Note: possible spoilers below. Also, a somewhat meandering path until I actually start talking about the movie.
Back in the spring, I read a book called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. My book club had selected it for our May meeting, and my friend Katherine and I had actually met the author after she gave a lecture at Newberry College a few weeks before.
The novel is a story of a Jesuit priest/linguist, some scientists, and a doctor and her husband who travel into space after hearing a series of alien voices singing. They are the first mission to travel into space successfully and integrate into an alien culture on another planet.
From a sci-fi perspective, the book is fascinating and covers topics of relativity and the adjustments humans must make to an alien planet. From a linguistic perspective, the novel explores how, even though one may learn another spoken or written language, sometimes cultural conventions are not as easy to translate.
And from a Christian perspective, the book is by far the most thought-provoking exploration of faith I’ve ever read. (And it could never be labeled a “Christian” book, incidentally, which is rather a discussion for another time.) Russell has been both a Jew and an atheist and confessed in her lecture that, often, she doesn’t believe in God’s existence. This is a topic, however, that she has obviously spent her whole life exploring and considering. In the novel, the main character is the Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz. The devastating and fascinating truth is that the novel opens with Emilio’s return to Earth 40-some years after leaving (though he is considerably younger than he should be, thanks to relativity and all). He is the only survivor of the mission; he has been tortured and is in very bad condition, and he cannot speak for months about what happened on the alien planet.
The title of the novel, The Sparrow, is an allusion to Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Of course, the hymn that references this verse states that “His eye is on the sparrow.” Emilio is a character who sort of landed in the role of priest because he had no other option. He was a troubled kid, taken in by a Jesuit priest and trained up to join the clergy. His mastery of languages led to his invaluable role as a linguist and missionary, and he is given the task of learning how to communicate with the alien species. When the group lands on the planet, they are able to establish good relationships with the natives of the planet, and after several years, Emilio realizes that, for the first time in his life really, he is able to feel a contentment in his calling. He is able to believe that God specifically led this group of people to this particular place for a very specific reason. Yet, when tragedy strikes, and Emilio is left alone and persecuted and injured and humiliated and broken, his faith wavers. He questions the idea that, if God’s eye is on the sparrow, why does it still fall? Why does God watch it fall and do nothing? He compares himself to the sparrow, and he questions a God who will place His people in certain situations only to watch them suffer and fail.
This is certainly a question that Christians have had to wrestle with for a very long time. What’s wonderful and devastating about this novel is that Russell places her characters in outer space and has them wrestle with the very same issues that believers and humans on earth must address.
I felt very similarly at the end of seeing Interstellar tonight as I did when I finished reading The Sparrow back in May. On the surface, the only real comparisons are the aspects of space travel. The motives are different, the stakes are higher, and there’s less focus on faith and more on science in Nolan’s film.
The space travel in Interstellar is born out of sheer desperation. Nolan’s dystopian version of the earth is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl. Crops are failing, dust storms are devastating, and there may be no way to survive on the planet. The resources are used up, and there aren’t many options left beyond leaving and trying to start over somewhere else. But McConaughey’s character Cooper is somewhat similar to Emilio Sandoz. Both men are young and gifted: Emilio as a linguist, Cooper as a pilot and a scientist. Both feel out-of-place in their roles on earth, Cooper as a farmer and Emilio as a priest. Both are needed to lead their missions into outer space, and both are the ones who have to wrestle with and find solutions with their questions of faith: Emilio with God, but Cooper with the mission he’s been given and the situation back home (specifically with how he was told to resolve the problem–am I vague enough her to avoid spoilers?). Both men make incredible sacrifices for the sake of the mission, and both undergo extremely difficult circumstances to return to a home that has changed so drastically in their absences.
Both men, however, must also consider the power and role that love plays in their lives. In Interstellar, Cooper’s love for his family, particularly his daughter Murph, is vital in his success with the mission and the future of civilization. It is their close connection that enables humanity to survive. And I think Nolan is making the argument that love trumps many things that should be far greater. Love enables our survival instincts and our innovative skills and is, of course, our very reason for existence.
Similarly, Emilio Sandoz has to wrestle with the love he feels for his fellow traveler Sophia. He is training her in linguistic theory so that they can learn to communicate with the natives of the planet. The two of them share many characteristics, including a thirst for knowledge, and they fall in love with one another. Their relationship never establishes itself, however, because Emilio is committed to his celibate existence and his devotion to his calling and his God. Sophia respects that and, over time, falls in love with a scientist who is part of the mission. They are married, and Emilio believes that his sacrifice and his continued commitment to his faith will be blessed by God. He falls in love with God on this mission and feels secure in his purpose in life, which naturally leads to his struggle when he feels that love has been betrayed in the tragedy that ultimately sends him back to earth alone and broken.
Both men are strong, intelligent characters who overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and sacrifice more than anyone else should for the sake of humanity. I find it fascinating that both of these stories are celebrations of both science and faith (although faith in different areas). Honestly, neither of them resolves the questions of faith, but so many stories are actually incapable of resolving those questions. Struggles with faith are very personal, but both Nolan and Russell have crafted powerful stories intended to reflect what it means to be human and question the universe in which you live. I walked out of Interstellar desperate to hug the people I love most in the world. (In fact, I leaned over to hug my best friend, who whispered that she was grateful to have seen it with me instead of her father, which she had originally planned to do–watching it with her dad would have been too difficult.)
I recognize that this is a very emotional reaction to a movie. I could write a post about the beautiful cinematography and the incredible soundtrack and the issues I had involving the plot and characterization, but that’s been done. The fact is, I walked out of the theater crying but also somewhat desperate to turn around and see it again (because I am a glutton for the emotional punishment wrought by films). I walked out thinking about how I feel about humanity and the future and my own faith, and that is a very powerful feat for a film to accomplish. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is not without its flaws, but it is also unlike any other movie you will ever see.
(Also, you should read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Because questions of faith are worth asking and wrestling through and exploring and considering.)