This week I saw Leigh Whannell’s new film, Upgrade, a sci-fi horror film that really got me thinking about the nature of Christian discipleship.
The movie introduces us to Grey Trace, a bit of an everyman, an old-school car mechanic who loves his wife Asha and distrusts all this new-fangled technology (the action takes place slightly in the future so there’s some cool gadgets on display).
When Asha is murdered and he is left a quadriplegic in a vicious gang attack, Grey finds himself confined to a wheelchair seething with desire to track down his wife’s killers but unable to do anything about it.
He is approached by Eron, a world-renowned tech genius (with very limited social skills, you know the kind by now) who explains that his company has developed a stop secret, biomechanical enhancement, a beetle-like computer chip, that when implanted in a person’s spinal column can send signals from the brain to the body. Eron calls it Stem, and says he’s willing to trial it on Grey. Stem, he promises, can “bridge the gap between brain and limbs.” It can restore the life that’s been taken from Grey.
And sure enough, with Stem implanted in his neck, Grey can walk and move freely.
But there’s a catch.
Stem can not only interpret brain signals and convey messages to Grey’s legs and arms, it can also override Grey’s thinking and move him independently. But only if Grey gives it verbal permission.
And so begins a very strange and intriguing relationship between man and machine as Grey and Stem go in search of Asha’s killers, with Stem regularly advising his host what to do in certain situations. Stem is quite the upgrade. It can simply respond to Grey’s choices or it can enhance those choices, or even override them. And when given permission to take over, Stem can turn Grey into a ninja fighter with lightning speed.
Things go pretty badly for the killers from there.
Upgrade isn’t just a cool sci-fi movie, it’s a meditation on the challenges of integrating humankind and technology. Writing a review for Plugged In, Adam Holz says,
But by the time the credits roll, the film asks us to consider whether our increasingly immersive dependence on technology really is a good thing. The film suggests—and none too subtly—that technological advances meant to help us may in fact make us unhealthily dependent upon them. So much so that it becomes harder to discern who’s really in control: the humans or the AI technology the characters here have created.
But like I said earlier, Upgrade got me thinking about discipleship.
I’ve been reading the First Epistle of John this week and have been touched by the way he describes love. Of course, John commends everyone to live a life of love, but not in the usual way. Instead of making love a rule by which the church should live, John talks about love as the consequence of God living in us. He writes, “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.” (1 Jn 4:15) And if God lives in us then we love: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (16)
He says that when we acknowledge Jesus as king and savior, we are reborn as the children of God (1 Jn 3:1) and in that rebirth some supernatural transaction takes place. God enters us and kind of recodes our spiritual DNA.
It’s in John’s Gospel that we hear Jesus say, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5) It’s as if John is saying that when we were baptized we died to ourselves and our old spiritual DNA, and we were given a new DNA, one from our new Father and God, and because God is love, then our new DNA is coded toward love as well.
That’s very different from making love a rule. When love is a rule and Jesus is merely our guru or our teacher or our guide, then love becomes a burden, another imperative we are obligated to fulfill. But love as legalism is no love at all.
Instead, John is saying you have everything within you to love as Jesus did: “In this world we are like Jesus” (1 John 4:17).
We’ve been upgraded! It’s like we have a Jesus Stem implanted in our spinal columns. Instead of being burdened with the law of love, we have begun a lifelong journey of learning to cooperate with the impulse of love. John isn’t saying we arose from the waters of baptism completely loving and Christlike. He’s saying love is an impulse that has been placed within us. We don’t have to strive and struggle endlessly to try to be more loving. He have to learn to yield to the power we’ve been given.
Love is a grace, not a rule.
In the film Upgrade, things between Grey and Stem start out awkwardly as Grey comes to terms with how Stem works. But he begins to learn how to cooperate with his new operating system. That’s our task as believers too. You’ve got a new operating system in you. Listen to it. Cooperate with it. Yield to it.
Fair warning about Upgrade, though – it’s a sci-fi horror film, remember. Things start to go awry for Grey as Stem takes the job of hunting down Asha’s killers very seriously. And there’s a really interesting twist in the end of this tale too, which will get you thinking about integrative technologies.
Sure, the Spirit of God isn’t going to help you track down and kill bad guys. But he is the ultimate upgrade. When God’s Spirit lives within us we have the potential to grow exponentially in our love for others.
Don’t make love a rule. Don’t think if you just try harder to be loving you’ll get there in the end. Love is grace. It’s been given to you already. Learn to yield to its power.
After all, with all the strife and hatred and violence in our world at the moment, humankind can really use a little upgrade.