The Obtrusive SelfJune 2009
by Tim Keller
Kathy and I saw the new Star Trek and loved it for what it is—a fun action movie. Among all the appreciative reviews however, several critics noticed a trend. The older Star Treks (TV and movies) were often corny, but they treated ‘big ideas’ like how the races should treat each other, the nature of justice, how people (and species!) should live together. The new Star Trek, however, is more about self-discovery, struggling with rivals, finding your identity, and personal fulfillment.
In the same way, The Lord of the Rings movies disappointed deeply loyal fans by filling characters such as Aragorn and Faramir with modern inner emotional conflicts that were absolutely foreign to the characters in the books, as they were in all old sagas. In ancient cultures what mattered most was honor and making your community proud by fulfilling your duty. The world was conceived as a testing ground to see whether you would be faithful to truth, beauty, and causes higher than your own emotions and interests.
Today, however, our cultures are highly individualistic. There is no duty higher than plumbing the depths of your own desires to find out who you want to be. In modern narratives, the protagonist is usually a person who bravely casts off convention, breaks the rules, defies tradition and authority to discover him or her self and carve out a new place in the world. In ancient tales the hero was the person who did just the opposite, who put aside inner dreams, aspirations, doubts, and feelings in order to bravely and loyally fulfill their vows and obligations. The director of The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, tried very hard to be true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story (which is modeled on the old sagas), but at certain points he simply could not understand the inner life of an ancient hero. He had to give us people who were struggling with doubts about ‘who they really were.’
I am not picking on the new Star Trek movie at all (we expect to see it several more times this summer). In many ways, the self-discovery theme comes naturally to a story about younger people just coming into their careers. But the movie serves as an occasion to reflect on what is going on in our culture. Andrew Delbanco’s book The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope traces out the history of the things American society has offered its citizens as their reason for living. His little book has three chapters, entitled ‘God,’ ‘Nation,’ and ‘Self.’ In the beginning, Most Americans understood that their purpose in life was to live in this world in such a way that they were prepared for the next. After nearly a century and a half things changed, and while God was still present, the main thing in life was to build strong families, community, and a nation. We were to live for ideals such as patriotism, honor, and civic duty. Today, however, our main goal is self-fulfillment and individual happiness. Delbanco convincingly traces out this trajectory.
How different our modern world is from Jesus, who spoke of ‘losing yourself (in service to God and others) to find yourself,’ who spoke of discipleship as taking on a ‘yoke’ (Matthew 11:28-30), losing your independence and saying ‘no’ to many of the desires of your heart in order to find rest and true freedom.
When we see a well-done piece of art there are usually great messages in it (bravery, self-sacrifice, love, right and wrong) and also some mistaken ones. It’s always good to be circumspect and, while appreciating the good, being careful not to let unwise messages affect our hearts by “sneaking under the radar” of our minds.
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