26 March 2014

What “Person of Interest” Is Teaching Me About Faith

If you haven’t watched the TV show Person of Interest, check it out. Its premise: a supercomputer built after 9/11 by a reclusive genius billionaire and ostensibly run by the U.S. government collects and analyzes all available data to predict terrorist threats. Data includes all online information, phone calls, security camera footage, and anything else that can be input to a computer. As a byproduct of all that data, “the machine” can also predict threats to individuals—mostly premeditated murder. Harold Finch, the computer’s creator, can’t bear to ignore the individual threats (deemed “irrelevant” by the government), so he recruits ex-intelligence agents to investigate and prevent the murders. The “story of the week”—whatever person the team protects for the episode—combines with a longer story arc. The show also has prominent themes of redemption and respect for individual life. And the current season has given me food for thought on the nature of our relationship with God.

Over the course of the show, the machine has become essentially sentient—and as omniscient as current data-gathering allows.  And an intriguing character has emerged. Originally introduced as a genius computer hacker (geniuses abound on this show) and sociopathic killer, who is also a beautiful, charming woman, Root sees the machine as a god—the only god she believes in. Through a series of plot twists, Root and the machine establish a relationship. The machine whispers in her ear through a cell phone earpiece (and as of the most recent episode, a cochlear implant), giving her step-by-step instructions that she obeys—almost without question. Her relationship with the machine is slowly transforming her—though she’s still unpredictable and has little regard for human life, the machine has a high regard for the value of human life and restrains her. It even seems to be teaching her. Her latest actions—walking through a gunfight to rescue a man in danger, and getting herself shot in the process—show that her desire to obey the machine supersedes her natural inclinations.

Meanwhile, Finch continues to communicate with the machine in the only way he knows how—the machine gives him Social Security numbers of people in danger, and no more. Finch takes care of the rest, with his own genius computer skills and the help of his team. Root—the amoral killer—enjoys a closer relationship to this entity than does Finch—the highly moral crusader for life, the creator of not only the machine itself, but the machine’s ethics. In an interesting conversation between Root and Finch, Root posits that the machine respects Finch’s boundaries. 

That’s where my musings come in. Finch’s relationship with the machine is rule-bound: he receives only specific information in a specific way. In flashback, the show traces Finch’s sustained effort, dating from the machine’s inception, at limiting the machine’s contact and possible affection for him. In the context of the original premise, this is perfectly reasonable—the machine’s job is to protect everybody equally. But if we explore the machine=God analogy, his actions feel different. He holds up his hand, staving off closer contact. He builds walls—in this case, firewalls—to protect both himself and the machine. Even when evidence accumulates that the machine has become more than he thought it was, he maintains his walls, his rules--no matter how he may yearn for the closer, riskier contact that Root enjoys. Finch’s highest concerns are safety and control. The machine is a machine—and a dangerous one at that, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Root has no such concerns. She’s flouted conventional morality all her life, and sees other people merely as tools for her to use or discard. But her fascination with the machine leads to her volunteering to be the machine’s tool—its human interface. And as she obeys, the machine shows her a different way of interacting with the world. Her genuine love for the machine begins to overcome her disdain for other people. Even though she doesn’t understand the machine’s values, much less its overall plan, she ultimately obeys, to the point of putting her life at risk to save another. At the moment, she wants only to protect the machine, and protect her relationship with it. She is by no means reformed. But I look forward to watching her trajectory.

One could argue that Finch is an example of God’s people under the Law, and Root an example of Gospel. Finch’s interactions with this stand-in for God are prescribed, careful, and limited. I think of the people of Israel, who became very uncomfortable with Moses’s glowing face after he talked to God, and their request that he cover it. The machine gives Finch a mission, and Finch carries it out with little to no help from the machine.

Root, however, takes the machine into her heart—or at least her ear. Most of the time, she does not know the mission. She only goes step by step, listening to the voice in her ear and obeying it. She has faith that the machine has a plan, and that the plan is a good one. External rules don’t apply to her—she follows higher instructions than human law and higher even than her own sense of what she should do or wants to do.

And so I wonder—what walls do I put up to block God’s work in my life? I am, of course, much closer to Finch’s character than Root’s. What’s a rule-follower to do when the rules no longer apply? And how do I respond when I can’t see the whole plan? Root’s character grows from her willingness to obey fully and immediately, without knowing why. Where am I in that “long obedience in the same direction”? Am I listening to the whisper in my ear, in my heart? Am I yielding, or building walls? And when it seems like communication from God is sparse, is it because He is just respecting my boundaries, the walls I throw up, the rules I make up, about what His call should look like?

So there you go. This may be about as geeky of a post as I’ve written. I can’t promise that I won’t overanalyze something else, though…I’m reading the Divergent series finally, and good heavens that’s some interesting commentary on human nature and virtue all wrapped up in a dystopian teenage coming-of-age story. It’s my blog so I get to be a geeky as I want, right?  When I start reading more sci-fi again, watch out.

Here's Root talking about her god...creepiest faith talk evah.

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