Monday, July 11, 2005

The War of the Worlds Is Real

Well last week I gave you some light fare. This week, we're back to heavy-duty stuff. But it all began with a little trek to the movies. Last July 4th weekend, like many, my wife and I sought respite from the heat at the local air-conditioned movie theater (actually, they keep it as cold as a meat locker!). We decided to see War of the Worlds, a contemporary re-telling of the classic H. G. Wells sci-fi adventure story (starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg), thinking it would make a good "big-screen" movie. The movie delivers lots of action thrills, but its resolution is not altogether satisfying. Yet I took away from the movie a useful metaphor for our spiritual lives as Christians, and will comment more upon this later.

Here's the synopsis of the film, from the official War of the Worlds website:

"Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a divorced dockworker and less-than-perfect father is about to get his kids for a rare weekend visit. Soon after his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new husband drop off teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), a strange and powerful lightning storm touches down.

Moments later, at an intersection near his house, Ray witnesses an extraordinary event that will change all their lives forever. A towering three-legged war machine emerges from deep beneath the earth and, before anyone can react, incinerates everything in sight. An ordinary day has suddenly become the most extraordinary event of their lifetimes--the first strike in a catastrophic alien attack on Earth.

Ray scrambles to get his children away from this merciless new enemy, embarking on a journey that will take them across the ravaged countryside, where they become caught in the desperate tide of refugees fleeing from an extraterrestrial army of Tripods.

But no matter where they run, there is no safety, no refuge-- only Ray's unconquerable will to protect the ones he loves."

The last two lines of the synopsis above capture well the major idea of the movie, "there is no safety, no refuge-- only Ray's unconquerable will to protect the ones he loves". War of the Worlds has stunning visual and technical achievements, as expected from a Spielberg production, but the movie's strongest element is Cruise's performance as an immature father jolted into action by a series of events that threaten the very existence of his family. His "unconquerable will", to me, symbolizes humanity's reflexive response to the challenge of survival, yet as the movie illustrates, this strong will is futile in the face of certain enemies (more on this later).

I thought the movie provided Cruise with some of his best acting moments to date. As Ray, he is convincing as a Dad who's emotionally missing from his kid's lives, though he shares custody with his wife. Contrasted against self-indulgent, adolescent Ray, there is a new, more reliable (and wealthier) male figure in their lives (his wife's new boyfriend/husband?). Ray never really stepped into the role of providing strong male leadership and guidance to his kids, so he has lost, perhaps irreversibly, the position of authority and respect he ought to have as "Dad". He relates better to his young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), who is precocious and mature for her age. But there is emotional distance and hostility between him and his son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), a troubled teen. Robbie's opinion of his father is pretty low-- he thinks his father cares for no one but himself. There seems to be truth in this assessment by the son, as seen in the way Cruise portrays Ray-- especially in the early scenes of the film-- he is rather arrogant, obnoxious and self-centered.

As the movie opens, Ray's pregnant ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) is leaving the children with him for the weekend. Her pregnancy signals the fact that she is moving on with her life, whereas Ray apparently is floundering in his life as a divorcee. After looking around at Ray's disarrayed apartment, and seeing no food in the refrigerator, Mary Ann is a concerned about leaving the kids. But Ray assures her that she has nothing to worry about. No sooner has she left than mayhem begins: an odd, ominous storm suddenly darkens the entire sky and draws the attention of the entire community. Ray at first maintains his customary bravado, as he and his daughter observe the storm from their backyard. Moments later however both come running for cover into the house, as lightning strikes down near them. His daughter needs re-assurance, but Ray can offer her none-- he is totally flustered, and just as scared as she is.

In Ray, we find the usual Cruise confidence and swagger, but unlike most other Cruise characters, his cocky attitude here masks insecurity and perhaps guilt over his unsuccessful marriage and less than stellar fathering skills. Yet when crisis hits-- in the form of an alien invasion-- Ray finally rises above himself, becoming willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family. I will leave now the details of the remainder of the story, to examine the spiritual theme the film suggested to me.

You see, I believe that the "war of the worlds" is real. But it isn't like the movie, or the novel by H.G. Wells, that portrays a physical war waged between aliens from another planet and the human race. In War of the Worlds the aliens are highly intelligent beings that have studied mankind for millions of years. They strategically buried their ships underneath the ground long ago, so that when the right moment arrived, they would be in position to attack and destroy. But why do the aliens want to destroy us? I'm not sure if the movie ever answers or even raises this question, but it is clear that these aliens are completely without mercy, having no regard whatsoever for human life -- their only mission is to exterminate humanity-- and we are simply food for them.

So why do I say that the War of the Worlds is real? I say it because in reality we face unseen enemies just as relentless, merciless and evil as the ones portrayed in this story. Just like these aliens, the enemies we face are intelligent beings who have studied us carefully, and are bent upon our total annihilation. Am I speaking of Islamic terrorists? These are enemies, but not the ones I'm referring to.

The real enemies we face are invisible spirit beings who wage a spiritual war against us. The aliens in War of the Worlds, ruthless as they are, merely destroy people physically. Islamic terrorists also use the threat of death (and our fear of death) to scare us into submission to their agenda. But the devil and his army are not content with our physical destruction. Satan wants our very souls destroyed forever in hell.

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. " Ephesians 6: 12

As I write this, I realize that readers who don't subscribe to a Christian point of view, or maybe even some who do, may think I'm nuts when I talk about invisible demonic forces. But let me ask you something: are you more inclined to believe that the War of the World's scenario, that of aliens coming to planet Earth on a mission of death, is less crazy than the idea that we are under attack by invisible spiritual enemies?

Perhaps both ideas sound equally far-fetched, but the biblical, Christian view at least provides an explanation of what is happening in our world. Satan and his cohorts want to destroy us because they are evil-- they are in fact the embodiment of evil. Satan might be described as a disgruntled former "employee" of God, now gone completely beserk-- except that he has much more power and ability to wreak havoc than your average fired postal worker. Satan was more than just an employee in God's economy; he was the most exalted angel in the universe, second only to God in the magnificence of his splendor and gifts. But this became a problem-- he didn't like being #2. Pride and jealousy caused him to rebel against God, and when he did so, many angels apparently rebelled along with him, joining his malevolent cause. To this day Satan wages war against God and against any who align themselves with God (i.e., Christians). Satan is a liar, in fact, he is called the "Father of all Lies"; pride and deception so distort his thinking that he believes God to be a terrible, unfair being. Or perhaps he knows He's not, but hates Him anyway.

Now what made Satan revolt so completely against God? We don't know exactly, as the Bible doesn't fully explain this, but the biblical portrait describes Satan as a being whom God made so beautiful he was originally known as Lucifer (The Light-Bearer). But in turning away from God, he became the "Prince of Darkness", and his nature turned completely and irrevocably evil. Jesus said about Satan that he is a thief who "comes only to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10).

Again, you may find talk of Satan and his activities quite fanciful, but if you look at the evils in the world today, and look back at the evils perpetrated by humanity for hundreds of years, you observe that there is true horror in what human beings are capable of doing to one another, acts of cruelty and hate that defy naturalistic explanation. This is due to the satanic influence, which, while it cannot make people do anything, fans the flames of evil in our hearts and suggests to our minds ways of carrying out those dark desires. The remainder of what follows applies to Christians involved in spiritual warfare.

Although the description of evil above represents a biblical understanding of how Satan interacts with human desires to bring about his evil designs, many, even among Christians, seem to dismiss this picture. The media finds this topic a surefire way to ridicule Christianity, and many believers are embarrassed by the whole subject, and/or ignorant of what spiritual warfare is all about.

Though this has been changing in recent years, with a proliferation of ministries, books and websites emerging that deal with the topic of spiritual warfare, there are still large segments of the Christian community who neglect study of this area. Some do so because they mistakenly think that merely being Christian makes them victorious over the devil and immune to his influence. But the more cognizant one becomes of spiritual realities, and the more observant we are about human nature and the nature of evil, the more clear it becomes, I believe, that "Satan is alive and well on planet earth" (to quote Hal Lindsay's book by that title), and Christians are often his favorite targets.

I consider that I have much to learn in this area. So not long ago I set about studying as much as I could about spiritual warfare, motivated in part by personal experiences in which I, or people close to me, have been the objects of satanic attack. The basic lesson I've learned is that Satan's objectives and methods are primarily spiritual. Though he also has power to afflict the body, his primary intention is to get you to "curse God". He wants people to disbelieve, not trust in, and forsake God, and his chief weapon towards achieving this goal is deception.

One of the ways the devil has been very successful in deception is in concealing what he is really like and what his real methods and strategies are. There are those who engage in what is called "deliverance ministry", whose approach to the demonic is not entirely biblical, and who make the exorcism of demons into drama. In the same way, movies like "The Exorcist" and "The Omen" exaggerate Satan's powers, or sensationalize them as being primarily these horrible calamities that he causes. The picture of spiritual warfare one derives from such sources is misleading, since Satan has always been much more subtle and crafty in his ways, preferring to accomplish his goals by stealth more often than by flashy attention-getting displays of power.

Many sincere Christians also have been taught by their churches or seminaries that Christians cannot "have a demon"; there has been much debate about such matters, but those who hold to this position tend to not see demonic influence in human affairs. Certainly, I think a strong case can be made that the primary New Testament focus for believers is not an obsession with demons, but rather upon our daily walk with God-- by being obedient to Him and busy with the mission He has for us. On the other hand, one of the powers promised to followers of Jesus, is authority in the name of Jesus to cast out demons. It is important therefore that we know how to exercise that authority when necessary (and it may be needed much more often than we realize). And certainly the primary targets of satanic attack, who will need to exercise this authority, are precisely those who are on the front lines of ministry in Jesus' name.

But even if one is not directly engaged in the casting out demons, there is an invisible war going on all around us, a battle to capture the souls of men and women worldwide. Everyone instinctively fears physical death, but what of what comes afterward? Cruise's character Ray fights, as best as he can, to stay alive; his "unconquerable will" in this movie is like a primal instinct that drives him to fight to keep himself and his family alive. But the enemy he faces is too overwhelming and powerful for him-- he is no match for their weapons. I won't give away the ending, but War of the Worlds shows mankind surviving by a kind of fluke, nevertheless, the movie seems to congratulate humanity on its triumph of survival. What is ultimately unsatisfying about the film is that the Enemy is unfathomable, so our victory by fluke seems pointless.

Again, there are a few parallels and contrasts between the movie and the real spiritual war we fight (whether aware of it or not). IN both, we are helpless and weak and hopelessly overmatched by our enemies. The defects of human nature make us all too susceptible to the temptations the dark world continually assaults us with. But our survival then, is not dependent upon our strength of will, nor is it dependent upon our adaptive capacity for survival (an evolutionary take). Rather, we must cry out to our Deliverer, the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can give us strength to overcome the evil without and within. Our victory is pictured in the Bible as a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, where good finally triumphs. Stories and films that portray this classic struggle effectively seem to be the most memorable and satisfying.

Jesus gave us His followers the key to winning the battle when He said: "Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).

If we fear only physical death, or those who can kill us, we are not seeing reality as it really is. Enemies can only kill your body, but your soul will live on, either to be with the Lord, or to be separated from Him. We must hold to this true perception of reality as we fight the spiritual battle, using spiritual weapons:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Ephesians 6: 10-18)

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