Fr Pierre Martinius nursing plague victims, 1564. N532/0007 Rights Managed

I was ordained just after the SARS epidemic haunted North America for a very brief and unpleasant time in early summer. My bishop let we his clergy know that if things got as bad as the doomsayers were predicting, he would remove any of us who refused to visit the sick or worse, to use a phrase with echoes of the Black Plague, deserted our parishes. I confess that for a few days I entertained romantic thoughts of myself acting like Father Paneloux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, faithfully preaching, visiting, and burying (not that Fr. Paneloux was a hero to Camus, mind you, but it comes to mind). Fortunately such heroics weren’t necessary. SARS vanished as quickly as it came, a blessed few had to be buried, and none of my clergy colleagues had to be removed.

I was reminded of SARS as I watched Stephen Soderbergh’s scary and smart film Contagion last week. I’m sure Soderbergh wanted us to be reminded of SARS and all the other diseases that haunt this now all too flat earth. That’s the conclusion of David Denby in his very fine review in The New Yorker. r I’m not the only Christian blogger to recommend this film, which is fast-paced, thoughtful, and scary as hell. However, as I watched Contagion, I looked in vain for a priest, minister, or even a church. Not a sign of one. While Contagion does set up a conflict between rational science, reperesented by the heroic and steadfast researchers and doctors in the film, and irrationality, Soderbergh doesn’t bother using faith as his straw man.

The straw man here is the blogger and conspiracy theorist played by Jude Law, who plays on fears of collusion between governments, medicine, and big pharma to discredit the vaccine which finally arrives late in the film to save society tottering on the brink. It’s a good conflict, and it’s a worthy anttodote to the wild and half baked theories infecting the internet. But I was taken aback by the final words in Denby’s review”

“No one prays, no one calls on God. “Contagion” lacks any spiritual dimension – except for its passionate belief in science and rational administration. The movie says: When there’s real trouble, we’re in the hands of the reality-based community. No one else matters.”

Amen … I think. I’m grateful for Soderbergh for valourizing science and public administration in this film. Many of the characters in Contagion, like the doctor played by Kate Winslett, are worthy heirs to Dr. Rieux, the real hero of Camus’ The Plague. As Francis Fukuyama writes in the introduction to his 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, there is a prevalent notion that we would all be better off if modern states were dismantled when, in fact, they are damned complicated, took a long time to build, and are generally good for us. Soderbergh’s film underscores that point rather well. It’s just the spiritual emptiness in it which, once Denby pointed it out to me, saddens me.

Or maybe it’s not spiritual emptiness, but rather a displacement of spirituality that’s going on. In the same (Sept 19, 2011) issue of The New Yorker, Paul Goldberger offers an essay on how architects are rethinking buildings dedicated to medical research and science. Speaking of Louis I. Kahn’s design for the Salk Institute, he writes that the building gives “research scientists private, almost monastic solitude”. So that’s where the monks have all gone! I guess I’ll take some comfort in the idea that monasteries, once dedicated to being set apart to pray for the world, have given place to laboratories working to save the world. It’s an appealing and comforting alternative to the old SF movie cliche of the laboratory where bad things and nightmares are hatched. I take more comfort in the idea that God the creator, who created humanity to use its formidable intellect, finds delight in these beautiful buildings and tenacious humans who work to save life, which, I suppose, save for the mention of God, was Soderbergh’s point as well.

0 Responses

  1. It irks me when people deny God's healing power, deny the power of prayer. I don't know how we would have survived without our faith in these last few traumatic years.

  2. Very interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing the film. I'll be very interested on your thoughts if you get to see "Melancholia" (Lars von Trier) – a different kind of apocalypse.

  3. Alex: it didn't strike me as denial so much as ignoring. And maybe I'm being too hard on Soderbergh. I do recall seeing a nun tending to the sick in a later scene on the film.

    Sidney: Haven't seen Melancholia . Is it as grisly as his film Antichrist?

  4. Michael, to me there is very little difference between the two. having said that I have to admit I haven't seen the film yet, but hope to soon.