCUBA diving. … The change related to only 7 percent of the gene expression that changed during spaceflight that had not returned to preflight after six months on Earth. This change of gene expression is very minimal.
Well, I was disappointed, anyway. It was such a scary story, but it was exciting.
Still, I find this idea of a change in gene expression reassuring. And it makes so much more sense. Scott Kelly’s DNA didn’t rewrite itself—okay. But the off-world experience did change how his DNA related to its environment.
The Kellys remain, technically, identical; Scott is not made of new DNA.
But I’m sure that they behave very differently because they’ve lived different experiences. In each separate situation, their DNA learns new ways of behaving. The Kellys run on the same code, but that code has, through their differing experiences, learned how to behave in distinctive ways.
The Apostle Paul was not a fellow known for staying home where things were safe and familiar. But, surviving all kinds of violence in the World, he was not compromised. He insisted, to those who were upset about all that he was suffering far from the security of their home church, that he was alright:
“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4).
Contrary to the warnings I learned in church, Jesus himself teaches (in Matthew 15) that it is not what we experience that corrupts us so much as how we respond:
“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.”
Students in my film class brave race riots on New York streets (watching Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). They join children running away from parents and police into the path of a storm that will teach everyone hard lessons (watching Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom). They cringe as a successful doctor and family man runs from God, committing adultery and murder (Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors). In Ireland, they watch a soul consumed by fear during the building of a wall against barbarians (The Secret of Kells). In Afghanistan, they share the sufferings of Muslim women under Taliban persecution (The Breadwinner).
After watching them squirm in discomfort, I look forward to reading these students’ written reflections. Some seem threatened by these alarming experiences, at first; but as they write, they discover perspective. They find their thoughts, their voices. They develop relationships with the films, and they are not undone. And then, in our subsequent class discussions, through giving and receiving interpretations and perspectives, their first impressions evolve into stronger, wiser, second impressions.
And their impressions often surprise me. Impress me. Revise me.
Contrary to the warnings I received in church, the arts have not led me away from Christian faith. In fact, art—whether projected on a screen, singing through speakers, printed on pages, or displayed on gallery walls—goes on revealing and affirming the beauty and truth proclaimed by the Scriptures. I find glimpses of God’s image in the creative work of those he has made, even those who do not profess belief in him. And when I encounter failures of imagination in the arts (even and sometimes especially in the work of zealous believers), I know beauty better by observing the effects of its absence. Both experiences—the inspiring and the upsetting, those that elevate and those that disappoint—teach me. As I grow in discernment, I gain some understanding of every strange new context, and in doing so I discover the limitations of who I have been and the possibilities of who I can be within those new worlds. I am speaking in tongues.
Turn and Face the Strange
For the record, I don’t enjoy the Annihilation denouement. And yet Garland’s film rings true to the way so many of us respond to the unknown: Lena, having seen so many friends transformed by the Shimmer, responds with fear and resorts to violence. She goes to her guns. The result? No spoiler—suffice it to say that Lena’s reaction to the unfamiliar leads to a profoundly disturbing conclusion.
That’s the thing: There is no safe territory—not in outer space, not at the public library, not in the church sanctuary, not in front of our family television. Challenge and change await us everywhere. There is a possibility of harm. Inviting students to explore controversial films, I know the risks involved. If I were to invite them into my favorite restaurants, I might be, on the very same occasion, leading one into a life-changing encounter with flavors that will enrich her life for years to come, while another student in the very same time and place might awaken an appetite that he does not have the discipline to control.
The heavens, fellow cosmonauts, are dangerous; the skies are full of toxins and life-threatening conditions. But, as the Psalmist once testified, they also “declare the glory of God.” They “proclaim his handiwork.” We must proceed with care and discernment, learning by trial and error—but we must proceed.
This is where loving, attentive relationship becomes an essential aspect of our exploration. Healthy relationships with art are born in community. I’ve taken some wrong turns, seen films that have given me nightmares, sung along to lyrics that were exploitative and disrespectful, and read memoirs that reveled in condescension and even condemnation. There is much that I wish I could un-see, un-hear, un-read. But, like a child guided by a patient and forgiving parent in his first walk on a rocky shore, I’ve been guided by other readers and wise instructors as I make my stumbling way, and I have learned from my errors in judgment—not to run in despair back to some false “safety,” but to be wiser as I go forward.
The “awesome wonder” that comes to those who “consider all the worlds” that God created—it isn’t just a hymn that feels good when you sing it with a congregation. It’s true. You can put it into practice. Those worlds are not just full of God’s language—they are God’s language. He spoke them into being, and we can draw closer to God by listening.
But they will not leave us unchanged. As David Dark reminds us in The Sacredness of Questioning Everything,
“We only receive art when we let it call our own lives into question. If the words of Jesus of Nazareth, for instance, strike us as comfortable and perfectly in tune with our own confident common sense, our likes and dislikes, our budgets, and our actions toward strangers and foreigners, then receiving the words of Jesus is probably not what we’re doing. We may quote a verse, put it in a PowerPoint presentation, or even intone it loudly with an emotional, choked-up quiver, but if it doesn’t scandalize or bother us, challenging our already-made-up minds, we aren’t really receiving it.”
Are you ready to risk revision?
It’s Happening Again
A couple of months ago, at Image’s Santa Fe arts adventure called the Glen Workshop, I invited several brave cosmonauts to meditate on a variety of unsettling movies. A company of strangers, we left the safety of the familiar together and entered a state of suspension in the shimmer of cinema. We got a little lost. We were occasionally uncomfortable. And then we went home. We were still ourselves. But our experiences had enhanced our vocabularies and revised our understanding of relationships.
However you describe what happened in that room, we’re still talking about it.
Beware. Who knows what we’ll become?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.