Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

What is the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything? This simple little question is easily answered by the film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The answer is 42. Okay, that may be easy, but not much to go on is it?

I enjoyed watching this movie with my oldest son, age 11. I was probably a few years older than my son when I first read the book and watched the BBC series on PBS. The film features some true fanboy moments. Watch for a cameo by the BBC version of Marvin the Paranoid Android and Simon Jones (Arthur Dent in the BBC series) appears as the Ghostly Image from Magrathea.

Since I went with my son, I am thankful that the film didn't contain any seriously crude material (not even flatulence, which seems to be routine in every comedy made these days). Of course there is the presumption of evolution; but then again people turn into sofas and yarn dolls in this film, which is just as improbable as people evolving from apes, right? Bottom line, it is all nonsense and smirks.

Yet, buried in the crackpot humor is philosophy. The film takes a humorous point of view on the grandest of all topics, the meaning of life. The hero, Arthur Dent, is an ordinary man who does not have a clue about his role in destiny. He is no more aware of his place in the grand scheme than "a tea leaf is aware of its place in the British East India Company." During the end credits a bonus entry from the Hitchhiker's Guide appears that makes a joke about the scale of life in the universe. Sometimes those who seem great and mighty in their own eyes are actually very insignificant. Isn't this a biblical theme from as far back as Genesis 11?

Arthur Dent, who ends up as the last man from Earth stands in to make us realize just how small and insignificant we are supposed to feel in the galaxy. Bombardment with astronomical numbers and entanglement in galactic bureaucracies also keep us in our place. It is a theme of the movie and it speaks to the sense of paranoia, meaningless, and malaise that our culture seems to be experiencing now and certainly in the decade when the book was written.

I enjoy the humorous take on philosophy, but I certainly do not agree with all of it. Taking in Douglas Adams' story one more time after all these years I cannot help but compare it to the book of Ecclesiastes. The wise Preacher shares with us his quest for the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy comforts us in our sense of overwhelming meaningless with the words "Don't Panic" but ultimately tells us that nothing really matters because it is all just chance. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, unsettles us with the message "Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 1:2), but in the end tells us what really does matter.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy we drift along in our quest to find an answer to THE question. We do not find it in bureaucratic meticulousness (the Vogons), or in two-faced, half-brained politicians (Zaphod Beeblebrox), or in institutional religion (Humma Kavula and the Church of the Great Green Arkleseizure), or even in pouring our life into work (Slartibartfast and the Magrathean planetary construction engineers). Not even the super-computer Deep Thought calculating for 7.5 million years is able to come up with an answer. Well, it does but the answer is 42 - again, not very satisfying, right?

Ecclesiastes is slightly more artistic in his conclusion of the whole matter. He has tried it all and lost faith in every imaginable answer that the galaxy has to offer. The one thing that doesn't fail us is this - - "Respect God. Do what he tells you. That's it." (Ecclesiastes 12:13, loosely translated) .

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy realizes that we are a people who are full of questions, but it has enough class not to provide us with a schmaltzy answer to the meaning of life. No one in their right mind could recommend the movie or the book as a source of ultimate meaning. Like hitchhiking itself, it is just free-spirited, aimless wandering. Watch the film and enjoy the ride. But please don't forget to put on your thinking cap when you go and do take plenty of lemons to squeeze into it. Just go see the film and you will know what I mean by that last bit.


Caruth said...

The Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy sounds like an enlightening film, though I have not yet seen it myself. Our own culture today is going through a similar phenomenon to that of Arthur Dent and the other characters of the film. As we have moved from being a local-hometown culture, to being a national culture, and now into the beginnings of a world wide culture, the scale of our "universe" has grown exponentially, leaving all of us to feel a sense of our own insignificance.
My personal response to this feeling was to simply reject all faith and, as in the film, believe that all things work simply by chance. I dubbed the word "purpose" as being purposeless and delved into my own aimless wandering based strictly on my own desires.
After living that attitude to it's rock bottom conclusion I too discovered a mathmatical solution for the meaning of life...ready, hear it is! 1+1=Infinity. Not much better than 42 but it does have a meaning. One part desire plus one part satisfaction leads only to a more intense desire for satisfaction! It's a never ending cycle that has but one conclusion in itself, that of death.
It was on this journey I discovered that what was meaningless was living my own will, for it led to nothing but more desire. As Ecclesiastes 12:13 says, it is in respect for God and His will that there is meaning, a truth I could not see until I discovered the futility of self.
It is in knowing Him and experiancing His perfect love for me on a personal basis that there is meaning and significance. It is in my drawing near to Him that He has drawn near to me (Jas. 4:8) and through turning my life and my will over to Him that I have found a life of my own worth living.

CJR said...

As a huge fan of the HGTTG series - and, really, all of Adams' writings, I'm greatly looking forward to the film!

Some great thoughts, Chris. And, certainly, there's enough nihilistic, fatalistic philosophy shot throughout modern culture (and especially in film) to rankle the Idealist and Rationalist in all of us!

A flat reading of Ecclesiastes, IMHO, actually sounds very much like HGTTG (thought, admittedly, without the superintelligent, hyperresplendent shades of the colour blue). So much of our religious language and culture today requires us to "read into" even sacred texts meaning that isn't there. How else could Charles Swindoll get 14 books out of a few pages of Pauline epistolary? Maybe there's more room for "irreverent" pontification and postulation than we're comfortable with?

I'm thinking of especially postmodern films like Memento, American Beauty and, on a lighter note, The Big Lebowski (talk about a romp through an introduction to an philosophy course!). These pop culture films are manifestations of the artistic vision of our time - not apologetics or evangelical tools for it.

Certainly we have an obligation to engage and understand the basis of such things, but there's also a space for doing this merely on the artistic level.

Oddly, I had this same discussion with folks (Christians) who were opposed to The Passion of the Christ because of its obsession with the violent death of Jesus. (What, they were supposed to focus on the footwear?) But I argued there that this is the vision of an artist - who are we, really, to argue over the "rightness" or "wrongness" of the medium or the palette? Isn't there really a place for the art to speak for itself?

HGTTG certainly isn't art in any overt sense. It's entertainment. And, yes, underlying that silly humour (:)) might be some presuppositions we take issue with. But I think it's also about how we respond to the film. Did we laugh? Were we moved to snorting? Was there milk coming out of my nose? If so, then perhaps there's something of God even in this!

Chad said...

I haven't seen the movie but read the book when I was about 12-13. I look forward to revisiting the book and seeing movie soon. But for a totally different topic, you got any thoughts on how Jesus is portrayed in movies? Not necessarily the character Jesus, but different views of him expressed in different films. For example, the principal in Saved gives us one picture of Jesus in his first-day-of-school speech.

Scott said...

I heard a quote the other day from a director, (I can't remember which one) but, he had this to say about movies, "There's no such thing as old movies, there's just wonderful "new" ones we haven't discovered yet."

I love movies and being a youth minister I am constantly at odds with that love... at least I used to be until about 7 years ago I directed a retreat that was called "Moment of Truth". One of the things we did was work with teens in finding moments of spiritual truths in their music, TV, and yes... their movies.

It really changed the whole way I view film. To me films and even music to some degree are our modern parables. For the most part, they come at you from a cultural and historical context and they will have a moment of spiritual at some point in telling of the story.

This gives the viewing experience more substance. It also makes for some wonderful discussions with my teens afterward. As much as our kids watch movies, this gives me an incredible amount of material to use as illustrations or to give a context to a discussion.

Finally, it is imperative that we enage our culture in the sense that we are in the world but of the world. Hollywood, whether they realize it or not, has given us a powerful tool in helping people to understand spiritual truth and how it fits in with the Gospel message.

I'm glad you're doing this Chris and I look forward to the discussions.

Scott, Lake Jackson, TX