And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them…forsaking me and serving other gods…Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
-I Samuel 8
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We are in the midst of Advent: the season in which the church does the inconspicuous celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also does the highly conspicuous longing for his return. It is joy made poignant. Simultaneous to Advent, special Holiday films and episodes inundate the airwaves and digital streams with the magic of Christmas manifesting as the hope for romantic revelations under the mistletoe and extravagant gifts under the tree, the hope for one day of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. Not many holiday specials hope for this world to be rolled up like a ruined garment and replaced. That very Advent longing is sadly mute in our Christmas culture, a culture that at best expects us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and, by the goodness buried in every human heart, make the world a better place. To this Christmas culture I offer Snowpiercer as a tonic.
Snowpiercer functions as a classic dystopian narrative. Curtis, played by Chris Evans of Captain America fame, lives on the eponymous train, an ark which has salvaged a remnant of the human race from a self-inflicted apocalypse and whisks them on an annual circuit through the uninhabitable, snow-bound planet. (What could be more Christmas-y than endless white-swept vistas seen from train windows, right?) The train is governed by some pervasive and yet unseen authority whose devotees carry out his orders with brutal efficiency. In classic dystopian fashion, this world is great for some and terrible for the rest. The system, like the train’s miraculous engine, is effective, even elegant, and utterly dehumanizing. This doesn’t sound Christmas-y at all, and it’s not. But, Snowpiercer is a deeply theistic story and one that unexpectedly, if unintentionally, pierces the heart of Christmas to get at a very Advent longing.
Snowpiercer presents itself as allegory, with each element of the story functioning as a microcosm of our world. The closed system of the train holds humanity, divided into two classes—elite and deprived—and deeply interconnected. It’s globalization shrunk down to snow globe size. Carrying the concept of economic scarcity to its logical limit (you only have what fits on the train and this must be carefully maintained), the rules afford a glut to the few at the zero-sum expense of squalor for the rest. A police state enforces this so-called balance on the back of the train through propaganda, deprivation, and brutal punishment for dissent. The rhetoric of the elite reeks of privilege and pomposity. “We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.” This ideology is harder and harder to swallow seeing as how the preordained particular position of the pampered elite is built on the subjugation and suffering of the entire class of maimed people in the back of the train (people whom you suspect were intact when they boarded the train all those years ago).
The metaphysical and positional antithesis of the steerage-class caboose of the Snowpiercer is the engine, the holy of holies on the locomotive ark. Powered by perpetual motion, it is the very essence of eternity through which all things exist and to which all things are owed. The elite revere the engine as their consolation in this ruined world and the logic undergirding their atrocity. Curtis’ people respect the engine as the means to power and a reordering of justice in their favor. And the guy who built the engine? He’s god and his name is Wilford. The merciful giver of life whose word keeps everyone in their right place with a terrible sovereignty, interceded forth by a hideous priesthood. This whole system, world, god, and all, is a joy to the elect and a monstrosity to the objects of its wrath.
Snowpiercer is a deeply religious allegory, self-consciously so, and its distribution of misery and comfort strips every rider on the train of their humanity, the rich and the poor. This is the world that Wilford, the engineer, the god, chose to give the people. Snowpiercer, then, begs the question: if God is like this and the world is like that, is God’s train acceptable? But, there is a crucial bit of tension that runs through the heart of the narrative. In our post-Wizard of Oz film world, we are bound to wonder what Curtis and his people will find when they reach the engine. What’s behind the curtain? Is this truly a divine system? Or is it a merely human construct enforced by the powerful to secure their position, and therefore a system that could be replaced with something better? This tension, at last, opens our window on Advent longing.
In Snowpiercer, as with all dystopian narrative, something has gone disastrously wrong in the world, and some person or party has devised a system to salvage humanity, but at great cost to some. And the system is only ever all too human. It’s the pattern of The Hunger Games, 1984, A Handmaid’s Tale and on down the line. Dystopia so often depicts a quasi-religious kingdom demanding fealty before the god of the state. This god certainly demands an awful amount of blood because its acolytes must deploy the police state to shore up its powerlessness to control the heart and mind through law. Transcendence is bound up in service to brutality. The system is shot through with brokenness, its people haunted by memories of something better, unable to shake the feeling that civilization can’t come at the expense of the dignity of the individual. So dystopian fiction is driven by the belief that a better way presently exists and can be found. A remnant of the remnant of humanity has studied the system and seen its atrocities and weaknesses and sets out to exploit a fissure in the wall and so make their escape.
In that sense, dystopia and Advent are perfectly wed. We all live in a world in which something has gone disastrously wrong. We long for restoration in our inner deep and in our society. We long for a good King to reign with a perfected paradox of justice and mercy. We have long endured all-too-human systems attempting to stand in for our banished King, but every episode in the long succession of regimes and revolutions has been both haunting and haunted. Haunting in its slowly unfolding prejudices and tyranny and haunted by a memory, experienced as a foretaste, of something better that eludes us around every bend. We are unable to shake the feeling that we are each more than a disposable part in an economic and political machine. Dystopia resonates with us because it is a technicolor version of what is already true. Like the citizens of dystopia, we long to return to Eden, but, the way back is guarded by a flaming sword that frustrates our repeated attempts to breach the walls with that quintessentially human religion of politics and policing.
Into this our dystopia a child was born to open up the way out, a narrow gate through which we would find our way to something beautiful, something dignified, something just, something free. And so Advent meets us ever in the second act of our dystopia, inextricably bound to injustice and tyranny yet having heard of the way out and taking on faith that its true, and waiting. Looking. Hoping. Longing for the apocalypse to crumble the walls of a broken system with a shout like a trumpet. This, though, is where Advent and Snowpiercer part ways.
Unlike Curtis, we don’t act out our longing for a better Kingdom by plotting to take over the train. We act out our longing by living as though the Kingdom had already come, as though we were already restored. It has; we are, though we still wait. We live out the life of the Kingdom even as we wait patiently for its arrival. The discomfort we endure is a constant reminder that we are waiting. This, then, is the beautiful promise of Advent: because God was gracious enough to enter our dystopia, we can look forward to the end of the succession of human gods and manmade paradise and instead look for the re-arrival of the God-man Jesus Christ to console us in his Kingdom. Come, Lord Jesus!
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By way of epilogue, and with serious spoilers so I’ll take just a moment for anyone who doesn’t want to know the ending to stop reading…
I think Snowpiercer ultimately presented a very positive theistic view. It vented much hatred for religion-in-man’s-likeness, and may have tried to make God out as a cruel fabrication, but it undermined itself in the end. The world of the Snowpiercer train was never more than a human construct. Just another religious construction built to serve the ends of man, with no God in sight. Its engine, its eternity was a facade; the perpetual motion engine ran on child labor because its parts wore out and could not be replaced by anything other than a tiny person. Its god was nothing more than a man whose plans could ultimately be blown up. True, the ark once served a purpose, but its purpose had passed, as slowly became clear to the one true prophet on board who noticed the snow was melting. Power was preferred to truth and that was the sin that undid the Snowpiercer.
The bomb, then, was a cry to God for deliverance from this hideous train, and God answered with an avalanche to crush the train and open up the door to the untamed landscape of his grace and providence. Unforsaken life existed outside the train, despite the mythology of certain death. So a remnant of the remnant of the remnant stepped out into a landscape utterly wild, as utterly beyond their control as God’s grace and providence. There would be no subversion of this landscape to human will, but rather a submission of the human will to the kind of life this landscape would provide. And that is the very essence of Advent longing.