God and Human Choice1
Films both reflect the views of the wider culture and have an influence on how the wider culture looks at a particular issue. In some way films are an artistic representation of the things that we encounter and the questions we wrestle with in the everyday world. The negotiation of our relationship to God is represented in this particular film, What Dreams May Come. The film displays a noticeable absence of discussion about God, and this very absence speaks to how the director is interpreting the role of God. This film is a cultural representation of the shift in theological ideas of God from an omnipotent figure that created all order in the universe (I will refer to this as the traditional view) to a God that fits more with process theology.
In the early days of Hollywood films reflected a more Biblically based view of God. Films such as The Ten Commandments portrayed God as having power in the history of human affairs. God gave the power to Moses to part the Red Sea and send the plagues to punish the Egyptians for keeping the Hebrews as slaves. The God of these films is the God of the traditional view, a God who commands and is the central influence in the lives of the characters. As time went by the image of God became a less common topic to be explored in popular film. In more recent times some films have begun again to delve into the question of who God is. What Dreams May Come indirectly communicates claims about God through its story and focus. Through its focus on humans, its one time discussion of where God is, and the handing over to human beings powers that were formerly reserved for God, this film makes a shift into the process theological view.
The world in What Dreams May Come is the result of the combination of human choices. The commanding and powerful force of God from the traditional view is eliminated from the claims of this film. Just as in the process view one can make the choice of what path to follow based on all the possible options, so in this film the element of choice is emphasized. There are many vivid examples that can be seen in the film that indicate this emphasis.
First, the reasoning for why Annie is in hell is because she does not realize that she is dead. She is not placed in hell because of a moral judgment on her action of suicide. There is no indication that hell is a place of evil where people go who have rejected or sinned against God. Hell is a place that is chosen by the weakness of the human mind2 to comprehend the loss of its body. A realization of death would be all that was required in order for someone to pass from hell to heaven. The command of salvation from a place of torment to a place of peace is placed in the hands of the human will. When Annie breaks out of her distorted view in hell that she is still in her California home, then she has realized her own ability to ascend to heaven. It is her choice to acknowledge her death that allows for this realization, not any sort of act of salvation on the part of God.
Second, the content of each personís heaven is whatever he/she desires and can create within the realm of his or her own mind. After Chris has realized that he is dead and lets go of
contacting Annie in the physical world, he finds himself within her painting of their dream home. In the beginning all of the objects, except for the dog and humans, appear to be made of paint. Even when Chris tries to drink his cup of coffee with Albert the cup bends and the coffee tastes terrible because Chris cannot perceive of this world as being real yet. Once Chris realizes that all of this around him is a creation of his mind, then he can drink coffee and even fly. The content of heaven is noticeably a place of peace and contentment, but this film does not connect this with closeness to God. One is not saved to everlasting life because of their faith in God and allowed to dwell in the heavenly kingdom. The heaven of What Dreams May Come is a continuation of the web of choices that each human being had on earth.
Finally, the choice to be reborn into a new life or stay in the individually created heaven is the choice of each person.3 In the conclusion of the film Annie and Chris stand near their dream home and make the decision, with the blessing of their two children, to return to the world and try their lives again. Resurrection is even enabled by the other human minds that work in the heavenly realm. They fly amongst the beautiful surroundings in order to take the minds to be reborn into new bodies. The most final and most primary decision of life is left up to the particular human being to decide.
In the end, the one direct discussion of God in What Dreams May Come comes in a short discussion that Chris has with Albert in the early stage of his learning about this world after death. In paraphrase, Chris raises to Albert the question of where God is, and Albert responds that God is up somewhere shouting down that He loves us, and He wonders why we do not hear Him. He ends by asking Chrisí thoughts on the matter, and then they both laugh, which ends the discussion.4 The result of this discussion is a conception of a God who is shouting out to us over the myriad of other elements in the world. He wonders why we do not respond to His calling, but the rest of the filmís claims about human choice give the answer to this question. We have the option available to take in what God is saying to us, or we can ignore His shouts. All in all, the film pushes that it is the decision of the human mind to respond to God or not.
In conclusion, the decision of the director to emphasize human choice to such an extent in What Dreams May Come reflects more the conception of God in process theology as compared to the traditional view. The film makes explicit theological claims about the afterlife, heaven, and hell. However, it is the more implicit value claims about God that reflect the direction that the theology of popular culture is going. These value claims are the pieces that need to be raised up and seen for what they are. Otherwise, viewers of films such as this one will internalize views about God without consciously and critically knowing what they are accepting.
1 I was helped in developing this argument by reading McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology, An Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 287-289
Note: The ideas of the conversation are taken from, What Dreams May Come directed by Vincent Ward, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment (US Distributor), 1998.