How aliens and grammar made me appreciate the Bible.

arrival

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.

Lady Gaga, the Super Bowl, and when postmodern progressivism shoots itself in the foot.

halftime

Lady Gaga dropping in on Super Bowl 51.

It seems like everything is a political controversy these days. Even sports. Prior to Sunday’s Super Bowl, reporters kept baiting Tom Brady on his support for Donald Trump. Then, prior to her halftime performance, it was speculated that Lady Gaga would use her worldwide platform to make a political statement against Donald Trump (à la Meryl Streep).

Fortunately, Brady didn’t bite and Gaga didn’t lecture. Both did what they’re paid to do—entertain—and both did it exceptionally well (I don’t understand or care for Lady Gaga’s, shall we say, artistic vision, but there’s no denying she has immense talent). It was nice to enjoy football and music without political controversy.

But if the controversy doesn’t come to you, then you go to the controversy. Many on the left are now criticizing Lady Gaga precisely because she didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to criticize the President in front of the entire planet. As Mitchell Sunderland at Complex lamented, “She failed us.” It was, in the minds of many, a wasted platform from which she could have spoken up on what they consider to be an important cause.

Curiously, the liberal worldview is known for its secular postmodernism. Religious authority is oppressive and bad. Truth and morality are not absolutes. Whatever feels good for you is good for you. If something makes you happy you should pursue it and no one should tell you otherwise. After all, we’re temporary, material beings and nothing more, and we must enjoy life while we can. It’s a worldview that promotes moral autonomy, the pursuit of pleasure above all else, and the rejection of objective right and wrong.

But then you come to the Super Bowl halftime show. And suddenly you must have indoctrination. You must have conviction. If you are an entertainer you must use your platform to preach “truth” before the whole world. The gods of political liberalism must be appeased, or else. They demand your allegiance.

A worldview that rejects enforcing absolutes on everyone is criticizing one of its own for not preaching right and wrong to the whole world. A worldview that cries for freedom from religious authority is commanding its adherents to visibly profess faith at every opportunity. Do you see the disconnect?

If we’re just matter in motion, the product of neural-chemical reactions in the brain, then there’s no true higher cause. And if there’s no true higher cause, then one opinion doesn’t deserve to be preached to the world any more than another. The only truth is that there’s no absolute truth. So at the end of the day progressivism cannot consistently hold to its own worldview while also espousing that worldview with any real conviction or urgency.

So when progressives criticize Lady Gaga for just performing and not seizing the opportunity to speak against Donald Trump, they betray their own worldview. If enforcing your beliefs on others is the unpardonable sin, and if right and wrong are purely a matter of personal preference, then why would you expect pop singers to hammer their audience with a liberal profession of faith every chance they get? The outrage at Lady Gaga contradicts everything progressivism claims to believe. So perhaps there is such a thing as right and wrong, and perhaps it’s not always bad to express that to others. Perhaps truth does exist, and it should be shared.

Granted, the divide between conservative and liberal definitions of truth has never been larger. But only one side has an objective basis for believing in truth, and in the end only one side can make any sort of demanding truth claims without contradicting itself. Once we realize that life is more than meaningless matter in a temporary pursuit of pleasure, and once we realize that there is good and evil in this world, and once we realize that there is truth worth standing up for, then secular progressivism is left dangling like Lady Gaga over the arena, without a leg to stand on. When objective, worthwhile truth has the homefield advantage, we find ourselves on God’s turf.