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“Arrival” and the Unique Manner of God’s Speech

Like E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, Independence Day, and a host of similar films over the past thirty years, Arrival explores the theme of an alien visitation to earth. In this iteration, Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert, who is called upon by the U.S. military to facilitate conversation with visitors from another world, whose space-crafts have landed (actually not quite landed, for they hover a few feet off the ground) at a number of locations around the globe. This meditative film has a great deal to tell us about communication, language, and the patience required to enter into the cultural environment of a higher intelligence. As such, it speaks, whether its director and writer intended this or not, about God’s distinctive manner of communication and the process by which we come to understand it. 

To her infinite surprise, Louise one night is whisked to a remote site in Montana, where she is briefed, encased in a suffocating protective suit, and then brought into the presence of the aliens, who turn out to be octopus-like creatures, moving slowly about in a liquid environment. After recovering from her initial astonishment, Louise commences to reach out to her strange interlocutors, writing a few simple words on a cardboard and indicating their meaning through gesture. Almost immediately, the creatures respond by squirting an ink-like substance that, presumably under their intelligent direction, forms itself into calligraphically rendered circles. This is their unique, highly-sophisticated, and utterly alien language. Much of the quiet drama of Arrival occurs as Louise endeavors to understand this qualitatively different form of communication. What she comes to grasp is that any attempt at “translation” of this strange argot in the ordinary sense of the term would be futile. For as she enters into the world of the extraterrestrials, she comprehends that their symbol system bears a distinctive, quasi-mystical relationship to time and that she is receiving from her conversation partners much more than mere information.

Lest I spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t go any further into the plot. But I would like to elaborate upon what this film says, at least implicitly, in regard to what we call divine revelation. One of the core convictions of the Christian faith is that God has spoken to his people, that a real communication has come from his transcendent realm and entered into our consciousness. Furthermore, believers hold, this communication is codified in the Bible, which, accordingly, is not one book among many, not one more human attempt to express our convictions about God, but rather, in a real sense, God’s word to us, God’s language, God’s speech. 

I am insisting on this point, because our approach to the Bible these past many years has been dominated by what the scholars call the historical-critical method. This is an interpretive approach that places exclusive emphasis on uncovering the cultural, historical, and linguistic setting for a Biblical text and the intentionality of that text’s human author. To be sure, these are altogether legitimate concerns, and whatever truths we learn in this regard are good. But the danger is that a hyper stress on the human and this-worldly dimension of the Scriptural texts can blind us to their sheer strangeness, to the disquieting manner in which they draw us up out of our world into another world. More to it, a confidently rational attitude toward the Bible can make the interpreter cocky. He can feel himself on firm ground, approaching Biblical language as he would any other poetic and historical communication from the ancient world. But this is repugnant to the patience and humility required to let God’s always unnerving, always disquieting communication be heard. 

The Second Vatican Council clearly taught that the Bible is best construed as “the Word of God in the words of men.” More contemporary interpretive methods have helped us to appreciate the second part of that observation, but I fear that they have obscured the first. In their poetry, their philosophy, their literature, their spiritual musings, human beings, across the centuries and across the cultures, have been saying lots of things about God, but the Bible is not so much human speech about God, but God’s speech about himself. As much as we revere Shakespeare, Homer, Aristotle, Dante, and T.S. Eliot, we don’t pronounce, after reading aloud their language, “This is the Word of the Lord.” But we say precisely that after we read the Bible. We are not meant to translate the Biblical world into language accessible to us; rather, we are to allow ourselves to be “translated” (the word literally means “carried across”) into the space opened up by the Bible. To fully elaborate what this means would require many volumes of theology. But to get at least some sense of what I’m describing, attend to the Bible’s manner of speaking of grace, of participation in the divine life, of the conversation among the Trinitarian persons, and of the Word becoming flesh. None of this is the fruit of philosophical analysis or poetic musing. It is the stuff of revelation. Accordingly, we don’t control any of it. It controls us. 

I mentioned above how the alien craft in Arrival don’t quite land. They are massively, overwhelmingly present to the earth, but they don’t touch down; the earth doesn’t hold them. That’s not a bad visual metaphor for God’s speech in the Scriptures.