A little boy – with a smile on his face, a DIY jet pack on his back and hope in his heart – goes to the world fair. He wants to win the science prize, because zooming through the sky would inspire people to believe that anything is possible. That's the opening scene from George Clooney's new Disney vehicle Tomorrowland. The movie may not be Clooney's finest moment as an actor, but as part of a resurgence of films about the future it highlights important questions for Christians as we seek to live faithfully in the world.
1. What happened to our bright future?
When Disneyland opened in California in 1955, Tomorowland was one of the original areas alongside Frontierland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Main Street, with the idea of showcasing the fantastical future of the year 1986. In 1982, Disney built EPCOT – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – the latest iteration of the Tomorowland concept. It was built as a showcase of technologies that would make the world a better place. It was thought that if we had more computing power, created genetically modified crops and overcame the energy crisis, then the problems of our world would disappear.
This optimistic vision of the future is sometimes called modernity. At first sight, Disney's new film Tomorowland fits the mould – a future as envisioned by men like Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison. Their idea was to take the brightest and best of our world's thinkers and innovators to another dimension where they would build a utopian society filled with hope and beauty. The problem with modernity, however, was that the most technologicaly advanced century did not eradicate war, hunger or poverty. Instead, advances in science have created an even more unjust and divided world, with new ways to harm and kill. Sixty years on from the building of the original Tomorowland it is hard to find anyone that has faith in technology to make the world a better place for everyone. Optimism about the power of technology now seems quaint.
Perhaps for Christians, the cynicism of our culture makes our confident hope for the future feel a little naïve, so how do we avoid both naive optimism and cynical pessimism?
2. Dystopian dreams for our children?
Our dreams of the future are different now. I remember when my twelve year old first used the word 'dystopian'. I remember feeling both proud and discouraged at the same time; it turns out children's literature is littered with pessimistic visions of the future. Whether it's Maze Runner, Hunger Games, Divergent or More Than This, young people are being given a picture of our future that is pretty bleak. Of course this is not entirely new – modern classics such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World also portray a future devoid of hope – but these ideas have now trickled down to teen literature.
This pessimism about our future is often described as postmodernity. We live in interesting times where the ideas that drive most of the stories told by our movies and books depict a dark future. Tomorowland cleverly riffs on these themes, recognising that the dominant narrative of our time is that our world is irreparably broken, and headed towards further catastrophe. The film raises justifiable environmental and global justice concerns but tells us that even though people know a terrible tragedy awaits us all, we have simply become resigned to it. Strangely, director Brad Bird tells us that if we just had a few more plucky teenagers, artists and scientists, perhaps we could fix the world after all.
The film proposes a return to the spirit of modernity, and I have met many Christians who believe that if we could just go back to the good old days then everything will be ok. For some, those good old days are the reformation; for others the 1904 Welsh revival or the charismatic renewal of the 1970s. But just like Disney's Tomorrowland, finding our hope in nostalgia seems counterintuitive. Christians are called to look forward with hope to the coming of Christ and not put our hope in recreating past experiences.
3. Thermometer or thermostat church
You would hope that Christian theology would provide a prophetic challenge to the prevailing mood of our culture. Sadly, it seems that instead our theology often seems to mirror the norms of our day. When modernity was at its height in the West, the Church taught a positive eschatology – or view of the future – where God's kingdom would come to earth, steadily and surely increasing its influence like a mustard seed. Theologians like Jonathan Edwards believed that the millennial reign of God would come on earth after the world had become the kind of place that reflects the character of God. In other words, things on earth will get better and better and then the end will come. After the two world wars, however, this view became difficult to live with. As the optimism of modernity slipped away, so a new theological approach gained traction. This view argued the reverse; things will get worse and worse and then the end will come. One popular outworking of this was the Left Behind Series (reviewed here).
Our job as the church is not simply to reflect the culture; to copy its optimism or paranoia. No, our job is to represent God and his plans for the future. Our task is not to be a thermometer simply displaying the cultural temperature but instead to be a thermostat, setting and maintaining the temperature for all around us. The Bible offers worse news than our most harrowing dystopian nightmare but also offers more hope than the most optimistic modernist predictions. The book of Revelation describes a terrible fate for all those who would ultimately resist the reign of God, but the grace of God offers wonders beyond our imagination for those that believe.
Tomorowland's vision of the future is ultimately unsatisfying; we owe the world a better vision of the future that only God can provide. It's time we invested our time and effort to better understand what the Bible says that future is going to be.
Krish Kandiah is hosting the Future Conference on June 22 at the London School of Theology. It will look at the future of faith in the UK and include a number of short talks by speakers including Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, Leonard Sweet, and Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC.
More information and tickets here.