Annihilation and Creation

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“It’s destroying everything.”
It’s not destroying, it’s making something new.”


Perhaps one of the most stunning and enigmatic films out in theaters this year is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. If you haven’t seen it yet, I should warn you that this post will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it already and you’re the sort of person that digs mind-bending Sci-Fi you should quit reading this and go see it before it leaves theaters. Honestly, I wish I could dedicate this whole post to describing how aesthetically stunning (and terrifying) the film is in the hopes that I will convince you to see it but I will refrain. Anyways, here’s my shot at interpreting what is going on in Annihilation. 


If it wasn’t made so obviously clear from the trailers, there is something seriously wrong in the world of Annihilation. But as the film begins, before we are even clued into the apocalyptic events that are currently unfolding, we are immediately thrust into considering that at a biological level we are constantly changing, mutating, and tearing ourselves apart. Both on a fundamental level and on the surface, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction seems to be a steady theme within the story, whether it be the conscious decision of certain character or a more insidious sort of self-destruction. However, I don’t think that self-destruction is solely what this film is about.

The amount of times within the dialogue of this film that the words “I don’t know” are repeated is almost maddening, but don’t put it past the director, he knows exactly what he is doing in making this film so ambiguous and so frustratingly vague at certain points.

This film is not attempting to teach a lesson of how the world is birthed from chaos and will eventually return to chaos. It certainly wouldn’t disagree with the notion that part of the fabric of reality is chaotic, but I think it’s important to see that this film holds up a striking tension between the violent and destructive nature of reality and the beautiful and creative elements to our world. Like Kane and Lena’s conversation about God and the world we live in, the writer isn’t so confident to totally discredit Kane’s views that there is something good about the world, there is beauty, yes, but there is also (as Lena recognizes) tragedy seemingly written into the core of it.

The glimmer itself is mutating and horribly mangling things but at the same time it is revealed that it is not attempting to destroy our world but attempting to make something new out of it. Simultaneously there is destruction and creation at work. Within the glimmer is a nightmarish landscape of beauty, violence, and works of art birthed from destruction. Like the exploded corpse which created an oddly entrancing and kaleidoscopic array of fungi, this film attempts to persuade us that at the nature of reality is both a destruction which leads to creation and a creation which leads to destruction.

Unlike many other Science Fiction films, this film is not about alien life coming to destroy the Earth. It’s perhaps more haunting than that. As Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers after fighting to push forward to the center of the glimmer, there’s a strange creator at work who she comes face to face with. After discovering the video footage of her husband Kane committing suicide and talking to what seems to be a glimmer-produced clone of himself, Lena herself enters into the bowels of the glimmer’s nerve center. There she finds her team leader, Dr. Ventress, whose own annihilation releases a beautiful explosion of color and glimmer(?) as her old self decomposes and utterly decays. Lena herself then meets this other creator. As a part of Lena is fused with some other aspect of this creator, a duplicate is formed. While Lena attempts to escape her duplicate, she is forced to reckon with her duplicate as it suffocates, fights, and mimics her every movement. It is perhaps one of the most terrifying and troubling scenes in the whole film, and one in which most of us can relate: trying to flee from the destruction evident in our lives only to be forced back into it by none other than our own self.

After passing out for an undisclosed amount of time, Lena’s duplicate slowly moves her toward Kane’s old bag which contains another grenade of the same variety in which he used to kill himself. Here’s where things get confusing. The duplicate slowly begins to match Lena’s details. She becomes an exact replica of Lena not only matching her movements but her physical appearance and even her psychological attributes. The original Lena then gives the duplicate the grenade as she flees the scene.

Now here’s how I interpret it: upon matching the physicality, the appearance, and the psychology of Lena, this “other” Lena inherits her own self-destructive tendencies thus detonating the grenade, destroying the glimmer’s hub, and destroying itself. This other was attempting to create something new, but by fusing itself with what it was altering, it inherited its self-destructive traits thus destroying itself but preserving and restoring the original creation. Thus, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction leads in a horribly enigmatic way to its own preservation. This whole film exists in tension with itself, especially considering the ending.

Lena and Kane, having been the only two to escape(?) the glimmer, proceed to reengage with each other. Lena asks, perhaps states, to Kane, “You’re not Kane, are you?” to which he quietly replies, “No, I don’t think so.” He then asks Lena the same question to which we get no response, but we do see a strange glimmer within both sets of their eyes.

I don’t think that this should lead us to believe that Lena’s duplicate is the one that escaped and that Lena was the one who self-destructed. To me, that doesn’t seem to lend itself to be cohesive with the rest of the film which is all about embracing the paradoxical nature of reality. It makes more sense to me to see the ending as Lena and Kane’s duplicate embracing each other to begin the start of a new relationship with remnants of the old one. Whereas Lena’s duplicate self-destructed and the original Kane self-destructed, the original Lena and the new Kane find new life and a new relationship.

Lena and (original) Kane’s relationship we see throughout the film was once beautiful, but was then sabotaged by Lena’s affair, and then began to unravel even more. As we see the team that enters into the glimmer slowly unravel, as we see the environment slowly unravel, and as we see even the glimmer itself unravel, it doesn’t unravel itself into nothingness but rather into something new. In this film, destruction does not lead to annihilation but to creation (and then back to destruction and so forth).

I don’t think we are supposed to come out of this film with much of a conclusion for what the glimmer represents. I don’t think it’s fair to even say this is a film about grief or cancer or working through trauma (although I admit much of it certainly addresses that). The glimmer may not represent anything at all but perhaps it is used as a means to expose us to a question about reality: how do we make sense of life when destruction and creation are fundamental to our world? Or rather, what do we do with our simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish condition? And are beauty and destruction dependent on one another? Rather than resigning to despair or presenting a sentimental answer to this sort of question, this film instead attempts to embrace that tension and comes to the humble but frustrating conclusion of: “I don’t know.”

 

A Quick Review: “The Soul of Shame” by Curt Thompson M.D.

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It often feels like to be human is to live with the ever-present, often insidious disease known as shame. According to Curt Thompson in his newest book, The Soul of Shame, shame has been at work within the whole of humanity’s collective and individual stories extending back as far as Adam & Eve’s.

Shame, Thompson says, is at its fundamental level a spiritual & biological plague with consequences as dire as increasing isolation & disconnection, chaotic states of mind and behavior, and diminished vocational and interpersonal creativity (among a multitude of other symptoms). These of course are all assumed to be relating to only individual persons, but Thompson, in the latter half of his book, commits to discussing how shame when left unchecked can bring about disastrous results in our churches, communities, and homes.

This discussion I found to be particularly helpful as much of what Thompson assumes in talking about shame is that it exists to rupture our God-bearing reflection as relational beings. To put it another way: shame would not exist if we were not relational. It is not to say that shame does not start personally, it certainly does, but it always involves another(s): “humans tend to experience no greater distress than when in relationships of intentional, unqualified abandonment- abandoned physically and left out of the mind of the other. With shame, I not only sense that something is deeply wrong with me, but accompanying this is the naturally extended consequence that because of this profound flaw, you will eventually want nothing to do with me…”

Thompson makes the case that shame was present and utilized by the serpent to help bring about the disruption between humans and God and humans with themselves. When we doubt our connection with others, or doubt that God really, actually, likes us, shame is often at work. Shame was secretly at work during the temptation to eat the fruit, and it was noticeably present when Adam and Eve realized that they were vulnerable and needed to be covered. And in the act of covering themselves, a wall was erected between them, a wall that exists with each of us. Adam and Eve started in the garden perfectly vulnerable, perfectly without shame, and in perfect intimacy with God and themselves. With the presence of shame, their eyes were opened, they saw their naked selves as inadequate, their failures were magnified, and they resulted to hiding from each other by covering themselves and hiding from God in a literal sense.

Shame destroys our connectedness with others. Just as Adam and Eve sought each other or another to accuse after the Fall, Thompson reminds us that “shamed people shame people.” And here we have shame’s arrival into the world through friendships, families, and communities in a self-destructive and rampant progression.

Obviously this book is much more than just a diagnosis, but certainly the diagnosis is critical. One of the reasons I initially found this book unique is because of Thompson’s psychiatric expertise and insight into the neurological effects of shame on the brain. What most can only talk about abstractly, Thompson can talk about scientifically. Yet since I am not a scientist or a doctor, I can not verify what he says is true nor speak into it very well, but he certainly backs himself.

And like any good doctor, Thompson provides a treatment option to such a malady. The almost paradoxical nature of shame is that in an attempt to not be abandoned, we cover ourselves and hide, thus resulting in our own isolation and self-abandonment. We long for intimacy but are frightened by what others may really see when we begin discarding the fig leaves of our own social status, career achievements, perfect family, theological correctness, and the myriad of ways we try to cover up our utter nakedness.

Like a returning to Eden, vulnerability is the only means by which we can taste the intimacy we once had. However, it often feels like death. It leaves us open to hurt, to rejection, to betrayal, to pain, and, yes in an extreme sense, death. Often vulnerability is spoken of as an act, but Thompson rightly reminds us, “it is something we are.” It is how we were created. Thompson even says, “It begins in the beginning where we are introduced to a vulnerable God. Vulnerable in the sense that he is open to wounding. Open to pain. Open to rejection. Open to death.”

Shame wants nothing more than our own isolation and eventual self-destruction. In light of many recent studies on the lethality of loneliness, I do not find shame’s goals so far-fetched. If shame seeks our isolation then its greatest nemesis is intimacy – to be fully known & exposed and fully loved. And Thompson goes to explain that, “We can love God, love ourselves, or love others only to the degree that we are known by God and known by others.” He does not simplify this as just positive thinking either as some often do. As a psychiatrist, he recognizes that this work of being known requires immense difficulty and risk. It requires honest confrontation and soul excavation with God and friends and often therapists. But it also requires knowing the vulnerable God naked and crucified.

Without an incarnate Jesus stripped naked on a cross, we would have no assurance of being loved in our nakedness:
“Jesus’ literal naked vulnerability is a testimony to us that he knows exactly what it is like to be us. To truly be with us Jesus not only knows what it means to be vulnerable, he knows how painfully, frighteningly hard it is to live into it, given shame’s threat… To this God, whom we meet in Jesus, we must direct our attention if we are to know the healing of our shame. We must literally look to Jesus in embodied ways in order to know how being loved in community brings shame to its knees and lifts us up and into acts of goodness and beauty.”

Thompson with this theological framework leads into numerous practical applications of living lives of intimate connectedness with others and explains that when shame begins to lose its grip on us that we may find the energy we once used for hiding for creative purposes in our vocations, hobbies, and relationships. Like a falling back into Eden, once the head of shame is crushed (although not entirely vanquished in this life), we will again be able to create and live as we once did in intimacy with our God and our friends.

Inside Out: When We’re Left Longing

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**This post contains spoilers to the film Inside Out. Proceed with caution**

Samuel Rutherford, a Puritan pastor known for his soulful letters, once wrote to one of his congregants from his jail cell, “I would not exchange my sadness for the world’s joy. O lovely Jesus, how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

I recently had the chance to see the new Pixar animated-film Inside Out which I found beautiful and full of wonderful truth, but also asking important questions like, “just what purpose does sadness have in this life?” We all feel it, some more than others, and I had (have) to wrestle with the implications of that question: should I not just avoid sadness? Should I not just shove it in the corner of my soul and continue on in my own naive joy?

Samuel Rutherford was a man who knew the co-existence of joy and sorrow all too well. A man who lost his wife and two children, who battled depression, and was exiled from his church congregation by the High Court, Rutherford knew both grief and hope. Quite different than despair, Rutherford’s sadness was characterized by longing. As I’ve read his letters, many have brought me to tears. There’s a joy amidst the sadness, and I’ve only been bettered by having read them (and I’d highly recommend them).

In Inside Out, there was a moment that left me gutted. The imaginary-friend, Bing Bong, began grieving over the fact that he was removed from his creator’s consciousness and was left wandering in the maze of his creator’s unconscious memories. He was forgotten by the one who loved him. He was without purpose and without a friend.

But for the first time in the film, Sadness found purpose.

Sadness sat next to him and allowed him to grieve, to cry, and to just recognize the sadness that should rightfully exist in him. It’s good to recognize our unfulfilled desires for things like friendship and a place of belonging. Like Sadness and Bing Bong’s conversation there’s relief in those expressions of grief. For some reason, we heal by acknowledging our troubles. Like Rutherford’s own troubles expressed in his letters, I was offered consolation and the space to feel sad for want of restoration.

But why? Why is there relief in recognition of something that doesn’t necessarily have an immediate answer or resolution?

The most profoundly troubling thing in Inside Out for me was that Bing Bong was eventually forgotten entirely. There was no resolution for him. He fell into a pit of oblivion. Literally.

So why would recognizing that there are things in my life that are painful be of any use to me?

Why would longing for what was or what could be leave me any better than not longing at all?

For Rutherford he would not “exchange his sadness for the world’s joy,” but only in light of the sheer fact that there must be something better – a future hope held fast in a past reality, “how sweet must thy kisses be when the cross smelleth so sweet.”

If not for a future hope, I can’t honestly say I’d be able to live consciously with sadness. If my future is like Bing Bong’s, what’s the point of sadness? If not for a future hope, all joy is worldly, temporary joy. I’m with Rutherford on that, and yet, a future hope is nothing without grounding. What does it mean when I’m told to just “keep on keeping on” if keeping on just means I’ll eventually hit a dead-end?

I, like Rutherford, long for the intimate kiss of Jesus, for His – already but not yet – embrace of me, and I’m only assured of that by an objective reality in the cross. The cross that “smelleth so sweet,” so sweet, yet so painful. A cross that was bore for us that we may experience lasting joy, but a cross that we too must bear.

Sadness has a purpose, for I suppose that without sadness in this life we can’t experience real joy. Without sadness, hope is nonexistent, or to give an example, I’d never long for intimacy if I never felt lonely. A severance of longing, or numbing, is one great way to defeat real joy. Attempting to fill our ultimate longing with things that will never fill it is another.

Longing contains both joy and sadness, and I’d never long for Jesus without recognizing my own longings. To recognize those longings, or to grieve, is often excruciating, but I’d never need Jesus without that need.

We can’t remove sadness without also removing joy.

We can’t long without suffering.

We can’t be kissed without the cross.

A Quick Review of “Spiritual Friendship”

I have been long awaiting this new book from Wesley Hill. Hill is a pioneer when it comes to the murky waters of affirming celibacy and a traditional sexual ethic within the church. But this does not mean Hill is asking for those (“celibate, gay christians”) to pursue a life without intimacy, certainly not. This is where Hill challenges us to a rekindle a better understanding of friendship in a more holistic manner.

In “Spiritual Friendship”, Wesley Hill poignantly crafts his own experiences into a rich telling and exposition on the long, lost tradition of committed, spiritual friendships. Hill expertly takes a look at the world & culture we live in and shows how friendship has in several ways become a foreign language to us. Without becoming unrealistic or overly sentimental, Hill also begins to express both personally and theologically what a transformed view of friendship might look to us practically.

It’s not uncommon when talking about friendship as a celibate person to begin to idealize friendship especially when one’s own sexual orientation and theological beliefs seem to almost hinge upon it for survival. But Hill does not do this. Hill, with a heart-breaking and common-to-me honesty, really speaks into the hardship of friendship: “that’s the perfect description of trying to love your best friend when he doesn’t love you back, or at least not in the way you wish he would.” Hill doesn’t only just speak of the potential byproducts that occur with intimate friendships but also speaks of the suffering that must occur with and within friendship, “The calling of friendship is, in other words, a call to pain. Joy, yes, and consolation, but not as a substitute for pain…Friendship, then – for Christians who take their cues from the arc of the scriptural story – lives with pain.”

Hill then leaves us readers with practical steps to take towards cultivating friendship itself, not leaving us on a pessimistic note. The life of a celibate christian does not have to end (or worse endure) in loneliness as Hill reminds us, and I’m thankful to be practically reminded of that.

Overall, this is a book that the church needs to consider. Not just for the sake of ____ in our churches, but for the church herself. And for that, I’m grateful.


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