WHAT THE FILM ‘ARRIVAL’ HINTS TO US ABOUT THE WORD MADE FLESH
How easily would we interpret the language of an extra-terrestrial? No wonder God’s story of salvation is so epically long.
How refreshing to find a film about aliens arriving at earth that does not have them wasting its cities or gung-ho generals nuking them in return. Arrival stars an empathetic Amy Adams as the linguist Dr Louise Banks who is called on to make first contact with a strange, smooth alien ship that hovers above the ground but admits humans at appointed moments to try and make sense of what they see.
The team of military and academic experts encounters strange, unearthly beings that emit language from tentacles, written in ink through the air. The unenviable task of decoding soon becomes a race against time. Similar alien ships have appeared in other countries and there is a growing fear of harm. This is sharpened by the misinterpretation of one key word. Time and again Dr Banks and those working in other countries assume the aliens are using the word ‘weapon’, but they misinterpret and only in time is their true meaning uncovered. The message for today could hardly be clearer. Culture and language can divide as well as unite us and this depends on the patience, forbearance and curiosity of both sides.
There are echoes of God’s encounter with a world he comes to redeem in love, which is darkened in its thinking and violently suspicious of the Other. The story of salvation is an epically long and convoluted one. God’s son could not simply drop into a neighbourhood without adequately preparing the people for his life. Right from the calling of Abraham, God began an exhaustive tutelage that involved the patriarchs, the nation of Israel, its laws and sacrifices, the prophets, exile, return, John the Baptist. Without these, it would have been almost impossible to interpret the messiahship of Christ.
A defining moment, the ascension of Mount Sinai by Moses, is oddly captured by Arrival. Dr Banks is caught up into the alien ship by herself; it is a gloomy, foggy place with outbreaks of thunderous noise. She has shed her protective gear in order to meet with the aliens face to face. And she makes sense of their mission by the words they write in ink. For Moses, the only difference is these words are written in stone.
God became human for us. The infant Jesus was vulnerable and remained so throughout his life. The space he afforded people to touch him for healing allowed malevolent hands to be laid on him in the end. Those wanting to see Arrival fresh may wish to skip the rest of this paragraph, but the word the linguists assumed meant ‘weapon’ turned out to be the word ‘gift’. The aliens were not inciting fear, but hope in their use of this word. Jesus is God’s gift to the world, but he remains misunderstood. The Word who was with God in the beginning (John 1:1) has not been translated properly by some and the lack of understanding has provoked violence; something Christians have experienced through history.
In gifting Dr Banks a new tongue, the aliens also brought a peculiar understanding. Their language enabled them to see the end from the beginning and, once learned, Dr Banks begins to make sense of her life and the dreams she has endured. All her dreams that seemed to viewers as flashbacks are an anticipation of what is to come. The word of God is a story of salvation from beginning to end, but our understanding becomes cloudier as it reaches its denouement. As Revelation unfolds, the words become strange and cryptic, in an inaccessible apocalyptic style which has kept every generation guessing. We are not without clues in this, but the end of time described in Revelation is a mystery we are too fallible and limited to grasp.
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end says Jesus as the story comes to an end. The language of God really does see the end from the beginning, but it is not for us just yet. In the world to come, what has been shall finally be revealed in the light of this eternal Word.
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