Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The X-files, the Misery of the World and the Nature of God [spoilers] - Brad Jersak

Screenshot from X-files episode "Babylon"
*Spoilers included. This article assumes readers have watched the episode or won't mind spoilers.

In the X-files episode entitled "Babylon," I was impressed with the research, creative writing, strong imagery and bold themes. I don't presume to know the writer's intent, but from the artistic side, we are permitted to draw our own takeaway meanings and messages. Two came quite forcefully that some X-files fans might appreciate. 

The episode begins with a graphic terrorist attack by two young Muslim radicals. Too easy I thought; that's not how these writers roll. Then comically, Mulder and Scully meet a pair of young, but strangely familiar, FBI agents. They prepare to take two approaches at trying to prevent the next attack, each providing an essential puzzle-piece. Ultimately, this will lead to a resolution that prepares us for the takeaway lessons about the world and about God.

Babylon: "Misery is the River of the World"

The most intense scene finds Mulder in a vision-state. He is in a large rowboat under a dark sky. Hooded slaves are rowing across some sea. 'The Smoking Man' (Mulder's primary series antagonist) appears and cracks a whip, "You want the truth, Agent Moulder? You've come to the right place!" and he whips him again. Moulder turns from the Smoking Man and makes his way forward, between the slaves. We hear Tom Waits singing, "Misery is the River of the World." The lyrics in their entirety speak to what the episode means by Babylon, but they can be summarized in these lines:
Misery's the river of the world! Everybody row, everybody row!
If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man.

As Mulder proceeds, he sees a woman in white, holding the body of her son, the terrorist whose life is in the balance after the attack, his head badly damaged from the bomb blast. (See the screenshot above). 

The overall impression to this point is darkness, death, human cruelty and misery, and grief over the insanity of a life given for hatred and violence. This, I take it, is the nature of all that which Scripture identifies as Babylon, playing off the episode title. 

And the imagery is apt for our times. The four horsemen are out of the barn and galloping the earth these days--terrorism, civil war, cold war and now regular references to world war. In fact, this just in:

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has reset the nuclear doomsday clock forward to 11:57. The impression given is apocalyptic and seems to confirm the greatest threats of their doomsday prophet counterparts, always quick with an ominous recitation of the book of Revelation (also appropriately entitled, 'the Apocalypse.'

But what some viewers may have missed (sorry if this is obvious) was the obvious mother-son mimicry of Michaelangelo's 'Pietà' (in St Peter's Basilica), pictured here. 

What? Comparing the self-sacrifice of love in Christ to the inglorious martyrdom of a terrorist? 

And now the plot begins to twist. The young Muslim is not dead. Mulder leans in to hear his dying words. Eventually, back in the 'real world,' we discover that the woman is indeed the boy's mother. That she has been having dreams in which he communicates his last moment change of heart and renunciation of the violence ... but alas, the other bomber succeeds. Nevertheless, because she is present, they are able to interpret the foreign words Mulder had heard in his vision: Babel. Babylon. Babylon Motel. Sure enough, this sketchy motel called Babylon is the headquarters of the death-dealers and the FBI arrives in time to save lives. Though somewhat obtuse, the would-be terrorist has become the savior. 

The takeaway message here (for me) is that even in the corrupt and violent world so permeated and ruled by Babylon (from all sides--including the hedonism earlier in the vision and the retribution of those intent on pulling the boy's plug), faith is able to penetrate the noise of mutual violence and the ways we numb ourselves to it -- and to hear the redemptive word, to do the redemptive deed, and perhaps even to transform the enemy.       

The Nature of God

More obviously, the second takeaway came for me in Mulder and Scully's closing dialogue about God. It moved quite quickly, given Mulder's penchant for rambling, but in his analysis of God, he mentions at least three images of God. He's resisting the first two in favor of a third: 

1. 'The angry God of the Bible.' Agent Mulder obviously hadn't read or understood the best parts--the Good News--which suits his love of conspiracy literature. But hearing him on this is important because he does reveal our culture's impression of the God of the Bible. 

On the surface, we could say this image of God has largely been sifted through the culture wars between Christian and atheist fundamentalists, with both sides heartily agreeing on this one point: the God of the Bible is not love; he is angry.

But I think that caricature, though easy enough to proof-text, is a smokescreen for something else. It is a portrait painted by Enlightenment propagandists who use it to dismiss God in favor of their own autonomy. This too is the Way of Babylon: image God as a willful tyrant so that you can fire him and take his place ... then call the regime change 'freedom.' Not unlike the devastation of every revolution that supplants a murderous king with a murderous mob. Except that our God wasn't murderous--we just need him to seem that way to justify his crucifixion and build our tower. 

2. The absent God. Mulder also describes a God who is distant, silent and who has abandoned us, either from the beginning or at our own point of deepest grief. In his case, the abduction of his sister, whether by the government or an alien race, is his proof of the absent God. I'll invoke Tom Waits again--lines from his song, 'God's away on business':
The ship is sinking; the ship is sinking
There's leak, there's leak, in the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
Yes, that's Babylon. Then, 
God's away, God's away,
God's away on Business. Business.
Or is he? Where is God in the tragic episodes of human history? Mulder has already seen it in vision: he has been taken down from the Cross and from the arms of his mother, he says, "Behold, I make all things new." (Resist knee-jerk literalism here; think theologically, think spiritually). The point is that God in Christ has invested himself in the misery of the world, both in solidarity with those slain by Babylon and in so doing, defeating Babylon with something better.

3. The God of 'mother love.' In Moulder's vision and subsequent experience of the boy's mother, he saw an image of God that he could grasp: mother love. This isn't about faddish goddess-worship, which generally grasps at the power of the macho gods but only in order to mirror them. This is about a God whose love is like that of the mother who forever loves her son, no matter what. We don't find that God in any of the pagan pantheons, nor is that love present in the pseudo-freedom of 'me-first, everyone for themselves' enlightenment thinking (whether liberal or conservative). 

No, this kind of love is seen in the mother who gives her body to create life and push out a baby through however much agony. It's the self-giving sacrifice of first-response workers who give their lives to save those in a collapsing firetrap. And it's the God who, while we were still enemies, assumed a body to offer it on the Cross, in order to heal the human condition and break the curse of death (however that all works).    

Scully's counsel. Upon hearing these three options, Scully (by nature a rationalist, but she also has faith) offers two important concluding words of advice. In light of the misery of the world and the mystery of God, be like the [authentic] prophets (her word). 


1.  Be open to God. IF there is a God and that God might be the perfection of mother love, then like the prophets, let's be open to that God. IF God's nature is mother love (and you know the Scriptures on this), then that love is forever reaching out to us ... No, even better: already holding us in our misery. Then it behooves us to seek and find that love ... No, even better: rest back into the arms of love. In that place, in those arms, something redemptive and restorative is in store.  

2. Listen to God.  Scully challenges Mulder to listen for the voice of love, the voice of God. Of course, he had already heard it in the context of the life-saving vision. By faith, he was able to hear the voice (of the son) that exposed Babylon's headquarters and take it down. But Scully was calling for listening on a grand scale: not just to the voice of this instance that saved this day, but also the Bells of Heaven that signal God's mother love for the whole world. 

And he does! He hears the heavenly Bells (the voice of God calling) and looks up. The camera perspective then looks down at Mulder and zooms backwards until we see the whole world--the world to whom the Bells shouting the mother love of God are directed. 

These were my takeaways. As I said, I can't be sure what the writer might have been saying, but hopefully you've heard, with me, what God might be saying.