Thursday, May 26, 2016

Science and Church: Contact (1997)

 As a rule, horror films are more church friendly than science fiction films, which is odd. Church youth groups are much more likely to screen Star Wars than The Exorcist. Horror films, by their very nature, usually acknowledge the supernatural. It's not unusual to find a priest as the hero in a horror film. Hard science fiction usually ignores religion, while fantastic science fiction often relies on something like the Force (the ultimate Deus ex machina).

There are exceptions. Gravity is arguably all about prayer. There's no arguing that Contact is all about faith. The film is about science in relation to religion, reason, and faith; and by extension, science and the church. This is all the more interesting as the film is based on a novel by the late scientist/atheist Carl Sagan. Sagan obviously had a different perspective on religion than Richard Dawkins.

We never see a church in the film, but we hear the story of one very unfortunate church experience. And we see at least three different -- very different -- clergymen.

The film tells the story of a woman (Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster) who, from childhood, dreamed of the skies. She never knew her mother, and she asked her father if her mother was somewhere "out there." He couldn't give her an answer. She asked if he thought there was life out in space, and he answered, "If not, it's a real waste of space" (a phrase that is repeated throughout the film).

Eleanor grows up studying astronomy and physics and joins SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), where she listens to radio signals from space for clues of "little green men."  When a message from space is received, along with blueprints for what seems to be some kind of space transportation, Ellie's childhood dreams seem to be coming true.

Ellie's faith seems to be placed in science, and that's where she seeks truth and meaning. She seems mildly hostile toward religion, and as an adult, she tells a very sad story about the roots of that antagonism. She went to Sunday School a few times as a child, and she says she asked annoying questions like, "Where did Mrs. Cain come from?" Eventually, someone at the church called Ellie's father and asked him to keep her home; it's a very different attitude than Jesus' "Let the little children come to me." The church was practicing what seems more like stumbling block and mill stone behavior to me.

We do see a flashback of young Ellie with a clergyman in a clerical collar who tries to comfort her after her father dies. Since she was in the house with her father when he died, she frets that if she had gotten medicine to him more quickly, he might have lived. The clergyman says, "I know it's hard to understand things, but we have to accept it as God's will." Have those words ever brought comfort to anyone?

That priest or pastor is much better than the crazy-eyed Prophet Joseph. When the building project begins, based on the alien plans, the site is surrounded by fans, fanatics, and protesters. Many of the fans and protesters seem religiously motivated.  We see one protester, Prophet Joseph, who looks almost as crazy as Gary Busey. That's because he's played by Gary's son Jake.

As Ellie is being driven to the project, Prophet Joseph screams, "These scientists have had their chance; are these the people you want talking to your God for you?" Turns out Joseph, like some clergy, is not a fan of scientists or science. He believes that anyone who contemplates truth to be found in the Big Bang and Evolution is obviously on the devil's payroll.

And it turns out that Prophet Joseph is plotting a terrorist act to bring down the whole project and take many lives with a suicide bombing. Outside of ISIS, and in the vast majority of mainline churches, such a thing is not considered cool.

But the third clergyman in the film is cut from a different cloth. Rather, he says he's a "man of the cloth, without the cloth." Matthew McConaughey plays Palmer Joss, who at various times in the film is called "Pastor" and "Father," though it's unclear if he's gone through any ordination process with any denomination.

He went through seminary, but since he sleeps with Ellie the first day they meet, I'm pretty sure he never took vows of celibacy. He tells about a mystical experience that convinced him of the existence of God. Ellie responds asking him if he's ever heard of Occam's Razor, and he says he hasn't (which is kind of sad in itself). She explains that the simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is likely to be the correct one. Therefore, Occam's Razor argues against the existence of God. If Palmer had been a little more knowledge about Occam, he could maybe point out that Occam was a theologian.

Palmer works in third world churches protecting people from exploitation.  If we heard him explain anything in depth, we might find he believed in liberation theology, but Palmer only talks about God and faith in the most general of terms and doesn't talk about Scripture or Jesus at all.

Palmer seems to think that the pursuit of truth and the possession of faith are the important things, and that whether these things are pursued through science or theology is irrelevant. I appreciate the idea of "all truth is God's truth," but Palmer's truth seems to be of the most amorphous sort.

I did appreciate Palmer's response to Ellie's denial of God based on lack of evidence. He asks her whether she loved her father. She says she did. He responds, "Prove it!" And Palmer shows her something about faith by trusting her.

But I'm still afraid that the one church we hear about and all three clergymen average out to a One Steeple rating. (Don't mistake that for a rating of the film, which I quite admire.)

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