Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Spring.**
“You ever wonder what life is like in the finite?”
“Terrifying all the time, I’m sure.”
Two unlikely lovers, moments before they are about to be parted forever, reflect on what it means to be mortal. The man, Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), knows mortality intimately, having lost both of his parents in the past year, and he seeks to make every second of his brief life count. But the woman, Louise (Nadia Hilker), holds death at a terrified yet lucky distance. For millennia she has rejuvenated her life by harnessing a fluke of her biochemistry to her advantage, and she has no intention of giving up this evolutionary jackpot. These lovers meet in Spring, a film by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead that is difficult to classify in a single genre. Spring is a romance reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise: grieving American man meets captivating European woman while on a trip to escape his troubles, and they quickly form a deep attachment. But Spring is also a horror movie, as the evolutionary attraction of eternal life in this world (and the lengths to which one might go to achieve it) is pitted against the unique demands of love—desire for union with a particular, irreplaceable beloved. There is a deeply human crisis of meaning in these desires—to love and to live forever—when death appears to thwart them both. Spring embodies this crisis poignantly in a relationship, hinting at an answer that takes a few steps in the same direction as a Christian response. It is hopeful in spite of itself. Benson and Moorhead have created something beautiful and unique; incomplete theologically, but meaningful for Christians nonetheless.
Spring also relies heavily on biological evolution for the trajectory of the plot, for the body horror scenes, for the explanation of Louise’s dark, primordial secret, and for the satisfying nature of the story’s conclusion. To experience the meaning of the story, one must follow the narrative branches growing from that evolutionary root. The Christian position of evolutionary creation provides a vantage point from which to think through Spring’s themes on its own terms, while still maintaining a particularly Christian perspective, and that is the approach I take here. Spring also contains a considerable amount of profanity, nudity, sexuality, and violence. Although it can make for problematic viewing, most of it is not gratuitous but directly supports the plot and character development (entwined as these are with immaturity, love, fertility, sex, and death).
The secret at Spring’s heart is Louise’s mysterious identity. We catch glimpses of her temporary and highly disturbing bodily changes while her lover Evan is offscreen and unaware. There are hints she may be a succubus, a witch, a vampire, a werewolf, or perhaps an alien. She disappears at inconvenient moments, performs strange rites, and leaves dead animals, used needles, and streaks of blood in her wake. Over the course of their amorous week together in a village on the Italian coast, Evan’s uneasiness with Louise grows right alongside of his love for her. In a climactic reveal late in the film, Evan walks in on Louise in the midst of a particularly grotesque transformation involving tentacles, an encounter which he barely survives. After she returns to her human form, Evan confronts Louise about her identity. When she hesitates to attempt an explanation, he heads for the door. We finally hear Louise unpack her history and biology to Evan in a lengthy chase scene, as she trails him through the narrow village streets, entreating him to listen and to believe the unbelievable.
Self-giving, communion-making love like this is a repudiation of evolution, of its faceless interchangeability, endless competition, blind self-preservation and violence.Louise has inherited from her mother a biological condition that gives her the potential for eternal life. Every twenty years, her body begins to deteriorate as she temporarily regresses into creatures from humanity’s deep evolutionary past. If Louise can get pregnant during this transitional time, her body will metabolize the pluripotent stem cells of the embryo over the course of a week, culminating at the dawn of the spring equinox. She will then be a renewed person with 50% new DNA from the embryo, restarting the clock on her life. She effectually gives birth to herself, and in the process becomes a blood relative of the man she slept with. The resulting woman, though different in appearance, retains Louise’s consciousness and emerges with the physiology of a twenty year old, a change that will “keep” for twenty more years, until the cycle starts again. For millennia Louise has been avoiding motherhood, relational commitment, and death through this bizarre alchemy.
Louise uses scientific language to describe her condition, but it falls flat when laid out before a horrified Evan. He is faced with the reality that his girlfriend is not only a monster who is pregnant with his child, but that within 24 hours she will change beyond recognition. She divests herself of her own agency by hiding behind scientific jargon: a “condition” isn’t something she can be responsible for. The true horror of Louise lies not in the evolutionary ancestral creatures she reverts to in her pregnancy hell week, but in the fact that she reverses the process of motherhood by absorbing the child’s life to perpetuate her own.
The filmmakers play on our expectations that Louise will be like the spider who eats her mate after his usefulness has ended. But she actually echoes a different ancient archetype of the dangerous feminine: the devouring mother. A mother feeds and nourishes her children from her own body—through the umbilical cord in the womb, and then with milk from her own breasts. The child “eats” the mother, so to speak, receiving food and life directly from her. But in the case of Louise, for over 2,000 years she has been “eating” her children, using their cells to remake herself so she can live forever. This is not a biological problem—or, as she sees it, a biological solution to the problem of death. It is a moral and mythological problem—the insatiable hunger for more of myself at the cost of other lives, like greedy Chronos devouring his children to avoid being supplanted. She successfully avoids the sacrificial vulnerability of motherhood and the mutual submission of real partnership. Her regression into sub-human, evolutionary ancestors serves as a symbol that the pattern of her biological theft is degenerative. She acts as though this is ultimately a good (albeit messy) thing: she gets to cheat death and look gorgeous while doing it. But her achievement of eternal life precludes the possibility of meaningful love, with all of its particularities and oblations. She never ripens towards a telos beyond herself.
Louise is caught in an ouroboric cycle—a problem common to the heroes of Benson and Moorhead’s other films. In Resolution (2012) and The Endless (2017), some of the characters face the possibility of conscious existence in a never-ending cycle that doesn’t ripen to fullness. This form of eternal life actually takes on the flavor of torture, not triumph. Benson and Moorhead’s characters deal with the physical and existential trauma of repeatedly dying and being reborn into the same existence they had before (and what’s worse, they remember it). It is not the Christian pattern of death and resurrection into a new, imperishable, eternal life that both includes and transcends the prior way of being. It is rather the horror of eternal recycling in the here and now, of death and rebirth in a merely material universe that in its circular repetition is pointless. Benson and Moorhead’s stories deliver a gut-punch to this human idea of “eternal life”: if this is what you want, they seem to say, then be careful what you wish for. Louise’s particular achievement in Spring is not actually eternal life, but merely arrested development—a reboot that keeps her in perpetual immaturity. She never grows old because she never grows up.
Louise’s relationship with Evan began initially because she was on the hunt for a sperm donor. She has used men, rebirthed herself, and moved on for so long that she can’t even remember the name she was born with. And while she may be full of joie de vivre and passionate spontaneity, she is actually terrified of death, has never experienced true love, and remains a rootless wanderer. She is the puella aeterna, as “gay and innocent and heartless” as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Then she is confronted with the possibility of a loving commitment with Evan and its inescapable counterparts: motherhood and death. Evan is apparently the first of her consorts to form an abiding attachment to her that persists in the face of the knowledge that he has been used, that she is dangerous, and that his love is not (yet) fully requited. After his initial shock, and in a turning point that signals his own willingness to grow into responsible adulthood, Evan moves back towards Louise with curiosity, dedication, and an openness towards the mystery and risk that she embodies. He interrupts her rebooting pattern by being the one-night stand who wants more.
What ought to terrify us is the possibility that we will resist the work of God as He is transforming us into the creatures who love.Louise is called by Evan’s devotion to transcend her evolutionary, instinctual self-preservation and instead walk the risky path of love, which for her is simultaneously the path toward death. When pressed by Evan’s plea to find some way of remaining her current self (so they can stay together), Louise admits there’s a chance. She theorizes that if she truly experiences love, the resultant release of the bonding hormone oxytocin through her system would block the automatic metabolism of the embryo. She would then pass through her final regression and re-emerge as the current Louise, pregnant with his child, and now mortal like the rest of humanity. Louise herself was born because her mother (who had this same condition) experienced true love, became mortal, and formed a family. If it worked for her mother, it could work for her. Love might enable Louise to step off the merry-go-round into maturation and sacrifice, if she is willing. Evan’s steady companionship (something she has not experienced before) creates in her this willingness to put herself in the way of love. She agrees to spend her final 24 hours as her current self with Evan, in hopes that perhaps her theory will come to pass.
The question of Louise’s future, and whether she will stay with Evan, become his “daughter” and leave him, or very possibly eat him by accident in her last transformation, is decided in the final 5 seconds of the movie. At the heart of this is a role-reversed “beauty and the beast” mythology: the transformation of Louise from devouring mother to nurturing mother, from self-preservation to self-giving, from an eternal sterile cycle to a ripening that bears fruit. Louise leaves the pattern of evolutionary regression for the transcendence of sacrificial love. It is only in her willingness to die that love has the root room to flourish. The result is a surprising one for a horror film: the formation of a nascent family. A movie that begins with the death of a mother (Evan’s), ends with the “birth” of a mother, Louise.
There is something about love which is transcendent, that proves that we are more than just biological instances trying endlessly to perpetuate ourselves. According to theologian Bethany Sollereder, love insists on the hallowed nature of the individual, on a bond with a particular person for their benefit as well your own. This bond is not limited to the romantic, as love takes on a myriad of forms. Self-giving, communion-making love like this is a repudiation of evolution, of its faceless interchangeability, endless competition, blind self-preservation and violence. Agape love even transcends evolution’s symbiotic cooperation and occasional altruism, evident in Christ’s call to love not only those who love us back, but to love even our enemies. To be truly human is to love in a manner that transcends our evolutionary roots, to live out the calling of the Image of God, imitating His abundant generosity. Justin Benson, as an atheist, has written a story that honors the uniqueness of human identity and love. In his story, humans are more than animals and love is more than biological instinct. If the story had ended with Louise’s violent transformation into a new iteration of herself—killing Evan in the process—then the bloody cycle of the biological world would have gotten the final word. That would make for a truly horrific story. But Benson and Moorhead knew from Spring’s inception that it would end with a loving union, not a monster fight.
Love ends Louise’s evolutionary regressions into the sub-human, definitively setting her apart from other animals. In an excellent article in Christianity Today, Sollereder continues,
I think that love is a particularly human thing because it doesn’t come about naturally. I think that love is something that is sort of fermented by God in the soul. It’s baked in the soul, like bread. Bread is taking natural ingredients and combining them in a particular way to turn them into something wonderful. The same is true of beer, which doesn’t occur in nature. There’s the sort of fermentation process that doesn’t necessarily happen in nature, but we figured out how to do it. And I think love is the same: It takes the natural evolutionary desires, whether that’s altruism, the desire for security, or selfish desires, and God takes these natural ingredients and starts working in us to develop love in our hearts, and we can resist that. And I think that’s what sin is: It’s resisting the work of God as God is transforming us into the creatures who love.
Who gets the final word: Death or Love? If death is the end, then life should be grasped at all costs, no matter what—ample justification for both violence and the Peter Pan syndrome. But if love has the final say, then life and death are relativized, and both come into love’s service. Saint Paul prayed that he would “have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20-21, NIV). And again he admonishes, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:7-8, NIV). Depending on the context and story of any given moment, the most loving act may be to live, or it may be to die. It depends. The pattern of evolution is, “I take and eat your body; it will be broken for me.” The pattern of agapic love in Christ is, “Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.” The implicit hope embedded in love is that death is contingent and not final: “Death, thou shalt die” (John Donne).
To circle back to Louise’s assumption that life in the finite must be “terrifying all the time, I’m sure,” Christians can affirm that this need not be so. Part of Louise’s terror comes from her lack of faith: her cynical scientisms pepper the second half of the movie. Having lived through innumerable religious “changing of the guard” moments, she ironically admits she doesn’t know which God is currently in charge. She may be overly confident when it comes to dismissing the supernatural, but she cannot hide her fear of death. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Let us reflect on death as in Jesus Christ, not as without Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ it is dreadful, it is alarming, it is the terror of nature. In Jesus Christ, it is fair and amiable, it is good and holy, it is the joy of saints.” The love of God promises to accompany His own through all of life, even through its conclusion. The God who emptied Himself unto death for our sake surely knows how to companion us in our own deaths. He promises to not only resurrect the individuals who have trusted in Him by participating in His love, but also to renew the entire cosmos. He will effect a complete union of heaven and earth, making a newly constituted world for a newly embodied people, no longer bound by senescence, decay, predation, and death.
Sollereder encourages us that “the redemption that happened on the cross wasn’t just for humans, but for all the suffering of the cosmos. Jesus shared not only in humanity but in the molecules of the world. The carbon molecules in Jesus’ body were forged in the heart of a long-dead star, just like every molecule of carbon in your body.” What Christ assumed in the incarnation, He is capable of redeeming and resurrecting—down to the very atoms. He dove all the way down to the very depths of darkness and horror, and in His resurrection and re-ascent He brings with Him the whole cosmos, to turn it inside out and to make the last first, turning death into life. In this light, we can admit that there are worse things than death (which He has made temporary); namely, the refusal to participate in love. We ought to imitate Evan’s fear, not Louise’s. He fears the possibility of missing the opportunities for love that present themselves to us here and now. He admits to Louise in the midst of her last change: “Love comes around a couple times if you’re lucky. Life always seems short no matter what.” What ought to terrify us is the possibility that we will resist the work of God as He is transforming us into the creatures who love. It’s quite an achievement for a horror movie to move the audience not towards the fear of death, but rather towards the fear of resisting those heart transformations that genuine love can yield.
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