Stepping through the blue: ‘The Truman Show’ and ancient cosmology

“And even though all other animals
Lean forward and look down toward the ground,
He gave to man a face that is uplifted 
And ordered him to stand erect and look 
Directly up into the vaulted heavens 
And turn his countenance to meet the stars…” 
                  —Ovid, Metamorphoses I : 118-123

We were made to wonder. The Romans knew it, the Hebrews knew it, and we know it today. Our curiosity knows no bounds. Even Hubble’s most advanced deep field images aren’t enough for us—we have to see even farther. This past year, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope captured the deepest image of space we’ve ever seen. Next year, we’ll probably see farther still. And still it won’t be enough. Ovid said that the tendency to look up in awe is something so intrinsic to being human that it’s built into our physical bodies. We are not gods ourselves, and yet there is that within us which yearns toward higher things.

Though the Hebrews embraced only one God as opposed to the entire Roman pantheon, they too recognized the sky’s call to wonder. Knowing that their Creator had formed the cosmos inspired praise. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” the Psalmist writes (19:1). Mankind stood at the pinnacle of the created order while still being subservient to the Divine. For the ancient Jews, the sight of the stars was a reminder of that truth, suggesting both human dignity and humility: 

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:3-5). 

In addition to being a sign of God’s power, the stars also were a sign of His blessing and love for humanity. Abraham was told his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky (Gen. 15:5). For all of his life, he would be able to look up at night and know that the same God who made the stars cared about the outcome of his life and his line. Beauty, majesty, and divine compassion were written into the constellations above him. 

The 1888 “Flammarion engraving,” depicting an explorer putting his head through the firmament.

The 1888 "Flammarion engraving," depicting an explorer putting his head through the firmament.

For the most part, our modern age has abandoned the principles of ancient cosmology. In some respects, that’s a mark of progress—we now know that the earth is round and that it’s the sun at the center of the solar system. But we’ve also abandoned the religious significance of the skies. There’s no longer a God of the universe, or if there was one he’d be selfish and fallible as we are. As a result, our scientific exploration has a new bent. When we turn our telescopes towards the heavens, we do so as an expression of independence from divine authority. 

Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show offers a memorable depiction of this new cosmology. Truman, adopted as a child by a television corporation, lives his entire life in front of hidden cameras. The show’s creator, Christof, directs the narrative of Truman’s life inside a massive set with countless paid actors. Truman starts to suspect that something is off when an object falls from the sky: a spotlight labeled with the name of the brightest visible star at night, “Sirius (9 Canis Major).” He puts more and more clues together until the truth about his life comes to light. Truman finally attempts to flee the set via boat, leading to a dramatic showdown with Christof. 

The film is rich with symbolism. If Christof is the creator figure in this film (with “Moses” as his trusted assistant), then Truman is the stand-in for all of humanity, the “true man,” as it were. It takes a falling star—the disintegration of old views of the cosmos—for Truman to start seeing reality as it really is. When the prow of Truman’s boat scrapes up against a painted horizon, he makes the choice to leave behind the relative safety and comfort of his childhood “faith” and strike out into the unknown. Christof and Moses were only out to make money, after all, and they can’t control him forever. In this modern vision, mankind seeks knowledge of the universe so as to become free of a jealous and limited God. Truman steps through the blue wall of the known universe and becomes his own savior. 

While the image the film provides is a compelling one, it’s also incomplete in some ways. The Truman Show doesn’t try to explain the beauty and order that’s observable throughout the universe, or the sudden lift of the heart that you or I might feel when we witness the Milky Way’s flow across the sky. The writers of The Truman Show depict a kind of wonder in Truman’s sense of curiosity—I wonder how far I can go—but fail to explain the other side of wonder, the sense of smallness before something that is greater than ourselves. That is because wonder in its highest form is always relational. Christianity posits that the root of all that seeking and reaching and exploring isn’t really an attempt to escape God, but to become one with Him. Our longings to transcend this reality’s constraints make more sense when we realize, like Truman, that there is a truer world than the one we inhabit. We ourselves carry something of the Divine within us. Even in rebelling against our Creator, we cannot fail to reflect His ingenuity and strength. 

The Romans were right: to be human is to keep our eyes “uplifted,” to want always to become more than human. Christianity offers an explanation of why that might be. “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). The Scriptures speak of a day when the distinctions between creature and Creator will not be drawn as sharply as they are now (John 17:23). Strangely enough, the God who is said to “stretch out the heavens like a curtain” (Ps. 104:2) has declared Himself to be knowable, and says that He desires to be known by humanity. Christianity is a faith that claims to satisfy our deepest longings. If there’s even a chance that its claims are true, it would be worthwhile to investigate. 

You live a busy life and so do I. Each day, there are countless demands on our time and our energy. We work to provide for ourselves and our families in the short time we have on this globe. But despite all that, we do well to remember the poet Hopkins’ call : “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” The entire cosmos, from the electrons that orbit their nuclei to the planets that orbit other stars in other galaxies, cries out for our attention and promises to reward the one who stops to see. For those who look with faith, the sky becomes meaning-full as it was in ancient times; it tells stories of a mercy that goes beyond our wildest imaginings. “Whatever your intellectual quarry,” writes Stratford Caldecott, “if you pursue it to its ultimate lair, you will find the mark of love in the very nature of things.” 

2 responses to “Stepping through the blue: ‘The Truman Show’ and ancient cosmology”

  1. Very thought-provoking article, Mary Caroline. I realize that “looking upward” can be literal, as well as metaphorical. An interesting observation regarding the literal interpretation is that very few stars are physically visible in large metropolitan areas, thereby drastically limiting the opportunity for natural wonder of the cosmology. The ability “look upward” mentally becomes much more important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading! I appreciate the insight about city skies—that’s so true, and it’s one reason why I’m grateful to be living in the country for a while. Let me know if you have any topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts 🙂

      Like

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