One of the main themes that Contact deals with is religion. Through the extremist preacher Joseph (right), the film shows that religion can be a very destructive force. Yet we also see a benign expression of religion that is knowledgeable and sophisticated. Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey, below) is Contact‘s poster-boy for good religion. Palmer, a one-time theological student, is a commentator on the ethics of technology. Though from a Catholic background, he is not attached to a church. Palmer is articulate, charming and intelligent. He’s the moderate amongst fundies and extremists. If God is out there, he has a pretty attractive ambassador in Palmer.
However, Contact‘s good religion comes out as a rather shapeless thing. The film develops Palmer’s character far less than that of his counterpart, the scientist Ellie Arroway. This gives his religiosity some blurry edges. Given his first-date bedding of Ellie, it looks like Palmer’s faith may not have much impact on his personal morality. Palmer also lacks a creed. From the little he talks about his own beliefs, all we can tell is that he believes in a god who is the great Other, a rather indefinite supreme being. Despite his role as a public intellectual, it seems like Palmer’s faith is something only private and internal. In all, Contact‘s message about religion is that moderation is good, extremism is bad, sincerity is important, and creed is irrelevant. This good religion is placid and pleasant but, for all Palmer’s learning, there’s not much to it.
Despite these apparently inauthentic portrayals, Contact asks the question, through Palmer, of whether there is a god. There is a question that goes along with this: Which god might it be? Yet, because Palmer’s beliefs are so vague, Contact leaves this question out. However, if there is a god who is knowable, then the immediate questions are Who is God? How do we know God? and — before we ask whether God might be there — Is God even worth knowing? These questions are inseparable; we more or less need to ask them all at the same time. If we’re going to ask if God is there, we must be prepared to think about who God is. If there’s a god out there, how might this god have communicated with us? In which religion, if any, might we find the answer?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.