What is this fascination with the possibility of life beyond this planet? Are we so insecure in our human existence that we cannot bear the thought of dwelling on the only inhabited territory in the entire universe? Or is it, perhaps, a deep-seated sense of being incomplete in ourselves? Whatever the reason, since the dawn of human existence we have sought for something, or Someone, beyond ourselves who shares our experience of sentience and can explain it to us.
For over a century the search for the Interstellar Other has found expression in science fiction. Novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke have made their marks on several generations of impressionable youth, yet the massive explosion of science fiction onto popular consciousness came not with books, but with movies. Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film2001: A Space Odyssey took science fiction movies to a new level. It combined world-class writing with world-class filmmaking to proclaim to audiences that we are not alone, but in so doing left more questions than answers. Ten years later, Steven Spielberg sought to answer some of those questions inClose Encounters of the Third Kind, proposing that the Interstellar Others have been visiting earth for a long, long time, and asserting that humanity had reached a point where these advanced beings could take us into their confidence and educate us further. Movies produced over the next generation investigated different aspects of this question. Some, like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller,Signs, explored the dark possibility that alien visitors are not friendly. Signs clings to the hope that humanity can defend itself from alien intruders, and that the hostile encounter restores a sense of purpose we did not know we had lost. And then there isKnowing, a 2009 drama in which Dr John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage, embarks on a search for the meaning behind clues predicting one global disaster after another. He learns at last that he can do nothing about the disasters; they themselves are clues all-knowing alien watchers have tracked through time to warn humanity about the imminent destruction of our planet in a massive solar flare. The aliens have no intention of letting the human race pass into extinction. Their clues guide people like Koestler in gathering children so the aliens can take them to a place of safety where humanity can begin again.
A recurring motif in these science fiction films is the search for meaning behind the evidence of alien presence. In 2001 the evidence is a mysterious monolith, and in Close Encounters it is the connection of unexplainable phenomena across the globe. In Signs it is the appearance of crop circles, and in Knowing it is the incomprehensible code of numbers and letters scratched by a child and left in a time capsule. The story tellers would have us believe that the answers to human existence are all there if we can only decipher the patterns.
The science fiction story tellers are correct in that an Interstellar Other has left patterns for us to decipher. What they have missed is that the Interstellar Other is the Holy One of Israel. His clues are in Torah, and His answers are in the rest of Scripture.
At some point between the withdrawal of Rome’s legions in410 CE and the advent of Saxon England in the 6th Century, a Celtic chieftain named Arthur restored a measure of order to Britain. Arthur’s reign occupied a bubble in time, set apart from the chaos that preceded and followed it. Although the mists of time shroud the truth of Arthur’s career, the legends born of that truth still inspire us 1,500 years after his passing. Who cannot admire a king so good, so wise, so honorable, and so humble that his very presence compels the allegiance and obedience of all good people? Such a king is invincible, for no evil thing can overcome him. If Arthur has a fault, it is that he bestows his love too freely and trusts too completely. And in this we find the enduring tragedy of King Arthur. His downfall and the end of his shining kingdom of Camelot came not at the hands of an enemy, but through his beloved bride and his greatest friend. We rejoice with Arthur that he finds in Guenevere a queen of exquisite purity, grace, beauty, wisdom, and kindness, and we rejoice still more when he is joined by Lancelot, the epitome of knightly honor, courage, and fidelity. How it wounds us when Guenevere and Lancelot cannot remain true to their king, but fall to the attraction they have for one another. Their adulterous affair ruins the king and the kingdom with him.
One of many moving interpretations of the Arthurian legend is John Boorman’s filmExcalibur, starring Nigel Terry as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi as Guenevere, and Nicholas Clay as Lancelot. At the high point of the film, all is well in the kingdom except for the perpetual absence of Lancelot. Because of his attraction for Guenevere, the good knight has exiled himself from court so as to avoid temptation. Everyone in the kingdom seems to understand this, everyone, that is, except the king himself. No one speaks of this matter until one day when Sir Gawain (played by Liam Neeson) takes it upon himself to address this blight on Camelot’s perfection. Gawain accuses the queen of driving Lancelot from the company of Arthur’s knights. Stung at the assault on her honor, Guenevere turns to Arthur and cries, “Will you not champion me?” He replies:
I cannot! I am your King, and I must be your judge in this. Lancelot must do it. He also stands accused. I decree – that at sunrise, two days from now, the champions will meet, and the truth shall be known. For by the law of God, no knight who is false can win in combat with one who is true.
The trial by combat proves Guenevere’s innocence as Lancelot defeats Gawain, but which the secret is exposed Guenevere can no longer hide her attraction. Before long she and Lancelot are indeed lovers, leaving Arthur devastated and bringing about the dissolution of Camelot. Yet in the end Arthur has a chance to restore order by leading his knights in one last, desperate battle against Mordred, his mortal enemy. On the eve of the battle he goes to visit Guenevere, who has turned from her sin and sought a life of holiness in a convent. There she has kept Arthur’s great sword, Excalibur, in hope that one day he will take it up again in the cause of justice. After receiving the sword from her, Arthur bids Guenevere farewell with these words:
I’ve often thought that in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future, can be just a man, we might meet. You’d come to me, claim me yours, know that I am your husband. It is a dream I have.
Arthur’s dream is the very dream, and the very promise, of the Holy One of Israel.