Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Christian Reaction to the Monism of Cloud Atlas

[I offer the warning that this may be spoiler-ish.]

Having just seen Cloud Atlas, I was struck by several themes in the film and wanted to write about them. I must offer a preliminary caveat that I have not read the book which the film is based on. I also want to mention that I am not some sort of self-styled expert on this film and will not pretend to be. Having said that, this film is very good. The reaction by the people in the theatre when I went was quite positive, and everyone immediately started speculating as to the film’s meaning as they were walking down the aisles to exit the theatre. Films that cause us to think about ourselves, about death, about the universe, about fate, about meaning, and about our connection to our fellow human beings seem quite rare, and so when they do happen to come around, our ears should perk up. So having left Cloud Atlas, what did we hear?

For starters, the movie strikes me as the epitome of post-modern filmmaking and worldview. I have heard similar evaluations of the novel by David Mitchell. Frequent reference is made in the movie to “your truth,” “true truth,” “your version of the truth,” etc. In fact, the movie itself is a kaleidoscope of six different stories, all knit together into a single compelling narrative with the story cutting from one to the next. It becomes clear that each of these stories are connected to the others by way of storytelling/documentary narrative devices.

Some see this movie as promoting reincarnation, picturing each character as dying and being reincarnated into the other storylines that follow it chronologically. The reincarnation idea is too overt or obvious, however. The movie is mostly about storytelling, and that is why it concludes with Tom Hanks’ future man living on another planet telling his children and grand children these fantastical tales of this world he once knew like it was a memory. His final storytelling character (he plays six different characters) gives the story narrative unity. Everything that we see in the story is filtered through his narrative (a story within a story), though we weren’t aware of it until the last scene of the movie.

In other words, Cloud Atlas is meant to give us fallible retellings of every event we are seeing. And yet I doubt the filmmakers would say that what we are seeing on the screen is not true. Rather, the movie reflects a fundamental commitment to the idea that all truth is mediated and is therefore interpreted. Van Til would rejoice at this premise. However, since no truth-teller is infallible (Christians can think of one, of course), we are bound to get various versions of the same story.

The reincarnation theme is not, I think, a reflection of an overt belief in literal reincarnation. Rather, it is a reflection of the larger commitments of the filmmakers – namely materialism, determinism, and monism. These three systems are all mutually interlocking and interdependent. The Wachowskis, who wrote the story, are committed Nietzscheans who do not believe in any traditional definition of God. Further, the materialistic universe is fatalistically determined because of the absence of variables in the universe. For the filmmakers, everything is predetermined based on impersonal laws of physical causation. Ultimately, as well, everything in such a universe is one. There is no differentiating one type of matter from another, and so one is left with a universe that is all unity and no diversity.

The reincarnation theme is actually not a reincarnation theme, ultimately. Rather, it is a reflection of a monistic universe where all is one. This can sound abstract, but it preaches well and it is a thematically fulfilling sentiment in the context of the movie. Those who see the movie will notice that it opens and closes with the same shot of the stars. As I was leaving the theatre one woman hit the nail on the head (I admit it isn’t a difficult theme to spot in this movie) when she turned to her companion and said, “So really the movie is saying that we’re all connected to each other.” This is a rhetorically powerful theme, which has great force in our own day and age. In a sense it demands a response from those dissenting from the filmmakers’ larger project.

From the monistic perspective, all is neither good or bad, it simply is – matter in motion evolving and moving from one state of being to another. However, that isn’t even right, because in the end, even the “beingness” in one state cannot, given monism, be differentiated from the “beingness” of matter in another state. Monism isn’t self-defeating. It is self-absorbing. It becomes meaningless because the questions just soak into matter like a sponge absorbing water. Is there pain right now? Just wait – it will pass and be forgotten. Is there delight or joy right now? It’s only a matter of time before it becomes less than a memory.

The Christian perspective on this reincarnation theme is to assert on the basis of received revelation that God has spoken to us, and what he has told us is that he creates each of us at a point in time and that we did not exist before that, though he did. Our lives are linear, moving from conception to birth to death to the eternal state. In this film, the implicit lesson for the here and now is that we must treat one another with love, respect, and care because we are all connected. Early on in the movie, Ewing sees a slave being whipped. The slave looks up and stares at Ewing as if he knew him even though they had never met before. The lesson (if you want to impute such intention to the filmmakers) is that this slave, Mr. Ewing, is you. Mr. Ewing ought to become an abolitionist because he and the slave are one – they are more than connected – they are one another, just like all of us.

From a Christian perspective, we agree. Of course, this agreement comes with some caveats. We are one with one another by way of our relationship to the first man – Adam. We are not to be identified with one another directly, however, though our lives are interconnected and do have an impact one another and on future generations which follow. Our motive for treating one another rightly is related to the common divine image that we all share. The writers of scripture refer to the image of God as motive for treating others as they ought to be treated (James 3:9). This leaves open the possibility of our being kind to one another without compromising our own personal identity and while avoiding the many contraditctory problems of monism.

In the end, Cloud Atlas is a beautiful, compelling, exciting movie that is bound to leave theatregoers profoundly confused. There are other issues to discuss in the movie (and in terms of content, I definitely recommend viewers check out the content advisory at the film's IMDB parental content page), but I wanted to touch on the most core metaphysical issues in this film. The movie was gripping, beautifully shot, absolutely fascinating from beginning to end (even with a near 3-hour running time!), and well-acted. My guess is there will be dissertations and books written about his film in the years to come, (but hopefully there won’t be any misguided books titled The Gospel According to Cloud Atlas). It is my hope that Christians will learn to express their own worldview in as winsome and compelling a way as the Wachowskis have done in this film.

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