Don’t Look at Yourself: Polarisation and the ‘Problem’ with Parables

I left social media for Christmas and returned to find everybody talking about a film about why nobody is talking about the climate crisis. 

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is a piece of satirical sci-fi about two astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) who attempt to warn humanity about a comet that’s set to destroy the earth in six-months. It’s a film about media indifference to the climate crisis, political corruption, corporate greed and fake news. And it has proved to be pretty divisive. 

Some have celebrated the film as a much needed wake-up call, whilst others have called it simplistic, smug and self-righteous. It wasn’t funny enough. It was alarmist, fear-mongering, too preachy. 

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it (if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word), both as a piece of art and an important message. I found it thought-provoking and disturbing, albeit slightly too long and a little on-the-nose. But what fascinated me was how many of the criticisms people levelled at the film demonstrated the very problem it was seeking to explore, namely the near-impossible task of convincing people who don’t want to be convinced.

It’s little surprise that responses were so polarised, since the film is kinda about polarisation, and is itself polarising. Every character fell into one of two camps, with little middle-ground; those who laugh vs. those who scream in terror; those who listen to science vs. those who don’t; those who #JustLookUp vs. those who #DontLookUp. Few characters successfully switched from one camp to the other until it was more or less too late. 

I suspect the same might be true for viewers.

The American novelist Upton Sinclair famously wrote, 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Not just his salary, I would say. His lifestyle as a whole. His ability to exist comfortably in this world without having to make sacrifices, or endure a few mild inconveniences. We have a propensity towards selfishness, and we don’t take kindly to people exposing it. When challenged, we would rather deflect with criticism, humour, or any number of diversionary tactics. Look down, look away, look at others with scorn, but whatever you do, #Don’tLookAtYourself. 

As W.H. Auden wrote in The Age of Anxiety,

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

This is one of the challenges with parables, as I’ve written about previously (with the help of another Netflix offering, The Crown). They’re a powerful method of communication, used expertly by Jesus, at least one of whose parables was precisely about people who looked the other way (Luke 10:25-37)! 

But the sad fact is that whilst parables often expose truth, they don’t always result in changed hearts. Even for Jesus. When the chief priests recognised that his parables were about them, they didn’t follow him, but doubled down and sought to arrest him (Matthew 21:45-46). Recognition does not always lead to repentance, it often leads to hearers becoming further-entrenched in their already-held views. 

I’m already passionate about creation care and believe it’s a major and often-neglected part of our calling as those made in the image of our Creator. I seek to convince others of that through my preaching and writing, whilst recognising that I’ve still got a long way to go myself. So I was already inclined to appreciate this film, and as a result, it worked on my heart to intensify my desire to care for this world. But I also suspect that if I’d begun watching the film with the mindset that climate change is alarmist nonsense, I would likely have ended it feeling more confirmed in my position. Consequently, whilst I hope and pray that this film will wake people up to the need to act urgently, I also know that convincing people to alter their views and lifestyles is an uphill battle, and I suspect that disappointingly few people will have had their minds changed by this particular parable. 

There are many questions that I’ve been pondering since watching Don’t Look Up, and a good many religious themes I’d like to write about if I could do so without spoiling the film for those who haven’t yet viewed it (e.g. Timothée Chalamet’s character, and his relationship with Christianity; the contrast between his prayer and that of Jonah Hill’s character; the dining table scene, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah 22:13 and 1 Corinthians 15:32, to name a few!) But the questions I’ve been reflecting on most are:

  • How does this film challenge me, and what is my response? It’s easy to come away from a film like this and criticise the media, or world leaders, without responding to the challenge at a personal level. So what am I going to do about it? Where do I lack urgency in my own care for Creation, and what steps can I take to do better?
  • Where am I in danger of reacting to parables in the same way I think others have done to this film? I have prejudices and blindspots, and I don’t for a moment think this is a problem ‘out there’ for others, but to which I am miraculously immune. So where am I unable or unwilling to receive provocation and challenge because of self-interested presuppositions that I’m reluctant to let go of? Where have I allowed my heart to grow hard or cynical, and I need a fresh dose of humility?
  • How can I better convince people of things I think are deeply important, such as our God-given duty to care for the planet, or indeed the good news of Jesus? How can I learn to be a better evangelist, communicating more effectively in a way that leads to genuine repentance and change? 

These are large and daunting questions. At the moments when I feel most at a loss about how to answer them, I have to remind myself of Romans 8. Creation is groaning in pain, longing for the day the Lord will return to liberate and renew it, and perhaps the most powerful thing I can do is join Creation in a Spirit-inspired groan, as I #JustLookUp and cry, ‘Come Lord Jesus, and make all things new’!

Additional notes:

A caveat and two comments that I would have included in the body of the piece, if they wouldn’t have ruined the flow, and which I would have footnoted, had WordPress allowed such basic functionality (!!)

When reviewing a film, we need to be able to comment on both the message and the medium, assessing it as a piece of art and a social commentary. One might believe whole-heartedly in the message, whilst considering it a distinctly average piece of art, just as one might enjoy a film on aesthetic grounds, whilst rejecting its fundamental message. I do both all the time. None of what I’ve written should be taken to mean that I think everyone who criticised the film did so because they are anti-Creation care. You’re very welcome to believe it was just a bad film!

As for the Auden quote; I’ve not yet read all of this book-length poem, but it is on my wishlist for this year. But I came across the quote, interestingly enough, in the conversion story of former-environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth, which I shared here. I can’t help but wonder what he would make of the film?

And finally, the mid-credit scene was my favourite laugh out loud moment of the film. Don’t miss it!

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

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