Oppenheimer wins seven Oscars: What “a movie of the moment” says about our cultural future

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Oppenheimer wins seven Oscars: What “a movie of the moment” says about our cultural future

March 11, 2024 -

Cillian Murphy poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "Oppenheimer" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Cillian Murphy poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "Oppenheimer" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Cillian Murphy poses in the press room with the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "Oppenheimer" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Oppenheimer won last night’s Academy Awards for best picture, best director (Christopher Nolan), best actor (Cillian Murphy), and best supporting actor (Robert Downey Jr.), as well as for film editing, score, and cinematography. As you know, the movie tells the story of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s quest to build the world’s first nuclear weapons.

One reviewer explained its appeal, calling the film “very much a movie of the moment—a feel-bad hit for our feel-bad age, perfectly calibrated to capture the imagination of an audience perpetually scanning the horizon for the bloom of some new mushroom cloud.”

We don’t have to look far to find such “clouds” in the news:

  • Today marks the fourth anniversary of the WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic; the global death count from the virus now exceeds seven million.
  • The largest wildfire in Texas history was apparently ignited by a power company’s facilities; the conflagration has left at least two people dead, killed thousands of animals, and scorched more than a million acres of land. (For a theological reflection on this ongoing tragedy, please see my new website paper, “The Texas wildfires: What we know, what we don’t know (yet), and what to do with what we know.”
  • The proliferation of AI, cloud computing, crypto-mining, and electric vehicles is making unprecedented demands on America’s aging and increasingly inadequate power grid.
  • An epidemic of anxiety, loneliness, and technology-induced isolation continues unabated.

But I think an even deeper force is at work in our culture, one to which the gospel can uniquely respond with the hope we long to embrace today.

“There are no national principles”

In an article published Saturday, New York Times contributing opinion writer Christopher Caldwell analyzes America’s shift from a consensual, objective moral worldview to a relativism that is unable to “distinguish facts from wishes.” Using our fracturing response to Russian aggression in Ukraine as an example, he writes:

Fighting a war based on values requires good values. At a bare minimum it requires an agreement on the values being spread, and the United States is further from such agreement than it has ever been in its history—further, even, than it was on the eve of the Civil War. At times it seems there are no national principles, only partisan ones, with each side convinced that the other is trying not just to run the government but also to capture the state.

There was a day when our “national principles” were clear and compelling. As set forth in our founding creed, the Declaration of Independence:

  • Truth is “self-evident,” not subjective.
  • All people are “created equal” by God, not the product of chaotic or evolutionary coincidence.
  • We are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights” which the government does not bestow but protects.
  • We each have the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” a claim that contradicts the culture of death embraced by abortion and euthanasia advocates.

These declarations contributed directly to our national character, purpose, and astounding success on the world stage. However, as Ronald Reagan warned:

“We’ve gone astray from first principles. We’ve lost sight of the rule that individual freedom and ingenuity are the very core of everything we’ve accomplished. Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.”

The good news is that these “first principles” were not the invention of Founders long dead. To the contrary, they are as available to us today as they were to them.

“For correction or for his land or for love”

As I and many others have noted, our nation was birthed within the consensual morality of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Whether particular Founders were committed Christians or not, they lived in a culture where the biblical principles espoused in the Declaration were prevalent.

Now it falls to us to embrace these principles anew, to think biblically and act redemptively in all we do. When we make this lifestyle commitment, we join our omnipotent Lord as he continues to advance his kingdom today.

Scripture declares: “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend” (Job 37:5). He does his work in the world for three purposes: “Whether for correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen” (v. 13).

  • “Correction” in the Hebrew refers to a measuring rod used to convict us of our sins and to guide us into our best lives.
  • “His land” refers to the entirety of his creation.
  • “Love” translates the Hebrew hesed, referring to God’s unconditional, faithful, passionate love for us (agape is the Greek New Testament equivalent).

By his word and the ongoing work of his Spirit in the world, God continues to correct us, provide for us, and demonstrate his love for us. However, he requires our holistic commitment to holiness and can give only what we will receive with humble dependence on his Spirit: “Justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate. . . . he does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit” (vv. 23–24).

“If you will, you can be healed”

St. Theophilus of Antioch (AD 120–190) wrote:

A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light. If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it. In the same way, no one who has sin within him can see God.

But if you will, you can be healed. Hand yourself over to the doctor, and he will open the eyes of your mind and heart. Who is to be the doctor? It is God, who heals and gives life through his word and wisdom. . . .

If you understand this, and live in purity and holiness and justice, you may see God. But, before all, faith and the fear of God must take the first place in your heart, and then you will understand all this.

Will you “see God” today?

Monday news to know:

Quote for the day:

“Holiness, not happiness, is the chief end of man” (Oswald Chambers).

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