May 2, 2016 / Theology
Jason Steidl revisits the day in 1969 when Católicos Por La Raza activists planned to confront their cardinal at the Eucharistic table.
June 24, 2015
Welcome. This film documents an event that has yet to take place.
The Visit is a documentary about the earth’s first encounter with alien life form. Although this event has yet to take place, this is not a sci-fi or end-of-the-world narrative film. This is a documentary that presents real-life experts with the what-ifs of an alien encounter. It includes the first responses and the complicated questions that would arise from a variety of perspectives: from space law and theological ethics to the United Nation’s Director of Interstellar Communications.
Sitting in a dark theater in Park City, Utah, it was a late night and I was set to watch my last film after a long day of tough moviegoing. The Visit was the most highly anticipated film of my personal Sundance experience. How could a film documenting an event that has yet to take place premiere in the World Documentary Category at the Sundance Film Festival? What kind of film was this? In my excitement, I had bought tickets for six friends to join me for the screening. Sitting in the theater, eating pistachios from a plastic bag while waiting for the film to begin, I felt the buzz of anticipation-becoming-reality mixed with the anxious fear of being responsible for the quality of other people’s experience and not being sure the experience would deliver as promised.
The opening credits roll and the narrator’s voice welcomes us to a film that documents the incredulous event that has yet to take place: “The scenario begins with the arrival. Your arrival. Welcome to Earth.” You can imagine my wonder and delight as I was quickly transported from Park City and welcomed to Earth, to an Earth I have yet to experience. I was made privy to my own planet through the eyes of an alien species. As the narrator’s voice introduces the film, his first prerogative is to welcome the audience as the alien life form making contact with Earth for the first time. And so the audience becomes the alien. I am the alien. I am other. Almost instantly, the simulated encounter of the film blurs lines between categories of otherness that I didn’t even know I had.
The first round of questions asked of me, the alien, by the film’s expert subjects immediately captures my theological ponderings about the world and humanity’s place in it:
Why did you come?
Where were you before?
Can you be outside actual reality? This time and this space?
What do you care about?
What makes you happy?
Do you know what is good and evil?
Do you see something about us that we don’t see ourselves?
Imagining an encounter with another civilization, with a life-form outside of humanity, necessitates a rethinking of everything. As the alien, I watch as humans strive to respond with dignity, grace, and the best of intentions. The cinematography of the film is beautiful and invites me to see Earth’s beauty with new eyes. Life in slow motion. The mundane, the beautiful, the afraid. Seeing human life as an alien, I behold a kind of beauty and it incites a kind of chaotic fear I don’t recognize as belonging to my own species.
In the event of an alien encounter, the concerns for humankind are overwhelming. There is danger of biological contamination: the ecosphere of Earth can only support one biochemistry and so to protect both human and alien life, it may be most advisable to create a barrier of protection between what the film’s experts refer to as the two races, one human, the other alien. But what kind of message would a barrier like this communicate to Earth’s newest visitors?
The United Nations’ public relations department wonders how to tell the public. What kind of language should they use to describe what is happening? Who should deliver the news on the public stage? The experts question who should be the first to make contact with this other civilization. Military personnel prepare for supposedly peaceful purposes. We, humans, wonder if this other civilization feels a moral obligation to work with us and not hurt us; do they come in peace? We learn there is no legal precedent for two races to exist within the same universe.
The prospect of panic is significant. Earth has no contingency plan for this scenario, and so suddenly all human races—all divisions of country, race, age, economic status—become the human race. How will humanity respond? Will we squabble over us versus them when suddenly the them is an alien species?
In 1977, the United Nations created the most comprehensive depiction of what it means to be human and sent it into space on the Voyager spacecraft. The depiction was compiled on a copper phonograph that recorded music and images from around the world. It included greetings in fifty-five different languages. It was our very human attempt to say to the galaxy that we, humans, are growing up as a civilization, a message saying to whoever could receive and interpret it that we come in exploration and we hope to make contact. It was a message of humility and hope, our recognition that we are but a small part of this huge universe.
Before Voyager departed, there was significant debate among the group responsible for creating the message over whether or not to include the parts of ourselves that we aren’t proud of, the parts we wish weren’t so. Christians commonly refer to these parts as sin and claim them as crucial to understanding a narrative of grace and redemption. As much as Christians debate and disagree about the nature of atonement, we all tend to agree that sin is a necessary part of the biblical narrative. The story of resurrection, of life in and after death, doesn’t make much sense to our Christian sensibilities if sin is excluded. In the end, however, the United Nations decided not to include the darker parts of our histories in the story they told the universe. Nothing about war or the ways humans kill each other. Nothing about our greed and desire to dominate and control one another.
Imagine if some other life form receives and understands the United Nation’s interstellar message? And if these same aliens were the ones to first make contact with our planet. Would the little bit we have told them about our story—our music, our language, our living and dying—match what they discover when they meet us for the first time? Would they understand our message and our intentions in excluding certain parts for the sake of making peace? What does it mean to understand? To understand ourselves? To understand an other?
One of the film’s expert subjects, Dr. Sheryl Bishop, is a social psychologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She claims that “Scientific thinking has led us to believe that we are capable of understanding everything. We want to understand our world in order to control it because we feel threatened by the unknown.” Alien presence therefore sparks our greatest fear: the fear of losing control.
My experience is that Christians apply this same thinking when we read the Bible and engage our faith. If not our science, then surely our religion means we can know, understand, and master. For example, when your religious convictions contradict my own religious convictions, denominations split, relationships end, and people find new places to worship. Or when your existence threatens to transform or upend my understanding of who God is, I conclude that there must be something wrong with your existence. Religious people are guilty of holding onto a static understanding of God and the world in a way that does not allow for new experiences, new encounters, or new others. Any kind of newness is unknown and therefore threatens our control and understanding of God. This isn’t a scientific flaw or a religious flaw; it is a human flaw.
And so The Visit is not really a film about aliens; rather, it is a look into the human response when dealing with the unknown, the outside, the other. Whether we encounter aliens, someone from a country across the globe, a neighbor who is gay, or God, human proclivity is to believe we (and our people, our culture, our church) are at the center. We too readily assume we know how the world (or the Bible or God) works and we give ourselves far too much credit.
The hours tick by and the world’s experts continue to process how to deal with this new alien race on our planet. The fear of losing control introduces competition as we encounter the unknown other. We seek to conquer in order to make the unknown known. We remember the history of humanity’s relationship with itself and we hope that the alien civilization is more advanced in both technology and morality so as to save us from the inevitability of destruction.
The expert’s questions turn more directly theological: Who are these people and are they human? Are they created by God? Do they have souls? Are they animals? Do they have religion? Empathy? How will we decide to see these people? Ultimately, we discover, our encounter with the other, whether alien or human, is a matter of will. We must decide: Are you too alien? Too inferior? Are you human? When we encounter that which threatens our existence—an end to our way of life—would we rather destroy everything than give up our illusion that we are in control? This question matters for the world, and for the church, now more than ever.
The Visit ends with a sort of benediction that invites us (the human us) to boldly step into the dark and shine a light. Do not be afraid of the unknown. Go. Expand our experiences of the world in ways we can’t currently imagine. Whether or not the alien exists, he (or she or it) is not too far away. The moment we think it possible, reality expands. It doesn’t matter if this particular encounter actually happened or not because it is actually happening all the time.
Samantha Curley is a graduate of Fuller Seminary where she studied theology and the arts. She first learned to think theologically when watching the film Donnie Darko for a youth ministry assignment. Her life hasn’t been the same since. Samantha lives in Pasadena, California, and balances three jobs as the executive director of Level Ground, the program director of Into The Noise, and a brand strategist at Long Winter Media.