This past Sunday night, my wife and I went to see the film Annihiliation. We had not read the book, and I’m usually not one for horror films, even sci-fi ones, but the previews looked intriguing. It was a provocative, visually-overwhelming, and somewhat disturbing film. (Warning: it had some surprising moments of violence.)
I’ve continued to come back to the film in my mind over the last week or so, and I wanted to briefly write up some disconnected thoughts on the matter–ones that may only make sense if you’ve seen the movie. This isn’t film criticism, a review, or an attempt at interpretation. I’m not competent to those tasks. It is rather more a couple of rough, theological reflections on the alien and the Other provoked by my experience of watching the film.
The Ubiquitous Weirdness of the Bible
The first thing struck me and drew me to the film, even in the previews, was the visual weirdness of The Shimmer–the alien phenomena at the center of the plot: the translucent glow, the bizarre landscapes of humanoid flower constructions, the astonishing and ghastly hybridized animal life, and architecturally-improbable glass towers.
Part of the beauty and the freaky peculiarity of it was the way it took the familiar and made it alien. I mean, deer with branches covered in flowers for antlers is arresting and lovely. But then, when I stop and think about it, the fact that deer have antlers sticking out of their head at all is just odd. Witnessing the familiar transformed reminded me of how odd the familiar actually is.
Now, providentially enough, I just happened to be working my way through Vern Poythress’s new book Theophany. Reading through text after text in the OT I kept thinking, “Man, the Bible is a ubiquitously weird book.”
Bushes that burn yet are not consumed. Seas that split open like the ground in an earthquake. Rivers turn to blood. Men that glow in the dark. Golden boxes that are deadly to the touch. Mountains covered in smoke, lightning, and fire. Angels appearing in burning furnaces. Demons and giants. Speaking Tornadoes.
If you’ve grown up with this book you’re whole life–especially reading these stories in little blank print on plain white tissue paper–it is so easy to breeze by the awesome terror, the excessive grandeur of these narratives. There is something alien about the world of the Bible. And yet here is the truly exhilarating claim: that is our world.
Reading the Bible is supposed to have something of the same effect the film had on me: it is supposed to shock open your eyes to this alien world we inhabit.
Even more striking to me was the issue of the otherness of the “alien” reality. Think of Star Trek or Star Wars and you see most of the alien and sci-fi universes depicted on screen are either anthropomorphic figures or bestialized variants on forms we already know. Not only that, their motivations, their loves, their hates, and so forth, exist within the range of the humanly-graspable. Perhaps they are more powerful, or ugly, or beautiful, but they are recognizable, nevertheless.
This was not the case with Annihilation, (nor the Heptapods of Arrival, I would argue). Here we encounter the truly unnerving and inscrutable Other. Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Aliens here are numinous, filling you with a sense of creaturely-dread in the face of a power that you have no grid for understanding. And why should we? They are aliens.
Of course, my own thoughts turn heavenward at that point. Something of this inscrutability, alien Otherness, and dread is what we see in Scripture. Who can understand the mind of the Lord? Who can recount his ways? How do you get a handle on the understanding and motivations of a being whose intellect and power are sufficient to bring about the cosmos (billions of galaxies and stars large) into existence?
Which is why an encounter with the Lord in Scripture usually produces fear and trembling. Israel before Mt. Sinai. Isaiah undone before the majesty of God’s throne in the Temple. Ezekiel’s acid trip before chariot with the wheels within wheels. Job before the Whirlwind. Annihilation reminded me of some of the tremor one should probably feel in the bones when reading such texts.
But here the difference asserts itself. At Sinai, God gives the Law. In the Temple, the Holy One commissions Isaiah. The figure on the throne-chariot addresses Ezekiel, the Son of Man. The Whirlwind speaks.
In Scripture, the weird, the terrifying, the alien experiences of God are not just assertions of power, of alien force, of the need for terror, but fundamentally acts of communication and self-revelation, and therefore grace. God makes himself known in the fire to Moses in order to proclaim the day of salvation for Israel. Isaiah and Ezekiel are sent to warn against sin and preach hope. There are no answers in the Whirlwind, but there is assurance.
And of course, finally, there is the incarnation of the Son, the Word God speaks. The God beyond us comes near, the Ultimate Other becomes one of us. In him, flesh of our flesh, we see the heart of God made truly known.*
As always, there is more to explore, especially at the rich anthropological themes, but since this is just a quick couple of reflections, I’ll just leave things there for now.
Soli Deo Gloria
*Of course, it would be interesting to delve into what impact the extra-Calvinisticum has on this dynamic of revelation. The Son of God comes truly in the flesh, but he nevertheless exists beyond it. God reveals himself truly, but the finite cannot fully contain the infinite. There is always a beyondness to God.