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In the Netflix comedy Don’t Look Up, an unassuming pair of astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discover a massive comet heading toward Earth that threatens humanity with complete annihilation. When the pair of scientists head to the White House to brief President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), their warnings are received with skepticism and cynical political posturing. Frustrated, Kate exclaims that if humanity does nothing to stop the comet, its impact will kill everyone. To which Orlean responds, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a 100 percent chance that they’re gonna die.”
Facts, it seems, cannot get in the way of victory in the midterm elections.
The second most popular Netflix movie debut in history and nominated for best picture for the 94th Academy Awards, Don’t Look Up has received both criticism and praise for its thinly veiled satire about climate change and science denialism. Although at times heavy-handed and one-sided in its politics, the movie—directed by Adam McKay (The Big Short)—is strongest when it depicts the way modern people are too distracted by social media and pop culture to bother thinking about significant matters.
While the title of Don’t Look Up refers to willful ignorance of a celestial body hurtling toward Earth, it also speaks to the widespread spiritual apathy of humans who live their lives without “looking up” to consider God. Though crude and R-rated in its content (viewer discretion advised), a satirical film like this can provoke pastors and church leaders to think about what it takes to communicate an urgent message—the gospel—in a noisy culture too distracted to listen.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
One of the funniest and most insightful scenes in Don’t Look Up comes when Randall and Kate make an appearance on a fictional morning show, The Daily Rip, hosted by superficially peppy celebrity hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry). Following an exposé of the salacious past of Orlean’s Supreme Court nominee pick and a live-on-TV reconciliation between a pop star and her DJ boyfriend, Randall and Kate are left with a short segment in which they must alert the world to its impending doom. They have the daunting task of delivering a “downer” message completely at odds with the show’s light tone.
During the segment, Kate becomes frustrated that the hosts are making jokes and clearly not getting the message. Exasperated, she exclaims, “Are we not being clear? We’re trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed.” Blanchett’s news anchor responds that she’s “just trying to keep the bad news light.” To which Kate responds, “Well, maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun! Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.”
How can Christians effectively communicate a message of eternal significance in a spectacle-filled world that trivializes everything?
Still, the message falls flat among the viewing public. They’d rather think about celebrity gossip than death and planet-killing comets. The tepid response to Randall and Kate’s urgent, existentially important message holds lessons for Christians trying to share the gospel in a culture of numbing division and constant distraction. Pastors and evangelists today know what it’s like to try to convey a message most people are too distracted or apathetic to hear.
So what are we to do? How can Christians effectively communicate a message of eternal significance in a spectacle-filled world that trivializes everything?
Medium Is Message
One thing Randall and Kate realize quickly in Don’t Look Up is that using the “medium” of politics or entertainment to convey their important message is risky—the message can be corrupted or confused by the nature of that medium. For Christians, this reminds us that making the gospel “fit” the norms, formats, and formulas of other messages in our culture can actually make it harder for the gospel’s transcendent truth to be heard. We can’t approach our message in the same way that advertisers approach their 30-second Super Bowl commercials or politicians approach their stump speeches.
The gospel is categorically different than every other message, and we need to treat it as such. What does this mean for how we present the message? Here are a few ideas:
- Don’t shy away from making your listeners uncomfortable. Parts of the gospel message that focus on sin and judgment won’t go over well with audiences used to being affirmed rather than confronted and called to repent. Still, the uncomfortable parts are essential.
- Emphasize that the gospel is not primarily therapeutic. The gospel’s main goal isn’t to have you feel good about yourself. Prepare your listeners to accept that their redemption offered in Christ will give them eternal life, but not necessarily self-actualization and comfort in this life.
- Gently remind your listeners of their mortality (there actually is a 100 percent chance they’re going to die) and encourage them to live for things that will outlast their short time on Earth. Ten thousand years from now, the only one who will remember who we are and who we loved is the eternal God, our Father.
- If using social media to share the Christian gospel, make sure it’s clearly distinguishable from the other entertainment or political content your viewers expect in their feeds. For example, when using Instagram, differentiate your posts from social media influencers who are using their appearance, exotic surroundings, and catchy marketing messages to get likes and views. Let your message—not flashy filters and your own personal style—be the focal point. Gospel influence should look and feel different than the aesthetics of worldly “influence.”
Before It’s Too Late
The final scene of Don’t Look Up takes a surprisingly religious turn. As the world braces for the comet’s imminent impact—and the end of all life on Earth—Randall visits his Michigan home and asks his wife to forgive him for his unfaithfulness. They reconcile, gathering together with several of the film’s protagonists for one last meal together. No one is watching cable news; no one is scrolling through their phones. With the comet approaching, the need to be mediated is less important than the need to be together, in the flesh, with loved ones.
The gospel is categorically different than every other message, and we need to treat it as such.
Timothée Chalamet’s character, Yule, who has rediscovered the faith of his evangelical upbringing, prays over this final meal:
Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all, Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.
Yule remembers what everyone else in the movie seems to have forgotten: When the end comes, we are left with nothing but God himself for our comfort. Nothing can give us the power and courage to face darkness and death, except God himself.
But how can we convince our listeners to make eternity a priority before death is imminent? We should focus on differentiating the gospel from the cacophony of social media and entertainment distractions of our culture. Remind listeners that their lives on Earth will end someday, and that day may come without warning—unlike a comet spotted months before impact. Preach the forgiveness that can never be lost. Proclaim the hope that lasts—both in this life and into the next.