MRBlog: Christopher B. Hays on Interstellar

Christopher B. Hays: ‘Some People Call Me the Space Cowboy, Some Call Me the Gangster of Love’: Interstellar’s New, Ancient Theology of Salvation


NB: See also Ed Silver’s reflection on Interstellar. 

Image from Wikipedia:
Image via Wikimedia Commons

“Let a healthy son be born to me, for you are an able spirit!” So wrote a son to his deceased father in ancient Egypt in one of the Letters to the Dead (“On the Chicago Jar Stand”). Inscribed on bowls, ostraca, linen, and papyri, and spanning a wide swath of Egyptian history, every one of these texts was written to an immediate family member. They testify to the hope that love could overcome the normally impenetrable barrier of death, that those who had departed could affect the fates of the living. Another reads: “Please become a spirit for me [before] my eyes so that I may see you in a dream fighting on my behalf.”

Dissatisfaction with the limitations of this life has always tended to lead to cults of the dead. The hope is not only to receive help from the dead, but to continue to be ourselves and have power after death. If that basic human urge has ever subsided, it is not in any of the periods that I’ve studied. Mesopotamians, Ugaritians, Israelites, Judeans, Greeks, Romans, etc., have all practiced ancestor cults. To the Protestant reformers, it seemed that such cults had reared their head again in the Roman Catholic veneration of the saints. And ancestor worship is still widely practiced around the world, as I hear from students whenever I lecture on the topic.

The newly released film Interstellar thus stands in a long tradition of hope for supernatural salvation from those who have departed from us. Out of its sincere belief in the power of love to transcend space and time, it is even evangelistic. I have been prodded into writing about it precisely because I have been surprised by (and have reacted to) claims about the “secularism” of the movie. One friend wrote that it never invokes the Bible or religious discourse at all. That last comment was finally too much, since one of the space missions in the movie is dubbed “Lazarus,” an explicit reference to the brother of Mary whom Jesus raises from the dead in John 11.

A couple of things need to be established at the outset. First, I enjoyed the movie. It is exquisitely produced, well acted (when the script doesn’t get in the way), and entertaining (when one can suspend disbelief). Second, I hope that we are not talking past each other when we use words like “religion” and “myth.” Here in 2014, it would be an impoverished idea of religion and myth that could not account for our civil and secular religions. Football is a religion. Black Friday is a high holiday. The idea that if you work hard you get ahead is a myth. These things may be cherished more deeply by more Americans than any ritual practiced or any doctrine taught in our churches, mosques, or synagogues. Moreover, traditional religious convictions (for example about Sabbath or social justice) are increasingly inconvenient for our secular religions, and so the two sets often come into direct conflict. For reasons that will take some time to lay out, Interstellar comes into conflict with some of the traditional values of, at least, Christianity and Judaism.

Interstellar is, of course, different from the aforementioned forms of popular, secular religiosity like football and consumerism. Intelligent people are charmed by the film because the basis of its religion is esoteric science, and every enlightened person can agree that science is good and important. (Keep funding NASA!) But in watching it, I was overwhelmed by its determination to offer a form of religious science (not to be confused with Scientology or Christian Science) as a replacement for whatever more ancient faith the viewer might identify with. In an age in which many hold religion to be an archaism at best and an atrocity at worst, the time is ripe for a new hope (not to be confused with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). The old gods are otiose; bring on the space travelers!

The catalogue of motifs alluding to or drawing on religious discourse in the film is extensive. When Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) enters the black hole, he finds himself with powers that can only be described as divine: he has the power to transcend space and time to save those he cares about. And crucially, he is the agent of salvation —  there is no higher power than him. He exclaims to his robot that “there is no ‘they’!” … “We put ourselves here!” But this is not, as some would have it, secularism. This is a self-assertion of divinity.

The theme of resurrection also runs throughout the movie — in addition to the Lazarus reference, when the team lands on Mann’s planet, he says, “You all have literally raised me from the dead.” So does the question of whether prayers are heard or do any good: what else are the messages sent to the heavens by the astronauts’ families for many decades without response? The lifelong secret of Professor Brand (Michael Caine) to solve a formula he knows to be insoluble speaks to the question of the value of faith without apparent reason; he dies in despair and shame, thinking he has misled others, but his “faith” is not in vain. Even the battle between Cooper and Mann (Matt Damon) on the ice planet is reminiscent of the struggle of Cain and Abel.

All this would be more delightful but for two things. First, the script is heavy-handed. For example, at a moment when the astronauts are trying to make a decision, one will suddenly launch into a soliloquy about the power of love. And Cooper repeatedly emphasizes that “there is no they’” just in case we missed it the first time. This kind of scripting is understandable, since many viewers would clearly miss the philosophy and religion if it were not paraded so loudly, but those already attuned, it seems a bit ham-fisted.

Second, all the religion and mythology are employed in the service of a highly dubious message: we can ruin the earth and still save ourselves. We can throw the Hail Mary in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter. The movie has been said to espouse a message of environmental concern, but it does just the opposite. It makes little of human agency in the “blight” that is consuming the earth’s crops. The primary human flaw in the movie’s view is the failure to Dream Big, and to Shoot For The Stars. I have no objection to shooting for the stars, but I could not help thinking as I watched the humans overcome such long odds that they surely had a much higher percentage chance of scientifically solving Earth’s problems than they did of finding an interstellar home.

As senior writer Lee Billings noted, “some very august scientists … think interstellar travel is so difficult as to be effectively impossible.” And even the theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (formerly of Caltech), who was the film’s consultant and has continued to be its staunchest defender, has said, “The technology required for wormholes is so far removed from our current and plausible near-future capabilities that to throw lots of money at it would almost certainly be a total boondoggle.” At the risk of being a downer, it’s not happening — not while people are driving diesel pickup trucks like the ones in the movie.

But it’s not simply that it would be difficult to achieve the kind of interstellar travel the movie portrays — there is no “science” to it at all in the sense of observable phenomena. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University observes: “When we say that Einstein’s theory predicts a singularity [at the center of a black hole] that makes a singularity sound like a thing that makes sense. But the reality is that Einstein’s mathematics simply go haywire and that’s the sign of something going drastically wrong, and we don’t know exactly what goes wrong so we label it singularity.” He goes on: “Before I talk about [wormholes], I’m sure you already know we’re talking total hypothetical stuff here. … Mathematics allows for these things — no one’s ever seen one, there’s no evidence or anything.” In other words, the science behind Interstellar has roughly the same relationship to reality as medieval debates about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Out of its scientific scholasticism, Interstellar weaves a new myth of salvation for the secular, liberal West in the wake of the perceived failure of the major religions. We are homo religiosus, so it’s out with the old myths and in with the new. (As Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”) But this new myth, despite being worried about the earth, teaches that it is expendable, and that we need cowboys like Cooper who are brave and smart enough to go find us a new one. This is not so different from Bruce Willis steering a nuclear missile into an asteroid to save Earth in Armageddon. For all its ambition and artistry, Interstellar’s philosophy is very Michael Bay.

Interstellar’s emphasis on personal heroism is of course quite consonant with its cult of the departed; cults of the dead are also referred to as hero cults. Cooper literally reaches out to his daughter in a past period of her life and sends her a (necromantic) message that ends up saving not only her, but the human race. Even though Cooper’s ghostly intervention saves many, it is done for only one; it is the power of love that connects him with his daughter across the boundaries of time and space that we take to be natural.

Heroism is finally second in the movie’s religion to love, which is subject of Cooper’s central soliloquy:

Love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something. Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.

That’s a lovely speech, and it has religious echoes in light of foundational biblical claims such as “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16) and “you shall love the Lord your God” (Deut 6:5 and its many echoes). But because extra-human divinity is excised from Interstellar’s discursive universe, love is directed at other human beings — in some cases quite literally projected towards the heavens in a Feuerbachian manner.

Interstellar is a movie about the power of familial love and the indomitable pioneer spirit of the American cowboy, masquerading as a deep-thinking scientific think-piece. That makes it lovely as a way to pass three hours with a tub of popcorn, but not so unique or especially helpful as inspiration to live by.

It would have been nice if the movie had done something with a different Lazarus, the poor man in Luke 16 who finds paradise in the afterlife. That Lazarus was contrasted with the wicked rich man who was punished after death. One lesson of the story is: think ahead. The rich man cries out in his torment, asking Abraham to warn his brothers of the fate that awaits them if they persist in acting as he had. He says, “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But Abraham tell him they have the information they need: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” We have much of the information we need, too. The human race’s odds would be astronomically higher if we would simply think ahead, even if it seems more romantic to gamble on space-cowboy daddy figures with the power to reach out and save from beyond the grave.

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