How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
“It’s all gonna burn.” At least, that’s true in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Mother!, which begins and ends with smoldering destruction. But instead of cautioning against this fiery end, Aronofsky seems to be asking something else entirely: “Why does everything in the middle matter, anyway?”
Mother!’s metaphorical nature is evident from the start: a house is resurrected from dust and decay and a woman is formed in the process. The woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the secluded country home with her poet husband (Javier Bardem) and spends her days tip-toeing around his writer’s block while restoring their home. When a stranger shows up one night, her husband is immediately enthralled by the visitor and invites him to stay against his wife’s quiet discomfort. The next day, the visitor’s wife shows up looking for him, and the two slowly wreak havoc on Lawrence’s reserved and sensitive character.
By the film’s end, the quiet country home has turned into a war zone undone by wild masses of people, senseless killing, and the religious fervor of the poet’s fans. Throughout the film, the biblical allusions are practically overwhelming. The general storyline suggests that the visiting stranger and his wife are Adam and Eve figures who break “God”‘s forbidden object, ruin the tranquility of the “paradise” that Lawrence’s character (Mother Earth?) is creating, and cause the eventual destruction that envelops the entire home.The most heartbreaking part of this deeply disturbing film is that Aronofsky’s vision of God hardly varies from that of most Christians.
But Aronofsky is meticulous, and the allusions are crammed into every moment: the Adam figure has a large cut in his side (a missing rib, perhaps?); a “garden of Eden” is boarded up after the “Fall”; the intruding couple’s sons fight and one murders the other. There’s even a “communion” scene of sorts, though not one for the faint of heart.
Aronofsky’s detail is at once rich, impressive, and almost suffocating. Without a real narrative to ground the detailed allusions, it feels more like a smack over the head than a guiding nudge into the message behind the metaphors. More than anything, it’s deeply disturbing. But as a truly apocalyptic work, disturbing and shocking us is exactly what he’s trying to do, as the unfamiliarity of the world he’s creating peels back the veneer from our own. You’re supposed to walk away unsettled, with the nagging feeling that perhaps the story that so repulsed you is closer to your own than you’d care to believe.
While many of the film’s details have been dissected, debated, and dissected again, it’s the cyclical nature of the creation story that reveals the most about Aronofsky’s perspective. While his “God” figure passionately and sacrificially cares for the people that invade his home, he’s stuck in the endless cycle of creating, allowing utter destruction, and trying again. As many have noted, this aspect of the film echoes similar themes of Aronofsky’s earlier Noah: God is ultimately powerless to prevent his beloved creatures from destroying themselves, so he must wipe them out to create again with a clean slate.
This theme isn’t just evident in the fiery beginning and end. It’s also the logical conclusion of a limited and incompetent god. Aronofsky’s “God” may love his creation, but he’s unable to seek their true flourishing in any meaningful way. He comforts and provides, but he also excuses their faults and offers no correction to their sins. Ultimately, Mother!’s “God” is the kind many claim to want: warm, kind, accepting.
But that’s the film’s real gut-punch: without justice, divine love only causes destruction. Without the omnipotence, omniscience, and righteousness of the real God, this “God”’s love fails time and time again. Instead of redemption and restoration, there’s only an endless cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation.
The poet may love his fans but he displays that love by continually allowing them to fall deeper and deeper into their own destruction and the destruction of his home. When the visiting man and woman break the poet’s most prized possession (an “apple” in the garden of Eden, perhaps), he boards up the room that once housed it, but hardly tempers his acquiescence to the couple’s overthrow of the home. Instead of a love that meets true needs and seeks authentic flourishing, this love allows the couple to pursue their own desires, even those that are self-destructive and ruinous to everything else of value.
The love between the poet and his wife follows a similar pattern. The man’s love for the women is, as she notes, really just enjoyment of the fact that she loves him. He’s incapable of making decisions that are good for her, as if “God” has abandoned the world he created in favor of the violent and malevolent people he loves so much. This “God” is unable to take care of any of his creations because he lets everyone do what is right in their own eyes.
While the real God is so much better than this, the most heartbreaking part of this deeply disturbing film is that Aronofsky’s vision of God hardly varies from that of most Christians. The “it’s all gonna burn” mentality runs deep in American evangelicalism in particular. “Why polish the brass on a sinking ship?” we’ve asked for decades. Or, as the intruding woman asks Lawrence’s character about her renovation work, “Why not just start over? Build a new house?”
Christians have largely failed to communicate our God’s vision for redemption, not just re-creation. We’ve used verses like 2 Peter 3:10–13 to justify our callous approach to environmental issues, cultural engagement, and even healthcare legislation. If the house is going up in flames in the end anyway, why spend time repainting or fixing the plumbing? As masses of uninvited guests descend on the house and death and destruction take over, the woman’s words feel even more prescient: wasn’t that renovation work all for nothing? “God” was just going to start all over again anyway.
In a certain sense, that’s the most powerful part of Aronofsky’s environmental conservation message: when you have such a shortsighted view of the earth, you’ll end up destroying it. Even more provocatively, when you have such a limited view of God’s redemptive power, you’ll treat His creation carelessly. The theology behind the rejection of humanity’s vocation as creation caretakers doesn’t just impact our view of environmental issues, it impacts our view of God’s power. If God has to burn everything down to start again, He wasn’t very creative or powerful to start with.
Mother! may have a Christ figure, but its “God” is the same one that Noah knew: a Creator God who loves his people and hates their sin but has limited ability to do anything about it. Perhaps unwillingly, we’ve often viewed God the same way. Instead of a story with a groaning creation awaiting redemption and freedom (Romans 8:19–23), we’ve reduced all of the Bible’s beautiful language about renewal and restoration into a superficial quip about a sinking ship. Our Creator’s strategy isn’t cyclical fire that lets Him start over again and again. He doesn’t carelessly allow His creation to be destroyed and recreated ad nauseam. Rather, He seeks the eventual total restoration that will make all the prior destruction beautiful and useful for His purposes.
Mother! is an uncomfortable, haunting, beautiful attempt at wrestling with the problem of evil. Aronofsky’s “God” may be loving in the most warm and fuzzy sense of the word, but he’s neither just nor omnipotent. He loves his creatures but doesn’t seek their wholeness. He laments their self-destruction but has no ability to restore justice. He has creative ability but no redemptive power. Unfortunately, Christians have displayed a partial belief in this God through our refusal to care for creation, and Aronofsky knows it.
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