Seeking Heaven, Making Hell: Two Films on Utopian Failure
- Thursday, October 20, 2005
Both films rely on the power of belief to shape thoughts and actions. Scripture says that people are what they think. The London snobs of "Oliver Twist" believe in their inherent superiority to the street urchins under their care, and so think nothing of oppressing and abusing children. The Alliance – represented by the unnamed "Operative" – acts under the assumption that any violence they commit is a necessary, temporary means toward a noble end – "a world without sin." In a twist of ironic tragedy, the operative openly recognizes that he will have no place in such a world because he is "a monster."
In achieving the utopian vision, monsters must be employed to forcibly convert or eradicate unbelievers, and then they too will be cast aside – leaving only those "pure" people, who thought nothing of employing monsters.
These films are cautionary tales of good ends prompting evil means. Both cultures begin by examining the kind of world they would like to build, and then each ruthlessly pursues it. Both have purposefully cast aside Christian dictates and replaced them with worlds of their own design. The powerful in "Oliver Twist" are aware of the Gospel – but the fear of God is far from them. They freely abuse children created in the image of the God they claim to serve.
The only Christian preachers we meet in the future of "Serenity" have been pushed to the outposts. Shepherd, who tells the protagonist Mal to "believe," who preaches sermons, and who declares that one of his actions in defending his community "wasn't too Christian of me," is a voice in the wilderness – yet we know by his existence that the Alliance is aware of Christ but has decided to take another path.
Redemption and Individual Choice
Both protagonists, Oliver in "Oliver Twist," and Captain Mal in "Serenity," have epiphanies brought about by experiences with people who act from true virtue. For Oliver, it begins with a theft in front a bookstore – a theft in which he is a witness but not a direct participant. Being the slowest of the three boys sent out to steal by their ringleader, Fagin, Oliver is caught and dragged before a legalistic judge. Even when confronted with testimony that Oliver is innocent of the charge, the judge is determined to jail the boy.
But Mr. Brownlow believes in justice and insists on the boy's release. Shortly thereafter we discover that Mr. Brownlow also believes in charity (when he takes Oliver into his own home), training through trust (when he must give Oliver money for an errand), and forgiveness and repentance (when Oliver is forced into a burglary, and Mr. Brownlow believes in his innocence and takes him back). Oliver is a changed boy – so much so that he seeks out Fagin to give him a chance to repent and get right with God.
Mal, as his truncated name suggests, is not a good man. Confronted with a choice between making his payroll and a man's life, Mal chooses the money. When his second, Zoe, challenges Mal to rethink his decision, Mal does not relent – but later events demonstrate that Zoe has planted a seed. Shepherd, the preacher on Haven, insinuates that Mal's problem is that he does not believe in anything. Examining himself in the mirror provided by Zoe and Shepherd, Mal begins to make different, more moral, choices.
Both Oliver and Mal exist outside, and are actually victims of, the utopian culture. It is not government planning or force that makes them better people – it is encounters with others who share a transcendent moral vision of the way life is supposed to be lived, or what C.S. Lewis would have called the Tao. We more toward, or away from, the Tao every time we make moral choices. It cannot be imposed by external force, but it can be evoked by internal choice.
Heaven not Utopia
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