A brief thought about Arrival

Like more than half of its audience, I’ve been thoroughly hung up on the film Arrival since seeing it at the cinema a few weeks ago. It’s an incredibly haunting piece of cinema and is probably going to be one of my favourite films of the year, if not longer.

Ian Donnelly: Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.
Dr. Louise Banks: That’s quite a greeting.
Ian Donnelly: Yeah, well, you wrote it.

I’ve been thinking particularly about the moment where Louise (Amy Adams) is talking about the way different countries are engaging with the aliens in ‘their’ shells and mentions that the Chinese are playing mah-jongg with them. The fact the way we communicate with each other and the language we use has an effect on any relationship is a key theme of the film – and at that moment Louise is talking about how one relationship is being built in a language of war: tension, winners and losers. The contrast within the film is with Louise’s empathetic approach to learning the alien language, and ultimately their way of seeing the world. It’s with her willingness to fundamentally rewire herself by – in the film’s imagery – literally entering a sliver of another world.

This whole idea has hit, tangentally, at the bit of my life that thinks about how we talk about religious belief. In particuar it’s got me thinking about the ways in which we articulate what we belief and define what it means to be a believer of a particular faith. Arrival reminded me that the way we believe and think and talk about that belief depends hugely upon the language we have at our disposal. It also reminded me and that overcoming those differences takes deliberate effort and will change us and the way we see the world, probably irrevocably.

It hit a nerve, because I’ve been thinking about this formulation and articulation of belief in the context of conversations about beliefs within Christianity – which, you might have noticed, tend to get a little bit fraught at times. As so I’m musing thus:

  • how does any language shape the way we develop our beliefs and our ways of thinking about them and explaining them to others? (Send me your linguistics experts).
  • Given that it must, how then can anyone say with any certainty that they know the right beliefs (or right expression of beliefs) of any faith?
  • How thoroughly impossible must this be for Christianity – where, unless you’re fully fluent in Hebrew and New Testament Greek (and by this I do mean thinking as well as speaking), you are always working in translation – and thus at two removes from the Word?

There seems to be a human instinct to pursue truth and meaning – and to seek the security of certainty and right-ness about what you belief about the world and the way you live in it. And yet it rarely seems to lead to much other than division and exclusion – perhaps because we often literally can’t make the mental leaps required to jump the language barriers and we don’t want to try. Arrival suggests that doing so requires leaving the comfort of your own atmosphere to enter that of someone else.

Dr. Louise Banks: This is just a way to force us to work together for once.
Agent Halpern: It’s more complicated than that.
Dr. Louise Banks: How is it more complicated?

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