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“Watch any good shows lately?”
Usually, the answer is no. Most of the time I doom scroll through the streaming apps, only to land back on Seinfeld.
It’s a condition of our time, a fear of commitment born out of too many options.
I signed up for Peacock because it’s cheap, and it includes new movies just released in the theater. While scrolling I came across the trailer for Mrs. Davis, a story about a nun named Simone who is given a quest by the benevolent AI application named Mrs. Davis. The mission? Find the holy grail and destroy it. If she is successful, Mrs. Davis will give Simone anything she wants. What she wants is for Mrs. Davis to shut down.
Simone became a nun after having a mystical experience. She wasn’t a religious person, but when faced with a difficult circumstance she did what many people instinctively do—she prayed. At that moment, she found herself face to face with Jesus. Jay, as she calls him, runs a lunch counter that serves the best falafel.
In response to this experience, Simone became a nun and started a new life in a cloistered community. Through a life dedicated to prayer she continued to have mystical experiences with Jesus, who is her husband. (The marriage is consummated off screen.) For Protestants, this sounds like blasphemy. For cloistered nuns, it’s a Saturday night vespers service.
Growing up, I attended a Catholic middle school and high school where I learned about the seven sacraments and attended mass every Thursday. As a Protestant kid, I had no idea what to make of this symbolic world. They didn’t know what to make of me, either. Christian Reformed? Never heard of it.
I vividly remember the smell of the church, the crucifix hanging in the front, and hearing a reading from the book of Tobit. While I didn’t know it then, these religious symbols were leaving a deep imprint on my life.
A few weeks ago I took students to Italy to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi. We went to Catholic churches, took part in a papal audience, and stared in awe at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I find these experiences both overwhelming and strangely comforting. The students have a similar experience—as if their heads are about to gloriously explode.
This is what I felt watching Mrs. Davis. The story gives Catholicism a new twist even when it holds on to tradition. Mary, the mystical experience of eating, the Holy Grail, and the sign of Jonah are all there.
As we walked through Italy, students noticed the ubiquitous presence of Jonah. He’s everywhere—including a place of prominence in the Sistine Chapel. I explained how Jonah is a Tolkienesque story in which the tomb of Christ is the belly of a fish, and resurrection is being vomited out on dry land. My students were taken with the idea that the sea, and the great sea monsters, hold both biblical and mythological significance. They usually respond with perplexed intrigue. This is how I watched every episode of Mrs. Davis—with unsettled comfort.
There are many ways to interpret Mrs. Davis. On the surface it’s a crazy story about AI, consumerism, and the sheepishness of human beings. People take comfort in the presence of a beneficent dictator who ties everything together and makes the meaning of it all simple and plain. We want to be happy, to have 5 out of 5 experiences as we try to earn our wings. To get this security, we’re more than willing to sacrifice our freedom, and with it responsibility.
It’s not hard to see the connection between Mrs. Davis and an all knowing, all controlling, deity. It’s much easier to keep Jesus in the tomb, where at least we know where he is. An entombed Jesus is manageable. Like a short order cook, he gives us what we want.
A resurrected Christ is free. The resurrected Jesus empowers us to live as the new humanity in this world, so we might take responsibility for our lives and the plight of our neighbors. Jesus calls us into a life that is not fixed—it’s not some grand plan we need to figure out. It is a life open to new possibilities—what Jurgen Moltmann calls the “surplus of resurrection” and what the bible refers to as new creation.
Instead of fearing uncertainty, instead of holding on tightly, we are given God’s blessing to ride off into the unknown, with the promise that Jesus will always be with us, and that we, too, are with him. This is the power of hope, and this is how Mrs. Davis ends.
Actually, it ends with a horse, but also a powerful message of hope.
I end with this quote from Jacques Ellul which sums up my experience of Mrs. Davis. Your experience will be different—but that’s why you watch.
We can never say “this has to be done.” For the hard pressed person who wants specific instructions there is no ‘Do this or that.’ There are no clear, simple, universal, Christian solutions to all the problems which arise. We can only put the problems as clearly as possible and then, having given the believer all the weapons that theology and piety can offer, say to him: “Now it is up to you to go and find the answer, not intellectually, but by living out your faith in this situation.” There is no prefabricated solution nor universally applicable model of the Christian life. Freedom itself causes the difficulty…Freedom implies that each Christian discovers for himself the style and form of their action.Ethics of Freedom