What Christians Should Take Away From ‘Oppenheimer’
Every three years we get to experience something that nobody else throughout history has gotten to experience—a Christopher Nolan film. I often wonder if the feeling I get when a new Nolan film is released is similar to when C.S. Lewis would release a new book or when Edward Hopper would reveal a new painting. This feeling of excitement and wonder is something only the great storytellers can pull out of their audience. This Thursday I felt this excitement and wonder while walking into the movie theater to see Nolan’s newest film, Oppenheimer. By the time I left the theater, I still had those feelings, only now they were complexified and confused. Oppenheimer forces the audience to ask extremely difficult questions related to morals, ethics, and decision-making while not giving a clear answer—leave it to Nolan to leave the viewer to make their own call. And as I discussed the movie afterwards with my wife (who was not as much a fan of the movie as I was), it led me to ask what I believe to be an even more important question: what should Christians think about films like this?
I appreciate Nolan’s focus on making sure the history is told in its entirety. In a culture that seems dead set on revising and changing historical facts, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a storyteller like Nolan do his best to keep his films as accurate as possible. But with accuracy comes complexity—one of the primary critiques of modern filmmaking that I’ve heard (mostly from evangelical, conservative, Christians) is that modern films don’t have a clear good guy, bad guy dynamic, making the plot more chaotic. This is mostly thanks to Christopher Nolan and his filmography with movies like The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. All of these films have protagonists who are heroic in some ways and then devastatingly blind and even evil in other ways. Oppenheimer is no different—Robert was a complicated man but at his core he was, as I see it, confused, blind, and foolish. And while his intellect made him famous, his ethics surely made him depraved. This sort of character seems to bother the modern Christian who would rather watch watered-down, millennealized (yes, I made that word up), and revised versions of the Bible in shows like The Chosen. And, as a conservative I can see the attraction. We want to preserve what is good and get rid of what is bad—that’s literally what being a conservative is. And I respect that theologically, politically, and even culturally, but not in the realm of storytelling and history.
Oppenheimer, and other films in its camp, seem to attack the questions that lie at the depth of human nature. Are we good or bad? And if we’re bad, how bad are we really? What Nolan portrayed in this film and what I think Christians can take away from it is the fact of human depravity. If you aren’t sure what the concept of depravity is, it’s the Christian theological truth that all humans are evil from the point of conception, meaning, that all humans are therefore deserving of Hell because of their sin nature. People are bad. That’s the answer to the first question. Of course, the second questions seems to be harder to answer, and that’s why I won’t make an attempt at it here! What I will do is explain why J. Robert Oppenheimer is a good depiction of a human being without an ultimate purpose—he’s lost, and wandering in the dark can lead to some horrifying places. To start, while Oppenheimer was teaching at Berkley in the 1930s, he was flirting with the ideas of Communism, both physically and metaphysically. He attended Communist parties and at one of these parties, met a Communist woman with whom he jumped into a love affair—lasting until she killed herself years later. These decisions came back to haunt Oppenheimer later in his life.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the move is when Oppenheimer gets the news that his Communist lover has committed suicide—Oppenheimer runs to the hills to lament this tragedy only to be found by his wife. Kitty finds and grabs her weeping, distraught, husband and tells him that he doesn’t get to sin and not deal with the consequences. Oppenheimer is faced with his sins head on. Later in the film we find that he had been having an affair with another woman throughout the Manhattan Project and while he was not flirting with Communism anymore, he was still entrenched in the dehumanizing and objectifying nature of the secular philosophy. Oppenheimer’s life was a mess—his marriage, his children, and himself.
But Oppenheimer undoubtably had a positive impact on history as well. It is believed that had the U.S. not been the first to create the atomic bomb, many more people would have been killed. And as for the “why would Oppenheimer help create a weapon that could cause the end of human civilization?” rebuttal—the answer is simple. If Oppenheimer hadn’t, the Nazi’s would have, considering they had a two-year head start and some of the world’s top physicists. If America didn’t create the atomic bomb, someone else would have, and it wouldn’t have been people who should have access to a weapon like that. The question was not, “should we make an atomic bomb?” The question was, “who’s going to make the bomb and how should we use it?” Oppenheimer stepped up in a time of chaos, death, and destruction to lead perhaps one of the most important projects in the history of the world—and he succeeded.
So, what’s my point? What should Christians think about a film like Oppenheimer? Christians should see these kinds of films as an opportunity to look inward and reflect on their morals, ethics, and beliefs. And they should reckon with the fact that, within all of our heroes in history, there seems to be something that holds them back and takes control of their actions—that something being sin. And it’s still present in you and me. It’s an unchanging fact of life. People are inherently bad. Even the best of us can’t get past it. Who is David without Bathsheba? Or Paul without Saul? The biblical story is full of wicked, depraved, and evil people doing terrible things. God keeps that in the story, he doesn’t shelter us from it, because it’s meant to convict us and ultimately change us. And while Oppenheimer doesn’t seem to repent or change, the story can show us the sad reality of a life wasted in the pursuit of purpose—being pulled in every direction by philosophies and ideas that will only suck the life out of you. In the end, Oppenheimer is a tragedy more than a triumph. The power of the intellect is much the same as the power of an atomic bomb, deadly if not wielded by wisdom.
Note: I do think Christians should be vigilant against sexual content and nudity in films such as Oppenheimer. While some might claim that these scenes seek to maintain historical accuracy, but are nonetheless vulgar displays and pointless to the plot of the film.