Christian Allegory in Tron

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been surprised many times to discover the hidden messages of faith in my favorite childhood movies. Don’t be deceived by the lack of overt themes of Christianity. As Ralph Wood explains in The Gospel According to Tolkien, his treatise on Tolkien’s deeply Christian fantasy world, the subtle infusion of theology is the most effective way to convey the message:

Tolkien’s work is all the more deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian. He would have violated the integrity of his art — and thus the faithfulness of his witness — if he had written a 1,200-page novel to illustrate a set of ideas that he could have expressed apart from the story itself. This is a principle not only of good art but also of good theology.

Look for the hidden messages of faith in movies. So strong is the influence of Christianity in the West that these messages often find their way into popular entertainment almost subconsciously. Although, sometimes, the message is so allegorical that there can be little doubt of the filmmakers’ intentions.

One such movie is Tron (1982). I knew almost nothing about religion when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time, but I was still intrigued by the idea of the quasi-supernatural Users and the Master Control Program’s campaign to stamp out any “superstitious” belief in them. Watching this movie again many years later, the message became clear:

Flynn may be a sort a Christ-figure, but so is Tron, the program who teams up with him to defeat the Master Control Program. In addition to his miracles, Flynn sacrifices himself in a way that evokes both the descent of Christ into hell as well as his ascension, while in another scene, Tron communicates with his user in a way that resembles the opening of the heavens at the baptism of Christ. And all of this takes place in an environment in which programs who believe in their users are persecuted for being ‘religious fanatics,’ and are sent to their deaths in video-game battles that resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial fights. (From a now-defunct link at Canadian Christianity)

And of course the villain—whose name, “Sark,” is the Greek word for “flesh”—is the allegorical Satan figure of the movie.

Tron is not a perfect allegory, but its basis in the Christian faith is unmistakable.

Computer-generated images are now so de rigueur in movies that we take them for granted. It must be remembered that Tron was made at a time when computers were a decade away from becoming household items, and constituted both a source of fascinated hope and a cause for concern (cf. War Games, released a year after Tron). Disney was ahead of the curve in creating the computer graphics, which were astonishing at the time, and captured perfectly the cold, electronic quality of a computer world. An intriguing counterpoint to the message of the gospel.


May the Force be with all of us

In 1977 my father took my brother and me to see Star Wars, and what I saw transformed me. On that screen, which seemed so big to a little kid, I was swept away from my Earth-bound existence and became conscious for the first time of our universe.  This was the defining moment in my life and it occurred when I was six years old.

Now that I am an adult, I realize how short on science the movie was, but I will be forever grateful for the way it got me thinking about outer space in a significant way. Space was all I could think about for years after: the awe, the mystery, the unlimited possibilities. From that moment onward, a life dedicated to the study of space science was inevitable for me.

Almost four decades later, I’m a professional astrophysicist. I have Jodie Foster-in-Contact moments whenever I go to a remote observatory and watch the transcendent night sky. Every time, it transports me back to 1977 and reignites the sheer wonder and indescribable joy I felt at the sight of a sky filled with thousands of far-off suns. But the wonder is deeper and more complex than it was when I was six years old, because of what I know. I now know what powers each of those suns, I know how they formed, when they formed, that most have planets orbiting them, and, though the stars appear to extend infinitely in all directions, I know that I’m really only looking at the outskirts of the vast Milky Way galaxy. But most important of all, I now know that all of this was deliberately created.

My brother and I were brought up with little in the way of religious instruction or experiences. He and I found God after long journeys on separate paths. It was the intense love my brother felt for his children and his need to believe they would have eternal life that brought him to God. What led me to God was my love of all things space and everything I learned as a student about the creation of the universe and the way nature is so exquisitely fine-tuned for intelligent life.  Science continues to be the basis of my unshakable conviction that nothing as beautiful and orderly as our universe could be an accident.

Whenever I stand on the peak of Mount Locke wrapped in the awe of a perfect night sky, I am infused by a feeling of complete humility. But, I understand in those moments what a little girl couldn’t possibly have understood forty years ago, that I am feeling humility in the midst of God’s divine work as I view proof of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”


Whenever I teach introductory astronomy, I hand out a questionnaire to my students and ask them to describe their main challenge (if any) with astronomy in terms of their religious or philosophical worldviews. Some students are troubled by the apparent conflict between science and their religious beliefs, but the most common response by far is a feeling of insignificance in the face of their new awareness of the vast scale of the universe.

Their answers reflect an intense humility, but it is often different from what I feel. Their humility, combined with the sense of insignificance, seems to lead many of them to disturbing feelings of meaninglessness and hopelessness. I realized some time ago that people who do not believe in God feel the same degree of humility when they look at the night sky as I do, but they often turn the humility inward where it is translated into feelings of personal worthlessness. This feeling is not unique to the young and uninitiated in science. Physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg lamented in his book, Dreams of a Final Theory, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

I am fortunate to know that our vast universe is exactly the size it has to be to give rise to intelligent life.  Just about every scientist knows this, but the unfortunate non-believers are materialists for whom the vastness of the universe is also a constant reminder of the cold and deadly indifference of nature. Some non-believers, like the late astronomer Carl Sagan, hope for something after death, but largely accept the materialist view that this existence is all that there is. They retreat to gratitude for the moment, which is an intellectual evasion of their terrible truth.

Other scientifically informed people evade thoughts about the creation and fine tuning of the universe in a different manner, by pushing it beyond the bounds of investigation. They maintain that ours is one of an infinite number of universes—the multiverse—which we can never observe. They argue that we must have simply won the multiverse lottery and the jackpot was all of the conditions necessary for life. It seems to me that if people feel insignificant and hopeless in a vast universe, they aren’t going to feel any better being part of an even bigger multiverse. A darker road is taken by a few, like biologist William Provine, who simply accept their insignificance and acknowledge that a godless universe can have no meaning. It is an honest assessment for a materialist, but one that is filled with despair.

The deliberately more optimistic atheist will talk of his awe of the universe, but I know from experience that is only what he says in public to make his case. If he is capable of taking the next step in his reasoning, he can’t help but move to terrifying thoughts. He may feel wonder at the universe, but if he knows its history he can’t escape the understanding that nature doesn’t care about him. His awe, humility, and fear must all be based on the inescapable realization that ultimately the cosmos will bring about his destruction and the eventual annihilation of the entire human species. Nothing that he or anyone else does will ever have any meaning.  The atheist who looks at outer space as merely a pretty picture is deluding himself. If there is no loving God as Creator of the universe, what the atheist is really looking at in the heavens is the end of all hope or meaning.

There is no need for such a dim view of existence. Because I believe in a loving and purposeful God, when I look at outer space, I see something created with mankind in mind. I know that I am small in physical size, but huge in significance. My awe and humility expand my being through the knowledge that there is a divine power guided by God’s love for all of us. His love changes space into something more like Star Wars: a wonderful challenge that we can meet with joy because of our God-given spirit and intellect.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet

Psalm 8:1-6

Opening scene from Contact

The opening scene for Contact is quite possibly the best opening scene in a movie, ever. (When you watch this clip, it’s recommended that you change the resolution to 720p HD and turn up the volume.)

This is a wonderful illustration of the principle that distance (and motion) is equivalent to time. The speed of any signal, whether light or sound or carrier pigeon, is always finite. It takes time for a signal to travel the distance between the source and the receiver, so this means the signal is always telling us something about the past. Back in the days when people communicated with each other using letters, it took a week or two to receive them, depending on how far they had to travel; when the recipients read those letters, they were always reading about something that was recent to the sender, but already one or two weeks in the past for the recipient. Similarly, when we look at the star Betelgeuse, the light that we see has taken time to travel the distance between Betelgeuse and the Earth, and so we are seeing it as it was in the past (at a distance of 400 trillion miles and with light traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per hour, we are seeing Betelgeuse as it was 640 years in the past). Conveniently, such vast distances are often expressed in units of light-years (the distance light travels in a year), which also tell us at what point in cosmic history we are observing something.

In the opening scene of Contact, the further away we travel from Earth, the older the radio transmissions become. We first hear contemporary (for 1997) music, then the soundtrack gradually shifts to music and news from further and further in our past. Once we get beyond a certain point we hear static, then silence.

But sounds don’t travel through space, I hear some of you saying. True. However, radio signals are light waves, not sound waves. The radio waves, which carry information, are transmitted in all directions and are picked up by a receiver with an antenna (say, an AM/FM radio) that converts the radio signal into the sound you hear. So, in principle, anyone who might be not too far out in space could pick up our terrestrial radio and television signals and learn all kinds of interesting things about the inhabitants of Earth.

Perhaps you are wondering from how far out in space someone could receive intelligent signals from Earth. The scale of the Contact sequence isn’t quite right—it was fudged a bit for creative/dramatic purposes. The truth is, if aliens are zipping past Pluto at this moment, they would receive transmissions from Earth that are from only five and a half hours in the past. Little Green Men near our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, would receive transmissions from the year 2009. Civilizations on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Mensae (33 light-years away), however, might catch old episodes of Dallas. Someone passing close to the star 51 Pegasi (50 light-years away) might be aware that someone named John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in a place called Dallas. An alien near the star Regulus (77 light-years away) could be watching images of Hitler opening the Olympic Games in Berlin. Further still, near the star Eta Herculis (112 light-years away), curious beings might just now be detecting Marconi’s radio transmissions. Beyond this distance, the Earth is silent. Considering that our Milky Way galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, we’ve barely announced our existence to the neighbors down the street. Not that this is entirely lamentable. Personally, I find it comforting that so little of the universe is aware of the Kardashians.

Goldsmith vs Williams

When I was a kid in the 1970s–1980s, it was a golden age for movie soundtracks, particularly in science fiction / science fantasy. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were giants in the genre, having composed two of the most memorable sci-fi themes of all time. Goldsmith is best known for the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which later became the theme for the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Williams is known for many popular movie themes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, but is arguably best known for Star Wars. The names of these composers are practically synonymous with science fiction, but these composers could hardly differ more in style.

Goldsmith’s style is grand, remote, cerebral. In my opinion, he’s most responsible for the ‘spacey’ ambiance of hard sci-fi. In this piece from Alien (1979), called “Hypersleep,” there is a vague nautical element—you get the sense of a lonely ship navigating an endless cosmos. Like much of his space-music, it is stark and beautiful. This universe is cold in its beauty—it offers wonder, but no quarter.

In “The Cloud,” a piece from ST:TMP (1979), we get a sense of the enormity of the unknown entity heading for Earth and of the secret it contains. Again, there is a nautical element, highlighted by electronic whooshes that evoke memories of earthly oceans. The music is a little brighter here—the universe of Star Trek is less harsh and hostile than that of Alien, but no less grand and mysterious.

In contrast, Williams’ style is robust, familiar, romantic. It is evocative of adventure, human relationships, and spirituality. Consider this piece from Return of the Jedi (1983), which frames the moment when Luke reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This piece, like most of Williams’ compositions, is suffused with warmth and emotion.

“Tales of a Jedi Knight / Learn About the Force” (Star Wars, 1977) is no less filled with awe and mystery than Goldsmith’s “The Cloud,” but it is more optimistic and tinged with a sense of adventure. Here we have the budding relationship between a master and his young apprentice. With Williams, you don’t get the sense of a harsh and hostile universe, but one in which purpose and hope are woven into the fabric of its cosmos, even while it is momentarily under the sway of a dark and oppressive force.

Though Goldsmith and Williams differ in style, they have one element in common—the sense of awe and grandeur they convey through their compositions. It’s impossible to imagine the universes of Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars without the character and dimension of their music.

Physics-inspired sci-fi movie in the works

Good news for hard sci-fi fans: Christopher Nolan, the critically-acclaimed director of the Dark Knight movies, is looking to direct and produce a science fiction movie based on the theoretical work of renowned CalTech physicist, Kip Thorne. The script for the movie, titled Interstellar, was co-authored by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, and features “time travel and alternate dimensions and sees a group of explorers travel through a wormhole.” The movie is tentatively slated for a 2014 release.

Thorne, one of the world’s foremost experts on general relativity, has been a mainstay of gravitational physics for decades. He co-authored the seminal textbook on the subject, Gravitation, with two other giants in the field, Charles Misner and John Wheeler, and also wrote the outstanding popular-level science book, Black Holes and Time Warps. For nearly two decades Thorne held the position of Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech, named after the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, who, like Thorne, had a particular interest in making physics concepts accessible to a wider audience. Thorne retired from the position in 2009 to focus on other projects, including penning a classical physics textbook and co-authoring the script for Interstellar.

This is not Thorne’s first foray into science fiction, however. When another well-known popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, approached him for help with Sagan’s novel, Contact, it was Thorne who suggested the use of wormholes to transport people over vast distances through space. Thorne subsequently developed the idea theoretically, which has since seen even more popularization in science fiction, most notably three of the later Star Trek television series.

SETI is okay to go

The search for alien intelligence in the cosmos is back on, thanks in part to a donation by actress Jodie Foster. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, was forced to halt its operations in April after losing government funding.

Foster portrayed an astrophysicist who searched for radio signals from intelligent beings in the 1997 movie Contact, based on the novel by Carl Sagan. I recommend both highly, as they portray the interrelation of science and faith in an intelligent and balanced way.

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