Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Tale of Two Movies . . . and Two Prayers

Last week I finally broke down and watched United 93. It's a real-time portrayal of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11, the one where the passengers tried to take it back and ultimately stopped the hijackers from crashing the plane into their target (probably either the Capitol building or the White House). It is pretty hard to watch. I was living in Europe when this movie came out, and at the time I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it. I talked with another expat who felt the same way, but we thought maybe if we saw it together we could get through it. However, he lived too far away and we never actually followed up on it. In reading about the film and the events they portray, I learned some interesting things. In one of the phone calls made by a passenger, he said they were going to charge the terrorists, not to try to save their own lives but to stop them from reaching their target. This is awesome and humbling. I'm sure they hoped to somehow take back the plane and land it, but just the fact that stopping the terrorists played a role in their decision to fight back is amazing. I also learned that passengers from some of the other planes also said on phone calls that some of them were thinking of trying to take their planes back too. This was before they even knew they were suicide missions. One thing the movie did was show the terrorists having a fake bomb strapped to one of them that they were threatening to blow up. To fight back under these circumstances, not knowing whether that bomb was real or not shows incredible bravery. They also showed the passengers not realizing for a while that the pilots had been killed and weren't flying the plane. I don't know if that's what really happened -- not knowing whether the terrorists themselves were flying the plane -- but it certainly seems plausible.

But one particular part stood out for me, partially because it reminded me of a vaguely similar scene from another movie dealing with Islamic terrorism: The Siege. (If you haven't seen that movie, there are spoilers ahead.) In United 93, before the passengers charge the terrorists, you see several of them saying the Lord's Prayer, over the phone or just to themselves. They prayed for God to deliver them from evil and for him to forgive them as they forgive those who have sinned against them. Then the film cuts to the terrorists praying Islamic prayers and reciting the Shahada: "there is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God." They recite this while they literally have blood on their hands, and are surrounded by the bodies of the people they murdered. The contrast could not be more stark. I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made which so clearly showed this contrast.

The similar scene from The Siege happened towards the end. (Remember: spoilers coming.) In the movie, there were a spate of terrorist incidents throughout New York City (this came out a few years before 9/11). They put all the Muslims into detention camps until they could figure out which ones were the terrorists and which ones weren't. Annette Bening is a CIA agent who has been working in the Islamic world for years, and is now protecting one of her informers. I think she reveals at some point that she is a lapsed Christian. In the end she gets shot by an Islamic terrorist. As she's dying, Denzel Washington starts reciting the Lord's Prayer with her. As Annette Bening finishes the Lord's Prayer, she concludes by saying "Insha'Allah" which means "God willing," and dies.

You might think this is no big deal. Christians often say "God willing" too. But it doesn't mean the same thing in Islam as it does in Christianity. Christian theologies almost always allow for there to be events which God does not will or even want, but which he allows. However, if God allows it, then he has a reason for doing so. Even the most evil events are not brute irredeemable horrors, God uses them to weave together the whole story of creation and salvation. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, "A merciful man aims at his neighbour's good and so does 'God's will', consciously co-operating with 'the simple good'. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good -- so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God's purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John." So even evil events play a role in establishing God's ultimate plan. God creates a universe in which every event plays a role in bringing about this plan. Thus, saying "God willing" in the Christian context means something closer to "If what I'm planning is something that could play a role in achieving God's ultimate plan."

In Islam, however, "God willing" is an affirmation of theological fatalism. It expresses the view that God is the only cause of everything that happens; that nothing happens unless God actively wills that it take place. While there may be some Christian groups who advocate something along these lines, the Hyper-Calvinists perhaps, it is almost universal within Christian theology to distinguish between events that God wills and events he merely allows. The second category can then be further divided up into events that God allows and wants, and events that God allows but doesn't want (and I guess a third class of events that God allows but that he doesn't feel strongly about either way). In contrast, Islam has only one category: events that God wills.

This difference between Christianity and Islam comes to a head when we look at their disparate views on salvation. As Jens Christensen writes in Mission to Islam and Beyond, "The whole content of the Gospel is simply this one thing: to show mankind that God is faithful towards His creation. He has restricted Himself with pacts, covenants and promises; . . . The 'if' in Christianity is always predicated of man: if you will believe, if you will trust, if you will accept, then God is faithful, you can always count on Him." So to ask God to forgive and save us if he wills to do so is just nonsensical. God has already promised that he will forgive us as long as we genuinely repent and have genuine faith. If we ask God to forgive us and then tack on a "God willing" at the end, it's saying if the God who doesn't change his mind doesn't change his mind, if the trustworthy God is trustworthy, then . . . . Putting an "if" in front of those statements makes them incoherent.

But Annette Bening's character does precisely that: she prays the Lord's prayer, asking God to deliver her from evil and forgive her for her sins, and then adds "if God wills it." God may forgive her, but he may not, and there's nothing we can say one way or the other. As Christensen points out, whereas in Christianity the "if" is predicated of us -- if we trust God, if we accept him, etc. -- in Islam the "if" is predicated of God -- if God chooses to save us, if God chooses to send us to heaven or hell. For Bening's character to say "if God wills it" after asking him to forgive her and deliver her from evil is to express the theological fatalism of Islam. It's to say that she doesn't trust God, doesn't believe him to be the kind of God who wants to save her, who loves her so much that he was incarnated as a human being to die to obtain her salvation.

Now this strikes me as a deep point, so maybe I'm giving the filmmakers too much credit to suggest that, like United 93, they were trying to contrast the hopefulness and peace that Christianity offers with the hopelessness and chaos that Islam offers. If they were, though, then again I'm amazed that a Hollywood movie was made that so clearly showed this contrast.


Jamie Robertson said...

Jim, as a philosopher and a Christian, what did you think of the Problem of Pain?

Jim S. said...

C.S. Lewis led me into both philosophy and Christianity. The Problem of Pain was very influential in resolving my problems of reconciling the existence of God with the occurrence of evil. Not that I agree with everything in it, but just that an intelligent account could be given went a long way.

Jim S. said...

Here are some of my disagreements with Lewis in The Problem of Pain:

-- In chapter 2 he suggests that freedom and self-consciousness boil down to the same thing which I think is just absurd. There are certainly strong connections between the two, perhaps one could argue that they are codependent on each other, but to say that they mean the same thing is false.

-- He thinks that the account of Adam and Eve in Eden is a divinely-inspired myth, which I am open to. But he says that, within the story, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil would have had a special property to produce the effect it had on Adam and Eve. I think the idea is that, by eating the fruit, they obtained knowledge, experiential knowledge, of evil by rebelling against God.

-- He suggests that by being incarnated in a particular place and time, Jesus would have shared his culture's false beliefs -- about the world, about human beings, about the past, etc. -- and so would have believed falsehoods. I'm very uncomfortable with that.