T800: infiltration unit

14 06 2009

christian_bale_says_i_ll_be_back_in_new_terminator‘I’ll be back!’ So says John Connor in Terminator Salvation in a scriptwriter’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous Arnie line.

Barbara and I went to see the latest film in the Terminator franchise last night. The critics are right to say it’s no T2 but I really enjoyed it. Partly because I am a sucker for sci fi and special effects and partly because I like Christian Bale as an actor (tho’ less so since his ridiculous outburst on the set of this film got out on t’internet).

Like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other films I grew up with, Terminator is not just a film, it’s part of my psychic landscape. So I was a bit nervous about going to see another installment if it was going to shatter my boyish enjoyment of the fantasy world that had so gripped my imagination in my youth.

I scoured online reviews beforehand. They were not encouraging. I shouldn’t have worried though. The reviews were mainly griping about the weakness of the plot but generally I’m such a visual person that I notice what a film looks like more than I notice the narrative. And this did look stunning, in a gritty way — maybe not as stunning as Star Trek — but it had some breathtaking moments, even if it occasionally looked a bit ‘domestic’ in scale.

That said, there were some weaknesses in the story. I won’t post any plot spoilers here, but if you have seen the film, I wonder if you thought there was a pretty major ethical question that was just glossed over at the end. One of the main characters makes an offer that should surely be refused on ethical grounds but is just accepted by everyone in that scene.

It’s tempting to look for religious parallels in any film that uses the word ‘salvation’ in its title but actually the idea of self-sacrifice to save another is in all the Terminator films, even the fairly weak Terminator 3.

I did wonder whether there was any mileage in seeing the church in mission as an ‘infiltration unit’. One is tempted at times to think that some Christians are only pretending to be human! But this did get me thinking as I reflected on the story of St Paul in the Areopagus in preparation for Sunday morning’s service. I have been encouraging the congregation to think a lot about how we might be called to give up our spiritual preferences for the sake of others. In this episode from the book of Acts we read how one moment St Paul is distressed and even outraged by the plethora of idols he sees in Athens and the next he is talking about his spiritual common-ground with the Athenians. We shouldn’t underestimate what a big stretch it was for this conservative pharisee to recognise the spirituality of these liberal pagans. But does that mean St Paul is some sort of gospel Terminator – an infiltration unit, pretending to be like people he’s actually not like at all? The letter to the Corinthians (one of the undisputedly Pauline epistles) might suggest so, at least at first glance, as St Paul writes  ‘I have become all things to all people’. But does that mean that he, and we following his example, should pretend to be something other than ourselves in order to win people over to the Christian gospel? That would surely be dishonest. It would be a subterfuge. It would be ethically unacceptable to deceive people in that way and it would be damaging to ourselves to live with such ‘cognitive dissonance’.

I was saying to a friend recently that there’s a difference between self-denial and self-sacrifice. I know that in the synoptic gospels Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to ‘deny themselves’ but I’m using ‘deny’ here in the psychoanalytic sense. As I explained it to my friend, it’s one thing to pretend to yourself and others that you don’t have a particular desire, preference or wish when really you do. It’s quite another to acknowledge your desire, preference or wish and yet willingly give it up for the sake of others.

I think that it’s long been a part of the Christian tradition that the latter of those courses of action, paradoxically, is not a self-denial but a self-realisation. In willingly and knowingly giving up our ‘self’ for the sake of others, we open ourselves up to the possibility of growth, of becoming more than we were before, of becoming more fully ourselves. Self-sacrifice does not diminish us, therefore, but helps us to become ourselves. That I think is the experience for St Paul, as it was for others, such as St Peter when he moved out of his cultural and religious comfort zone and was willing to recognise Gentiles as brothers and sisters.

So I think the Christian community won’t lose its identity in mission (as some seem to suggest) but find it. We should be ourselves and become ourselves with and for others. And here in Somers Town where people are so often disparaged, denied and abandoned, to be able to say with conviction: ‘I’ll be back’ will be crucial. People need to be able to trust us. They’ll only trust us when they know us. And they’ll only take the risk to know us when they feel convinced that we will be back. Again and again and again.



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