[The following is an excerpt from my book The Hero Doctrine: Awakening to Your Eternal Potential, in which I use parables from pop culture to rouse the reader to a remembrance of their duties and privileges in these latter days. This particular chapter uses the film Interstellar by Christopher Nolan as a parable for what our spiritual role is to be as we watch the end of the world come to pass before our very eyes. The symbol of the mirror, sword, and shield I reference in this section is explained here.]
Facing the end of the world, the people we see in Interstellar are constantly on the move. Packed-up vans and loaded trucks are going every which way. Everyone is looking, desperately, for hope.
“What are they hoping to find?” one character asks.
“Survival,” the other answers.
Survival and shelter—but both against and amidst the dust storms, a blatant contradiction. Though their search may be genuine, the failure lies in seeking to be saved while remaining in the very mess that blinds and chokes them, because they see no other way. They grasp blindly for salvation and meaning in a world where there can be none, for death is no longer creeping over the earth—it is enveloping it.
But Cooper has a sense of what is truly needed. In a world where people are trying to survive while remaining stubbornly in their current state, Cooper understand the only way survival is actually possible: change. The people need to transform. To transcend their usual barriers.
This change is the effect wrought by the work of the sword. The use of our gifts to convince them of the error of their ways and beckon them out of the dust, and onto a higher plane, for the answers are only found above us, not amidst us.
“Shall [the Son of God] save his people in their sins?” Zeezrom once asked pompously of Amulek.
“I say unto you, he shall not,” Amulek answered plainly. (Alma 11:34)
To put it another way: only those who are willing to change can be redeemed.
Cooper finds himself in the secret headquarters of NASA, where they are brewing a project kept hidden from the rest of the world.
“Tell me this is where you explain how you’re going to save the world,” Cooper demands of the underground board of officials after first hearing of this.
“We’re not meant to save the world,” the project’s leader, Professor Brand, tells him. “We’re meant to leave it.”
In the film it is as if the earth is using the dust storms to chasten her children, to snap humanity out of its complacent ways. We are not meant to remain where we are born, embroiled in our sinful behaviors, she is telling us. We are meant to leave such things behind, and take to loftier skies, to take, quite literally, to the heavens.
“This world’s a treasure,” Cooper remarks afterward. “But she’s been telling us to leave for a while now….Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”
No it was not, we can agree emphatically. But sadly, so many of us are still languishing in the mire, lost and blind, and many willingly so. Others, whether they know it or not, are indeed searching for the answer amidst the storms.
Brothers and sisters, we, uniquely, know the answer—that it lies not in the dust, but above—and we, alone, can help them find it. The Sword of the Spirit cuts down enemies by converting them into allies. This process bring souls unto Christ—including our own—to be saved and exalted by Him. Using that sword and turning eyes heavenward is our duty, our work to do, and that work is not yet done.
The dust of these latter-days chastens the Saints as much as it chastens the world. It serves as a stimulus to hasten the work and divide the wheat and the tares. “In addition to stimulating our repentance,” writes Elder D. Todd Christofferson in April 2011 General Conference, “the very experience of enduring chastening can refine us and prepare us for greater spiritual privileges.”
In my own life there have been stretches of my life where I was not permitted to possess a temple recommend because of struggles with addiction. Such a rebuke is not so much a rejection from our Heavenly Father as simply a way of saying these things are serious, to warn us sharply that we cannot stay in the dry dust of complacency any longer. It is the beckoning finger of God, urging us on to higher peaks—to act, to work, to ascend, lest we fall.
From whatever avenue it comes, the Lord is ultimately going to bring us to that moment of decision, where we must choose what world we wish to live in by either our action or inaction. Will we use the sword—our potentials, our talents, our gifts—for good? Or will we simply set such things aside and instead set ourselves to amusements while battle rages in the last days?
Because though our work is not yet done, neither is Satan’s. Unfortunately, he is much more active in fulfilling his desires than many Latter-day Saints are in fulfilling God’s. The adversary has made these last days a literal spiritual battlefield, with real dangers, real enemies, and real consequences to our every action, our every choice. We must be as vigilant in wielding our sword and shield as any weary warrior. We are, after all, a chosen generation, the best of the best, as our prophets have told us, and we are marked, targeted, for that very reason. And if my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that even the best of us can fall, returned missionary or not.
In Interstellar this spiritual peril is made literal. With limited fuel, Cooper’s team must choose between which two potentially habitable planets they will go, each of which was first discovered by a previous respective explorer: the planet found by Dr. Mann or that found by Dr. Edmunds. Mann’s radio signal indicates that his planet is an ideal world, with a beautiful surface beneath a layer of frozen clouds. Earlier in the mission, Amelia had described Mann as “the best of us,” the most brilliant and courageous scientist at NASA, so down they float to Mann’s base camp on the frozen clouds. After waking him from cryogenic hibernation, he immediately embraces Cooper, weeping as he has not seen a fellow human being in many years. He immediately begins to tell them about the surface of the planet, how wonderful it is, how perfectly it can support human life for as long as they need. At first they are encouraged, and want to see the surface to know for themselves. Thus Mann takes Cooper on an investigatory hike.
Then the minor keys suddenly play: out of the blue Mann attacks Cooper, and reveals a devastating truth as he attempts to hijack the ship so he can return to earth. The results were faked; his icy planet has no surface, no foundation, and he can’t bear to be alone anymore. Even as Mann leaves Cooper to die, he begs Cooper not to judge him: “You were never tested like I was,” he says pathetically.
Yes, Mann, the best of the best, the most intelligent and courageous, was indeed tested: and… he failed, utterly. Mann’s very name speaks the truth about his soul: he is the natural man, selfish, fallen, and full of fear, sending out unambiguous invitations to come to him and his planet, enticing us to follow him into the foundationless great and spacious building so he is not alone. Satan, too, is a coward, and seeks to bring down the rest of God’s children with him into outer darkness, the definition of lightless solitude.
Many of us have also been tested. Many of us have subsequently fallen, unable to handle the pressures of the mission. The same goes on all around us as the latter-day saints are beset by doubts and hard doctrines. These pressures, like a hot oven, rise and rise until not only does a former saint turn away from the path, but he actively goes about destroying fellow souls, persuading others to fall with him, rebelling against that which he once risked everything for.
I’m sure you know some people like this. I know too many. Hence this book.
Both Professor Brand and Dr. Mann make much of a particular poem by Dylan Thomas about our reaction to the very notion of death. This poem is repeated several times throughout the film. The first three lines of the poem, as recited by multiple characters, are:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.
When the poem is read by Professor Brand, it seems to be intended as inspirational; the film is, after all, about fighting for survival in the face of a seemingly sealed fate. But as Mann quotes it, we see the other side of the coin: in stranding his fellow humans and hijacking their ship, he, too, is refusing to “go gentle into that good night.” As Cooper’s father-in-law says wisely to Coop back on Earth, “Don’t trust the right thing done for the wrong reason. The ‘why’ of the thing? That’s the foundation.”
Mann does successfully hijack one of the expedition’s ships, which he pilots up to their modular craft, the Endurance. His clumsy attempt to dock, however, fails, killing him and blasting apart one side of the Endurance, sending the ring-shaped craft spinning rapidly over the white planet. Cooper and Amelia can only watch in horror—the Endurance was their only method of continuing the mission or returning home.
Then, in what is arguably the most (unexpectedly) thrilling sequence in the entire film, Cooper, with his extensive piloting experience, moves his ship to dock the Endurance anyway. To do this he must draw perfectly parallel with the Endurance, then rotate his ship at precisely the same speed as the modular craft’s speed, enduring inhuman G-forces while maneuvering an insanely intricate path to latch on.
“It’s not possible!” he is told.
“No,” he responds electrifyingly. “It’s necessary.”
But even as he moves to do it, he is struck with sudden uncertainty. That is when he is reminded, “Cooper, this is no time for caution.”
Cooper grins, and dives in.
Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote about the word the craft was named for: “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing,” he says, “but to turn it into glory.”
We might call such a thing “enduring well” (D&C 121:8). Not just carrying the load, in other words, but running with it. Those two parts are important: above the icy planet, Cooper had to endure incredible gravitational forces and perform that perilous maneuver.
In our lives we are tasked with not only resisting Satan’s temptations, the pull of his dark gravity, but also work to turn the tides of the entire great spiritual battlefield we call the latter days. We must not only keep our own soul, but help save others’. That is the work of the sword we are called to wield in defense of truth and virtue.
And we can either wield it, or be lulled “gently into that good night.” That is our burden, we saints of the latter days. Given the state of the world, given the flames that have spiritually swept over the culture, given the blindness that obscures so many sacred truths to so many eyes, and the riotous celebration of the great and spacious building over the whole earth—given all this, and that we are fifteen million out of nearly seven billion—could it be any more apparent how much the Lord trusts us to deliver his message?
“Something brought you here,” Professor Brand reminds Cooper, and all of us. “They chose you.”
Cooper, the father, was chosen by those strange godlike beings. But in the end he was forced to hand the work down to his offspring, the next generation, the last to survive on Earth. Our prophets are wise, inspired by heaven. But they are not responsible for the work on the lines, the work in the trenches. As leaders, as generals, they teach us, they guide us, but we are the generation who must act and rise up in such a way as has never been done before in the history of the world.
“The major work of the world is not done by geniuses. It is done by ordinary people, with balance in their lives, who have learned to work in an extraordinary manner.” That’s a prophet speaking, Gordon B. Hinckley.
It is always shocking (to me, at least) how extensively God relies on imperfect people to further the cause of the gospel. Not just imperfect as in “mostly righteous with a few slip-ups here and there,” but people with serious flaws and serious sins in pasts both distant and near. But like the layers of soil packed atop the seed, such burdens give rise to growth, and God is just as interested in cultivating our own souls as He is in sharing the gospel to those who have not heard it before. We are the work, His work, as much as any other wandering soul out there, and in spreading His gospel, we are often the ones gaining in strength, finesse, discipline, and glory, qualities only obtained by acting, like Mann, with the possibility of failure.
Back on Earth, Cooper’s adult daughter Murph visits her stubborn older brother, Tom, who lives with his wife and son at their dad’s old farm, and brings along a doctor friend of hers. While Tom is busy, Murph has his wife and son given a medical examination. The doctor’s prognosis is grim: “They can’t stay here,” he says gravely. The dust is poisoning their lungs.
But Tom suddenly arrives in the door. Murph and the doctor try to explain, but Tom throws a punch, knocking the doctor to the floor, resentful that Murph would try to change his ways and uproot him from the home he’s known and the farm he’s worked his entire life. He kicks out his sister from her old house, denying violently that his son is sick, that anything is wrong at all.
Like Tom, the world abhors the idea that we are somehow broken, flawed, in need of rehabilitation. They sing with pride of how they are “born this way,” instruct the young to follow their passions, encourage all to live solely for themselves, and warn the rising generation not to deny their nature. Then they blame religion for the world’s problems.
The contradiction is almost humorous: the world does not need God’s help, and yet if God or religion ever are invoked, it is in blame for the miseries of mankind! If God is real, why didn’t He stop such-and-such disaster? Why didn’t He do anything to save them? Why doesn’t God want us to be happy all the time? Why me? Why now? Why all this?
As if the only function a Father would serve is to make sure we’re all comfortable where we sit! Sadly, even many (supposedly) religious believers proclaim this very thing, and see no need to change, to transform. I’m sure you’ve heard their pronouncements before.
“God loves everybody.”
“God created me this way.”
“God accepts everyone.”
All truths in one way or another, but all spun by Satan to speciously substantiate the sinister story of stagnation as salvation—the narrative that God will save us in our sins, that we are good enough already, and God makes no serious demands of His sentient creations. Problems are blamed on institutions or cosmic forces rather than unbridled human nature. In this name, they claim the banner of “peace.”
And aren’t we supposed to be peaceful? Aren’t we supposed to eschew violence and avoid contention?
But peace and complacency are not the same thing. And what they advocate for is complacency, not peace. Complacency is Satan’s counterfeit of peace. It tells us to stay right where we are, because it’s good enough already.
Even as their philosophies fail, and the state of the world clearly continues to crumble, they insist the ideas and traditions of religion are irrational, out of touch, based on limited understanding (the irony!), indicative of ignorance, and motivated by bigotry. Such insistence ends the debate before it begins. Religious believers are just not worth talking to or reasoning with unless their conclusions and their narrative and their God match the world’s. These are the blinders put on men by the Adversary.
“They can’t stay here,” Murph tells a stone-faced Tom about his wife and son, echoing the doctor’s diagnosis. The blight and the dust have become lethal instruments at the hands of our mother earth. “She gave up on you!” she shouts to his face, to no avail. “And she’s poisoning your family!”
Satan, too, seeks to poison our families. His increased activity amidst the children of men is ultimately the spur that will propel us to choose, whether we’re ready for such a time or not. Yes, there is urgency, for the day of our repentance will not be here forever, and a lukewarm attitude toward the work of the gospel will not be enough for us to endure the fires of the latter days.
And so it is our responsibility to combat those popular but foundationless philosophies, those false answers without a surface, and replace them with that truth that comes only from above. We must help our brothers and sisters see in God a distant mirror of who we really are. The natural man will never save humanity because it seeks to keep humanity precisely where it is.
But when we consider the spiritual heritage from which we hail, when we are able to look into that mirror—not a hand mirror, or one you might find above a sink, but a great and towering mirror vast enough to hold the image of a deity—and see who we really are, who we really can be—when, in short, the children of God realize that they are actually the children of a god, the matter changes. The sky suddenly seems higher. The universe bigger. Our identities wider. Our potential greater. And we understand the true stakes of this world, and our purpose in it: to help the Savior bring to pass the image we see in that mirror for ourselves and for all God’s children.
The close of day is coming. We are rapidly approaching a point of no return similar to Cooper’s with the spinning Endurance. We are in the last days, the time of the wheat and the tares, and we must very soon make our choice where we wish to stand, which orbit we wish to ascend to. It is no time to nurture doubts or let distractions divide our attention. It is no time for complacency with lukewarm convictions.
In short, it is no time for caution.