The pull of ‘Gravity’

Gravity 5-17This weekend a friend and I watched a DVD of a film I’d not seen before, and one I’d seen years ago and wanted to see again. First one, ‘Gravity’ from 2013: I’d heard about the immersive power of this film and would have liked to have seen it in an IMAX cinema, to get a better handle on the terrifying scale of space a few hundred miles above earth’s surface.

On one level it’s the thrilling tale of how someone (Dr Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock) cut catastrophically adrift in the most hostile environment known to man, conspires (spoiler alert) – with help from the god-like wisdom and calm of George Clooney character Matt Kowalsky , to eventually find her way back down to earth. Alongside this survival adventure runs an emotional narrative of her inner journey toward a place of peace regarding her young daughter’s tragic death, and willingness to embrace life afresh.

I’ve come across some quibbles regarding the veracity of the physics on display. And I have quibbles of my own about the likelihood of engaging in such soul searching in the face of a distinct likelihood of imminent death. Bullock’s character is also impressively adept at working out what buttons to press and levers to turn on spaceships – especially to someone like me who struggles to fix a bike puncture. But despite credulity being a little stretched, it’s a compelling story, and (guess what) quite rich with spiritual resonances.

Veteran astronaut Kowalsky is almost preternaturally calm and reassuring, with moments of humour. “You’ve gotta learn to let go” he says, when she insists on attempting to rescue him once he’s detached himself from her – sacrificing his own life to save hers. The Christ echo is amplified in a later scene where in her imagination he ‘reappears’ in the capsule she’s lodged in, to revive her flagging resolve to return to earth and face the future afresh.

But it’s wider resonances tied up in gravity, space exploration and a return to earth that intrigue me most. The human instinct to push boundaries and ‘boldly go’ has, beside irritating the split infinitive police, inspired a sense of glory in our humanity and praise for such celebrations as Professor Brian Cox TV series like ‘Wonders of the Universe’. For some this adulation has been pitted against what are viewed as the confining, blinding ‘dogmas’ of religion. I would challenge such a facile comparison. In ‘Gravity’ I discern a more varied seam of spiritual metaphor. Stone’s return, literally a crucible-like experience as her capsule hurtles through the metal-melting atmosphere of planet earth, is a return home from a hostile life-threatening environment, to a rich and nurturing one, where she can breathe freely and feel the sand between her toes. Its physicality mirrors spiritual rebirth as expressed in the New Testament, for instance in the parable of the prodigal son or the rich ‘new creation’ imagery in the epistles and Revelation. Just today I enjoyed the wonderful earthiness of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples in the last chapter of John’s gospel, where he invites them to a breakfast of bread and broiled fish.

God calls me ‘home’ to the bounty of eternal life (quality not just duration); there’s a ‘gravity’ about his tug on our hearts and souls. And a choice involved in whether to yield to it…

The other film we watched that I had seen before was ‘Donnie Darko’. I won’t probe the weird wonderfulness of that one right now, except to leave you with a favourite scene, the school corridor sweep and magical dance moment set to Tears for Fears euphoric Head over Heels . Heady stuff.

Eurovision & the allure of the elusive

concert 4-17Last night I hit on one of life’s little ‘moments of joy’. I’d been round to friends to watch you-know-which popular song contest, recorded from Saturday. Over drinks and Doritos, we’d lapped up one offering after another in the river of over the top strobe-strafed extravagance that is the annual Eurovision extravaganza. We revelled as usual in every bonkers aspect of the camp-fest, from the bloke on top of a stepladder throwing shapes in a suit and horse’s head, to the schizophrenic-voiced fella singing both parts of a duet, to the yodelling Romanian girl and the crooning Portuguese winner with the sympathy-strewn backstory.

But oddly one of the best things I took away was the reminder of a 2016 pop track – one that the Belgian song ‘City Lights’ had the hint of an echo of. All I had to go on in my head was the refrain ‘I miss you, I miss you, I miss you more…’ Just enough for my friends to identify first the group Bastille, then the track ‘Good Grief’. Upon arriving home I listened to and viewed it on Youtube several times – it’s catchy and creative. It’s apparently about perspectives on the grieving process, but its fragmented storylines, meanings and allusions are oblique and not immediately obvious. Stonker of a song nonetheless.

And it got me thinking about the allure of the elusive. So much of what affects us most deeply in life and art is not direct, doctrinal or dogmatic, but subtle and suggestive. I’m drawn to another person mostly because of the way his or her personality reveals itself over time in different circumstances – not because they tell me ‘I’m a really nice person’ (though fair play if they try that haha). Likewise, art of all kinds yields its riches not by preaching but drawing you in moment by moment through an intriguing story or series of revelations.

This morning I found myself reading the narrative at the end of Luke’s gospel about Jesus on the road to Emmaus, unrecognised by two disciples who are downcast and dejected by his death. Revelation of this stranger’s true identity is reached through a cluster of oblique means. They are walking together, on a journey – a great setting for good conversation. The stranger invites and aids them to explore and understand Old Testament prophecy with fresh eyes. And the proverbial scales finally fall only when they witness an action that awakens memory: his breaking bread with them. And when they do finally recognise him, he disappears. Fresh revelation, accompanied now by the spur to seek more… No wonder their hearts ‘burned within them’.

The gospel encounters me in a myriad of such oblique, indirect, even elusive ways. God as revealed here does not bludgeon or cajole us into acceptance of truth, but invites us to listen, see, taste. In Jesus’ signs and parables, both subtle and dramatic. In the gospel’s very heart, God with us but ‘incognito’, and reaching us through the scandal of humiliation and degradation – the exact opposite of the rule from on high our human thinking expects and which is enacted as ‘standard’ in the world.

I’ve always loved the fable of the man who can’t be forced by the storm to remove his coat, but is moved to by the sun’s strong but gentle heat. An illustration of grace and relationship contrasted with law & coercion – the first two being the means by which God primarily seeks us. And it’s only as I let go of my human demands and expectations that I open myself to the overtures of grace. But when and as I do… just as when I yield to the solicitations of art and relationship in everyday life – or even the less subtle allures of Eurovision… I open myself to receive further blessings. Which beats even songs from Belgium, Blighty – or Bastille.