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Cole Bodkin ~ The Better Place

Airborne illness.



Mass chaos.

Environmental disaster.

Oppressive dictators.

All of these – and more – are cataclysmic triggers for a dystopian society. If you’re catching up with American publishing, television, and film, the genre of “dystopia” has flooded the entertainment industry. For many, it’s becoming a little repetitive and mundane; but like it or not, people are fascinated, pulled in each week to watch or read the next chapter of a depressing, nihilistic narrative.

Before asking why, what is a dystopia? I was posed this question recently when describing a new television series.

A dystopia is a term often described in juxtaposition with a utopia. A utopia is the perfect, ideal place, whereas a dystopia is its opposite. Literally, it means “a bad place.” People live in fear under oppressive or harsh conditions, usually with little or nothing to look forward to.

As for the reasons behind the upswing in this dystopian trend, one could surmise many different theories; perhaps it has something to do with survival, or character development, or just maybe hope.

But what kind of hope could there possibly be for the downtrodden within a dystopian society? Is there any good news at all?

The Turning Point

Usually, there is a turning point in each story which inevitably acts as a counterpoint to the dystopian trigger. The opposite of the cataclysmic, catastrophic event which triggers a dystopia is a eucatastrophe (coined by J.R.R. Tolkien). Something has happened which conceivably changes everything for the good, or at least propels the story on a trajectory towards that goal. Things won’t ultimately conclude badly and thankfully there is potential for a utopian future because of this game-changer. So wherein does one’s hope lay now that this good thing has happened?

Heaven-Centered (Escapism)

Some movies and narratives suggest that departing the dystopia (many times the earth) is the only option available. In other words, it’s the escapist route (the most popular soteriological* hope – hope for existential salvation). Maybe it’s jettisoning off to a new planet with new possibilities and a fresh start, time traveling, or simply finding a way to escape an imprisoned life and crossing over into the utopia. The hope is future-oriented and the destination is elsewhere, somewhere beyond.

Human-Centered (Make the World a Better Place)

Other dystopian tales don’t allow for an escapist route. This present reality is all that there is (there is no future if we don’t act now). Hence, things are going to stay the same unless the oppressed can gain courage, revolt, take back what belongs to them and make their world a better place. This can happen instantaneously, but it might also be considered that the inhabitants will have to work slowly, knowing that things will ultimately get better (but maybe not) through progress, which eventually will result in this place/world becoming utopia (but maybe not). In other words, roll up your sleeves and get to work, or nothing will change.

World-Centered (Make the World to Come a Better Place)

The next option takes the best elements of the first two. There’s a strong emphasis on a future-oriented hope; however, it’s ultimately going to be here and not somewhere else in a galaxy far, far away (not heaven-centered). In some sense, the future hope of utopia has already broken into the present, but not in its fullness. Through a prophecy or something else (a deity, religious figure, aliens, etc.), the protagonists can go ahead and participate in the future utopian life now, but eventually it will come swiftly and climactically and not be up to human efforts (not human-centered). So even though a future global redemption will one day happen, there’s still responsibility for humans to strive towards world betterment (through justice efforts, environmental efforts, etc.).

Kingdom-Centered (Heterotopia)

As you can see, the hopes for the better place, the utopia, is what drives these salvation constructs. But what if the better place already exists both now and in the future within a community (presently) and the world (climactically)? What if this community could display this place of otherness– the utopia—as an advance foretaste of what is to come? In other words, what if anticipating and preparing for the utopia involved being physical manifestations, or representations of it like a counter-site?

One might call this better place a heterotopia (a term coined by Foucault).** Some of the dystopian films and shows depict a group of “good guys” who represent a counter-site like a miniature kingdom – different or other than the surrounding dystopia – that is fully embedded within the dystopian world. Their aim isn’t to change the dystopia or world (human-centered + world-centered) since that is beyond their purview. Instead, this heterotopia embodies the present-reality of the utopia (the kingdom) within its midst. Therefore, they embrace, display, and proclaimthe better place, the heterotopia.

Film and literature are great places to turn in order to examine not only our culture’s soteriological hopes but also our own.

Let’s pause for a moment and look in the mirror. Could these, perhaps, be Christian visions of hope that dystopian films have picked up on, and if so, what could this mean about the good news that we are proclaiming and bearing witness to?

Though not examining this through the dystopian prism, these “visions” of the better place are exactly what John C. Nugent has argued in his timely book Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church. Let’s briefly look at the three sketches that Nugent dismisses—heaven-centered (escape), human-centered (social gospel), world-centered (world betterment)—and then turn to the better option, the better place.

Incomplete Vision: Heaven-Centered 

The heaven-centered vision is the most popular vision of the better place that we’ve seen in the West for quite some time. In western Christianity, believers have affirmed that Jesus died for our sins and raised from the dead (the eucatastrophe), so now when we die we can escape this bad world and go to the better place of heaven (escapism). In the meantime, we say, let’s save as many souls as possible. The incompleteness of this vision has resulted in many deconstructive works. Rather than rehearsing those, I recommend the writings of N.T. Wright.

Incomplete Vision: Human-Centered

In the human-centered view, we come closest to a non-Christian view of the world that has no future hope. When Jesus, “came and preached the kingdom of God [the eucatastrophe], he was establishing a charter for how God’s will could be done on earth as in heaven. He was casting a world-transforming vision of social and economic justice.”** Therefore, it is up to us to make this a reality, to make this world a better place. Whether or not it will actually come to fruition is a matter of debate. But, if it does, it will be through progress.

Despite technological and medicinal advances, this view doesn’t hold water long-term since progress is clearly a myth (take, for example, the World Wars). Furthermore, this narrow social gospel doesn’t square well with eschatological texts where God’s divine intervention happens in dramatic fashion.

Incomplete Vision: World-Centered

Quickly gaining traction is the world-centered view. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the turning point in Israel’s and the world’s history (the eucatastrophe), which has, in turn, launched a new creation in the midst of the old (good) creation. God, in Christ, is already making this world the better place, and although progress won’t bring about the final consummation of heaven and earth, we still have a role to play in it while participating with Christ in world betterment with the result of “the renewal of all things.”

The world-centered view is a welcomed upgrade from the previous two and has ostensibly been able to strike a harmonious chord (which could also explain its popularity), yet it also has its shortcomings. To help get a better grasp of the three different visions and their emphases see the following typological graph.

Better Place Typology I***

Salvation in Heaven

Salvation on Earth Restoration began with Jesus Future interruption God replaces fallen order Christians begin fixing fallen order
Heaven- Centered X X X
Human- Centered X X
World- Centered X X X X

Ultimately, the world-centered vision has misunderstood the distinctions between the three facets of creation—i.e., nonhuman creation (planet earth, soil, seas, sky, animals), new human order (the church via Christ), and old human orders (governing structures, economic systems, public service agencies)—as well as misplacing top priority by putting the cart (renewal of the earth happens in the future) before the horse (renewal of God’s people is happening now).

Here’s another helpful chart to help explain the biblical emphases vis-à-vis the created orders:****

Suffer Corruption Will be Perfected Will be Eliminated Now Being Renewed
Nonhuman Creation X X
New Human Order X X X
Old Human Orders X X

If each of these visions are off base, placing too much emphasis or the wrong prominence on the biblical hope of salvation, how does this kingdom-centered vision inch us closer to a more robust imagination of the better place? We’ll examine this in the next post.

Perhaps these four-categories represent dystopian/utopian films; maybe not. What these four categories do represent is Christian presentations of salvation: heaven-centered (escape), human-centered (humanitarian), world-centered (world betterment), and the better place (heterotopia). So argues John C. Nugent is his timely book Endangered Gospel.

*Soteriology refers to a theology of salvation.

**I was introduced to this term and its idea as a “counter-site” in Patrick Schreiner’s The Body of Jesus: A Spatial Analysis of the Kingdom in Matthew.

*** John C. Nugent, Endangered Gospel,Kindle Locations 194-195

**** Ibid., Kindle Location 248

*****Ibid., Kindle Location 322