Tag Archives: Star Trek

The end of the world 2013 — and why you matter.

Next Sunday night I will once again enjoy a guilty pleasure as I indulge in my tivo’d copy of the 86th Academy Awards show. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is 94% white, 77% male, 14% under the age of 50, with a median age of 62, which explains why only one of the movies I am about to talk about received a nomination (Star Trek for best visual effects). But in honor of of our society’s inventive and stimulating visual literature, I want to point out how the movies in 2013 had a very interesting theme that Christians have a lot to say about: the end.

The end of the world as we know it

I suppose that Christians should take some of the blame for how moviemakers were a bit obsessed about the end of the world last year. We Jesus followers have a great capacity to receive the goodness of each moment, but we also have an eye on the end of time when Jesus completes the graces of this age and returns to inaugurate the age to come. As we will see in a minute, Paul teaches us to assess each action for how it will endure the fire that is coming to test it! Over the years, the church has contributed in good ways and bad to how our culture views the end of the world. But if the moviemakers are channeling the zeitgeist well (and that is what makes them money!), then the general population must be very interested in the end — and afraid! The following six end-of-the-world, post-life-as-we-know-it movies grossed $739 million domestically and $1.75 billion worldwide in just 2013 – and there were more of their ilk.

So, what does this interest in the end mean? As any movie fan (or sci-fi aficionado) knows, this isn’t new. After the dawn of the atomic age, end-of-the-world B-movies proliferated like mushroom clouds across American drive-in screens. As Cold War paranoia grew, higher-profile films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe charted the same bleak territory, continuing on into the 80s with a slew of it-could-happen-here dramas like Red Dawn (remade in 2012 with Thor in the lead) and Miracle Mile.

That said, though, there’s even more of it now. More than 20 years after the official end of the Cold War, film makers seem focused on the mess we have made of things or the mess we are about to be made by things. We’re a dozen years after 9/11 and sort of emerging from a ten-year war and a lingering economic crisis. Hollywood seems to think that cinematic destruction — as well as the accompanying hope, heroism and homegrown humanity — will act as a kind of balm for the beleaguered public.

Who are the real doombusters?


In 2013 the doombusters had some regular themes.

  • They have a melancholy for bygone days, especially in Oblivion and Elysium: in an age of increased technology, the simpler pleasures of 20th-century life are already haunting us.
  • They are frightened about unknown predators that might pop up at any time: the crew of Star Trek is battling an unleashed evil from the darkness; in The World’s End and Oblivion they meet aliens; in World War Z it is Zombies; in Elysium it is the one-percent and their machines; in This is the End it is God.
  • They think we have the weaponry to fight the battle: Pine, Pitt, Damon and Cruise are quite serious about it all, teaching us that one person can make all the difference against the powers that oppress us; Franco and Pegg periodically wink at the camera and pretend their mockery of the subject will solve the problem.

Jesus followers who live as the body of Christ have so much to offer in the atmosphere created by the filmmakers! There is always the danger that a saved person will forget that they mean something. Now is not the time to do that. Sometimes we see our freedom from fear as a freedom from reverence; so we just live in our moment with our great community and neglect our larger importance. The Bible writers are always quick to point out that we dare not do that. If anything, our freedom from fear of condemnation for what we do makes us even more responsible for what we do. Our freedom demonstrates that the Spirit of God dwells in us and that we have what people need as their end draws near. The rest of creation is locked in time, but Jesus has opened us up to eternity, now. We live in the beginning of the End. Jesus is the dawn of the Day. Read 1 Corinthians 3:10-20.

What Paul teaches us from his wonderful awareness of his undeserved importance is very relevant in a year when people all look like the actors above, facing the crazy, scary things that are happening to them. He makes sure we remember that Jesus is a sure foundation whether times seem shaky or the whole world is afraid. We should build on that foundation with the best stuff we’ve got. Because the world and its film makers are right about one thing: the end of the world as we know it is near. One way or another, our time will end and the life we lived and the things we built that were fit for eternity will be rewarded. In such a time, we people of God, who are the home of the Holy Spirit, need to take ourselves seriously. The standards of our age have some powerful, cinematic ways of teaching us their crafty futility. But we must not be deceived by them. If they think we are fools and James Franco makes fun of us, that just proves even more that we are truly on to something.

Nano Day and the Obligation of Stewardship

I was walking on a beautiful day through a section of Penn I rarely visit and ran headlong into nanotechnology. I rubbed my head and remembered the last time this happened — it was just as startling.

First off, you may have seen the spectacular new Singh Center for Nanotechnology at 32nd and Walnut that is part of Penn’s creep back toward Center City.  This was a giant reminder that nanotechnology is moving right along. It may be about tiny things, but it is not a tiny matter.

Then a little farther down my route home, I went through “science land” near the Rittenhouse Lab and there was a banner over the walkway advertising Nano Day at NANODAY_11_12x3Penn. It is designed to get people into nanotechnology. The high schoolers can make posters and win a prize! I paused and looked at the sign, trying to remember why nanites scare me (thanks Star Trek) and then had to pause a bit longer in awe of the millions of dollars available to spend on a very exciting piece of architecture and the capacity Penn has at hand to round up young people for the latest indoctrination.

 In a move that would have made Gutenberg's head explode, Israeli scientists have printed the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip that is only 1/1000th of an inch square—tinier than a pinhead. Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa

In a move that would have made Gutenberg’s head explode, Israeli scientists have printed the entire Old Testament onto a silicon chip that is only 1/1000th of an inch square—tinier than a pinhead.

Tiny little machines might do all sorts of wonders — like reassemble the molecules of your trash into a T-bone steak, thus eliminating feedyards and dumps. Plus, as you can see, it can already put the Old Testament on the head of a pin. But I will not dwell on the benefits. In a world where ethics are negotiated after the disaster is well under way (cue the melting glaciers), I will skip over the benefits and go right to the scary applications that are almost inevitable.

Weapons are an obvious negative use of nanotechnology. Simply extending today’s weapon capabilities by miniaturizing guns, explosives, and electronic components of missiles would be deadly enough. However, with nanotechnology, armies could also develop “disassemblers” to attack physical structures or even biological organisms at the molecular level. A similar horror would be if general purpose disassemblers got loose in the environment and started disassembling every molecule they encountered. This is known as “The Gray Goo Scenario.” Furthermore, if nanomachines were created to be self replicating and there were a problem with their limiting mechanism, they would multiply endlessly like viruses. Even without considering the extreme disaster scenarios of nanotechnology, we can find plenty of potentially harmful uses for it. It could be used to erode our freedom and privacy; people could use molecular sized microphones, cameras, and homing beacons to monitor and track others. The abilities would give us god-like powers, as if we needed more. The government is creating them and has no non-government regulation; there are no generally recognized design guidelines, just a rush to do stuff — I am sure I am not the only one that alarms.

The United Methodists summed up what a good Christian response to all of these scary facts might be. It is based on a call to stewardship. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Ps. 24:1) — this means that in every scientific venture, including but not limited to nanotechnology, we are dealing with something that belongs to someone else.  That fact calls for a certain respect, humility – even awe.  As one discovers the mechanisms that drive the created universe, one is walking on sacred ground.

Another important response is to assert that people don’t own discoveries. We are still getting over Columbus claiming ownership of North America when he “discovered’ it. We sure don’t need the flag of some biological research corporation planted on the genes God created to guide our bodies! What’s more, if the government funds the discovery, we all own it, for sure. So we’d better hurry up and decide what part of the industry is obligated to the public good before the corporatocracy privatizes nanotechnology.

We also need to talk about power. Huge investments, government encouragement, super-educated scientists working relative secrecy lead to a lot of power and the corruption that goes with it.  For instance, we need to keep teaching people who apply research that “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” The “dominion” that God gives us over the earth, implies responsibility, not just power.

Even more, this stewardship of God’s creation has all sorts of conditions based on our ongoing relationship with God. One must ask the question, “What does God want to do with nanotechnology?” As of yet, the government has not even set up the typical regulations that accompany most new technologies; so they haven’t even got to “What does the government (which ought to be “What do the people…”) want to do with this new capability?” much less “What might God have to say about it?” Nanotechnology could be well on its way to becoming another fallen power and principality, another “power  of this dark world”  that consumes the resources of many and benefits only a few. The philosophy that got the United States organized (for the benefit of the few who organized it, by and large) assumes that humans and their commercial enterprises, if left alone, will do the right thing. We are awaiting science to prove that assumption, I guess.

« ...It looks like a single flower bud, but it's actually an entire quick-growth forest with tens of millions of "trees" in the cluster. You can't see them, but each tree is a single-wall carbon nanotube, roughly 3 angstroms across and 2 millimeters tall...» (Paul Marshall)
« …It looks like a single flower bud, but it’s actually an entire quick-growth forest with tens of millions of “trees” in the cluster. You can’t see them, but each tree is a single-wall carbon nanotube, roughly 3 angstroms across and 2 millimeters tall…» (Paul Marshall)

I am amazed again and again at what the scientists can do now. Things develop so quickly that I often run into them after they are fully grown rather than tripping over them when they are small. You may feel the same way about nanotechnology — a surprisingly big thing with a big building in your neighborhood about which you know little. Maybe the nanites are not colonizing my cells right now, but the academic discipline that might unleash them has planted its flag quite  dramatically nearby and the natives are being infected with the new bug even as we speak. Can we get Penn to practice good stewardship? I doubt that they feel like Jesus can even be considered, maybe even legally, during the board’s dialogue! But we can try — and shouldn’t we?