Cowboys, Aliens, and Systematic Theology

1 08 2011

C.S. Lewis believed that all mythology and all good stories were based in the “one true myth” (as he put it) – the redemption of men in the God-man Christ Jesus. I think that continues to be true about the best stories even in modern times – tales that involve personal redemption, the salvation of men, good overcoming evil against all odds, and all such glorious ideas. That being said, I don’t know that “Cowboys and Aliens” is one of the  best movies of the summer, but it is one of the most interesting and thought-provoking discussions in soteriology (study of salvation), christology (study of person and work of Jesus), ecclesiology (study of the church/people of God)and anthropology (the study of the nature and person of men) that I have seen since the Lord of the Rings. In fact, in many ways, it is a Reader’s Digest 2-hour condensed version of the 10-hour Lord of the Rings.

(Warning: spoiler alerts throughout)

First thing we learn is that this story takes place in the oh-so-old-western-sounding town of “Absolution” – a term defined in the dictionary as the formal release of guilt, obligation, or punishment. That’s a significant and intentional setting (not just a cool name), and it becomes the experience for several characters in the movie – not the least of which is Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) who we meet at the beginning lost in the desert outside Absolution and without any ability to remember who he is. We find out over the course of the movie that he is a wanted man with a bounty on his head for a wide array of crimes and felonies such as armed robbery and even murder. We learn right away in the first scene that although we are unsure of who he is, he has extreme violence in his nature.

As Jake stumbles to Absolution, he meets a priest who aids him with his wounds. This priest becomes the vehicle by which the themes of the movie are developed. His lines, though few, outwardly state what we see the movie wanting to say. In this first encounter he says, I’ve seen bad men do good things and good men do bad things,” asking Jake then, “Which one are you?” Jake’s reply is literally (and appropriately) “I don’t know.” The rest of the movie develops this struggle of anthropology – our nature, our actions, our ability to choose against our nature, our ability to experience a redemptive process and transform into a different creature all together from who we were. Later, the priest tells Jake that “God doesn’t care who you were. God only cares who you are.”

There in Absolution we meet another character, “Ella” – played by Olivia Wilde. She is a mysterious character, seeming out of place in this setting. She takes an interest in the story of Jake, and the two will be linked for the rest of the movie. Anyway, it is then we get our first real taste of the aliens as they attack the town and begin snatching folks away from Absolution. the interesting thing is that the town’s people begin referring to the aliens as “demons.” This seems like a plausible thing that folks in the Old West might say if aliens were to invade since they haven’t yet seen episodes of Star Trek, but still I believe it to be an intentional allusion for the audience that plants the idea in the back of the mind to help draw out the bigger ideas. It seems like more than just a general “good versus evil” deal. This is personal, as we find out the demons (oh, I meant “aliens”) are taking humans to study their weaknesses in an effort to eventually take over Earth.

But back to Ella. She is maybe the most obvious and direct Christ-figure in the movies in a long time. She hounds and follows Jake who continuously shoos her away. Eventually, over the course of their quest to find the aliens and rescue the people stolen from “Absolution,” Jake begins to develop feelings for her. At the moment you sense these feelings are the strongest between them, Ella is struck by an alien (was that a wound to the head and a mortal wound to the side I see?).  When Jake is found by the others in his search party, Ella is dead. Soon after, some American Indians find them, are not on friendly terms with them, and take them back to their village with extreme prejudice. They throw Ella’s dead body onto the fire to cremate it and, just as it looks like the Indians are going to kill Jake and the others, Ella gloriously resurrects from the fire. We learn later that she is from another place beyond the stars, that she has taken on an earthly body and has come to earth to help mankind overcome the aliens. As if this imagery was not enough, she later gives herself sacrificially to make sure the aliens are completely destroyed in an “ascension” of sorts.

With the aid of some Indian “substances” Jake is given back his memory of the man he once was, a violent hardened criminal gang-leader. However, this memory is given him while in the arms of a resurrected Ella (and her “spirit” of sorts in the embodiment of a hummingbird). This memory, however, does not serve to lead him back to that life, as it seems the love of Ella has changed him. Instead, it serves to lead him to his memory of the aliens’ location from where he had escaped. In other words, coming to terms with his past in the light and love of Ella has not moved him back to his old nature, but forward in his transformation. He now can finally FREELY choose his actions to be defined by what he was or by what he is and can be now. This is the key to his choice to fight to bring salvation to men and restore them to “Absolution.” (“God is not concerned with who you were…”)

One last thing the priest said that I found poignantly thematic. The bartender in the town of Absolution is a man whose life hasn’t worked out for him like he thought – worse his wife has been taken by the aliens – and he simply has no faith that God even exists. He tells the priest, “Either God isn’t up there or He doesn’t like me very much.” The priest replies, “Do you expect God to everything for you?… Y0u have to earn His presence, recognize His presence, and then do something about it.” This I think is the heart of the movie’s discussion about God’s role in overcoming evil in the world and the role of God’s people in overcoming evil. Ironically, Ella (Christ-figure) is walking with them on this journey, yet they are oblivious to who she really is. She performs the role she is designed to play, ultimately sacrificing herself to bring an end to evil. However, mankind had a role to play also. The journey of redemption involved choices to do what was necessary to complete the work of Ella in defeating the aliens (demons). Interestingly, in a great picture of the church, the final battle is fought with an amalgamation of “good people,” “bad people,” cowboys, Indians – a crew of folks that were united in one goal of helping save the lives of men and redeem the earth from the evil.

This is essentially the same kind of amalgamation and the same message as Tolkien in Lord of the Rings – God has played a part in the redemption of men and the world, but there is a part for men as well. While some committed protestants and evangelicals may balk at this movie’s phrasing “earn His presence,” steeped as we are in our anti-nomian doctrine. However, the man who was being addressed was a man with no “eyes to see” God , and so no faith to act. Perhaps that is what the priest was simply saying instead of trying to deliver a “works salvation.” “Without faith it is impossible to please God,” the Bible tells us – impossible to see Him working even in difficult times, and impossible to commit ourselves to acting as the people of God He has called us to be in the world. We are not called to crawl in a hole and hold on “’til jesus comes; ” we are called to be the church triumphant in the world. Maybe our laziness and comfort and prosperity has led to us no longer “earning” or even “needing” His presence.

In the end, even with Ella gone, the movie leaves Jake with the promise of hope and the promise of Ella’s presence, as the hummingbird returns to show itself, reminding us also that Jesus has left His Spirit (dove?) with us to be our guide, our strength, our comfort as we continue to path of transformation and our duty to stand guard over the mission he has given us.

I am not saying I know anything about the writers and their intentions. In fact, I would be shocked if Hollywood was so overtly intentional with Christian thought. Maybe they meant the whole thing to be a “United Nations” will conquer the evils of materialism and greed and capitalism (after all, the aliens were after gold). Therefore, I agree that I may be completely seeing things that were not intended. But again,in the thoughts of C.S. Lewis,  the themes of the great stories always reveal God’s meta-narrative as embodied in Christ. This one stuck out to me more than usual. It at least makes for good discussion.

(Cowboys and Aliens is rated PG-13 for violence, language, scary images, and some adult situations)

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3 responses

1 08 2011
Bradley McGuffey

Sometimes I feel like I need to watch movies with Kris and have him tell me what I just saw.

1 08 2011
kdekker

Thursdays at midnight you can come and bathe in the madness.

1 08 2011
Jerra Dooley

Wow – Kris just saved me 2 hours watching this movie! It is very interesting how even Hollywood longs for a Savior that redeems those who have fallen and provides the ultimate utopic society for everlasting life.

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