The Wonder Report: February 26, 2021
Look at the Sky
Hello! We made it to another Friday! For this week’s Wonder Report, I’ve been thinking about space.
When I was born in 1970, satellites already orbited the earth, men and women traveled in spaceships, and U.S. astronauts had walked on the moon. But it was all still new; that moon walk had happened only the year before. And the whole world was fascinated by the Final Frontier.
Traveling and the potential of living in space one day permeated popular culture. I watched the Jetsons on Saturday mornings and Star Trek on Sundays. We swooned over Buck Rogers, and the first movie I saw in a theater was The Empire Strikes Back. My family visited Cape Canaveral during a summer vacation, and we toured the Virgil I "Gus" Grissom Memorial Museum in Mitchell, Indiana, just a few years after it opened.
I also remember where I was on that January day in 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean during blast-off, killing all seven crew members, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. And I remember just as clearly the February day almost two decades later when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas and Louisiana, also killing all seven on board.
All that to say that “space” and all it implies has been part of my entire life. I didn’t go to Space Camp and never wanted to be an astronaut. Nothing like that. But when I look up at the sky, I’ve always wondered: What’s out there? Is there life on other planets? What would it feel like to live without gravity? Will humans ever live on another planet? Should we? And would I go if given the chance?
It should come as no surprise to you, then, that last Thursday I took a break from my work day to watch the landing of the Mars Rover Perseverance. I found the live feed on NASA and was able to follow along as they ticked off mission critical check points. We could hear small cheers from the staff at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, Calif., as the parachute deployed, the heat shield separated, the powered descent began, and other key markers. But when word came back that Perseverance had landed, the team erupted with loud whoops, hard claps, high fives, fist pumps, and more. I did some clapping and fist pumping myself, and then watched as the first live images arrived from Perseverance.
This wasn’t our country’s first contact with Mars. Not by a long shot. As early as the 1960s, the former USSR was sending probes toward Mars to take images and send back data. They achieved the first soft landing on Mars in 1971, and the U.S. had its first successful Mars landings in 1976, with Viking 1 and Viking 2. But despite decades of space travel and Mars exploration, there’s still something so alluring about what's “up there,” and particularly on the Red Planet.
“Mars has long exerted a pull on the human imagination,” wrote John Updike in a 2008 National Geographic essay. “The erratically moving red star in the sky was seen as sinister or violent by the ancients: The Greeks identified it with Ares, the god of war; the Babylonians named it after Nergal, god of the underworld. To the ancient Chinese, it was Ying-huo, the fire planet.”
And now, in 21st century America, Mars is a place where imagination is met with actual images: we can see and hear and study this place that takes seven months to travel to. But for me, the data only increases my curiosity; it doesn’t satisfy it.
I’ve had Mars on my mind all week, and especially when I was listening to an episode of the On Being podcast where Krista Tippett was talking with Ariel Burger, author of Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom and co-founder and senior scholar of The Witness Institute.
During the interview, Tippett asks about a traditional Jewish story that Burger told in his book; it’s a story that has many different iterations. Basically, a woman (or a man in some versions) is in the marketplace and a teacher or rabbi asks, “Have you looked at the sky today?”
“That story is about looking down or looking up at the sky, and paying attention to material things or paying attention to a bigger perspective, and being reminded of that,” Burger explained. He went on to say that looking at the sky every day is actually a spiritual practice in some Jewish traditions. It “reminds you that the world is big. And that gives an important perspective, if I’m worrying about something small or preoccupied with something small. It allows me to go deeper and to reach higher just on a very simple level.”
If I had to guess, I’d say that’s probably part of why space, and Mars in particular, “has long exerted a pull on the human imagination.” Looking up, looking beyond, imagining all that’s “up there” is a way to think differently about all that’s hard and frightening down here. There may be a hint of escapism involved, a desire to not think about all the difficult parts of life for a while. I’ll admit that watching the Mars Rover landing last week offered a little respite from COVID and caregiving and cultural angst.
But it’s not just about distraction; it’s also about transcendence. I don’t want a break from down here because I’m trying to trick myself into thinking there’s something more to life. I want a reminder that there actually is. It’s part of the story God wove into the stars and planets; it’s the truth we can access in part through nature and the created world, and in full through Scripture. It’s the reality that “The heavens are telling the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands” (Ps. 19:1).
During Lent, when we are rehearsing the story of redemption in our bodies through fasting and prayer, when the reality of sin and sacrifice feels so immanent, so close, that we consume the body and blood of Jesus each Sunday like they are our only sustenance, don’t forget to look up. To look at the sky. And remember that you were made for more than the pain and sorrow of this world.
I wonder … Did you grow up with space on your mind? What was that like for you? Did you watch the Perseverance landing last week? How did it make you feel when it was successful?
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(There are screenshots I took during the Perseverance landing from the NASA feed.)
Have you looked at the sky today?
I think that Jewish folk story and practice I mentioned above is a good way to keep things in perspective each day, especially as we continue through a pandemic that has shrunk our lives down to miniature versions of “normal.” Looking at the sky is a good reminder of who God is and all he has done and is doing in the world.
Here’s the challenge: Go outside and look at the sky. Repeat every day this week.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
Mars Mission: Filling the Earth and Beyond by Lucas Mix for Christianity Today. I pulled out this essay from last summer because it speaks so beautifully to many of the issues space travel raises for believers in Christ. What is our duty as stewards of earth to care for the universe? If there is life on other planets, how do it fit within God’s redemptive plan? And many more. Mix wrote this article around the launch of Perseverance, and I think it’s appropriate to revisit it now that Perseverance has made its landing.
From the essay: “God calls us to seek and serve the other, even the alien other. And God calls us not just as individuals, but as members of a larger body. So, I think there is something to be said for space travel. Our wanderlust must be balanced by stewardship, but it will never go away. There is a “come and see” beyond our atmosphere, and we will not know what we went out to see until we see it. It may be alien life. It may only be a new appreciation for the life we bring with us.”
I’m a philosopher. We can’t think our way out of this mess. by James K.A. Smith for The Christian Century. Not only was I delighted to read this article by Smith, whose been a favorite writer and thinker of mine since I heard him speak about Attending to God in an Age of Distraction at Laity Lodge a few years, but also I love that The Christian Century has a nearly century-old series of essays by people who have changed their minds about things. In this essay, Smith writes about abandoning some of his philosophical leanings for a life more committed to art and beauty.
From the essay: “The pathology that besets us in this cultural moment is a failure of imagination, specifically the failure to imagine the other as neighbor. Empathy is ultimately a feat of the imagination, and arguments are no therapy for a failed, shriveled imagination. It will be the arts that resuscitate the imagination.”
L’Engle Seminar: Poetry, Science, and the Imagination — a five-part seminar with Brian Volck and special guests on Wednesdays in March at 1pm ET.
I wanted to point you to this new program from Image Journal. I particularly love how they describe who this program is for: The series is open to everyone who reads poetry, took a science class in school, or has an imagination! Here’s a little bit more about it: “Poetry and the sciences are connected in deep and surprising ways. Both the poet and the scientist engage reality through the imagination. And in this five-part online seminar, you are invited to explore imagination as a way of knowing within the two disciplines. Each hour-long session will have a distinct focus and feature the insight of a wide array of poets, scientists, philosophers, and theologians.”
I’m not involved with this program in any way other than as a participant, but I wanted to invite you to join me. It sounds like a fun way to spend five hours in March.
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