Dystopia(n): (1) an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives; (2) the opposite of utopian; (3) one of my favorite literary and cinematic genres (check out the top 50 dystopian movies on this list) It doesn’t matter whether it is Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel or Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, Waterworld or Planet of the Apes, Max Headroom or Blade Runner, there is something about this genre that speaks to me in a particularly powerful way. Like OT prophets, these works—from the ridiculous (Zardoz) to the sublime (Brave New World)—latch onto a particular area of contemporary unease or unrest and project it into the future with ominous foreboding: “If you don’t take a look at yourself and change XYZ,” says the prophet, “then look out: innocence will be forever lost, love will die, beauty will be destroyed, the machines will take over and the world will explode”
This fascination with the dystopic brings me back to George Orwell’s 1984 on a fairly regular basis, and I was reminded again recently of how profoundly and disturbingly insightful this book is when I ran across these two articles: 1984: The masterpiece that killed George Orwell and Eternal Vigilance. Both articles point out how Orwell’s experience of tragedy—his wife died during a routine operation—war, and constant sickness gave him a, lets say, particularly un-sentimental view of the world; in his dystopia the individual was always in danger of being enslaved–if not already subjected to–consolidated power and manipulative forces beyond his/her control.
For Orwell, one of the most insidious ways this power was and is wielded is through the manipulation of language. Whether it was the “Four legs good, two legs bad” propaganda of Animal Farm or Winston’s historical revision work for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, Orwell highlighted the importance of language by exposing the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it can be abused. It is just this awareness of both the power of language to structure reality and the relative ease with which it can be manipulated that the distinction between Law and Gospel at once exposes and addresses. These two words proclaim that we do not have the ability or even responsibility of creating our own worlds via language, rather we are the objects on whom the Law is operative and for whom the Gospel brings order out of chaos, death from life.
“We know that the Law is spiritual,” writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:14, and we further affirm with him that it is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”(Rm.1:16). Accordingly, the Law is neither a set of regulations nor a “worldview” we choose to either accept or reject, it’s not a guidebook or even a general principle of holiness against which we are judged; rather, with Gerhard Ebeling, we can agree with Luther’s understanding of the Law as,
“an existentialist category which sums up the theological interpretation of humanity’s being as it in fact is. Law is therefore not an idea or an aggregate of principles, but the reality of fallen man.”
Holding onto the distinction between the Law and Gospel and its corresponding critique, both epistemological–how do we know what we know–and anthropological–what and where are our limits–allows for an honest assessment of the reality of this fallen world. Here, in this present darkness is where the brilliant majesty of the Cross is in its starkest relief. This message of the Cross does not offer Leibnizian platitudes or abstract answers, but it exposes the reason (sin), provides a promise and anchors a hope that the last word—of the two spoken—will be yes.
There is certainly more that can be said about all of this, but for the moment, and while waiting for that day, I’ll continue to appreciate dystopian novels and movies as echoing the similar critique of the Cross, while remaining ever vigilant for the sound of a clock striking thirteen.