Last week my wife and I watched Arrival, a critically-acclaimed sci-fi drama about a group of people trying to communicate with aliens. Okay, I admit, that doesn’t sound like a very riveting synopsis. If you want an alien blockbuster with lots of explosions, go rent the new Independence Day sequel. But Arrival is a smart, well-crafted film with a few surprises along the way, and the whole bit about people trying to talk with aliens is actually what makes the story so profound.
Why? Because language matters. That’s true no matter who you are or what you believe, but Christians should believe it more than anyone. Our entire religion is hinged on it. Our eternal hope is predicated on the faith that God has truly and accurately communicated Himself to us through His word. And that need for accurate communication is what drives the whole plot of Arrival.
The story centers on Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), a linguist who is recruited by the U.S. Army to communicate with one of the twelve UFO’s that have landed at various spots across the globe. The process is slow and frustrating. How do you begin to understand the linguistic basics of a species that is literally from another world?
At one point in the film Banks and her physicist partner Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) trade jabs about which is more central to human civilization: language or science? The whole thrust of the film seems to side with Banks. After all, the humans and aliens are both intelligent life forms who have cultivated science to great benefit, but science can’t produce a meaningful exchange between the two species—only language can do that. The gap between the two sides is unbreachable as long as a language barrier exists. This reminds us of the necessity of communication, of the transmission of meaning from one party to another. Without an exchange of some kind between two sides there is no possibility of moving forward in a relational sense.
Banks tries talking to the aliens, but the noise is just babble to them. The aliens write out their language, but it looks like gibberish to the humans. There cannot be just hollow sounds or random symbols—there must be a clear, comprehensible sharing of ideas. So what do they do? They learn to understand the meaning behind the sounds and symbols. They must grasp the structure of the other’s language and then communicate at their level, in their terms, in a way they can understand. This is the only way to bridge the relational gap between the two foreign parties.
But what if we took the same idea and swapped aliens with God? Since the beginning of time man has wrestled with how to have meaningful interaction with the divine. How can we communicate with someone so foreign to us, so “otherly”? Like Banks and Donnelly, countless men and women have felt confused and frustrated in their attempts to reach up to heaven. Without real communication between man and God, you’re left with two alien sides staring at each other and no relationship to show for it.
Arrival reminded me that if indeed God exists, and if we are to know Him who is so other-worldly, there would need to be some bridging of the language barrier between our two sides. If He is a spiritual, infinite Being, how could we know the mind of someone so unlike us unless there was a clear impartation of information from one side to the other? As the apostle Paul pointed out, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:11).
Just as the aliens in Arrival are concealed behind a wall of fog in their spaceship, God often feels hidden. Perhaps general revelation allows a peak or an outline, but there seems no way to truly see Him, know Him, or have a meaningful point of contact with Him. As the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin supposedly said of his experience in outer space, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” God is an incomprehensible mystery. So He would have to talk down to us. He would have to communicate with us in our terms and in a way we could understand. He would have to express the truth about Himself within the limited framework of our language and our comprehension. We cannot ascend to God, so He would have to descend to us. We cannot find Him, so He must reveal Himself to us.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what the Bible claims to be. Our knowledge of God doesn’t come through sensationalism, emotionalism, or mystical spirituality. It comes to us by God transmitting truth about Himself through words. Paul went on to make the point, “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?…So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?” (1 Cor. 14:7-9) That’s why Scripture refers to itself over and over again as the word of God—not the energy of God or the force of God, but the clear and specific articulation of God’s communication through language. The word makes it possible to bridge the relational gap between man and God. Language matters.
The Bible is God’s self-revelation, communing with us through human authors and in human terms to explain Himself at our level. We can understand God because God has spoken our tongue and made Himself understandable. That doesn’t mean we can know everything there is to know about God, but it does mean that He’s articulated to us everything we need to know and everything He desires us to know, and He’s done it in way that is clear and comprehensible. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29).
Arrival was a great piece of filmmaking, but it was more than that. It was a reminder to me that language matters, and that God uses language to meaningfully communicate with us every time we open His word. If we neglect Scripture, God will continue to feel like an alien hidden behind a foggy wall of uncertainty. But when we trust in His self-disclosure we can know who He is, what He is like, what He has done, what He expects, and how we can enjoy a meaningful relation to Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.