When I got an invite to the premiere of the IMAX screening for I am Legend, I went to the theater expecting an evening of frothy fun and engaging eye candy - pure escapism at its best. While the sight of zombies up close and personal almost caused me to jump out of my seat a few times, I was more shocked to discover that this action-packed thriller struck an unexpected spiritual nerve.
In a nutshell, I am Legend presents the story of Robert Neville (Will Smith), a brilliant military virologist who was unable to contain a terrible man-made virus. For reasons we don't quite understand, as Neville has become immune to this deadly disease, he remains the last human survivor in New York City, and perhaps the rest of the world.
His days are spent driving around a desolate and deserted Manhattan as he tries in vain for a cure, as well as any sign that he is not alone. This search for meaning in a world destroyed my man's own hand somehow elevated this film from the other flicks that employ the latest in special effects to demonstrate in graphic detail the myriad of ways our planet could meet its final demise.
Even though Neville insists he does not believe in God, the film takes on a Judeo-Christian twist around the third act when Neville becomes faced with a decision that requires an act of sacrificial love. For me to say anymore will destroy the movie-going experience for anyone who intends to catch this flick. While die hard sci-fi fans may decry how the final act unfolds, I left the theater with hope in my heart, a sensation I seldom experience while watching zombies in action.
Even though Neville keeps his body in top physical shape, his soul starts to deteriorate under the pressures of living a solitary life where he is all alone. This demise of the self brought to mind the documentary Soul Searching: The Journey of Thomas Merton that I had seen the previous day. What struck me about Merton's journey was that even though he spent much of his time living in solitude, the Trappist monks living in the Abbey of Gethesmani provided the support that enabled him to live in community while being isolated.
Also, this week, I got the opportunity to observe Justin Fatica conduct a retreat for 7th and 8th graders at St. Gabriel's School in East Elmhurst, Queens. Yes, this self-proclaimed minister's style of full frontal evangelism in a Catholic setting does stir up some understandable controversy. The newly released HBO documentary, Hard as Nails, touches on some of the joys and pitfalls of this type of hard core street ministry to troubled teens. But what struck me by watching Fatica in action was that the core of his message comforts these abandoned adolescents by letting them know that they are not alone. They are guided by God.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. - Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude.
Becky Garrison explores ministries that reach those for whom church is not in their vocabulary in her new book, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church (Seabury Books, 2007).