Monday, May 24, 2010

Contact: Palmer Joss is one of my heroes

Contact is the story of a scientist who, through an unexplainable experience, opens up to previously dismissed possibilities about the nature and mysteries of our existence.

Ellie Arroway is your garden variety young scientist, pure and noble in her utter trust in science as the path to discovering truth. 

Along the way towards her higher awareness, she meets an assortment of characters who sit at various stations in the spectrum between religion and atheism, and who all are motivated by differing concerns.

There is the religious, bomb-toting zealot, who looks awfully out of his mind in this celebration of science. There’s the scientist-turned-politician who says the right things for the cameras. There are the various presidential advisors with philosophical and military concerns… and then there’s her boyfriend, Palmer Joss.

Palmer was studying for the priesthood but dropped out. Now sitting on the presidential advisory, he takes a liking to Ellie, even though they are at what at first appears to be opposite ends of the spectrum – although he’s not the fanatic we’ll soon meet, he does believe in God, and she does not.

But Palmer is not your garden variety believer - he never quotes the Bible to Ellie. When he engages her, he does so with scientific/philosophical language, where she has some ability to herself engage. Had he quoted Bible texts, she’d have no familiarity with which to engage, and there would thus be no conversation.

Further, Joss does not put on a collar and sit inside a confessional booth. He declines the clergy altogether, seeking rather to be where the action is in public service, for the chance to make a contribution to what’s really going on in the world.

As they get closer, their professional obligations pull them apart for a time. Palmer is, best he can be, a man of integrity, and he does not allow their budding relationship to compromise his obligation to the task at hand – to select someone to travel through the machine. Ellie takes it personally; rather than respect him for his stand, she rejects him in bitter disappointment that he should be the one to ask the tough question that ultimately disqualifies her from eligibility.

Yes, Palmer Joss may be a proud man who loves the spotlight and the celebrity of publishing a book and being interviewed on Larry King and being on a first-name basis with the president. And sure, maybe he thwarted Ellie’s hopes of space travel selfishly, because he loved her and didn’t want her to die in space. But that would, in my opinion, take convenient umbrage against the entire tone of the interaction between them as well as his general character in the film. (And besides, nobody’s perfect – even if all these hesitations are closer to the truth, it doesn’t preclude his opportunity to do some good as a person despite his self-serving interests, but I’m not convinced such is the case at all: Joss is basically good people).

Anyway, she ends up getting into the vessel through another opportunity and, whilst “out there”, has an experience for which there appears to be no empirical evidence. While we are with her for what feels like a long period of time, observers on earth perceive that the contraption did nothing more than drop her vessel straight down through it, taking all of 18 seconds.

Did she go anywhere, or didn’t she? Sagan, ever the scientist, ensures that if it really did happen, there is going to be some empirical measurable evidence. Two presidential advisors share the discovery that there is indeed hours and hours of recorded static suggesting that some kind of footage had been recorded for that period of time, so something happened. But this does not detract from message because Ellie herself is totally unaware any such evidence exists. Testifying before the review committee, she can offer nothing more than her sincere desire to share the power of her experience – though she never admits as much directly to Palmer, we clearly see she now understands what Palmer had been trying to help her appreciate – there’s more to life and the eternal questions than what can be measured empirically.

Throughout the film, Ellie expresses her interest in “a bigger dish” with which to penetrate the heavens in search of truth. In the closing scene, she stands over the Grand Canyon, a natural big dish, and is at peace.

There are plenty of better reviews covering the movie out there. In this, I seek only to underscore my appreciation for the film's proposal of some balance, in the character of Palmer Joss, which might help us bridge the gap between the sciences, politics and religion, and bring us closer to a sense that, beyond all our differences, there is yet oneness, as fellow humans on this blue marble.

This film suggests that we religious people should get outside our boxes and learn to communicate to people in their language. We Christians can speak of “righteousness by faith” and “the priesthood of believers” and argue about the presence or extent of “transubstantiation”, but if we’re going to engage thought with people outside our immediate religious/denominational/theistic communities, we’ve got to learn their “language”. For those who believe, the Bible as much tells us to do this. If we’re not paying attention, thank God that Carl Sagan could speak to this idea through this movie.

We read in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, “And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

Being a partaker is about community and conversation; it’s about understanding where someone is coming from; about condescending to see them – and validate them – where they are. Where does Paul get such an idea? I think he got it from Jesus Christ himself, of whom John wrote “…and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” in John 1:14.

This is an age in which the Christian must learn the language of science. Paul suggested it’s not far-fetched to be able to show God exclusively through nature, writing in Rom 1:20, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:”.

If the things of God are clearly shown in nature, and we as believers can’t see or speak from them, we’re missing the boat, too.

Palmer Joss did a great job of showing us the way.


  1. Great post! Palmer is one of my favourite movie character.

    1. Hey mate, thanks for sharing. Yep, agreed, Palmer is awesome!

  2. I just sat through a rewatching of Contact yesterday afternoon and what impresses me most about the film is just how relevant the ideas Palmer Joss articulates then, are now.

    I am especially drawn to this line of dialogue, in the scene Joss shares with Larry King.

    "What I'm asking is... are we happier, as a human race? Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the Web, and at the same time we feel emptier, lonelier, and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history..."

    It is an especially powerful observation when you consider that this was scripted pre-social media and indeed when the internet as we know it, was in its infancy. When I walk down the street today or ride the tram into town and see so many people with their heads buried in their smartphones, I am often reminded of Palmer's line of thinking.

    Connected yet so disconnected.

    Science and faith have rarely been examined as eloquently as they were in the movie Contact and for that particular truth, I think Contact will stand as an important document for many years to come.

    I, for one, believe him...

    1. "I, for one...." - nicely played, mate. Thanks for your thoughts.

      I dig your focus on Joss' interview with Larry King. The technology of the day is always changing, turning today's leading edge gadgets into tomorrow's landfill; the questions about the human experience are eternal.

      Here's to hoping more people appreciate the balance between science and theism - the current presumption that good science must be atheistic is not a balanced representation of all available knowledge (


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