Arrival – time, language and the image of God

By Subby Szterszky | February 14, 2017

As a rule, science fiction films don’t get much love from the Oscars or other major movie awards. At best, they’re given a few nods for technical achievement: special effects, makeup, sound editing and the like. But nominations for best picture, screenplay or director? Don’t count on it.

Yet that’s precisely what’s been happening with Arrival, a film about linguistics and alien contact by French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Downplaying the usual CGI pyrotechnic set pieces, Arrival focuses instead on exploring some weightier metaphysical questions. Do our minds shape language or does language shape our minds? If we knew the future, would we make the same choices? And if so, would we be making free choices at all, or merely fulfilling our destiny?

It’s little wonder that Arrival has caught the attention of film critics, and it deserves the attention of thoughtful Christians, as well.

[But first, a spoiler alert: this article discusses major themes and plot points of Arrival. If you’re planning to see the film, you might want to do so before reading any further.]

Language and the mind

Language and the mind are two of the most compelling pieces of evidence that humanity was designed by a personal Creator rather than arising via random chance. In fact, their existence remains a massive problem for the materialist conception of origins. The mind, with its capacity to think and reflect, to plan and imagine, to ponder abstract ideas as well as itself, can’t be reduced to simple brain chemistry. And language, with its intricate rules and flexible idioms, its ability to encode the most complex ideas into basic sound patterns and transmit them to other minds, defies facile naturalistic explanation.

These two human faculties not only point to a divine source, but they’re also inseparably connected. The mind conceptualizes and language expresses. However, there’s a fascinating set of theories in linguistics suggesting that the relationship between the two is reciprocal. Not only does the mind form language, but language, via its structures and vocabulary, forms the mind’s categories and the way it perceives reality. This may be evident in the way words and concepts from one language are often difficult to translate or express in another.

Arrival explores this phenomenon of mind and language as one of its central themes. Aliens arrive on Earth, evidently friendly and wishing to communicate, but their language is indecipherable. They don’t communicate verbally, but via a series of smoke-like rings that they eject into the air. These rings don’t represent words or syllables, but entire concepts.

A linguist named Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is brought in to decipher the alien language. As she does so, she discovers that the aliens perceive time differently than we do, able to see the past, present and future all at once. More astonishingly, as she learns the visitors’ language, she also acquires their ability to see time from an eternal perspective.

Time and eternity

Mind and language are attributes that human beings share with their Creator. They’re part of what it means to be made in God’s image. But there are other attributes of God that humanity does not share, including His ability to perceive eternity. As finite creatures, humans experience time in a linear fashion. The past is gone, the present is a moment, the future is unknown. But for the infinite God, everything is a present eternal reality. Not only does He know the end from the beginning, but He has ordained it.

C.S. Lewis tried to illustrate these two perspectives in his book, Mere Christianity: “If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. . . . God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.”

At times, we like to imagine what it might be like to know the future. How would it affect our thinking, our plans, the way we live right now? But before long, we realize that such information would bring with it a terrible burden of responsibility. If we knew something bad was going to happen, should we do everything in our power to avert it, or might that lead to something even worse happening? Furthermore, if the future is set, would our decisions and actions make any difference, or would we simply be acting out a fated script that had already been written? The knowledge and its implications would be staggering.

These are the sorts of questions that Arrival grapples with. The aliens offer their language – and the eternal perception of time that comes with it – as a tool, a gift to Louise and the rest of humanity. And indeed, Louise’s newfound ability helps avert a disastrous conflict and ushers the global community into a new era of cooperation and peace.

But for the linguist herself, the gift brings an agonizing personal decision. Louise discovers that she will have a daughter, Hannah, who will die of cancer as a teenager. In addition, she sees that the girl’s father, Ian, will leave her when he learns that she knew Hannah would never reach adulthood. Knowing all of that, however, Louise decides to go ahead and have Hannah with Ian anyway.

The image of God

In contrast to films about hostile aliens bent on destruction, Arrival depicts its visitors as benevolent, peaceful beings, only interested in helping humanity. Their godlike image is underscored by their ability to perceive eternity, as well as by their use of language – their “word” or more accurately their pictograms – as the means for benefitting the world. They have seven appendages (the humans call them heptapods) and they arrive in 12 ships, both numbers laden with Biblical symbolism.

But as with all metaphors for spiritual reality, the heptapods have their limits. They’re powerful and kind, but not all-knowing. Their gift is potentially a mixed blessing, opening doors that humans are perhaps not meant to step through. In the end, it leads to questions that neither the heptapods nor humanity can answer.

When God in wisdom created man and woman in His own image, He knew which of His attributes to convey to them, and which to reserve for Himself. He knows our frame, remembers that we are dust, and graciously accommodates what we can bear. His Word declares both His own sovereignty and our responsibility, without deigning to explain how the two fit together.

Much like Louise in her decision to have Hannah, we’re called simply to trust God and do the right thing in the present moment, knowing that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.”

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Arrival, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Arrival is appropriate for you or your family.]

Further reading

Ann Hornaday, “Sleek, sophisticated and thoughtful ‘Arrival’ joins a mini golden age of sci-fi films,” Washington Post, November 10, 2016.

Anthony Lane, “The consuming fervor of ‘Arrival’,” New Yorker, November 14, 2016.

Brett McCracken, “Watching ‘Arrival’ and waiting for Advent,” Gospel Coalition, November 18, 2016.

Christopher Orr, “The epic intimacy of Arrival,” Atlantic, November 11, 2016.

Jeffrey Overstreet, “Arrival’s terrifying vision of a global ‘unfriending’,” Christianity Today, December 6, 2016.

Liz Wann, “The place of real Arrival,” Think Christian, February 1, 2017.

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