It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up
He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground…
Well there ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down
Ain’t no going back.
— Bob Dylan, “Foot of Pride”
In an insightful review of HBO’s latest release, Westworld, film critic Christopher Orr (“Sympathy for the Robot,” The Atlantic, October 2016) hails the new show’s “sophistication and ingenuity” as “a provocative exploration of creators and their creations.” More helpful than his eventual recommendation of the show is his smorgasbord-style survey of literature, movie, and mythology. Orr notes Westworld as only the latest in a long line of art and story that explores a similar central question: “What might happen if our creations turned against us?” He deftly strings together Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the novels of Philip Dick, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives; movies that include The Terminator, The Blade Runner, Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice and 2015’s Ex Machina; and even Promethean mythology, all of which explore the unexpected, adverse consequences of towering technological achievement.
In Westworld, androids become sentient. Likewise Frankenstein’s monster or SkyNet. In each of the stories Orr invokes, humanity is left to pick up the pieces stemming from arrogant over-reach. Then Orr helpfully comments, “the initial sin in such tales is almost always the act of creation itself: a textbook case of hubris, of tinkering with powers previously reserved for the gods… If the act of creation is the foundational sin, however, it tends to beget others.” It is a wondrous and fearful observation, although not one, it seems, that Orr intends as provocation toward moral reflection. It is simply good literary analysis. But he’s on to something, and it involves Genesis 11 and the tower of Babel.
Of course, the story of Babel doesn’t involve androids. But it isn’t just a cute story for kids, either, presented as mere explanation for the proliferation of languages. Instead, in continuity with Orr’s list of stories, Genesis 11 presents humankind as driven by sinful urges to trespass God-given boundaries, bent on monumental technological achievement. They want a tower of thoroughly baked bricks, and in their hubris, their confidence in their own collective ability, sin begets yet more sin and misery. Humanity is driven apart, confused and alienated from one another. They had been looking for security and for glory. They had aims to intrude on God’s own dwelling place in the heavens. They reaped instead exactly the conditions they feared: isolation, fracture, estrangement, and exposure.
This is a story from the foundation of human history about the perils of ignoring God-mandated restrictions, about following the impulses of unchecked ambition and pride, and about the ruin that humanity seems hellbent on perpetuating on itself. In this reading, God’s curse on them at the end of the story – scattering them by language over the face of the earth – has at least a hint of mercy in it. Left to its own devices, aggregating its own willpower and resource, mankind will hasten down the path of ruin. God knows humanity will search out more and more rebellion (“nothing will be impossible for them”) so he thwarts their agenda, stops their lemming race to the cliff. In place of the disaster that they would have secured for themselves, God gave mere futility, confusion, and separation. These may be terrible punishments, but they are certainly far more preferable than utter destruction.
The question left to readers, either of the Genesis account of Babel, or even on a lesser scale, Orr’s list of stories, is: What will we do with such cautionary stories? One option is literary analysis. We can seek to uncover the meaning of the text and decide if we agree or not. This usually isn’t a good option when one of the texts we are studying is the Bible. God tends to be less interested in our intellectual assent to the principles he proscribes than he is in our conformity to his revealed purpose and will. “Read this. Obey it and live,” he teaches us.
Consequently, when we encounter themes in literature and art that adhere to and illuminate the instructions we see in Scripture, we are less free simply to stand at a distance and evaluate the claims of those texts. We would be wise to stop, listen, and consider. There is wisdom, after all, in general revelation. In Proverbs, Solomon says, “Consider the badger, the locust, the ant.” In this case, he might also add, “Consider Frankenstein, The Blade Runner, and Bob Dylan.”
So consider two examples from Orr’s article again.
For the first, remember that Orr is pulling the thread of stories that “tinker with powers previously reserved for gods.” Or in the case of the Babel account, God Himself. What does it mean for power to be “reserved for” God? Are there proper limitations to power, technological achievement, reach and choice? Are all technological developments inherently good, or are they morally neutral until acted on by humanity? Or can some technological aspirations be inherently misguided and morally wrong, if they look to overstep clearly articulated Scriptural instructions? These are areas that Christians must consider. We must give attention not only to the progress of technology but also to our God-mandated limitations.
Early humanity wanted to reach the heavens with their tower out of pride, a desire for glory, and for security. Does this need to inform our intent to colonize Mars, or is that ambition simply a good and legitimate application of the cultural mandate? It depends, doesn’t it? Does attention to God-given limitation need to inform our pursuit of medicine, or genetic modification, or gender reassignment surgery? Or how about our attempts to make the global community smaller via the Internet?
There is doubtless some reversal of the effects of Babel inherent in the communication freedoms afforded by the Internet. These tend to be regarded as universally good things; but have we over-leaped God’s imposition of limitations on humanity at Babel that may have had hidden seeds of mercy in it? Cultural commentators and thinkers have rightly noted that the Internet has at least been a Pandora’s box, offering blessing and promise, and also allowing for previously unheard of spread of sin. Is this to suggest that Internet is bad? Not necessarily.
Christians do not need to maintain Luddite fear of all technological progress. On the other hand, neither should we be naïve about our appropriation of technology. (For an excellent interaction with this concept, see Andrew Sullivan’s article in New York magazine, September 18, 2016, “I Used to be Human.”) This article is too short a format for the answers we need, but Christians certainly need to be spending careful attention to the effects of the technologies we create and use. We have a long history of reaping more than we intended to sow.
A second example from Orr’s article may hit closer to home. He reveals the basic premise and setting of the show, Westworld. It is essentially a theme park set in the Wild West, so that human tourists can enjoy “safe, guilt free versions of shoot-outs, saloon altercations, and assignations with prostitutes.” Orr notes, however, that in HBO’s drama, the androids quickly become the show’s sympathetic protagonists by virtue of their struggle toward self-actualization and the brutal violence inflicted on them by the story’s villains: the humans. Orr appreciates this plot twist as a fresh variation on the theme, and it does seem intriguing.
But once again, Orr seems nearly to back into a remarkable insight. In explaining Westworld’s (the theme park) appeal to human tourists, he writes, “Why, after all, would people pay a fortune – one guest cites a rate of $40,000 a day – to immerse themselves in a simulacrum of the lawlessness of the Old West? Westworld [the television show] answers that they would do so to indulge their otherwise unspeakable appetites for senseless violence and transgressive sex, without moral scruple or legal consequence. The series is remarkably stark in its depiction of the cruelty underlying these appetites.” He then gives two graphic examples of apparently senseless violence.
This is a strange phenomenon. Orr gives an incisive comment on the moral condition of participants in the fictional Westworld theme park without giving any comment on the moral condition of real, live humans participating in the fictional world of Westworld the television show. This is not to suggest that Christians need to avoid watching this HBO show. It is, however, a comment that our current technological development, akin to that of near-futuristic Westworld, allows for a strange double mirror that allows us as potential viewers to participate in the titillation of “unspeakable appetites” from the remove of our living room couches.
Our television or computer screens buffer our proximity to the experience, providing plausible deniability to sophisticated viewers: “What? This isn’t real. This could never happen. We have to suspend our disbelief. It is merely entertainment.” Which is precisely the question HBO’s series raises. What do our entertainments reveal about our appetites, and our appetites about our morality?
Again, this is not a call for Christians to boycott watching this show. Rather, it is following the shrewd observations of a film critic through the lens of Scripture and saying, “Yes, Mr. Orr. Good work. You’re closer to something big than you might realize.” As Christians in a real world peer through the technological marvel of their screens into an “unreal” world designed to posit questions about the morality of our technology, its usage, and our entertainment, we would do well to “watch ourselves” as we watch others. In the real world, we need to hear Orr’s and HBO’s questions about technologies and creation but then give attention not merely to carefully distanced intellectual analysis but careful, listening attention to the heart question posed by the One who made us: “What might happen if your creations turn against you?”
Dave Saville is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. He writes out of Tampa, FL.