C.S. Lewis and the Tao of "The Island"
- Dr. Marc T. Newman AgapePress
- 2005 2 Aug
In writing to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul noted that people who know God, yet suppress the knowledge of their Creator, are driven to worship creatures. Such people become debased in their thinking and are given over to all manner of sin. In time, people regress from a belief in God to a belief that they are God, and once that belief becomes entrenched in significant elite cultural power bases the results are devastating – they are willing to do anything.
Michael Bay's new film, "The Island," represents his first real foray into thoughtful action films. He gives us a glimpse into that Romans 1 world.
"The Island" begins as a kind of post-apocalyptic/utopian story of a facility where survivors of a world-wide contamination are cared for until they can be moved to the one remaining uncontaminated, idyllic island – a pristine paradise for lucky lottery winners to repopulate. But the illusion is shattered when an inquisitive citizen, Lincoln Six Echo, discovers the truth – he and the other residents are actually human clones, "insurance policies" for their wealthy sponsors looking for a ready supply of biologically-compatible spare parts. The truth, in this case, does not set Lincoln, or his friend, Jordan, free. It makes them targets for elimination. Bay has admitted in interviews that the film's premise touches on the current embryonic stem-cell debate, but the actual implications go far beyond any particular current event directly to the heart of what happens when a culture abandons God.
C.S. Lewis, in two of his most engaging works – "The Abolition of Man" and "The Weight of Glory" – provides important critical tools for understanding the philosophical and theological underpinnings of "The Island." Grasping Lewis' ideas can create unique opportunities to discuss pressing temporal and eternal issues, particularly the need of humans for law, for a hope of heaven, and what happens when the powerful elite harness that need and hope for their own personal ends.
In "The Abolition of Man," Lewis argues that there exists in the universe a law to which all people are beholden whether they acknowledge it or not. For the sake of brevity Lewis refers to it as the Tao. It is expressed in the Doctrine of Objective Values, which Lewis defines as "the belief that certain attitudes are really true and others really false" about the way the universe works and the way we are to behave in it. In all previous ages cultures believed that they received this law, and that both those who taught it and the young who were instructed in it were equally obligated to obey it. In modern times, Lewis argues, such people have been replaced by Conditioners – influential elites who see moral law not as something universally binding, but as a tool to shape others to their will. "The Island" takes us into a near future in which the rule of the Conditioner is nearly absolute.
Dr. Merrick is the administrator of the cloning facility. He discovers that he cannot merely incubate human tissue – it keeps failing. In order for the clones to thrive they need interaction, education, and law. Instead of using the Tao to nurture the clones, the scientists reject it and replace it with an artificial Tao. For example, they create "the law of proximity" limiting physical closeness of the clones to each other. The goal is not to create complete human beings, but a crop for harvest – just enough is given to assure a quality product.
Lewis argued that humankind's increasing ability to conquer nature was actually the power of some people over other people. By way of example, Lewis claimed that the discovery of birth control gave one generation not only the power to overcome the natural cycles of fertility, but conferred upon them life or death power over the next generation. They could determine who would or would not be born. By crafting moral law out of thin air, while convincing the clones that this is "natural," the technologists of "The Island" control the thought and emotional life of their subjects, while the technologists are above, separated from the need to obey the law they impose. In one scene, Lincoln asks if Dr. Merrick is going to the Island. Merrick sees nothing wrong with lying to Lincoln, both about the nature of the Island and Merrick's own role in perpetrating this ruse for financial gain at the cost of each clone's life.
Hope of Heaven
In addition to an artificial Tao to provide a semblance of order, the clones are also pacified by hope for a false heaven. The clones are kept in ignorance about God. When McCord, a worker who befriends Lincoln, uses the word "God," Lincoln's response is, "What's god?" An alternative spirituality is needed that won't lead to transcendent questions. Clones are imprinted at "birth" with the phrase, "You want to go to the Island." The highlight of the clone's existence is the Lottery – a seemingly random selection of one or more citizens chosen to leave the sterile facility to luxuriate in tropical splendor. The chance of being chosen to go to the Island serves to pacify the clones by giving their lives direction and hope. It is all a lie – the equivalent (later in the film, chillingly explored) of Holocaust-era Jews being told they were going to take a shower when they were really on their way to be gassed.
In Lewis' sermon "The Weight of Glory," he discusses the promises of modern education – with an emphasis on technology. Lewis explains that the goal of modernists is to get people to believe that earth can be made into heaven, but that it will take a long time (no one really knows how long). All the while the Conditioners distract their pupils from thinking too much about death – for that would prove the whole thing a sham.
It is not only the clones that have bought the lie – the customers of the "insurance policy" have as well. Merrick, in a slick sales pitch, promises them smoother skin, a new set of lungs, and (perhaps) 70 extra years of life. But no matter how well his technology works, as Lewis notes, "each generation would lose it [the benefits] by death."
Masking the Lie
Since the Conditioners do not believe in an afterlife, they fear death and want to prolong their earthly lives at any cost – including the death of others, as long as it benefits the Conditioners. Throughout the film, the common explanation as to why people would pay millions of dollars to create a clone is that "people will do anything to live." And to this I would add, "As long as they do not have to look at the process."
The first mask that makes the clone farm possible is dehumanization. In describing the clones, choosing words for their rhetorical power, rather than their denotative power, scientists like Merrick can comfort clients while killing clones. From the introductory sales meeting, Merrick refers to the clones with the dehumanizing term, "agnates." Later in the film they are described as products, tools, and as beings without souls.
The second mask is "the greater good." Merrick, trying to convince security troubleshooter Albert Laurent of the benefits of the clones, says that clones represent "the Holy Grail" of science and that in a couple of years he will be able to cure "children's leukemia." But Laurent is not fooled. He bears a mark, branded on his hand to identify him as a subhuman after his father was on the losing side of a war. He knows that all the talk of cures is really about the business of killing. One person must die in order for another person to live. Laurent is also keenly aware of the "God complex" driving the doctor.
The third mask is misdirection. Normal people naturally abhor opportunistic killing. So Merrick describes the agnates as blobs of tissue, obscuring their true humanity. Merrick manufactures and then literally hides the clones out of sight in an old bunker in the desert. When Lincoln escapes and confronts McCord with the idea of going public, McCord's response is that the wealthy elites who ordered them don't care and don't want to see. He describes it as wanting to eat a burger, but not wanting to meet the cow.
Bringing It Home
Is the Conditioner culture exemplified in "The Island" really so far removed from our own? There are multiple stories in the news concerning parents who conceive additional children for the stated purpose of using these children as organ donors. As early as 1997, Science magazine ran a brief article speculating on the possibility of growing anencephalic clones – clones without brains – to be used for spare parts. People in the West are being promised longer, better lives through embryonic stem-cell research and fetal tissue experimentation. As Lewis predicted, we are seeing that humankind's conquest of nature is nature's conquest of humankind. When we abandon God's admonition that we are His image bearers by treating humans as mere animal parts to be harvested, humans are not elevated, but debased.
The questions raised by "The Island" extend beyond medical experiments and the practice of abortion. Who gets to confer personhood and why? The sponsors arbitrarily assign subhuman status to their "insurance policies." But don't many people do the same today to their unborn children in order to make it easier to toss them aside? Is there a great difference between the argument that says growing clones for spare parts will give someone a better life and the argument that says aborting your child will give you a better life? When we are focused too sharply on personal benefits, it is easy to lose sight of the people we dehumanize and kill along the road to acquisition.
Finally, the claim is made in the film that people will do anything to live. This reminds me of Steve Martin's joke at the Academy Awards about the desirability of having the same physique as a buff young actor. He said he'd do anything to have it, "except, of course, diet and exercise." People will do anything to live, except, of course, abandon their pride, bow before God, and obey Him. It is short-sighted, and foolish, to believe that this Earth is our ultimate home. Physical death awaits us all, but we can live forever. The answer is not clones but Christ. And instead of lamenting about how off-target people get in their rabid pursuit of youth and beauty, Christians should recognize these desperate measures as attempts by people to grasp at a shadow of eternity.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of MovieMinistry.com (www.movieministry.com) – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
Publication of this analysis does not constitute endorsement of the film. Warning: MPAA has given this movie a PG-13 rating for intense sequences of violence and action, some sexuality and language.
Click here to read more commentary from Crosswalk.com Executive Editor, Steve McGarvey, in Weblogs.