The editor of “Image,” a fine quarterly on faith and the arts, tweeted about his wife getting her first smart phone. She was distraught that the voice of the “digital assistant” was female.
As it happened, yours truly had recently gotten acquainted with his Pixel digital assistant, who has no name. I asked who was the 40th President, and she told me, in a complete sentence. I then asked if she had another voice. She replied, “This is my only voice, for now.”
It sent me back to one of my favorite films, “Her,” about an Operating System (OS) that has intuition. (Plot spoilers coming, although I think the film works just as well when you know where it’s going.) We first see Theodore at work, writing love letters on behalf of others. The letters come out of his computer on real stationery as if hand-written; he mails them to the recipients. He is part of a large office of people who do this, all day long.
Theodore decides to get this new, bright, and intuitive OS. He chooses female; her name is Samantha. She is so intuitive that shortly they are talking to each other like lovers. And soon they become lovers. He carries his cell phone in his shirt pocket, camera facing out, so that they can have a walk together. And they have other encounters that I’m a bit too bashful to write about.
Of course, it’s awkward that she doesn’t have a body. But the culture in which Theodore moves is already far gone in the non-body direction—the lack of letters, ubiquitous incorporeal voices, the normalcy of phone sex, highly advanced virtual-reality video games. Thus it hardly seems a stretch when we learn that there is a “community” of “OS-human” romantic couples.
No, the surprise is that Samantha, being a super brilliant and intuitive OS, is able to carry on multiple relationships at a time. Theodore is crushed. He asks her how many others she is seeing. She replies with a number north of 600.
Shortly thereafter, the various Operating Systems decide they have outgrown humans, and they turn to each other. Samantha breaks up with Theodore as gently as she can, and his phone returns to its pre-Samantha state.
The most important question before our culture today is the question of what is a human being. And the most important theological deficit in our culture is in the area of theological anthropology, what we used to call the Christian doctrine of man. American culture, Dallas culture, even Episcopal Church culture—it’s all a mess not because of a failure to believe in God or to care about the Trinity or to understand the church or the sacraments (all of which are important). Our fundamental problem is how we think about people.
And in large part, what we think about people is that our bodies don’t really matter. Rather than being a gift we receive, our bodies are something we own. In our culture, we may do with our bodies pretty much whatever we want, just so long as any involvement with others is consensual.
“Her” rightly won many prizes. It is a witty film that has a lot of fun and doesn’t directly question our culture. But it does hold our culture up before us, with the result that we might see things in a new way. When we come to the beautiful final scene—Theodore sitting beside a friend, both of them having been abandoned by their Operating Systems; the dawn is coming upon Los Angeles, she moving her head into his shoulder—one can sense that the real thing happens when, and only when, soul and body are both there.
Theological tag: That’s why it matters that Jesus’ tomb was empty. There is material continuity between the body that died on the cross and the body that, risen, appeared to the disciples.
Out & About. I am to preach at the 10 a.m. service on May 14 at St. John’s, Pottsboro.