Two weeks ago I watched this outstanding talk by Nate Wilson called Myth Wars:
The central point is that, today, our grand myth speaks of man as "an ascendant ape" who has emerged by a process of "climb and scratch and grab." It's an ugly story but it has the great attraction of putting us top of the heap (even if the heap is the smoldering ruin of countless losers in the struggle for survival).
Against this, the true myth is the gospel in which man is not an ascendant ape but a fallen son. There is climbing, scratching and grabbing but that's not progress! Such beastliness is precisely the problem. Instead Christ comes down from a place above us to "serve and give and love." That's the very different story we have to tell.
With Wilson's thoughts still buzzing in my head, I went to the cinema today to see Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's spectacular thriller set in space.
It is visually spell-binding and brutally tense. It opens you up to wonder then puts a knot in your stomach that only tightens over the course of an hour and a half. Go and see it in 3D but be prepared to be disoriented in more ways than one. You see there's something even more disturbing than the sense of threat sustained over 90 minutes. There's the myth into which the storyline fits.
We begin in the heavens which are glorious, spectacular, overwhelming in their glory. But also aimless, uncaring and deadly in every sense. Very soon shrapnel - what could be more random? - smashes through people and spaceships and such debris only produces more debris. This is the environment for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney - cut adrift from their space station, with minimal oxygen and a vanishing probability of survival.
The film has undoubted "spiritual" overtones - references to prayer, Christian icons, a statue of the Buddha - and one review in the Washington Post has seen the whole thing as pointing us to Christian truth. After all, says Paul Asay, it's a "hell-and-back" kind of story. There's re-birth and home-coming even after the death and darkness. But the trouble is, lots of stories have a kind of rebirth. Story-tellers have to use the same raw-materials that went into the ultimate story, the gospel. But the way they arrange those raw materials is vital.
Think about it, the modern myth also has birth coming out of death. Through the struggle for survival emerges a winner. But that path-way is through "climb and scratch and grab" and a heck of a lot of dumb luck. So which story is Gravity?
Well there is life through death - rebirth through darkness. And, it has to be said, there is self-giving sacrifice in the story - death so that others may live. At that point you might conclude that Gravity's on the side of the angels. But I'm not so sure. All stories will echo the gospel in some way (like I say, every cook's got the same ingredients), but when we see the overall direction of the film I think it's telling the modern myth.
This is a survival story against the odds. Yes there is sacrifice which helps along the way. But the sacrifice is from below - the heavens themselves are the problem and we must outwit them. In the end, survival is just one of those very improbable things. Many others perish, but the lucky few make it, and they make it standing on the shoulders of the dead.
[Warning: this paragraph will give you a sense of the ending but only vaguely] By the final scene, the story is put in context. The Darwinian motifs are very striking. This is a survival tale. And what emerges from the striving is a brave new... well, pretty much a new species, erect and bettered by the struggle.
The lesson is, let go of the past, let go of losses, stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, embrace the struggle and if you're lucky you'll live to fight another day.
A spiritual story? Yes, absolutely. But, if you ask me, it points to a markedly different spirituality. Maybe Wilson's lenses have skewed my viewing of the film, but I came away feeling mightily disturbed. Yet even in that disturbance, we are sent back to the gospel. I say, see the film and be wowed. But let it drive you to a true answer to the death and darkness. The true myth says: the heavens are not malign, the Lamb is at the centre of the throne.