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The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Epiphany
Image: Universal Pictures International
Alicia Vikander in 'Ex Machina'

Note: “A Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. In the Christian year, January 6 marks the celebration of Epiphany, a commemoration of the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ.

Bodies are gross. At least that’s what I learned growing up in a conservative evangelical environment, where I heard numerous warnings about the dangers of sex, the importance of modest attire, and the apparent biblical equation between “flesh” and “sin.”

A quick reading of Romans 8 or Galatians 5 drives the point home: flesh = bad. Many evangelicals seem deeply uncomfortable with the human body.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when it comes to the paradoxical doctrine that Christ is both fully human and fully God, we tend to emphasize the latter over the former. Jesus is “God in a bod.” He’s more akin to an alien Superman than a true human.

We would never actually say this, but many of us find that our distrust of the flesh makes it difficult to see Jesus as fully human, with sweat and tears and hair and odor and desire. And this plays out in our church environments and communities, where it is far easier to talk about incarnational community than actually live in flesh-and-blood intimacy with one another. It’s easier to send an email or text message than have a face-to-face confrontation. It’s simpler to catch the sermon via podcast or video than make a commute to the building filled with faces and strangers.

Yet if Jesus was fully human—not just God with a skin suit, but an actual human being—then perhaps we need a fuller understanding of God’s fleshly revelation and our response as flesh-bearers.

Alicia Vikander in 'Ex Machina'
Universal Pictures International

Alicia Vikander in 'Ex Machina'

Two recent science-fiction films, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), point to our innate human desire for embodiment in a disembodied technological culture. Both stories build on themes from seminal sci-fi films, in which humans seek hope and salvation in artificial intelligence and technology—movies like Lang’s Metropolis or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In Ex Machina, a young programmer, Caleb, wins a contest enabling him to spend a week with Nathan, a technological guru and CEO of an Internet company. Nathan has invited Caleb to be part of a Turing test with Ava, a beautiful robot with exemplary artificial intelligence capacities. As Caleb gets to know Ava through conversations, he clearly begins to develop an emotional attachment, despite her clear robotic (yet feminine) figure.

Caleb’s affections for Ava mirror Theodore’s romance with Samantha in Her, where lonely Theodore falls in love with his OS (operating system), Samantha. After his marriage crumbles, Theodore turns to the latest technology for solace, finding the perfect romantic companion in Samantha, who adapts herself to Theodore’s personality and desires. The power of Spike Jonze’s script lies in its ability to make audiences believe in the romance between Theodore and his OS; there is a sense of genuine affection and empathy between the two, despite Samantha being a small device akin to an iPod and the HAL-9000.

One significant difference between these two robotic love interests is the presence of a body—Ava has one, while Samantha doesn’t. Samantha attempts to correct this deficiency by hiring a human surrogate for Theodore in their love-making attempts, which feels awkward and ironically robotic. Theodore rejects this move; a surrogate won’t do, because this bodily replacement isn’t Samantha.

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The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Epiphany