Arrival and Us: Are We All Speaking the Same Language?

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Almost everyone likes Arrival. The $24.1 million worth of people who saw it thought it was just fine. (It gets a “B” from viewers, according to Cinemascore.) Secular critics thought it was fantastic. (It’s got a 93% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and plenty of reviewers are calling it one of the best movies of the year.) Even Plugged In gave the thing 3.5 plugs. Our reviewer Bob Hoose wrote that “this intelligent, multi-layered pic is likely not what you’re expecting it to be at all.”

I’d agree with that. Arrival was an unexpected thinkpiece, and it was particularly fascinated with the nature of language: How very, very difficult it is to communicate not just with alien beings, but with each other.

The plot revolves around Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist asked by the U.S. military to communicate with some extraterrestrial visitors. What these visitors want is unknown: Is this an invasion? A friendly visit? A tourist excursion? We have no clue. Not only do the two species lack a common language, they lack a common anything. It’s not so much that they or we are trying to learn, say, Mandarin Chinese. It’s like they or we are learning tree. Little surprise that humankind’s first interactions with these beings consists of a lot of staring.

Slowly, Louise begins to form the basis of communication. But just as Louise begins to talk with the aliens, earth-based governments stop talking with each other. Seems they’ve been communicating with their own extraterrestrial visitors, and what they’ve heard—or think they’ve heard—might trigger a world war.

It’s a fascinating theme, language, and one I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think it holds a great deal of relevance for us today.

More than ever, I’m realizing how disconnected we are from one another, a point driven home during this latest electoral cycle. It’s not just that we disagree on issues or points of emphasis—something that has always been a part of our political system—but we sometimes can’t even agree on a basic set of shared facts or stats. We may have starkly different definitions of key words like “freedom” or “racism.” The very same words may communicate very different meanings, depending on whom we’re speaking to.

But our communication difficulties often go beyond politics and hit issues of even greater importance.

Recently at my gym, a young guy (quiet, bespectacled, a little awkward) sidled up to an older gentleman (burly, gregarious) and launched into one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever heard.

“So,” the young guy says, “you read any books lately?”

“The Bible!” the older man answers, seeing opportunity to share the Good News with someone. He relates how he’s in the middle of Jeremiah now, sometimes pulling out some reference materials if he’s not quite so sure about the meaning of a passage. The young guy politely smiles and nods until the old man winds down.

“What about you?” The older man asks.

The young man says he’s reading a science fiction book. Something about how a man and a half-woman, half-snake creature fell in love and lived quite happily together—until the man in the book realized that his paramour was part reptile.

There was a long pause.

“Now, what sort of benefit do you get from reading something like that?” The older man asked.

The young man stammered a bit, “Well, it’s just for fun.”

“Well,” the older man said, “at my age, I don’t have time to read for fun.”

And with that, the conversation ended. I walked out of the dressing room feeling strangely sad.

I couldn’t see either of these guys at they talked. But even across the room, I could sense the younger guy’s need for connection, his need to make a friend. I could sense the older man’s desire to introduce the younger man to God and Jesus and the faith that has meant so much to him.

Technically, they spoke the same language. They understood each other just fine. But they couldn’t connect. They might as well have come from two different planets.

We Christians are not of this world, Jesus tells us in John 17. We are, in a sense, alien. And as alien cultures tend to do, we’ve built our own communities within this world. We’ve even, in a way, developed our own language. And even when we consciously try to avoid evangelical buzzwords, we may sometimes slip into evangelicalese anyway. When I was writing a blog for a more secular outlet not too long ago, I said that a movie had “convicted” me. A reader—apparently unfamiliar with the concept of feeling healthy shame in regard to sin and/or wrongdoing but fairly familiar with Law & Order—wrote and asked me what I meant.

We Christians are different, and we should be different. But I wonder whether we sometimes come across as so different that it makes connection harder for us. In Manchester By the Sea, Patrick, one of the film’s prime protagonists, has lunch with his mother—a one-time drunk who was found, and perhaps saved, by religion—and her new “fella,” Jeffrey. After dinner, Patrick is asked what Jeffrey was like.

“He was very … Christian,” Patrick says. He didn’t say it with malice. But it was a mark of differentiation between Jeffrey and Patrick. He is different. Other. Alien. We don’t speak the same language.

As Christians, we’re called to spread the Gospel across the nations. We’re called to show God’s love to those we meet and show the world that there’s a better way. The need for our message has never been greater, but the resistance to that message has never been stronger. And while I know there’s a whole host of cultural and sociological reasons for that resistance, I wonder whether there’s more at work here. Whether we’re losing our shared language with the very people we’re supposed to help.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

charitysplace More than 1 year ago
You write some great posts, but this is by far one of the best. I've thought a lot along similar terms recently -- that we need to assume other people have no background to know what we're talking about, when we're talking to them. If we don't, we can come across as elitist, snobs, or people out of touch with the real world. It's easy to forget something as simple as "saved" (typical response from a non-Christian - from what?) is a statement made in a foreign language to anyone who is unchurched.

Imagine, then, what a conversation with typical end times theology leaves them with (I'll give you a hint, as my neighbor summed it up -- "those idiots believe in the ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE!!").
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I agree that Arrival is definitely not what I thought it would be, even after reading Plugged In's review.  It was different and refreshing, thought provoking, and somewhat foreign feeling to me.  Its strangeness was not unpleasant, just unexpected.  Yet because of it, I think it delivered a challenge to viewers to examine the consequences of our communications, rather effectively.  As a believer, communicating for change is something I long to do better every day, to God's glory.  Thank you for your articulate insight.  I hope this story and your blog will motivate more Christ followers to reflect on the challenges and opportunities we have to communicate and connect for eternal purpose as we listen for guidance from Christ's Spirit in each encounter He orchestrates, be it familiar or foreign.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Posted by First Comment Guy


A "B" from Cinemascore is actually pretty bad; the equivalent of an "F" for their standards. (an A+ is an A, an A is a B, an A- is a C, a B+ is a D, and a B is an F)

[removed] More than 1 year ago
This comment has been deleted
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Posted by First Comment Guy


I have never taken drugs in my life. And I use my Bible (with a capital B) to read; I don't eat it.