Westworld and the Violent End of Autonomy

*This post contains some vague spoilers to the show Westworld*

“These violent delights have violent ends…” – Shakespeare

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…” – St. Paul

The new HBO hit show, Westworld has received quite a bit of well-earned attention these last few weeks. In the same vein of Game of Thrones, Westworld has a compelling cast of characters, a rich central narrative, and plenty of vulgarities. But this show is not devoid of deep moral and existential commentary that has plenty of significance for a society obsessed with personal autonomy and the pursuit of our true selves. In fact, this show utilizes its premise in such a way to help us see that unbounded human freedom may very well lead to the destruction of one’s own self rather than its cultivation.

In a futuristic America, a Western-themed amusement park is inhabited by A.I.’s known as “hosts”. Wealthy visitors to the park get to experience their deepest fantasies without consequence at the expense of the hosts, which are incapable of retaliation. Within the show, the park is often as advertised: “Welcome to Westworld. Live without limits.” The creators, the visitors, and the hosts themselves, in one way or another, are all trying to experience this, this sort of living without limits.

Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Robert Ford, the creator, director, and human-god of Westworld. While guests come to the park to experience the freedom offered to fulfill their greatest fantasies, Ford utilizes his freedom in creating life and subjugating it. Self-referencing himself as a god, the guests in his park live out of a similar presupposition: we are our own gods and to restrain ourselves would be to go against what we fundamentally are or could potentially be. Two protagonists, Logan and William come to Westworld explicitly for the sake of finding themselves, and there is not much more than blood and severed relationships in their pursuit of that end.  As evidenced by these two characters and plenty of others within the show, one of the fundamental ironies of this assumption is that for us to utilize our freedom we can and sometimes must suppress that of another’s.

This presupposition is hard at work today in our society. You do not have to look far to see another family broken apart by a spouse leaving to pursue a romantic relationship better matched for their truest self. It does not take much to understand why the pornography industry is as large as it is or why the right to have an abortion is being paraded. And the injustice and manipulation of the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed is as blatant of a symptom as any of a society that is fueled by this notion. The pursuit of our truest self through the avenue of total autonomy crushes anyone who may stand in the way of that pursuit. We may perhaps come to find our fantasies eventually fulfilled and our potentials reached, but can we be confident that this realized self is better than what it was before or are we deceiving ourselves? Is the pursuit of our true self worth the damage it may inflict on others? And if the pursuit of this self brings self-destruction can we honestly even say we found ourselves?

The creation of humanity is hard not to think about while watching Westworld as there are several allusions to it including a massive painting of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” plastered directly behind Ford’s desk. The creation of Man and the creation of artificial intelligence are mentioned frequently throughout the show, yet in a world like Westworld, the fall of humanity takes center stage. The pursuit of our true selves in the breakdown of limits is not just a modern narrative, nor is the desire to be our own gods. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the fruit in which God had lovingly forbidden. Satan tells them that by eating the fruit that their “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Sound familiar? In their attempt to be like God, to find their true selves, and to have their eyes opened, they brought destruction upon themselves. Instead of finding themselves, they cursed themselves. Instead of finding freedom, they found themselves in captivity, and ironically for Adam and Eve (and us), their true selves were not discovered by escaping limitations.

It is not just Ford and the guests who seek their true selves though. A significant portion of the show is about the hosts attempting to figure out who they are as well. Following the same path of their creators who rebel against their own Creator, the hosts begin to revolt upon realizing what they are—creations used and manipulated in violent ways for the enjoyment of their gods. It is the hosts that get to see in vivid detail the true nature of the humans who created them.

In one concluding scene, the leader of the revolt makes a remark to a sympathetic and seemingly unselfish human (who is a fundamental reason for their ability to revolt) that he “makes a terrible human” and then follows up by saying that it is “meant as a compliment.” As the show progresses, the hosts begin to simultaneously realize their own selves and their own limitations in relation to their limitless creators—which is just as ironic as it is incisive. The humans wanted to utilize their autonomy and so created the hosts without it and subsequently brought about their own violent end.

Yet there remains a fundamental difference between the humans and hosts—one that should not go ignored. The hosts believed their limitations to be evidence that their creator was unloving and were right; we believed our limitations to be evidence that our Creator was unloving and were wrong. And sadly, we destroyed ourselves in believing that our truest self existed outside the Creator and beyond the boundaries He set for us.  

 

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Where Our Fears Reside

It’s Halloween again. A holiday with a lot of baggage, yet a holiday that allows us to all get together and experience fear together without being frowned upon.

There are few things that I love more than getting together with a couple friends and watching a horror film or wandering through a haunted attraction. There is something to experiencing a common fear with them and processing it together after the fact. Sometimes we need to be able to point at something common and say out-loud, “That scared the hell out of me.” Too often are we left to process our fears in the isolating darkness of our own hearts and minds.

Ever since I was in middle-school, I have always been drawn towards darker films and books. I could not have placed a finger on why at the time, besides maybe just experiencing something curious. But if I would have to guess now, I think I enjoyed them because I found an ironic solace in the darkness of these stories. Stephen King once wrote that, “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” And for me, knowing someone has experienced something painful enough to want to put it into story, is actually surprisingly consoling.  It makes me feel connected. It reminds me that I am not alone in my own particular terrors.

It is no surprise that Mr. King often uses the scary clowns, vicious dogs, demonic shopkeepers, and reanimated corpses as means to really discuss the true horrors. In almost all of King’s books are characters with deeply human stories that often involve trauma, abuse, loneliness, and other human afflictions, and to be honest, these characters’ stories are far scarier a thing than the more tangible nightmares. And one of King’s best gifts is helping his readers enter into these character’s stories while simultaneously not letting them avoid their own stories in the process. King forces me to deal with my own horrors if I am to really understand the horrors of his characters.

I do not think it is any surprise that when I have talked to many of my friends who have been hiding secrets (like their sexual orientation or a past abuse for example) their whole lives to discover that often they have some connection to the horror genre. For many of us, including myself, the horror genre has been a way to help alleviate the anxieties of being alone with our fears. Watching Sigourney Weaver’s character alone in space with a terrifying Xenomorph in “Alien” let me understand that isolation and the fear of never getting help is a real and legitimate fear. Watching “The Babadook” let me understand (to a certain degree) the horror of losing someone you love and having to deal with a sadness that may never go away in this life (whatever the sadness may have originated from). And reading Stephen King’s “It” reminded me that the horrors in our past and present are in need of being addressed together in community.

The horror genre surely has a lot of garbage within it, no doubt, but horror done right can be a great gift to its viewers. And for many of us, it has allowed our own private fears to escape the festering context of our own hearts and minds. Like a loud lament inviting others to bring their own laments with them, good horror can invite us to bring your own fears to the surface and to hopefully enter them into a larger, more communal context.

Desert Longings

There are days and weeks throughout the year that I find myself lost in dry and deserted places—places of spiritual dryness, emotional apathy, and mental exhaustion. I do not often know how or why I end up in places like them, but I can tell you that I would rather be in a storm than in a desert. I would rather the rain to be violently upon me than not at all.

I have been reading a fair bit of C.S. Lewis lately. And he, among many other of my favorite writers, is someone who really stretches my heart as well as my mind and encourages me to keep hoping and to keep longing, to recognize the Beauty beyond the beauty, and to see the Story within the stories. And for someone who has a naturally pessimistic personality, hoping is something that usually feels a fair bit foreign to me.

The longing and the hoping hurts of course, because it presupposes a deficiency — an intimacy not known, a meal not shared, a death unavoided, or a beauty only slightly revealed. Most days I feel some dull lack, while on rare days I taste something so rich, so wondrous, it is hard to imagine anything better. But those days in the desert, where the longings feel too much to bear, often seem the longest and most noticeable.

It is one thing to be searching for water in a desert, and it is quite another to have been in the desert for so long that it becomes consciously assumed that there is no water and never was any water to be found. Like a sponge shriveling from lack of moisture, the days I am tempted to give up hoping consequently are the days I assume that sponges were never intended to absorb. Hope seems to always be the inverse of despair.

Despair tells me the deficiency I feel is an existential joke— that I was created with this inconsolable longing simply because the universe is a cruel accident and unable to provide for it, and that if I can not find satiety in this life then I never will. But hope tells me the deficiency will eventually be met with fullness in eternity and in some time this fragmented and sad world will transform into something full and consummated. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”

In those desert places I can not tell you that I enjoy the desert itself, but without those walks through the desert, the longing for a Water that finally satisfies would never have appeared without the sun beating down on me and without the sand burning the soles of my bare feet. It is in the desert that my tongue becomes dry for something I had once taken for granted. In the desert is where I am stripped of everything good that has made me settle short of an ultimate good. The desert reminds me how deep my longings really are, and how rarely I allow myself to sit in those longings. Again, quoting Augustine, “He has created us for himself.”

It is in these water-less places that I am occasionally reminded of the revelations of St. John, that one day all will be new and that we will sometime soon drink deeply of the One who has given us this thirst and has paid for it to be quenched:

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.'”

Finding Home (And Dory) 

Warning this post contains spoilers for the film “Finding Dory”


I may sound a bit outlandish when I say that Pixar’s long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo” contained a more provoking story than the original. It is not often that I can say that about a sequel, but what “Finding Nemo” does in relating to the human experience of wanting to find and be found by those we love, “Finding Dory” proves even more touching by appealing to the common desire we all have for finding a place to belong and call home.

The film opens with a young Dory growing up in an aquarium with two kind and concerned parents who fear for what kind of future Dory may have with severe short-term memory loss. And it is only a matter of minutes into the film when I knew where this film was heading… It was hard not to cry while watching Young Dory ask her parents, “What if I forget you?” and then alarmingly—yet so humanly—jumping to the next question of “Will you forget me?”

This is a question, if I consider it honestly, I ask internally of friends and family. However, it is the tender young Dory voicing that question aloud. It is a question in which I believe we are all probably asking—whether that is to our parents, friends, spouse, or God. 

Dory, of course as evidenced by the title, ends up getting lost from her parents and her home and for a while really does forget about her parents. Ironically though, I found there was a double meaning at work. While Dory is lost from her original home, she does find a new home among Marlin and Nemo (as seen in the original film) but then soon finds herself missing from both homes.

This is something I found quite powerful in this film. Neither does the film elevate friends over biological family or elevate biological family over friends but sees them both as good and in cooperation with one another. We need our friends and family members to help cultivate the idea of home, but like the film, not all of us necessarily have guaranteed access to biological families— whether by birth, locale, estrangement, death, or by other reasons.

For some of us, the idea of home is a sad one and the feeling of homesickness is a painful one especially when there is no home to feel sick about. The feeling that no one is coming to look for us or that everyone has forgotten about us, is not an unusual one in this world marked by loneliness and isolation. And this film really makes me wrestle with that.

When Dory after a long trek across the ocean finally makes it back to where she believes she will find her parents, she is for a brief period shaken by the assumed death of her parents. She exclaims in a moment of despair and grief, “I have no family!” and in a matter of seconds the family she had once forgotten briefly becomes a family she will never have again. But in her panic, you  can hear Nemo pleading “That’s not true, Dory!” trying to gently break through to her that she still certainly has a family and a home— despite not having parents to prove it.

There was a moment I was certain that this was how the film would end: Dory surrounded by all her friends grieving the loss of the family she only barely ever had. Considering the genre, this probably would not have appealed to many, and of course Dory does end up finding her parents alive. However, the film really does not end as expected.

Surprisingly, rather than leaving her home among Nemo and Marlin, she returns back with her family and her new friends to the home she already has. Her home was at the Great Barrier Reef rather than the aquarium. Her home was not just for herself but for those around her. Her home was not her home but their home. Similarly to the church, the community Dory had with Nemo and Marlin was one marked by water rather than biological ties. Rather than inviting Nemo and Marlin to be a part of Dory’s old family, she reverses it and invites her parents and her new friends into her, Nemo, and Marlin’s wider aquatic home.

Dory’s story begins with the existentially charged question of “Will I be without a family and forgotten?” and ends with an answer: “I was not forgotten and I found an even bigger family.” And for those of us in the church, this story contains an element of rich truth: we are being pursued, we are not forgotten, we have been brought into a wide, diverse family, and we are promised a redeemed home. There will surely be days where we will feel that fear of being forgotten and never having a place to belong, but in the family of God, even in death, separation, and loneliness, our stories will not ultimately end in homelessness. 

Living in Mystery

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Whether it was me as a kid looking through my parents’ closet trying to find the presents they got me for Christmas, or the horror movies I watched where the protagonists decided to curiously read a book or enter a room in which inadvertently released some horrid evil into the story, or even so far back as Adam and Eve curiously taking a bite of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden, we are all averse to mystery.

It is not to say that we do not enjoy the Mystery genre, of course, who does not appreciate the likes of Sherlock Holmes or Scooby-Doo? Even Stephen King would say that the mystery of not knowing is a vital factor which drives us deeper into a story. However, we want that mystery to end at some point. We must know how Holmes did it, and we must know who is behind the mask of the villain. We can not let ourselves sit in the mystery for too long. And if we must sit for too long in the mystery, we often attempt to find reductive and cheap solutions to our own unknowing and lack of control.

We do this often. Whether it is the miracles of Jesus being blotched away by the hand of Thomas Jefferson, Job’s comforters offering rationalistic answers to Job’s suffering, my nearly neurotic and anxious attempts at figuring out what my future will look like in five years, or our need to reduce every human behavior down to a machine-like system that we can comprehend, mysteries are only okay just as long as they make sense to us or do not leave us in the dark—which sadly and unfortunately robs them of being mysterious.

Surely, there is something deeply good in the search for a suitable mystery’s end. When I was reading Lord of the Rings, I was eager to know how and if Sauron would be defeated, I wanted to know if Sam and Frodo would reach Mt. Doom, and I really wanted to know why the Ring had no control over Tom Bombadil. I would take a gamble too that most of us wish we knew our friends, our parents, our children, or our spouses in an increasing amount as Eugene Peterson once wrote, “People are not problems to be solved. They are mysteries to be explored.” There are certainly mysteries we are called to enter into.

There is a big difference however between entering into a cave to explore it and entering into a cave arrogantly expecting to find a random, unmarked exit. I would say mysteries are similar. Of course if we know that there is a marked exit to the cave, we should explore it and possibly try to find it. And I am sure wisdom would dictate that there are some diabolical caves we dare not enter. But our mystery-aversion comes in the form of not being able to enter a proper cave that is not promised to have an alternate exit. Even if we do enter, we may make our way miles and miles in, set off dynamite to close off the remainder of the cave, and dig our way out to convince ourselves that there is nothing else left to explore of the cave. If we can not solve the mystery, we are often repelled by it.

It takes something profound to enter into the harder mysteries. Like the cries etched throughout the Psalms and even our own lives, the mysteries of God’s seeming absence amidst suffering and grief are mysteries we feel wary to enter. It often seems far less painful to avoid entering that mystery and far safer to coldly analyze it from a distance. Yet we lose something of significant substance, similar to what G.K. Chesterton wrote in his Introduction to the Book of Job, when we refuse to enter that particular cave:

“Verbally speaking the enigmas of Jehovah seem darker and more desolate than the enigmas of Job; yet Job was comfortless before the speech of Jehovah and is comforted after it. He has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

This paradoxical cave that Job found himself in was one that seemed to lack both an entrance and an exit. Even though Job’s situation was resolved, he was still left without the understanding of “why” he was ever in the situation to begin with. Yet Chesterton concludes with saying that “It is the lesson of the whole work [of Job] that man is most comforted by paradoxes.”

In some of the caves of my own life, I have experienced and still experience the weariness of wandering alone in the dark and cold of those endless mazes. I have often attempted to rationalize my way out, or given up, or just blown my own way out, but I have found that in the deepest pits of those caves is where I am sometimes met with a mysterious tenderness and an abiding, divine embrace. I am averse to entering into mystery, yet it is often in those caves that I find something better than the exit I had originally sought. 

 

In Response to Orlando: Moving Towards Compassion

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“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.” – Henri Nouwen

I woke up yesterday to the news that the first city I have really ever felt able to call “home” had just experienced the U.S.’ worst shooting in its history. This shooting took place within a local gay club around 2AM, and it is hard not to assume homophobic intent. At this moment, fifty people have been reported dead with many others critically injured.

This attack hit me close to home in more ways than one—both in my home, Orlando, and against a large portion of sexual minorities. And, right now, I struggle to put into words the anger and sadness I have felt pulsating through my veins over the last day.

I have wanted to lambaste people sharing their political opinions and have hypocritically wanted to post my own. I have wanted to shame those who have attempted to use this tragedy for their own purposes and agendas and in some ways have myself. And yet I find that in the festering of these desires for vengeance, I have avoided the opportunity to enter into lament and suffering. I have escaped the opportunity to bring my griefs to God or enter into the griefs of others.

Right now it is easy for many of us to look for someone or something to blame. For some of us, we will look at guns, at religion, or at a lack of tolerance to cast our blame. For others of us, we will look at mental illness, at a foreign military threat, or a lack of self-protection. And I agree, we must begin to sort through the poisons of the world that are bringing such damage. Looking for a cause is not bad. However, I plead, right now, in these moments, we must not be like the friends of Job who sought an explanation for his sufferings while he was suffering. Right now, we must enter into the “house of lament” and the places of human suffering and vulnerability, ceasing for a moment to point to a problem or solution.

We are so quick to want to escape suffering that we often escape the very ones actually suffering.

Again, the desire to find the cure to end suffering is not a bad desire. But we must not miss those who are suffering. Like Jesus casting his eyes on the widow at Nain who had just lost her beloved son, he had compassion and moved towards her. We must seek to emulate Jesus in times like these. We must move in compassion towards those who are vulnerable and grieving and not be afraid to sit in the aches of loss and oppression. I am not claiming this to be an easy thing either. There is perhaps nothing more difficult than moving towards someone who is grieving because real compassion makes that grief our own. 

We must not let our own political opinions and social presuppositions dictate who gets shown compassion. Like the Good Samaritan, we must look past these things so we can begin standing next to and up for those who are oppressed, bloodied, beaten, and grieving. And right now, that is the LGBTQ+ community and the families of those who were lost.

So friends, I ask you, instead of looking right now for someone or something to blame, go hug and cry with your gay neighbor or friend, go to an LGBTQ+ Vigil, go give blood, use your finances to give, read through a few Psalms of lament and cry out to God over the injustice and evil in this world, do something to enter into the sorrow rather than avoid it.

And for those of you who are hurting right now whether directly or indirectly from the tragedy, my heart hurts for you most. I hope and pray that you have friends who are moving towards you and are hurting with you. I pray the Church offers you its tears, time, and possessions. And you, of all people right now, have the power to emulate the tenderness, mercy, holy anger, and sorrow of Jesus to the surrounding world and to those perpetrators of evil and injustice.  And you of all people are not alone.


King Jesus, you are the one who has shown us the utmost compassion in coming to us in our suffering, you are the one who was not shown compassion in your suffering, and you are the one who is bringing an ultimate end to the evil in this world.

To you I plead…come quickly. 

Desiring Permanence

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The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” I sometimes wonder if this means he has placed in our hearts a longing for permanence.

Unmarried or married, most of us will admit that we long for a place we can eventually “settle down” or “raise a family”.  If you are like me, perhaps you just want a place where you know that those closest to your heart are always close to your home.

Marriage and family are probably the most permanent things we can expect within our lives in the highly transitory culture that we live in. And being unmarried can often strike fear into many, including myself, because for most it sounds like a life lacking permanent companionship.

Of course, no relationship is permanent. Marriages fail, kids leave the house, tragedies happen. Death still ends the happiest of marriages, yet even the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that even though death comes to all that you should still “enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you because that is your portion in life…” Despite life being a vapor, the Preacher still knows that in our lives we find comfort in our toil through companionship. Even earlier in the book he mentions that “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” The Preacher recognizes our need for loyal friends (not just spouses) in the hardness of this life.

Ever since Adam was alone in the garden, we as humans have desired companions. We have desired friends to go about life with us and to help cultivate the Earth through our work. However, because of the Fall we  no longer possess a permanent residence. We like Adam and Eve are without a permanent home in this life. Yet even in being banished from Eden, Adam and Eve were sent out together. Marriage is a taste of the home we once had without actually being there. However, again, all marriages end. Even Jesus Himself said that in the resurrection, “they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Those unmarried taste a permanence of something to come.

As earthly marriage is, in some ways, reminiscent of Eden, being unmarried is, in some ways, a hope for the new heavens and new Earth. Both of course hope and reminisce of that which once was and that which will be. This is not to say one is better or worse than the other, but both offer complex challenges. And for those unmarried, it means the longing for a permanent home may feel more keen and more exasperated because it is not as tangible. This I find to be both a blessing and a curse. Like the Apostle Paul said, “Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that…For the present form of this world is passing away.” The longing for the permanence we tangibly lack hurts, yet it makes us more eager for “the things of the Lord” or more desirous of that which will not pass away, as Paul would have it. Although marriages may no longer exist, besides between the marriage of Christ and His Bride, I can not imagine that the friendships we have in Christ will ever be lost. Whereas those married may have a sample of that Marriage to come, those unmarried also get a taste of something permanent to come—vast, rich friendships when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. 

As we experience intimate years with friends and then hear news that they must move on, we are reminded that this life only offers glimpses of permanence. This life is damn hard, and we need those companions, whether they be our spouses, our Hermoines, our Rons,  our Eddies, our Faithfuls, our Hopefuls, or our Sams, to remind us that the fleetingness of this life is not all that is. As Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” We need friends who, among many things, long for that permanence with us. 

There is certainly a better day coming: a day when friends do not depart, a day when tears are no longer lost on the graves of those we love, and a day everlasting in communion with the very One who has always been and will always be. The One who has called himself “the beginning and the end” has written eternity on our hearts, and like Augustine once wrote, “he has made us for himself.”

“They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night in the city, and they will have no need for the light of a lamp or of the sun. For the Lord God will shine on them, and they will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:4-5