As with all good spy stories, the 1968 movie adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra does not reveal the full truth until near the end. All we know at the beginning is that a US Navy submarine is on a mission to rescue British scientists trapped at a weather station on the Arctic ice pack. We realize something unusual is afoot since the boat’s captain, James Ferraday (played by Rock Hudson), has been ordered to take aboard not only a platoon of Marines, but also a British Intelligence officer who goes by the name Jones (Patrick McGoohan). At sea they are joined by Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), a Russian defector. After an act of sabotage nearly destroys the submarine, Captain Ferraday confronts Vaslov, asking why he should not believe him to be the saboteur. Vaslov responds, “That should be obvious, Captain. I was born a Russian, but I chose my side out of conviction, not by accident of birth.” Jones vouches for him, and the mission continues.
In time the submarine reaches the destination and breaks through the Arctic ice near Ice Station Zebra. As the Navy crewmen rescue the surviving scientists, Jones and Vaslov go about the real business of the mission. Ferraday finds opportunity to speak with Jones alone as the British agent searches for what we learn is a canister of highly sensitive photographic film created in the United States for use in a British camera of extraordinary technical capabilities. Soviet agents had stolen the film and the camera, and the Soviet Union adapted both for use in a spy satellite. Jones explains this in one of the movie’s most famous lines:
The Russians put our camera made by “our” German scientists and your film made by “your” German scientists into their satellite made by “their” German scientists, and up it went, round and round, whizzing by the United States of America seven times a day.
Just as the film canister is discovered, a force of Soviet paratroopers lands near the ice station. Their mission, of course, is also to recover the film canister. It is at that point that we learn Vaslov’s convictions are not as strong as he would have others believe. He assaults Jones and reveals himself as a double agent whose real intent is to assist the Soviets in recovering the film. As the American and Soviet forces engage in a firefight, Jones kills Vaslov. The fighting ends when the hopelessly outnumbered Americans agree to surrender the canister, but then succeed in destroying it by a final act of intrigue. Having no further reason to remain in conflict, both sides withdraw, leaving the body of the treacherous Vaslov on the ice.
Boris Vaslov teaches us an eternal truth. Unable to choose between two identities, in the end he loses them both. So it is with everyone who halts between allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of this world. It is best to choose wisely since Scripture provides an unambiguous statement on the conclusion of this matter:
Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15 NRSV)
Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle in The Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.