Seeking Heaven, Making Hell: Two Films on Utopian Failure
- Thursday, October 20, 2005
Drama is born of imperfection. When recognition arises that all is not as it should be, an incessant urge drives us to make it right. Yet, despite all hopes and plans, the emerging solutions never solve - though they might provide temporary relief. The cycle continues; the story goes on. The equation holds true whether we look at individuals caught up in the drama of life, or civilizations struggling toward a utopian vision.
The two certainties of cultural utopias are that humans are drawn to their creation and that these visions are doomed to failure. To put it in biblical terms - people are desperate for heaven, but they are enslaved to sin. The latter precludes the former, though, occasionally, light finds a way to break into the darkness. Two recent film releases, "Oliver Twist" and "Serenity," look at cultures centuries apart and cause us to conclude that nothing has changed. Both glimpses of past and future illuminate our present. We are desperate for heaven on our own terms, but the persistence of sin gets in the way. The glimpses of redemption that we do see come not as a result of utopian planning, but through the moral choices each of us make.
The mere fact that cultures seek to impose order is evidence of a world gone wrong. Disorder is the "natural" state and force of some kind must be applied to create order. In "Oliver Twist," order is created through class consciousness. The argument – not Dickens' but the aristocratic utopia builders of his story – is that the world would be better if everyone were more aware of their place in it: gentlemen, peasants, or dirty little orphans. The governmentally sanctioned "Christian" vision is one of blatant hypocrisy, revealed best in the daily grind at the orphanage to which young Oliver is sent to learn a useful "trade."
The training for the job takes less than a minute, and even the most generous observer would admit that this charitable house is little more than a labor camp. At mealtimes, the children are surrounded by slogans telling them that "God is Holy" and "God is Love" – yet the men who run this sweatshop demonstrate little holiness and no love. When Oliver, on behalf of the starving children, famously asks for "more, please" it sends the generously fed administrator running for the executive dining room where uniformly fat men with food dribbling down their chins reward this impertinence by saying that the boy should be hung.
"Serenity" takes a more Huxleyan view. Over 500 years into the future, outlying star systems have been colonized by humans divided between an interplanetary alliance under a pervasive government and outposts of people living a less structured life – the equivalent of the wild west in outer space. It doesn't take long for the Alliance to impose, by force, its utopian vision on the outposts – feeling free to use coercion to bring resisters into its technologically pristine and "happy" world.
Most often the Alliance uses threat or actual violence, but they also experiment on their citizens, trying to create peace through drug-induced behavior control. Attempting to subdue an outpost by introducing a drug called "Pax" (Latin for "peace"), the Alliance's experiment goes horribly wrong in every conceivable way. Instead of learning from the error, the "perfect" government buries the mistake, and anyone who attempts to bring it to light. But sin cannot be long hidden, and late in the film the ugly truth of the Alliance's experiments is revealed.
The persistence of sin demonstrates that governmental force is, at best, a temporary deterrent, but no solution. The underlying thoughts of each film's regime dictate its actions. Planning for utopia is not the same as achieving it.
Thoughts and Actions
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
There is no human plan that can take us to Utopia. The man-made paradise that elites and secular dreamers have concocted will never come to pass. Government will never achieve utopia, and technology cannot construct it. So what do we say when we see films about Utopias gone wrong? Talk about Heaven.
Heaven is not dependent on human governments or technology. God created it as a place for us to live with Him. Though some have accused Christians of being "so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good," the opposite is closer to the truth. Desiring heaven is to desire God's will and reign. Christians are taught by Christ to pray that God's "will be done on Earth as it is in heaven." As His ambassadors, we are to be the instruments of His love – not through coercion, but through gentle persuasion and good works.
Utopia is a pipe dream, but Heaven is a coming reality. Films that expose Utopia's weakness, but explore redemptive choices, give Christians an opportunity to point the way home.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the president of 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.
© 2005 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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