Arrival, a thrilling cinematic treasure, graced theaters across the country on November 11th, 2016. The film is incredibly introspective and philosophical. The existential overtones are felt throughout its hour and fifty eight minute duration. The mysterious science fiction movie chronicles the story of twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft that touch down across Earth. The aliens “arrive,” but do not appear to be belligerent. Their ships leave no environmental footprint while maintaining a stationary position where they touched down.
The million dollar question everyone in the world is asking is “why are they here?” and “what is their purpose?” Amy Adams, plays the brilliant, but melancholy linguist, Dr. Louise Banks. Banks is recruited by the U.S. government to decipher the strange alien language and to understand their intent on Earth. Her co-star, Jeremy Renner, plays a quirky astrophysicist (Ian Donnelly) that helps analyze the language of the alien species.The two characters get acquainted on a helicopter zooming to the alien site for analysis.
There’s a memorable quote in their interaction that struck me as I watched the film. Ian, looks at Banks with an amused look while reading the first line in her book, says – “language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.” Banks replies, “that’s quite a greeting.” To which Ian states, “yeah, well, you wrote it.”
The movie does a fantastic job of highlighting the importance of linguistics. The words we speak and write have the potential to make an enormous impact in the psyche of others. This particular quote is noteworthy; communication can be used to build or tear down. There are dozens of Biblical scriptures that bring attention to the power of words. The book of Proverbs is notable for its many verses on the impact of words. Proverbs 15:1 is a classic example: “a gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make temper flare.” Proverbs 16:24 states, “Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” Finally, Proverbs 18:21 gives readers a sobering perspective on the effect of words: “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.”
Language can also be misconstrued and thus lead to conflict. In the film, Dr. Banks and her colleague Ian make considerable progress in decrypting the advanced and complicated language of the Heptapods (alien race). As their vocabulary grows, the characters discover a very important message the Heptapods are trying to communicate to humanity, “offer weapon.” All hell breaks loose after they translate the message in English and believe it to be a credible threat. The governments across the world, already on edge because of the lack of communication on the alien’s intent, ready themselves for war. Banks is convinced that the translation means more than the concept of a weapon and could have double meaning such as “device, apparatus, or way.”
As Louise immerses herself in the Heptapod’s language structure, she begins to experience time in a non-linearly way. She soon finds herself experience events not only in real time, but in the past and future. Nonlinear time is essentially being able to view the past, present, and future simultaneously. The Heptapods inform Louise that their intent on Earth is to share their language which also include their unique perception of time. With the exception of past people groups like the Mayans, humans traditionally think of time progressing in a linear fashion. We eventually learn that the Heptapod’s purpose on Earth is to offer a “weapon/tool” to help unify humanity, not destroy it.
Arrival highlights a widely debated theory called, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis or Linguistic Relativity. This hypothesis basically states that the cognitive abilities and differences in an individual is largely foundational to language that individual employs. We see this theory on full display in the film. The Heptapods have significant nonlinguistic cognitive differences. They don’t perceive time in a straightforward mode. They experience the past, present, and future simultaneously which allows them to affect the present. As Banks began to grasp the Heptapods perception of time, she was able to move through the future to extract important information that would affect her present.
What does this have to do with reconciliation? How can the church become more instrumental in healing of racial animosity and tension in the church? First, it’s vital that we counter misunderstandings over statements made in support of racial reconciliation. Second, the church must become more proactive in its communication of racial healing. Third, we must incorporate prophetic speech that has a nonlinear timely element in our online and offline communication.
It’s vital for the church to learn how to listen better. Only by listening can we begin a constructive dialogue on a subject that has enormous cultural and socio-political ramifications. The wound of racial animosity cuts deep; the subject is often difficult to talk about because of the psychological hurt that people have experienced. A calloused and insensitive heart will lead to minimal hearing and empathy. The foundation to a healthy and redemptive discussion is listening. I listen well when I seriously consider someone else’s feelings.
We have to consider one another’s feelings on this issue. This is where I concern myself with the opinions of others. David Anderson writes in Gracism, “I have to consider your thoughts, perspectives and feelings rather than making a unilateral decision that might adversely affect you. A fresh dose of Philippians 2:3-4 needs to be articulated in our online and offline communication. “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.”
As we begin a dialogue about this subject we need to express how important it is to have the mindset of I will cover you – People make mistakes. They say and do things that hurt us. We get angry. However, are we willing to cover people when they say something that offends us? Will we make allowances for their faults?
We must learn to communicate in a gracious way. Gracious communication is vital to healthy relationships, effective job performance, and is a skill that can be learned. This type of communication helps us to better understand a friend, co-worker, or neighbor by allowing us to exchange ideas and information in an effective way. It enables to look at situations differently since we’re able to better disseminate information. It gives us the ability to resolve differences, build trust and respect, and create environments that are safe and where honor can flourish.
Become Proactive Rather Than Reactive
A cultural earthquake struck America in a powerful way this past summer. The shootings in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas took an emotional toll on millions of Americans. The truth is, the racial fault lines have always been there (tension between the Black community and police), but the tectonic cultural plates moved in a powerful way with a string of these shootings happening so closely together. In the past, the figurative devastation of these cultural earthquakes would occur at the epicenter.
In other words, the city where the tragedy would occur would bear the brunt of the ramifications. However, the technological advances of the mobile phone and the advent of social media has enabled the emotional shockwaves to be felt beyond the epicenter where the tragedies occurred. Although, Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota, the psychological tremors could be felt all over the nation. Because of Facebook’s newest feature “Facebook Live” millions of Americans we’re seeing live footage of a man dying in front of his girlfriend and her four year old daughter.
I studied urban planning and public administration in graduate school. My capstone project was determined current and future institutional structures and legislative authority to implement transportation infrastructure investments for climate change resilience in the Houston-Galveston region. The key word there being resilience. It’s imperative that our church builds institutional resiliency when it comes to the socio-political tremors that inevitably shake the souls and relationships in our congregation. We build institutional resiliency by becoming more proactive in our online and offline communication on racial reconciliation.
Nonlinear Timely Prophetic Speech
Prophets possessed a vision of what God can do beyond the challenges, limitations, and circumstances of their own time. Going back to the film, Arrival, being able to speak from a different time is a unique linguistic expression that can bring enormous benefits to the present. Dr. Banks received visions from the future that saved humanity in her present.
Prophets received visions of the future from God and promised restoration and hope to the people of Israel at their darkest time. They communicated that God’s faithfulness and commitment to Israel did not reside in the past, but that He is actively engaged in the present orchestrating deliverance. Bruce Birch writes in Reclaiming Prophetic Leadership:
The prophet stands in the tension between memory and vision, tradition and creativity. These are not either/or choices. The prophet sees clearly that it is the ability of God’s people to claim a historic faith memory on the one hand and to trust daring new visions of God’s future on the other hand that frees the community from the tyranny of the present.
The power of this cannot be overstated. Seeing into the future gives people hope for the present. Perhaps this is what made Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech so poignant. He shared a future, through a dream, that pictured a nation healed of racial hostility. Our online and offline communication must have a God-entranced vision of the world. “One day” language needs to be the norm rather than the exception.
I’m Harold Dorrell Briscoe. Thanks for reading.