Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Gospel According to Wall-E

After seeing the movie last night, my sweet and sassy wife challenged me to write a review about Wall-E. Since I've become increasingly more convinced that our current pop culture mediums have become our Athens, our "marketplace of ideas," and that theologians must thoughtfully, openly and critically engage pop culture, I decided to take up her suggestion.

The underlying message of Wall-E is that humanity is destroying its own habitat. Like so many homes heading toward foreclosure, we are letting our global house fall apart. The culprit is greed, materialism, sloth, and, in general, ecological irresponsibility and apathy toward planet earth. Simply put, in our quest for the "good life," we are amusing ourselves to death and, like the proverbial frog in the boiling pot, lack the perspective and will to notice. With every laptop and television tossed in the bin, our rubbage piles higher and the end of the world as we know it draws closer--but we feel fine.

That's Wall-E's message. But the Gospel of Wall-E, its "Good News," is that things don't have to end that way. Humanity can awaken to the impending destruction of our habitation, and to our propensity to excess, our greed, our laziness, and our avarice. We can stop the bleeding and turn things around. The single, green plant discovered by "Eve," signals hope in the face of despair. Life can be saved and preserved. But we will have to find ways to cultivate, rather than denigrate, the Earth.

The genius of Wall-E is that it tells this big, heavy underlying message through a more accessible, smaller story of robot love. The clunky but cute mobile trash compacter falls head-over-wheels for the stunning but equally terrifying vegetation collector. During his sojourn as the last, lonely robot on earth, Wall-E has evolved to the point that he is not only sentient, but relational; he wants to find love. Through his naive, awkward but endearing perseverance, he wins the affection of the beauty (and, simultaneously, of the viewer). The Gospel of Wall-E is presented through a form that is neither preachy nor disconnected from the other story it tells. In fact, the underlying story only makes a certain kind of sense in the light of the more accessible one.

A side note: In a Theology and Science course I taught recently, I received a paper from a student on "robot intelligence and the image of God." As I found myself caring for Wall-E (and in a derivative way, for Eve), I was reminded of the question this student asked: As the already stunning advancements in robotic intelligence increase, what will ultimately distinguish robots from human beings? What is the "imago Dei" that sets human beings apart from other forms of intelligence? But I leave that question for another time.

While Wall-E succeeds on so many levels, its primary flaw lies in the reductionism which only shakily supports its narrative. For one thing, the story suggests that the "habitable" status of planet Earth depends entirely on the extent to which "big business" (e.g. Wall-Mart, Best Buy--ostensibly represented in the film as "Buy and Large") has its way with the American consumer. But really, let's be honest: who of us really thinks that the fate of our future lies in the hands of Best Buy--or even of American consumerism? And, is Wall-Mart really so evil? Are they really out to "get us"? Furthermore, while the two are certainly related, isn't global warming a more imminent and ominous threat than material excess as such? And more practically, who of us really wants to do without many of the conveniences such businesses provide? Finally, the film's ending suggests that rescuing the planet after it has become uninhabitable is a simple task. Just find a fertile spot in between land-fill skyscrapers, plant some seed and, after a while you get "pizza trees."

In theology today, worries about the future of our planet are no longer reserved for fantastical, dispensational "end times" theologies. As Moltmann has noted, the destruction of the world, either largely at our own (human) hands or at the hands of evil beyond that of our own, must increasingly be recognized as a possibility--and thus a topic of urgency--for theology generally. The foreseeable elimination of life as we know it makes eschatology all the more a profound and relevant discipline. And it makes hope in Christ as the solution to the follies of humanity and to our global situation all the more urgent.

But let's recall that, in the Bible, the mission of Christ is often accomplished through his body, the church (ecclesia). That is, we cannot simply assume that Christ will do his redemptive work apart from the willing agency of his disciples. We are invited to contribute to that mission, and we cannot assume that its fulfillment is not contingent, in some way, upon our energetic response.

Nonetheless, it's good to be reassured that God's "got the whole world in his hands," and that Christ, the agent of creation, is also, as the eternal Word (Logos) and Wisdom (Sophia) charged with the task of sustaining it. That's the Gospel message that reaches beyond the story of Wall-E. It's the "meta-narrative" of the redemption of humanity and of the cosmos. It sets Wall-E's Gospel, true though it may be, in the larger context of Jesus' Gospel and of the future which God has in store for humanity as uniquely the bearers of God's image. But Wall-E's Gospel reminds us that there is a story of human responsibility within the over-arching narrative of the history of the world. And perhaps an apocalyptic urgency as well.


Frank Hope said...

A very thought provoking review. I've written my own review which I hope you'll take the time to read.

It addresses some of the questions you raised about the nature of Artificial Intelligence, and also the dangers of consumerism.

In my review I touch on some of the theological aspects, but it wasn't until after I had finished writing it that I began to think of WALL•E as a Christian allegory. I found this review that expresses this idea very well.

I've been contemplating the idea of WALL•E representing Jesus, which would make EVE what? The bride of Jesus? Does she represent the Church or perhaps in some ways Mother Mary? Does she go through an Immaculate Conception?

There is certainly a suprisingly lot to contemplate in this seemingly simple movie.

You may also be interested in this interview with the director, Andrew Stanton.

STANTON: Well, what really interested me was the idea of the most human thing in the universe being a machine because it has more interest in finding out what the point of living is than actual people. The greatest commandment Christ gives us is to love, but that's not always our priority.

Silas said...


Having not seen the movie, but having read many, many reviews on the film, I will reserve my comments on primarily the nature of theology's response to the cultural reality of ecological downturn and the possiblity of the elimnation of life.

An ecological perspective on eshatology is interesting in the sense that it takes the apocalyptic causation from the realm of divine agency and puts humanity's future primarily at its own feet. It is as a result of our own activity(and inactivity)that the our future is threatened, that Wall-E's world (though rhetorically fanciful) is in some ways, very possible. This is a decisive shift in eschatology, for in the past, the struggle and tension has been our ontological instabilty at the hands of God, who brings the end of the world, and thus the end of human history.

Theology takes ecology seriously, because it must account for how Christians should then respond faithfully to the reality facing humanity. But, is our hope, like you said, really dependant on finding fresh ground to plant trees in between skyscrapers of trash? Do we really have as much control over our own eschatological destiny that our only hope is reverse the grim ecological prognosis through passionate green intiatives and

Eschatology is primarily about revelation (Pannenberg). God is known through the divine acts in and through history. The history-bending act of resurrection is the prefiguring of the true future for Israel. The promised blessing for the people of God is that they will find 'new and unending life in Him' after the ultimate End of life. The eschatological hope that Israel solely claims becomes the claim of humanity through the loving extension of Jesus' body through the Pentecostal impression of the Spirit - the Spirit that gives Life to humanity in its entireity. This is the audacity of Christian hope! It lies not in our abilty to make sense of ecological crisis 'before its too late', but rather in our participation in the Hope of Israel, the promise of hopeful being - that our bodies will endure, and through Sacrament, we truly can rest in the Christ's new and unending life.


Kyle A. Roberts said...

frank, thanks for the links. The Stanton quote is especially interesting.

Silas, as always, excellent comment. I would add to the "Sacrament" point regarding the endurance of our bodies , the "Sabbath rest" which Jesus enables for the people of God. That's a truly eschatological image that is so often missed by Christians.